“El. El, wake up. Eleanor.” I was being shaken gently as I regained consciousness. I kept my eyes closed as I felt strong arms slide under me and lift me up. Dillon’s familiar scent of fresh laundry and spice brought a traitorous smile to my face. “There you are,” he whispered.
I opened my good eye to look up at him. “Here I am,” I whispered back.
“They brought you back here, I see,” he said. We both knew why. The pain of this place was tangible, almost a physical presence that I had caused.
“Mm-hm,” I mumbled.
“Tim and Kelly already left. I told them we broke up last night and you went home. They offered to stay, but I sent them away.”
“Mm,” I hummed in acknowledgment.
He set me down on the couch inside the cabin and left the room. I heard the shower turn on, and he came back into the living room. He picked me back up, cradling me in his arms, and set me down inside the bathroom. I didn’t protest as he carefully removed my blood-stained clothes. He removed his own and guided me into the shower with him. I closed my eyes and let him wash away all the evidence of last night’s defiance.
“Your nose is broken. I need to set it. It’s going to hurt,” he said matter-of-factly. “Ready?”
I nodded. He put a hand on my cheek and gripped my nose with the other and popped it back into place. I squeaked and almost passed out again, but Dillon caught me. Fresh blood poured from my nose, but it subsided quickly. I could breathe through it again and the throbbing was already lessening.
“Thank you,” I said tiredly.
He kissed me gently, a soft whisper of a kiss on my lips. “I love you,” he whispered.
“I love you, too,” I whispered back.
I heard the sharp intake of his breath and felt his hands glide up my arms to rest on my shoulders, then slide up to cup my face.
“’Bout time, Ruiz,” he said huskily before kissing me soundly. All my pain was momentarily forgotten as we memorized each other all over again; replacing the bad with the good. The Shadow Men were no longer welcome in this place.
“We need to do something about that shoulder,” Dillon said as he dried me off with an oversized fluffy towel. “You’ve been hit there too many times. It’s a miracle they haven’t broken it yet.”
“Yeah, a real gift from God,” I said sarcastically.
“Was there a pattern this time?” he asked me.
I nodded. “Slap, push, punch, kick, punch, kick a bunch, punch.”
“Slap?” Dillon asked aghast. “One of them slapped you?”
“Mm-hm,” I said. “I think they’ve got a leader. He’s the one who slapped me first, then waited until everyone had their turn and punched me right here,” I pointed to the bruise on my temple. “Lights out.”
“Could you tell the difference between him and the others?” Dillon asked all business.
“Not in any physical way, but it was obvious that he held all the power to start and stop the fight.”
“That’s interesting,” Dillon said. “Anything else?”
“They didn’t swarm me this time. They all took a turn, then the leader decided he’d had enough of me and knocked me out.”
“Why didn’t they swarm you?” he asked, eyes widening.
I shrugged. “I guess I just realized that I’m no longer afraid of them. All they can do is inflict physical pain. The emotional pain of last night was far worse than anything they could ever do to me.”
Dillon didn’t say anything at first. He just stood there, breathing deep measured breaths.
“This is all my fault,” he whispered. “I rushed things. I pushed you into leaving your home and got mad at you for having doubts.” I shook my head at him. “I was so selfish,” he added.
“Dillon,” I said, reaching up to put my hands on either side of his face. “I’m going to clue you into a little bit of what my life has been like these past 21 years.”
“I’m listening,” he said and kissed me quickly.
“I have never. Never had a man care about me the way you do. The last time someone told me they loved me was when I was twelve years old; and do you know who said it?” He shook his head. “My mother’s sleazy boyfriend right before he climbed on top of me.” Dillon’s eyes closed and his grip on my waist tightened. “Everything about this, about you and me, about our relationship, freaks me the hell out.”
“I’m sorry, El,” he said softly. “I am so, so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I told him. “You couldn’t have known that. There’s a lot you still don’t know.”
“You can’t scare me away,” he said. “I’m in. No matter what.”
“You say that now,” I mumbled.
“I do. And I’ll keep saying it until you believe me.”
I sighed and rested my head on his chest. “It might take a while,” I teased halfheartedly.
“I’ve got all the time in the world.”
“That was a total waste of cab fare,” I said turning the key to my apartment.
“Don’t leave me and you won’t need to worry,” Dillon tried to tease, but his words rang true. This was my fault, not his. I freaked out and ran and the Shadow Men came for me. They were getting predictable.
“I’m sorry, Dill,” I told him sincerely. I dropped my bags in my room and wandered over to the fridge. “Hungry?” I tried, hoping for a distraction. I didn’t want to think about the Shadow Men anymore.
“Mm-mm,” he said. “My kitchen’s better though. Come on.” He kissed me quickly, and we drove across the street to his house.
