Trigger Warning: There are themes of abuse, neglect, suicide ideation, and sexual assault in this chapter. Please take care of yourself and ask for help if you need it.
I stepped out into their entranceway and took a deep breath. I could hear Colt and Aidan’s voices drifting down from the kitchen. It sounded like they were talking about work stuff.
“Honey we’re home!“, Luka shouted.
“Kitchen!“, a chorus of voices shouted back. It sounded like Greyson was home too. They must have just been waiting for Luka and me to finish class.
The two of us wandered into the kitchen and my eyes widened at the snack display in front of me. There were ham, cheddar and pickle sandwiches, pretzels, fruit, mini cereal boxes, goldfish, and veggie straws. All my favorite lunch foods.
For the millionth time since reuniting with them, my heart felt like it wanted to explode.
“Well are you just going to stare at it or you going to eat? “, Aidan’s joke had everyone laughing. I stuck my tongue out at him in response. My nerves were controlling my stomach right now. I didn’t want to eat now and then puke later.
“I’m not really hungry right now. Can I save a couple of sandwiches for later though?” Colt rolled his eyes at my question. I could tell it annoyed him that I didn’t treat their place like it was my home.
“Lark you can do whatever you want here. This is your home too. We can even make that spare bedroom upstairs your permanent room”, Colt said. He was leaning against the kitchen island in a white t-shirt. The muscles in his arms seemed to involuntarily flex as he spoke.
I decided not to comment on that. I didn’t know how to tell them that I liked having my own space to go back to. Somewhere just for me.
“Speaking of that room, can someone show me the way? I’d love to set my stuff down”.
“I’ll take you”, Colt jerked his head in the universal dude way of saying follow me. The rest of the guys remained in the kitchen. Snacking and chatting away. It would be entirely too easy to just pretend we weren’t having a family meeting. I knew I needed to get this out of the way.
Before I stepped out of the kitchen completely, I stopped and turned so that I was facing all of them.
“Look. I – I get why you all want to know what happened. I want to be honest and tell you the truth because I think you all deserve that. Can we just get this over with though? I want to rip it off like a band-aid”, I stated.
“How about you go upstairs, put your stuff down, and take whatever time you need. When you come back down we will be in the living room ready to listen”, Greyson said. His voice was soothing. It felt like a balm to the rash of anxiety that was taking over my body.
I gave him a quick nod and then turned to follow Colt.
He led me upstairs and down a long hallway. He pointed out each of their rooms until we finally got to the one at the end.
“This is your room. I’ll let you get settled and go wait downstairs with the others”, he said. I smiled at him and began to walk inside when he grabbed my hand. “Lark I want you to know how much I appreciate you trusting us. How much we all appreciate it”.
I gave his hand a quick squeeze before letting go. “I know Colt. I appreciate you all still being my family”.
His hands came up and cupped my face slowly. The way he was holding me didn’t feel threatening. It felt right. “We will always be your family Emilia. Always. We need you”. I closed my eyes and felt a tear roll down my cheek before I could stop it. He gave me a soft kiss on the forehead before letting me go and walking back down the hallway.
I quickly put my stuff down and looked around the room. It was beautiful. Even though I had no plans to give up my apartment, I could see myself making this space my own.
I walked over to the mirror that sat on the dresser. Looking at my reflection I saw the fear in my eyes. The anxiety and shame that constantly echoed inside me. But I also saw a woman with grit.
I knew I was strong. I knew I had been molded from anger and pain, but I chose to become something gentle. Instead of the hurricane they wanted me to be, I was a river.
I left my room and walked back down the stairs. The guys were waiting in the living room as they promised. Space had been left for me with a cup of tea sitting next to it. I made my way over and sat down. Looking up at them, I realized they were waiting for me.
“I guess I will just start at the beginning. Let me say all of this. Let me get this all out and then you can ask questions when I’m done. Sound good?“, I asked. They all nodded their agreement so I took a deep breath and wiped my palms on my thighs.
“Well, you know that the people that took me were my birth family. What you don’t know is that they are heavily involved in organized crime. Whatever word you want to use to describe it will probably fit. My family is the Morretti’s. Known internationally as the most secretive Italian mafia family, they deal in everything from drugs to sex trafficking, political corruption, and assassinations. The only thing the world knows about them is the name. My mother escaped when she found out she was pregnant with me. At least that’s what they told me. I’m guessing she didn’t want me anywhere near them.
“I always hated my parents. I hated them for making me grow up in foster care. Now that I know what the alternative was, I wish I could take back everything I ever said. My mother was trying to save me from the same life that broke her”.
My eyes had glazed over as I was talking. When I focused back on the guys I saw nothing but understanding on their faces. They just sat and waited for me to continue.
