As the days turned into weeks, I was no closer to making a decision about Michigan. I wanted to be sure that I would be moving to be with Dillon, not just because I knew he kept me from the Shadow Men. After a full month of no nightmares, I was ready to admit that Dillon was right about him being my opposite; my joy. But what did that mean for him? What was I to him? I didn’t want a savior, and I wasn’t interested in being rescued.
I had shared more with him than I had ever shared with anyone. We were growing closer together every day, but Dillon would be leaving in less than two weeks, with or without me.
“I wish you didn’t have to go to work tonight,” Dillon complained.
“I need to talk to Ya-ya,” I said. “You know this.”
“Does that mean you’re coming with me?” he asked, hope permeating his voice.
I smiled and kissed him, but didn’t answer. I wanted to. I just needed to be sure of one more thing before I could give him my answer.
Dillon’s father would be at the club tonight and we were going to have a chat. I had avoided Daddy since our run in at the gate to his house, but tonight, I was going to clear up some things.
The club was packed when I got there. Ya-ya rushed to me, glad for another person to help handle the crowd. She shooed me into the dressing room and gave me 30 seconds to “make myself less presentable,” as she liked to tease.
I spotted Mr. Rockwood on my way to the bar for a serving tray. He was at the other end of the bar sipping a Bourbon, his drink of choice. I grabbed a tray, watching him watch Candy up on stage.
Ya-ya found me a couple of hours later to let me know I would be entertaining someone in a private room. I tried to reason that I’d be more useful out on the floor on a busy night, where I could keep an eye on Dillon’s dad, but she insisted.
I entered the dimly lit, blue-tinted room with downcast eyes as usual.
My eyes shot up to meet Mr. Rockwoods.
“Marcus,” I said not trying to mask my disdain. I stood back, still as a statue.
He scoffed. “I’ve made arrangements. We can speak freely here.”
My eyes shot up to the security camera. “I’m not dancing for you,” I said holding back the vomit.
“Don’t flatter yourself, girl.”
I rolled my eyes. “What do you want?”
“To ask you one last time to let Dillon go.”
“I’m not keeping him here. He’s going back to Michigan in ten days.”
“He seems to think that you’ll be going with him,” he sneered. “It’s all he can talk about. He’s already backed out of the apartment lease I arranged for him. Did you know that? He found one on his own, alone. One he’ll never be able to afford.”
“Okay,” I said trying not to give anything away.
“He seems to think you’ll be able to help with the rent.”
“Okay,” I said again.
“Is this how you’re planning to contribute? By selling yourself for spare change?” He looked me up and down and I resisted the urge to cover myself. “It’s only a matter of time before he resents you and what you are. He doesn’t get it yet, but he will. You’ll slip up. You’ll show your true colors and when you do, you’ll be left alone far from home.”
“Shouldn’t you want your son to be happy?” I asked honestly. Shouldn’t that be what all parents want?
“I am trying to do what’s best for him,” Marcus practically spat.
“I think he’s old enough to decide for himself.”
“Mm-hmm.” I crossed my arms over my chest and watched him for a moment. “You know,” I said grabbing ahold of the pole in the middle of the room. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something.” I gripped the pole hard enough to turn my knuckles white.
“This should be good,” he sneered.
“Dillon is a good man. He is going to be someone; help so many people. How did he end up with a bastard like you for a father?”
“Watch your tongue, little girl. I can take everything from you with just one phone call.” I frowned and he smiled triumphantly. “I know about the fire. I know who started it.”
I swallowed hard and backed up so that my back was to the mirrors. No one knew about that. There’s no way he could possibly know that it was my fault. I had just wanted Frank to be sorry for what he’d done to me. He was sorry, all right. It was his shit I had set on fire, after all. The police blamed him for burning trash illegally. How was I supposed to know that it would be windy that day? My revenge had resulted in the brush fire that had burned acres of land, half a school, and an entire trailer park. Frank spent three years in prison for arson and property damage for what I had done. I didn’t feel even remotely sorry for him, but it didn’t assuage the guilt that I carried with me. The fire was my fault.
“It was Frank. He did his time for it,” I said in a small voice. “He comes in here on Wednesday nights. I can introduce you.”
“Don’t be smart, girl. It doesn’t suit you,” he said viciously.
“So what? You thought you’d come in here and threaten me into leaving your son alone?”
“I don’t think I have to. You already know you’ll never be good enough for him.”
I shut my eyes, refusing to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he was right.
I heard the telltale squeak of the leather as Marcus got up. I kept my eyes closed and sucked in a breath as I felt him pass by me way too closely.