I sat and watched as Dillon busied himself making pancakes and sausage. “I have a theory,” he said as he flipped over a giant pancake.
“I’m listening,” I said resting my chin on hand.
“I’ve been doing some research,” he said cryptically.
“When exactly have you been doing this research?”
“While you’re at work,” he said simply.
I raised an eyebrow and gestured for him to continue.
“I think I might know what the Shadow Men are,” he said.
I waved my hand at him. “Spit it out, Dill.”
“How familiar are you with Greek mythology?”
I snorted. “What? Like Zeus and Hades and all that?”
Dillon nodded. “I think the Shadow Men are something like the Algea from Greek Mythology.”
I blinked at him. “Could you say that again? Slowly?”
Will chuckled. “Al-gee-yah,” he pronounced slowly. “The Algea in Greek mythology are spirits of pain, both physical and emotional. It fits pretty perfectly I think.”
I nodded. “I’m following. But I don’t know, Dillon. That seems so farfetched,” I said.
He tilted his head and eyed me; eyebrows raised practically to his hairline. “And Shadow Men transporting you to another time and place just to beat you up isn’t farfetched?”
“I mean, not anymore,” I replied stupidly.
“Fine, I’ll give you that,” he said with a reluctant smile. “But come on, this fits right?”
“Sure,” I agreed. “But why did they choose me?”
“That I still don’t know,” he admitted. “Not for sure, anyway.”
My eyes snapped up to meet his. “What do you mean, not for sure?”
Dillon shook his head. “Not right now.”
“Why?” I whined. “You have a theory and I want to hear it.”
“I just got you back, El,” he said earnestly. “I will tell you. I promise I will tell you, but not today. Please?”
I shut my eyes and scrubbed my hands on my face. “Ow!” I complained as I rubbed my sore temple too hard. “When am I going to be able to see out of this eye again?” I complained, pointing to my black eye.
“Probably by tomorrow,” he said handing me a plate of pancakes and sausage links. “Syrup?”
“Duh. Hand it over.”
Dillon laughed and gave me the syrup bottle.
“Ya-ya’s not going to let me work, looking like this,” I said passively between bites.
Dillon shrugged. “So, don’t work.”
I eyed him ruefully. “It’s that easy, is it?”
“I think so,” he said.
“Who’s going to pay my rent, then? You? No.”
“And, that’s the end of this conversation,” he said quickly. He cleared away our empty plates and came around the side of the bar to stand behind me. He put his hands on my shoulders. “You’ll be fine, El. You’re not alone anymore. Try to remember that every once in a while.”
I looked up at him and smiled. “I’m working on it,” I said quietly. He leaned down and kissed me sweetly on the lips, then kissed me gently on the cheek under my still swollen eye.
I blew out a loud breath. “Maybe next time, I’ll ask them to lay off the face.”
“Not funny,” he said. I smiled sweetly at him. “Come on, I declare today a lazy day. You need ice...” he paused, looking me over, “lots of ice. And rest.”
“Now you’re speaking my language.”
“You know I can’t let you work like that,” Ya-ya said quietly. She grabbed my arm and pulled me into the bathroom at the club.
It had been five days since the Shadow Men had taken me to the cabin, but my eye was still a nasty mess of purples and greens.
“I can put makeup on it, Ya-ya. It’s not swollen anymore. Please. I just need something to do. Dillon is driving me crazy. He’s always hovering.”
She eyed me suspiciously. “I still don’t know if I believe that he’s not the one doing this to you.”
“He’s not,” I insisted. “He’s actually the one helping to keep this from happening more often.”
“And you’re sure your troubles won’t find you in my club?”
“One hundred percent, Ya-ya,” I reassured her. “I swear it.”
She groaned in frustration. “You’re lucky you remind me of my niece, or I’d have fired you a long time ago.”
“I love you, Ya-ya,” I said in a singsong voice and hugged her tightly. “I’ll cover my eye real good. And I’ll get Candy to help me. It’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
“Sure, sure,” she said and shoved me out the door.
I grabbed Candy’s arm on the way back toward the dressing room. She went with me willingly, but with a confused expression on her face.
I sat down at my station and dumped out my makeup. “Help me cover this up?” I asked Candy.
She chuckled sadly. “Sure thing, babe,” she said in her high-pitched mousy voice. Candy was a short, slightly overweight brunette with huge eyes and adorable dimples. Tonight, she was sporting black spandex from head to toe.
“You look like you’re auditioning for the circus,” I mused.
She smiled. “Maybe I am. I’m real good on the tight rope.”
“I’m sure you are,” I said.
She looked down at herself and tugged on the spandex. “The sexy as hell circus, though right?”
“Damn right,” I said with a smile.
“Concealer,” she ordered holding out her hand.
It only took her ten minutes to completely hide my black eye. She had even managed to give me gorgeous smokey eyes that I would never have been able to achieve on my own. “Bravo, Candy,” I said giving her a quiet round of applause. “Thank you.”
