LizBeth Bryant considered the handsome countenance of Bryson Wilde for a moment, registering within herself a surging desire to connect to people again. She looked over at Amy, with whom she'd felt an immediate kinship. She opened her mouth to speak, but then her gaze traveled to Dean's face, and she couldn't put him in danger for the sake of her needs.
"Perhaps an overview?" Bryson suggested, reading her resolve as quickly as it had formed in her own mind. "It would seem you are currently lacking a support system. Amy and I know what it is like to be stalked, even hunted, by someone with evil intentions. And so does Dean."
Her heart was pounding so hard her ears were vibrating. A voice in her head told her to leave this lovely family alone. She'd done what she'd come to do. She'd alerted Amy Stuart-Wilde to the significant danger she was now in.
"There is safety in numbers," Dean said softly, but there was very real dread in his expression.
Lizzie's eyes darted from the boy's, back to Amy's, and back again to Bryson's. She gulped another sip of her excellent gin and tonic, staring at the table while she made her decision to share. Finally, she leaned back in her chair with a sigh of resignation and began her story.
"I woke up on a Monday morning three years ago, and couldn't remember where I'd been the night before. When I went to check my email and business calendar, I realized I'd lost track of nearly four months of my life. When I looked in the mirror, I realized I'd lost at least twenty pounds and had bruises all over my body that I couldn't explain. I ached all over. My hair had been bleached to blond and cut short in a misshapen crop. My fingernails were broken and dirty. I had blisters on my hands, as if I'd been doing manual labor-" she stopped to catch her breath.
All three members of her audience were leaning forward, mouths open in a slowly building state of shock.
"I had an eviction notice on my front door, a message from the Post Office saying that my mail was being held at the main depot because I hadn't collected it for so long. I'd lost my job, my credit was destroyed from neglecting my bills for three consecutive billing cycles.
"Ironically, my electricity and internet were still operational. No land line, but I had an operational cell phone that I didn't recognize. I looked for my purse but couldn't find it. So I started calling my creditors and was informed that all accounts had been closed as of the previous business date, which was the Friday before, presumably by me. Then I finally checked my bank account and found well over a million dollars sitting there. It had been wired into my account on that same previous business date by an anonymous source. My account manager at the bank told me it was untraceable.
"By this point, I was completely freaked out, so I started calling people, trying to find out what had happened to me. I don't have many friends, and most are business associates only. They had all concluded that I'd had some kind of breakdown and had just taken off. Nobody had been concerned enough to chase me down. It hit me pretty hard. I was completely alone and had nothing to lose... or gain,"
By this point, Amy had shifted Dean off her lap and come to sit beside Lizzie. Amy's hand was warm and reassuring on her own, so Lizzie let her story pour out.
"Next I called my landlord to try to get the eviction reversed, but he'd already rented my unit and had a moving crew coming to remove my stuff the following day. He told me that anything left inside would be removed without my consent, so I'd better gather everything that I cared about and take it with me. I didn't consider fighting him. I rented a truck and hired some day-laborers from the Home Depot and moved my things into a storage unit. I stayed in a hotel for the next month while I tried to figure out what to do.
"About a week into that first month, Morgan Christopher showed up at my hotel door. He introduced himself as if I should have heard of him. I was instantly wary, but didn't know why. He invited himself in and proceeded to congratulate me on the way I'd closed down my old life. Then he reached for the buttons on my blouse and acted like he had every right to undress me. When I tried to pull away, he grabbed my arms and shook me roughly, telling me to stop behaving like a prude, that he wanted to check my injuries. There was a very real menace in his tone, and I instinctively stopped resisting. He knew where all of the bruises were on my body and assessed them with a clinical kind of detachment, but when I asked how I got them he didn't answer.
"I was terribly vulnerable and felt as if half of my awareness was shut off. It was a strange time. I look back at it now and wonder why the hell I didn't tell him to leave and never come back. As I revisit that memory, I know that the whole scene was deliberately enacted by Morgan to reinsert himself into my life, ultimately with my consent. I truly don't know what he would have done if I'd tried to shut him off. I fear he would have become violent."
"And that's worked quite well for him," Amy said, recalling her encounters with Morgan Christopher as a young woman on summer break after her sophomore year of college. "He didn't have to act, it worked to let you infer that he would."
Lizzie looked at Amy meaningfully. "You nailed his personality to a tee, Amy. He likes to toy with people. And he toyed with me quite a bit for that first year as I struggled to build a new life for myself. He didn't show his mean side again for a long time, so I unfortunately allowed myself to grow fond of him and an attraction developed. I believed it was reciprocated, but he was purely taking advantage of my pathetic lack of emotional strength." She grimaced and shook her head. "I haven't seen a good side of humanity in a long time, folks. But you've given me hope today. Thank you for indulging me."