“For your future,” he said in my ear and tucked something into the strap of my halter top.
I waited until the door clicked shut behind him before I ripped the money out of my shirt and threw it to the ground. I blindly groped around for the latch to the back door and when I finally found it, I opened it too quickly and fell to my knees. Ya-Ya was there and picked me up. She hugged me tightly as I gasped for breath.
“Go home, baby. You’re no use to me in this state. Candy will cover for you.” Ya-Ya’s way of telling me she loves me.
I ran to my car, not even bothering to change out of my skimpy outfit. I tried three times to jab the key into the ignition before finally sliding it in and cranking the engine. But it wouldn’t turn over.
I slammed my hands on the steering wheel and let out an anguished scream. “Not tonight!” I screamed to the universe. I tried again and again to get the engine to turn over but it refused.
The one person I wanted to call to come pick me up was the one person that I knew I shouldn’t call. Dillon’s dad was right about everything and I hated him so much for it. I had been over this and over this in my head and always came to the same conclusion: I am not worthy.
I checked my purse and laughed hysterically. My wallet was gone. Kristy strikes again. She must have cleaned me out while I was in the room with Marcus.
“Screw it,” I said out loud as I dialed Dillon’s number. He answered right away. “My car won’t start. Come get me?”
“Be there in ten, love,” he said. “Are you okay?”
“No,” I stated bluntly.
“I’ll hurry,” he said and hung up.
I tugged on one of Dillon’s hoodies and laid my head back to wait for Dillon to come. I tried to put the conversation with his dad out of my mind. I refused to let him decide what I did with my life. He may have been right about what he said, but it was still my decision to make, and unlike his father, I would be considering Dillon’s happiness. If he truly was my joy, then I would do my damnedest to be his.
I checked the time on my phone and frowned. It had been almost an hour and still no Dillon. Blue and red lights flew by, followed by another set, then the honk of a fire truck.
“Oh, no.” I dialed Dillon’s number again, but there was no answer. “No,” I said firmly.
I got out of my car and stared in the direction of the flashing lights.
Candy came out for a smoke break and watched another ambulance fly by. “What’s that all about?” She asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, hoping and praying that my worst fears were not coming true right now.
“Hope it’s not too serious,” she said flippantly and turned to head back inside.
I tried Dillon again, but there was still no answer. I tried his home phone next and his mom picked up. “Eleanor, honey, it’s late. Is everything all right?”
“Dillon was supposed to come pick me up, but he’s not here yet and now he’s not answering his phone,” I told her.
“He left quite a while ago, sweety. He should have been there by now.”
“Let me try him and I’ll call you back, okay?”
“Sure,” I said and hung up.
I started walking toward the flashing lights. Fear and dread filling me. Unable to contain myself, I started to run. I let out a sob as I spotted Dillon’s familiar black Jetta. It was in bad shape; the passenger side completely smashed in by a large red truck.
I spotted Dillon sitting on the back of an ambulance being checked out by an EMT. I rushed to him and he smiled feebly at me. “El, I’m okay.”
“You don’t look okay,” I said gesturing toward the wreckage. His face was covered in blood, but I knew from experience that even superficial head wounds bled a lot.
“Mitch, the guy in the red truck, thought he could beat the yellow light. He didn’t. He’s fine though, his trucks a beast.”
I smiled at Dillon. “What about you?”
“I think my collar bone is broken and my knee hurts. Cut my head on God knows what. But I’m fine.” He tried to stand, but the EMT pushed him back down. He glared at her. “She’s riding with us to the hospital,” he told her. “I love you, El,” he added sweetly. He tried to get up again, but he clutched his head and at back down heavily.
“I told you, you shouldn’t try to stand,” the EMT said shortly.
He squinted at her, then his eyes rolled back in his head. I rushed to catch him but a police officer held me back, letting the EMTs do their work. They laid Dillon down on a stretcher and loaded him into the ambulance. The EMT that was working on him waved me over and the officer let me go. I climbed into the back of the ambulance with Dillon and we headed to the hospital.
He didn’t regain consciousness the whole way there, but the EMT assured me that it was most likely a delayed reaction to the concussion. His adrenaline was keeping him conscious, but as soon as he relaxed a bit his body shut down to help heal itself. It was a fairly normal reaction.
That did not help me feel better at all.
We arrived at the hospital and I walked with Dillon’s stretcher to an emergency room bay. After the EMTs updated the doctors, I watched them leave and tried to stay out of the doctor’s way. They asked how I was related to him and I said I was his girlfriend.