She rolled her eyes but smiled. “All I did was make you even more gorgeous than you already are. As if that was even possible.”
“Oh, stop.” I waved her off. “Come on, we’ve got work to do,” I took her hand in mine and squeezed it tightly.
“You’ll do,” Ya-ya said tilting my chin this way and that. “Candy’s got a future as a makeup artist.”
“Go on, Bill’s here. He’ll be happy to see you again, I’m sure.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure.” Oh, Bill. Sweet, sweet, pervy Bill.
“Ellie,” Bill said taking his eyes off his phone long enough to smile at me as I entered his private room.
“Hi, Billy. Miss me?” I slid my hand up the pole and swayed my hips as I slid down it slowly.
“It’s not the same without you, darling,” he said watching me dance. His phone dinged and I smiled; his attention instantly diverted from me to his phone.
I let my mind wander to Dillon as I danced. He had this habit of reaching for me, almost unconsciously whenever he was near me. His hand always seemed to find mine. His contact kept me grounded. He believed his contact kept me here in the present. And I now knew that to be true. For whatever reason if we were together before I fell asleep, I stayed here; they couldn’t get to me. They hadn’t taken Dillon again, and I was still a little fuzzy on the why, but I think that also had something to do with our contact.
Dillon was waiting for me at my place when I got home. “Bill was back,” I said climbing onto his lap.
“Oh yeah?” he said putting his hands on my backside. “Did you dance for him?”
“Mm-hm,” I said as I put my hands on his thighs. “Would you like me to show you how?”
He cleared his throat. “If you insist,” he said in a husky voice.
“I do,” I said softly.
“Somehow I doubt you showed him all of that, Eleanor,” he teased, still panting.
I laughed and kissed him on the cheek. “No, that was a special show just for you.”
He touched my makeup covered eye tenderly, “It’s like it vanished,” he said in wonder.
“Candy’s good at what she does,” I smiled.
His return smile didn’t reach his eyes. I frowned.
“What is it, Dill?” I asked.
“I have another theory, but I don’t think you’re going to like it.”
“What?” I demanded clambering to my feet to stand over him. “What are you talking about? What do you know?”
“I don’t know anything for certain, okay? I’m just guessing here,” he said holding open his arms, inviting me to come lay back down next to him, but I shook my head, no.
“Why won’t I like it?” I asked, pulling a t-shirt on over my head.
“Well, you weren’t exactly jumping for joy last time,” he said dryly.
“Last time?” I asked confused.
“I asked you to come with me and you kind of freaked out. So badly, in fact, that the Shadow Men came for you.”
“So, what? You think me moving in with you will make them go away?” I demanded. He was crazy. “How is playing house with you possibly going to get them to leave me alone?”
“Never mind,” he said. “I knew you weren’t going to like it.”
“Like what, Dillon?” I demanded.
He sighed deeply and got to his feet to stand almost nose to nose with me. “Joy, Eleanor,” he whispered. “Joy is the Algea’s opposite; their opposing force.”
“What? You think that just being happy is going to keep them at bay?”
“Yes,” he said emphatically. “I do.” He breathed deeply and slid his hands up my arms. “If you let yourself be happy with me, I truly believe they’ll leave you alone.”
I watched him trace patterns in my freckles, trying to digest what he had just told me. If he was right; if the Shadow Men were these ancient Greek Algea characters, then it made sense that the opposite of pain, misery, violence, and fear, was joy and happiness. By refusing to let Dillon fully into my life, I was, in essence, inviting the Shadow Men to continue tormenting me, only adding to my pain and misery.
“You make it sound so easy,” I said sadly.
“Because it is for me. Loving you is as easy as breathing.”
“Sure, Shakespeare,” I snorted.
“I haven’t been through the things you’ve been through; I know that. I’ve led a privileged and sheltered life-”
“You said it not me,” I interrupted with a scoff.
He pursed his lips at me. “So, it’s easier for me to trust people. But I also know that meeting you was no accident. Try not to laugh at this next part, please,” he paused and squinted his eyes at me. I batted my eyelashes innocently. He groaned. “I think I’m your opposite.”
He nodded his head slowly. “I think I’m your joy,” he said. “At least, I want to be,” he mumbled almost too softly for me to hear.
“Dillon Rockwood, the romantic,” I teased, but I didn’t laugh. It would be so easy to believe every word he just said. And why not? All the puzzle pieces fit perfectly together. But was it real? Or did we invent the pieces just so we could force them together?
He shrugged. “It’s just a theory.”
“It’s a pretty damn good one, Dill,” I had to admit. “Do you think they’ll move on to someone else once they’re done with me?”
He nodded sadly. “Most likely. There’s a lot of pain and suffering in this world for them to feed on.”