Saturday, May 31, 2014

Chapter Twenty Two

A long time had passed since I ran into Matthew at The Brightmore. Jace and I had been spending a lot of time together. He became my protector, my best friend. He still didn't know my greatest secret...or so I thought. One morning, he told me he had a gig at The Brightmore and he wanted me to come and support him. I politely declined. I hadn't had another Matthew run in and I didn't want to push my luck by going to one of his old stomping grounds. Jace looked irritated. I knew he was angry because he always did everything I asked him to do but I couldn't do the same for him. "Why are you afraid you'll run into Matthew again?" he said bluntly.

My heart skipped a beat. So many emotions went through my body in just a few seconds. Shock, fear, worry, and anger. I stuck with anger. "How dare you assume you know anything about me," I yelled at him. "Oh like what? Your real name is Everly?" he pushed back.

"I don't know what you're talking about," I lied. Jace snickered. It wasn't light hearted. It was malevolent. "I'm not stupid. I've known since your reaction to him at The Brightmore. I told you I had a gig the next day but I actually went to the library and did some research on him. He has a wife who went MIA a few years back. I saw her pictures," he softened and briefly hesitated. "I'd know those blue eyes from anywhere," he said looking up at me.

"Just...stop!" I yelled. I would have to leave town. I wasn't safe here anymore. Jace had put the pieces together. It didn't make sense. Jace had known for months. Why didn't he bring it up before?

"Jace," I started slowly. "I'm going to pack my stuff and I'm going to leave town. I need to go say goodbye to my family. I haven't spoke with them since I left home. If you are going to tell Matthew, please give me a head start," I plead with him. "Lily!" he said, his voice filled with surprise. "You haven't talked to your family in years? Why? Is it because you are afraid of Matthew?" he questioned. I didn't answer, I just looked down. After a long pause I looked up at Jace. "You don't know what he's capable of. He will kill me. He will kill my family. He can never know about me."

Jace reached across the space between us and grabbed my hand. "Lily, I would never do anything to hurt you. I promise," he said softly. "Your secret is safe with me. You never have to worry about Matthew. I'll make sure he never hurts you or your family ever again." I began to cry. "Lily you have to talk to your family. They are probably worried sick. They'll forgive you but you have to give them a chance," Jace said sadly. "You don't know how lucky you are to have family," he said with his voice filled with remorse.

I spent the next few days terrified. I wanted to run but part of me believed Jace. He knew all that time and never told Matthew who I was. I thought about what Jace had said to me about my family. Would they forgive me? I guess there was only one way to find out. I went to the library to check my e-mail. Of course there were updates from Nancy and Kylie. I e-mailed Nancy first. It was quick. I told her I was okay and no longer with Matthew. I apologized for the way I treated her before my wedding and I promised more information in time. I sent Kylie the same e-mail. Within minutes I got a response from Kylie. It was frantic and desperate. She pleaded for more information and a chance to talk to me. I sighed and logged off the public computer. I still needed a little more time. 

After the library I headed to the local market. I was so grateful for Jace and his advice that I wanted to get him something to show my appreciation. I had been working overtime at the bar so I had a little extra money in savings. I went in and made my purchase. 

I had one more stop to make before I went home and with a heavy heart, I made my way to the Dance's house to visit with Leah. I pulled up to the pink house and rang the doorbell. Jennifer had informed me a few days ago that they would be moving to a new neighborhood. They promised to keep in touch but I knew I wouldn't be able to afford a visit for a long, long time. They wanted to get Leah out of the city and into a more suburban area. 

Jennifer greeted me at the door and I immediately scooped up Leah into my arms. She had my blonde hair but she had Matthew's brown eyes. The shape of her face was so unlike mine. I looked at her and saw Matthew. My heart was filled with so much love. How could something so perfect come from something so ugly. 

I played with Leah for a few hours, falling madly in love as the minutes ticked by. 

I knew my time was limited so I snuggled with Leah, and to my surprise, she hugged me back. I felt sad for all the things I would miss in her life but I knew I had made the right choice. Leah was loved and she would grow up to be a happy, well adjusted little girl. 