I quickly realized I was way out of my depth when they started asking me a bunch of questions about his medical history and his family’s medical history. Before I could truly panic, I called Dillon’s mom and filled her in quickly then put her on speaker to let her answer the necessary questions, while I listened to her hold back her own rising panic for the safety of her son.
By the time Dillon’s mom had arrived, the doctors had already taken him for a CT and X-rays. I tried to fill her as best I could, but resigned myself to feeling completely useless. The guilt was already weighing heavily on me for making him come get me.
“I called Marcus, but he didn’t pick up. His meeting must be running later than he planned,” Mrs. Rockwood said, gripping her phone tightly in her hands.
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I stayed silent. Now was not the time for that mess. Granted, Marcus was the reason I left the club so early, but my car refusing to start was the real culprit here.
“I am so sorry, Mrs. Rockwood. If I hadn’t asked Dillon to come get me, he’d still be safe at home,” I said fighting back tears.
“Oh, honey,” she said, putting her arm around me. “This isn’t your fault, so don’t you dare think like that.”
I nodded, but it was easier said than done.
Mrs. Rockwood’s phone rang and she answered right away. “Marcus, Dillon’s been in an accident. He’s at the hospital... He’s getting some tests done... We don’t know anything yet... Please, just get here as quick as you can... Okay, see you soon.”
I tried to hide my panic. I didn’t want to be anywhere near Marcus right now, but I didn’t want to leave without knowing Dillon was all right. I sat down heavily in a waiting room chair and put my head in my hands. Dillon was all right. He had to be. He was hurt, but it wasn’t too bad. He would heal. His injuries had nothing to do with the Shadow Men. That thought brought a tiny bit of relief, but it was short-lived.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Mrs. Rockwood said with relief. I lifted my head to see Marcus striding into the waiting room, no longer in the dark grey suit he was wearing at the club. Nice to know he had his priorities straight: go home and change out of the suit that smells of booze and sex before coming to make sure your son is okay. Must be hard to hide the stink of depravity.
I watched him give Mrs. Rockwood a quick peck on the cheek, barely making contact before he stepped back and away from her. “What happened?” he demanded. “What have the doctors said?”
Mrs. Rockwood looked to me. “He was in a car accident. He lost consciousness and the ambulance brought him here. His collarbone is broken and probably has a concussion,” I said matter-of-factly.
“Were you in the car with him?” he asked, it sounded like an accusation. That I had somehow caused the accident to happen.
“No,” I said as calmly as I could. “He was coming to get me. My car wouldn’t start.”
“Figures,” Marcus said under his breath.
I rolled my eyes and bit my tongue, holding back a sarcastic retort.
The doors to the emergency department opened and a doctor came out. He strode over to us and shook hands with Marcus. “Mr. Rockwood. Mrs. Rockwood,” he said. “Dillon’s regained consciousness. The CT shows no swelling or fracturing of the skull, but he will need to be monitored for a concussion. His collarbone is broken, but it won’t need surgery. And he’s got a few cuts and bruises on his face, arms, and right leg, but I’d say he’s pretty lucky. There was nothing too serious.”
“Oh, thank you so much, Dr. Thomas,” Mrs. Rockwood said with a small smile. “Can we see him now?”
“He’s being taken up to a room for overnight observation. The front desk should know where he’s headed so you can go see him.”
Thank you, Doctor,” Marcus said shaking his hand.
“My pleasure,” Dr. Thomas said with a small nod and turned to head back through the doors.
Mrs. Rockwood rushed to the front desk to ask the nurse where Dillon would be staying. Marcus immediately looked me over with a sneer. “You can go home now. You’ve done enough.”
“I want to see Dillon first,” I said defiantly.
“No,” he said quietly, but with finality. “I won’t allow it and you have no rights here. You are not family.”
That hurt. Dillon may be my family, but I was not his. Marcus was making that quite plain.
“He’s in room 241,” Mrs. Rockwood said to Marcus and turned to head into the heart of the hospital without a backward glance.
Marcus followed, but I stayed put, torn between defiantly forcing my way to his room and respecting the fact that I was not family and clearly didn’t belong there. Dillon was just staying the night; I would be all right for one night.
I stood in the waiting room, unable to move as panic began to set in. Maybe the Shadow Men were done with me. Maybe we didn’t need to be physically touching for Dillon to keep them away. I felt selfish for worrying about this right now, when Dillon was laying in a hospital bed, but I couldn’t help it. Could I wait for his parents to leave, then sneak up to see him? Would they let me stay? I wasn’t family, so I knew the answer to that as soon as the question came to me. I wouldn’t be allowed to stay the night. I had to prepare myself for a visit from the Shadow Men. There was no way they would pass up on this opportunity. I could almost feel them surrounding me even now, waiting in the shadows to pounce as soon as I fell asleep. I could stay awake; pull an all-nighter. People did it all the time. With enough coffee and energy drinks, I could do it. The fear and guilt over Dillon’s safety were enough to keep me awake at least until exhaustion took over.