Amy gave her hand another squeeze. "So, that was year one. What did you do with your time that first year?"
"A whole lot of nothing," Lizzie said flatly. "I got in shape, focused on my health, took up tennis of all things. Not an easy sport to play regularly in San Francisco."
"Have you gone back to work?" Amy asked.
"No. Morgan suggested I start my own consulting business, but that didn't feel right. All I'd really ever done was sales in one capacity or another, but after realizing I'd never really thrived in that career choice, I decided to move on from it. I've had trouble finding something else that feels right. Lucky for me, I'm very good with budgeting, so I can keep exploring for quite a while yet before my funds run too low."
"Did you ever discover where that money came from?" Bryson inquired.
"No," Lizzie replied, "although I've no doubt Morgan knows its source."
Bryson leaned forward, elbows on knees, his attention focused on his thoughts.
Lizzie watched Amy watch him and admired their obvious connection. She wondered if she was capable of that level of partnership in her own life.
"What helped you get to the point of rejecting Mr. Christopher's advances?" Bryson's question broke into her thoughts.
"I came to my senses about the reality of our "relationship" after that first year. I told him to stop contacting me, that I wanted a clean break from him. He was cold and acted insulted in that conversation, and he left me in peace for about three months. But then he reappeared, and that began the pattern that is still going on. Now when I see him, it will be someplace in public. He'll just suddenly be there and he comes right up to me. There's always something in his eyes that makes me wonder if he actually cares about me, but once he sees my reaction to the sight of him, he's all about intimidation."
"What sorts of means does he employ to intimidate you?" Bryson asked.
"He's always very deliberate to mention something that tells me he's monitoring everything I do: a recent online purchase, or place I've had dinner, the museum I went to the previous week." Lizzie shook her head, casting a glare at nothing in particular. "He knows exactly how to rattle me, and then he's gone again." She looked at Amy. "I'm sure that he knows that I purchased your book. I'll bet he's read it by now. He may even be aware that I've called you."
Dean made sound of disgust, but his pale complexion gave away the very personal buttons this story pushed for him.
"If he were to show up right now, would you feel safer with the group of us?" Amy asked. "Or does he still hold power over you because of your history with him?"
Lizzie knew that by history, Amy meant physical relationship, which hadn't ever actually developed. There had been a time when Lizzie would have allowed Morgan to seduce her, but somehow she had ended things before they had crossed that line. "The history didn't go that deep," she emphasized, deliberately not elaborating in front of Dean. Amy nodded that she understood. "No.... it's hard to explain. I lost all of that time and know something awful happened, and that I can't remember any of it. I've seen myself as a victim, and that victimized part of me was easy prey for him. Since I had no proof of foul play, I'd been slowly coming to the conclusion that I'd had some sort of psychological breakdown. I was terrified to find out that it was a permanent disorder that could hit again at any time. Morgan was the only person I had ever discussed it with, back when I had regular contact with him. He supported my decision to just try to put the past behind me and start over. It was easy enough to do. I'd been unhappy and alone for my entire adult life.
"That course of action proved to be mostly pragmatic, except for the odd nightmares that started to occur in the second year. At first, it was just one. Months would go by before I had another. But then in the last six months, they've become a plague. So, on impulse, I went for hypnosis," she told them. "About eight weeks ago, I called up a hynpo-therapist, and have been having weekly treatments ever since." She gritted her teeth against the rush of betrayed emotion that surged upward as she prepared to admit the worst out loud to these strangers who felt like friends. "During the first session it became obvious that I'd suffered some sort of trauma designed to block my memories. I've recovered scattered recollections of being detained in a cell, and also in what seems to be a house in a remote place. Morgan was there, and was responsible for many of those bruises I woke up with three years back."
Dean had been perched in the chair Amy had vacated. The look on his face was one of empathy. "I know what that's like," he said. "A bad man was playing with my mind like that. He liked to have that kind power over me and Father." He darted a glance towards Bryson, who was nodding grimly. After a brief hesitation, Dean moved off of the chair and went to stand beside Bryson, who quickly tugged the lanky preadolescent onto his lap and leaned back in the chair so that Dean could relax against him. Dean's eyes were still on Lizzie's. "It's scary, but you can get the upper hand with Morgan. Now that you know it's all about power."
Lizzie felt her fretful expression break into a smile. "I'm sure you're right, Dean. I appreciate that."
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