“I wish I could tell you that they didn’t break me too, but they did. I hate myself for the things I did. I hurt people. I killed people. All because they told me to and I couldn’t handle having my ribs broken again, or not being able to see out of my eye for a week because it was swelled shut.“When I first got there, they thought I was going to thank them for killing David and Maria and for taking me away from my home. When they realized that wasn’t the case... Gio stepped in. My uncle. He- he... he was...,” my voice started to crack and tremble as I tried to explain how vile Gio truly was. How depraved he was.
“He was my trainer. They didn’t want to waste the investment that I was to them, so they had him beat me in to shape. Every single day for nine years I had to look at that man. There were some days when I wanted to rip my own eyes out so that I’d never have to see him again. They trained me to be a weapon for them. I was young and pretty enough, so they wanted to use me. At first, I refused. Then they started to starve me. When that didn’t work they gave me food but decided to beat me. The first time Gio broke a bone, and heard it crack, he laughed. He told me I should get used to hearing that sound.
“After a month of beatings and intermittent starvation I tried to kill myself”. I heard sharp intakes of breath from the guys but kept going. “The pathetic part is that I was so weak, I couldn’t tie the sheets tight enough to make a noose. Gio came to see me for my daily training session and saw what I was trying to do. I wasn’t allowed to have bedding after that. Or clothes. They made me exist naked, cold, and terrified and dark basement for nine years. The only time I got to go outside was when I was on a job for them.
“It wasn’t until month three that I finally caved in. I agreed to work for them. I just wanted the pain to stop and I wanted to see the sun. I wanted to feel like a human being again. Once they realized I wasn’t going to fight them anymore, they started to train me. They wanted me to be a pretty little girl that could be a distraction. My job was usually to get close to politicians or rich old men and learn their secrets. Sometimes they had me kill them. Other times they had me... persuade them.
“I always thought it was odd that they would teach me how to kill someone. Looking back, I realize they only taught me enough to get the job done. The never taught me anything that would give me an advantage over Gio or anyone else in my family.
“A few months ago, they sent me on an assignment where I was supposed to get close to a man who was footing the bill for a politician that was considered to be a favorite for a parliamentary spot. I ended up meeting an American diplomat. I don’t think my family knew he was going to be at the same parties as the man they wanted me to get to know. They usually never sent me on jobs if there was any possibility of me running into someone that could get me out.
“I started slipping notes into his pants and coat packets whenever I would pass by him. They always said the same thing. ‘I can help you bring down the Moretti’s’. At that point, I didn’t care if they threw me in jail with them for the things I had done. I just wanted them all to burn. The fifth time I brushed past the American, he grabbed my wrist. He looked down at me quickly but thoroughly and then let me go. Giving me a barely perceptible nod before turning away. I was staying in a hotel two rooms down from the Italian politician. Gio had ordered me to sleep with him that night because the Moretti’s were becoming impatient for the information I was expected to bring them.
“The second I stepped out of my room, I felt a hand cover my mouth and arms lifted me. I thought I was being hauled off to be put down because Gio found out about the notes. It was actually the FBI. They brought me into another room down the hall, where the diplomat was waiting for me. He and the other men asked me a million questions that night. I answered every single one. I didn’t care if the Morretti’s found out and killed me. I just wanted to be done and disappear. Whether that was in a jail cell or a hole in the ground.
“Instead they granted me immunity. They flew me back to America the next day and I stayed in secure housing until the trial a month ago. I testified against them in court. They know now that it was me who exposed every secret they worked so hard to keep.”
I hadn’t realized that I was crying until I felt a tissue pressed into my hand. I looked up to see Colt pushing a box of them across the coffee table towards me. When I met his eyes I saw so much rage that normally I would have cowered. I knew his emotions weren’t directed at me though.
“Somedays I wish I would have let them kill me when I first got there. If I hadn’t agreed to cooperate, I’m sure they would have. Then I wouldn’t have to feel this tidal wave of guilt every f*cking morning. I’m so ashamed of what they made me into. Who I became in that environment. I don’t want to lose you all again, but I understand if you... if you want me to leave”, I said quietly. Closing my eyes I leaned my head back against the couch and let every tear fall.
“We spent nine years looking for you Lark. Nine years missing you. When we all found each other we still didn’t stop looking. There’s no way we are letting you go. Never again”, Aidan’s voice made me open my eyes and I turned my head to look at him. The conviction in his gaze took my breath away.
“You are everything and more Lark. We aren’t complete without you and you aren’t complete without us. I know you know this. We don’t give a f*ck what you did. You fought and you survived. That’s what matters”, he said.
I looked around at the others expecting to see some dissension.
Instead, I saw nothing but love and acceptance.