I couldn’t go up to see Dillon, but I could wait here. At least until Mrs. Rockwood came back down and could give me an update. I sat down in a chair and put my head back against the wall. A thousand thoughts raced through my head. Was I hurting Dillon by staying with him? Was this the universe’s way of telling me to leave him alone? Were we meant to be together as Dillon believed? Or were we just fooling ourselves? Brought together by pain and violence, but unable to get past it to the happily ever after.
“El?” a tentative voice asked. I lifted my head and met the eyes of a petite blonde nurse. “It’s Amy. We went to high school together.
“I know,” I said. “Hi, Amy.”
“Are you okay? Do you need medical attention?” she asked.
“No, I’m fine. Dillon was in a car accident. I’m waiting to see if he’s all right.”
“Dillon Rockwood?” she asked with a hopeful expression that I didn’t have the energy to resent. “He’s here?”
“I’ll go see what I can find out,” she said and rushed away.
Another admirer, I suspected. Maybe Amy would be better for him than I was. They had a lot in common already. Doctor and nurse together; it was nauseatingly cute. My insecurities and feelings of inadequacy reared their ugly head. Would I ever get over it? Would I ever be able to make him truly happy? Could I even be truly happy with these feelings always threatening to break us apart? I groaned internally. Now was not the time for a pity party.
As I waited for news, I watched the waiting room fill and empty and fill again with people needing medical attention. Broken limbs, crying babies, and flu patients came and went around me. Someday very soon, it would be Dillon’s job to help people just like this. I was in awe of him already. I had no idea what was wrong with some of these people, but the doctors would know and would be able to help. It was overwhelming just watching the intake nurse do her job.
I was in the middle of a game of rock paper scissors with a little girl who sat next to me when Amy came back into the waiting room and approached me.
“I have to talk to this nurse for a second, okay?” I told the little girl. She pouted but nodded.
“Dillon is pretty pissed off that you’re not up there doting on him,” Amy said sullenly. “He said, and I quote, ’Tell her to get her ass up here right now.’” Amy sighed. “He seems fine. They’ve got him in a sling for a broken collarbone and he’s had stitches in his head and arm. His mom is a mess, though. She was fussing with every little thing in the room.”
I nodded. “Sounds about right. Thank you, Amy,” I said.
“So, you guys are friends now, or something?” she asked without any warmth in her voice.
“Or something,” I said cryptically.
She frowned at me but shrugged. “See you around, El,” she said and left the room taking the chill of animosity with her.
I watched the doors close behind her and squared my shoulders. Dillon wanted to see me. I could do this. Marcus would just have to deal with it.
I knocked on Dillon’s open door and leaned my head inside. Marcus looked up at me from his chair in the corner and clenched his jaw, but kept his mouth shut. Dillon’s dazzling smile greeted me. I could see him sigh in relief.
“There you are,” he said quietly.
“Here I am.” I stayed in the doorway, content to just look at him for a moment. His head had been bandaged to cover the cut on his head, and his arm was tightly secured in a thick sling that wrapped around his back to hold his arm still. His other arm was also wrapped in a bandage to keep the stitches covered, I guessed. “You’re a mess, Dill,” I teased.
His mom tsked at me and smoothed the sheet covering Dillon from the waist down. “He is not,” she said. “You are not.” He smiled indulgently at her and my heart constricted. I tamped down the jealousy I felt that my mother had never doted on me like Dillon’s was. Dillon patted her on the back and whispered something that I couldn’t hear. She nodded and stood up. “Marcus, honey, let’s go get some coffee,” she said.
“I’m fine here,” he said shortly.
“Dad,” Dillon said. “I’m going to kiss my girlfriend, and I’d rather not do it in front of my parents, all right?”
Marcus scoffed and stood abruptly, storming out of the room. Mrs. Rockwood hurried to keep up with him.
I came into the room slowly and leaned down to kiss him gently on the part of his forehead that wasn’t bandaged. I tried to stand up, but Dillon caught my arm and pulled me back down to kiss me soundly on the lips. He tried to deepen the kiss and I chuckled, pulling away.
“Why didn’t you come up with my mom and dad?” Dillon asked. “They’ve been here for hours now. Where were you?”
“In the waiting room,” I told him.
“For three hours?”