I said my goodbyes to Leah and Jennifer whisked her away to the nursery for her nap. I spent a few minutes talking to Jennifer and Matthew. With tears in our eyes, we said our goodbyes. Jennifer promised letters and pictures and I promised that I would visit as soon as I saved up the money. I left their home with a weird mixture of sadness and relief. I knew my daughter was in great hands. 

I went home and found Jace in the living room. He had just finished working out. I tried to ignore the feelings I had as I looked at him in his athletic gear. Without a word, I handed him a box. 

He looked at the box before ripping it open. "A guitar pick?" he said, obviously confused. "You know I get these for free at the bar," he said with a smile. I walked behind the couch and retrieved his real gift. 

It was a used guitar I bought at the market. I saw the look of shock on his face as he picked up the instrument for the first time. Jace had been practicing at the bar because he couldn't afford his own guitar. Now he could practice wherever he wanted to. 

"Thank you," was all he said, but it was all he needed to say. The look of joy on his face as he strummed a few notes on his new guitar was all I needed. I listened to him play a few songs in the living room. Everything felt so perfect. I felt invulnerable. I guess that was my first mistake. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Chapter Twenty One

I tried to go back home. I really did. It was as if autopilot was engaged and somehow I ended up at the women's shelter. The security guard buzzed me in and sat me down to do intake paperwork. I stared at the manila folder. I didn't want to go back but I couldn't move forward. With tears in my eyes, I filled out the paperwork.

I slept very little that night. The bed was hard and the sheets were scratchy. My roommates were loud and the rain was pounding on the roof. I finally fell asleep. It was a short, restless sleep filled with terrifying dreams that I was grateful I didn't remember.

The next morning, I rummaged through the donation box and found a light top that fit me. I threw it on and went into the bathroom. My hair was short but I cut it shorter and straightened out the natural curl. Satisfied with my new look, I walked out of the bedroom where Cassie was waiting for me. I was so relieved to see her. I embraced my friend and started to cry. For some reason, I couldn't keep my story in any longer. It had been my burden for far too long and I wasn't strong enough to carry it on my own anymore. I broke down and told Cassie the truth.

I told her my real name. It felt foreign on my tongue, but it was liberating to say out loud. I told her how Matthew and I met and the whole whirlwind journey that was our relationship.

I told her about the physical abuse and the pregnancy that had finally allowed me the opportunity to leave him. Cassie listened without judgment. Finally, she said slowly, "You need to go home." I looked at her knowingly. The shelter was not my home anymore. "I'm so scared," I told her. Cassie held my hand. "You are strong enough to handle this. One day, not today, you will have to face your past. In order to prepare for that, you need to live a normal life. A life without fear. A life that is your own." I understood what she was saying and I knew what I had to do. "I'll need you to sign my discharge papers," I told her. Cassie smiled and handed me discharge papers which were already drawn up and signed. She gave me a wink. "I had a feeling you'd say that," she said with a smile.

I got back home at about 9:00 am. Jace was up and in his pajamas still. We stood in silence for a brief moment before we both started talking at the same time. We laughed and the tension left the room. "Jace, I am so sorry. I never should have flipped out at you like that. I have some issues that I am trying to work out. I've learned my lesson and it won't happen again," I told him.

Jace let me finish before he began to speak. "I never should have pressured you to go out like that. I was my fault. I'm really sorry," he apologized. "Jace, I promise it wasn't your fault. I'm just trying to figure some things out and I took my stress out on you," I insisted. Then, Jace did something that really surprised me.

He took my in his arms and gave me a hug. At first, I was too stunned to do anything, but after a moment I returned his embrace. "I was really worried about you last night," Jace said as he pulled away. "I'm glad you're okay," he said smiling. With that, he turned around and left the room. Just like that, we were alright.

My phone rang and I dug it out of my pocket. It was my boss, Daisy. "Hey Lily," her voice came over the phone, "So I have a friend and he owns a bar called Bridgeport Sports Bar downtown. Their bartender just quit and they need some help tonight during bar rush. I recommended you. Would you be able to do it?" she asked me. I paused. It was so early to be going out again. My heart rate accelerated and my palms began to sweat. I thought about what Cassie had said. I'd come this far. Maybe I was strong enough. "Lily?" Daisy said. "Oh, yea Daisy. Ummm...I'd love to. I'll be there at five," I said as I hung up the phone.