I nodded. “I’m not family, Dillon. Visiting hours have been over for a while. I’m surprised I wasn’t stopped on my way here.”
“I may have threatened Amy,” Dillon said sheepishly.
“Is that why she was so mad when she came down to talk to me?”
“Maybe,” he said. “I’m not sorry, though.”
I smiled at him, but it quickly fell away and he frowned at me. “I can’t stay,” I said and he understood immediately.
“Maybe they won’t come, El,” he said quietly. “Maybe they’re done with you.”
“Yeah,” I said indulgently. “Maybe.”
“Don’t fight them, El. It worked last time. You stood up to them. You can do it again.”
I nodded, trying to put on a brave face for his benefit, but inside I was just bone-weary.
“I should go before I get you in trouble.”
Dillon nodded but didn’t release my hand. “Come with me, El. Please,” he said urgently.
“I love you, Dill,” I said and pulled my hand from his grip.
“I love you, too,” he said resignedly.
The Rockwoods came back just as I was leaving. Mrs. Rockwood squeezed my arm reassuringly and went straight to Dillon, who was still staring after me, but Marcus stayed behind.
“You’re not to come back here,” Marcus said in a harsh whisper. “Do you understand? And you will not set foot in my house again. I know your secret and I will expose you if you defy me.”
“Dad!” Dillon shouted and I watched in horror as he tried to get up from his bed. Mrs. Rockwood tried in vain to hold him down. “What the hell are you talking about?” he demanded. He limped up to his father, pulling his IV stand with him. It was only then that I realized that Dillon towered over his dad. He looked down at him with fury in his eyes, his chest heaving.
“It’s okay, Dillon,” I said gently, trying to diffuse the situation. I put my hand on his chest, feeling his heart beat rapidly. “I was leaving anyway.”
“She is the love of my life, Dad,” he said covering my hand with his. “You do not get to speak to her that way.”
“Dillon, honey, please lay back down,” his mom tried again, but she was ignored.
“You don’t know her like you think you do. You don’t know what she’s done. What she’s capable of,” Marcus accused.
“Dillon, please,” his mom pleaded.
“I know enough,” Dillon said quietly. “Get out.”
Marcus looked up at his son, his jaw clenching and unclenching. Finally, after what felt like an eternity he turned and stormed off.
Dillon whitened and I felt him slump forward. His mom and I helped him back to bed where he panted, eyes closed. Mrs. Rockwood rushed to get help, and I held Dillon’s hand, unsure of what to say.
“What secret, El?” Dillon whispered. “What does he know?”
I checked behind me, to be sure we were still alone. “It’s about the fire. It’s more complicated than you know.”
Dillon opened his eyes to look at me. “Tell me.”
A nurse came in to check his vitals and take his blood pressure. She eyed me accusingly. “He needs to remain calm. Visiting hours are over. You need to go, miss.”
I nodded and backed up, but Dillon held fast. “One more minute,” he told the nurse.
“I’ll be back in five to check your vitals again, she better be gone by then, and I expect to see better numbers from you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Dillon said. “Give us a minute, Mom.”
Mrs. Rockwood protested, but eventually relented and closed the door behind her.
“Nothing you say will make me love you any less, Eleanor, but I just kicked my dad out and I need to know why.”
“I set the fire, okay?” I said in a quiet rush. “It was me. The whole thing was my fault.”
Dillon closed his eyes and sighed deeply. “The guy who got arrested for it, Frank something, he took the fall for you?”
“In a way, yeah,” I said. “I was angry. He...did things...to me,” I said haltingly. “I wanted him to pay, so I set his stuff on fire, but I didn’t mean for it to get so out of control.”
Dillon swallowed audibly and licked his lips, making a massive effort to stay calm. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered. “I wanted to. In the car that night. But I had spent so much time trying to forget it, that I just couldn’t.”
“How does my dad know?” he asked.
“That I honestly don’t know. Unless Frank told him himself. They’re both regulars at my club, who knows, maybe they’re best buddies,” I said flippantly.
“Regulars?” Dillon asked, narrowing his eyes at me. I looked down in shame. “Your molester and my father are regulars at your strip club?”
I nodded, no longer able to look at Dillon.
“Jesus, Eleanor. That’s fucked up.”
I nodded again, a traitorous tear dropping onto his hand.
He released my hand. “You should go,” he said quietly.
“I sorry, Dillon,” I whispered and rushed out the door.
I blindly stumbled to the elevators, then out into the lobby. I didn’t stop until the fresh night air hit my face. I sobbed into my hands for a moment before scrubbing my hands down my face and walked out into the night.