Jace came out of the bathroom, freshly showered. He smelled amazing. "Hey Jace, I actually have a favor," I started. I told him about my phone conversation with Daisy and about the job I was going to work tonight. I told him I was still shook up from last night and I needed someone to be there after my shift to take me home. "I would love to. I would stay the whole time but I have a gig at Waylon's. I'll be at the bar before your shift gets off to take you home," he said sincerely. "Thanks," I responded with a smile. I hopped in the shower to get ready for work, and despite the events of last night, I felt giddy and excited. Surely that was just the new job...nothing else.

I arrived at Bridgeport Sports Bar a little before 5 pm and they gave me my uniform. It was a little slinky but it worked. The first hour I spent nervously glancing around the bar, looking for any signs of Matthew.

After a while, I began to warm up and I think I impressed the manager with my mixology skills. I was getting better and better with all the practice.

I finished my shift and looked around the bar for Jace. I was so relieved to see him across the room waiting for me. He looked great in a fitted black tee shirt and faded blue jeans. He took me home and I was grateful the day ended without any drama. We rode home in comfortable silence. I glanced over at Jace and our eyes met. I smiled and turned away stupidly. Sometimes it was so comfortable around Jace but other times the awkwardness of our interactions were absolutely cringeworthy. He reached over the cab seat and squeezed my hand to eliminate the tension. My heart rate accelerated. Maybe in a different life Jace and I would have made a perfect couple. I wouldn't allow myself to string him along if he liked me or if he had different intentions. I made a mental note to talk to him about that later. I would never, ever put myself in a position to get hurt the way Matthew had hurt me. Never again. I repeated in my head.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Chapter Twenty

The next morning I woke up and Jace was not in his bed. I ran to the bathroom to hop in the shower and nearly had a heart attack when I ran into Jace in the shower. "Sorry you startled me," I said laughing. "What are you doing?" I asked him. "Well, we have no hot water. I called the landlord and he said he would send someone in a few days," Jace stopped working to stand up and look me. "That means it'll never happen," he grinned.

I let Jace continue to work and I went into the kitchen to start breakfast. Jace made me dinner last night so I decided to treat him to my famous waffles. I was somewhat of a natural cook and happy to show off my talents a little.

Jace finished fixing the shower and joined me for breakfast. After we were done eating, Jace tried his hand at fixing the television while I did dishes. Neither of us talked, as usual, and I was okay with that. The silence between us was already comfortable. I was very happy with my new life.

The day progressed normally. I worked my regular shift and Jace played the guitar all afternoon. He had an indie/alternative feel to his music that I just loved. After work, Jace told me he had an interview at a dance club called The Brightmore and he asked if I would join him. Knots formed in my stomach. I had only been to the library, diner, and work since I left Matthew. I didn't want to risk running into him. I declined politely but Jace was insistent. "Look, I'm kind of a homebody like you are, and for good reason. Truth is, I don't want to go by myself," he explained. I could relate to that. I sighed. "Let me grab my coat," I told him. 

The Brightmore was amazing. The lights were pulsating and the music was so loud I could feel it. I smiled when I walked in. I use to love places like this before I met Matthew. I was glad a little piece of me still felt that way.

After Jace had his interview, we hit the dance floor for a few hours. For the first time in forever, I was actually having fun. I had a few drinks and let the music take me away. It felt good to let my walls down. Eventually though, I tired. I offered to go grab us some more to drink.

I stood at the bar and ordered our cocktails. I sat there, smiling, reflecting on how much fun I was having when I heard a familiar voice behind me. My throat felt like it was closing. I began to sweat and my breathing became irregular. couldn't be...

I casually glanced over my shoulder and felt my heart sink. It was Matthew. My insides coiled and my heart rate accelerated. The bartender handed me my drink. I took it with shaking hands. Just act normal and get the hell out of here, I told myself.

I took a sip to wet my dry mouth and turned to leave. You've got me kidding me. Jace had introduced himself to Matthew and was asking for his autograph. I heard Jace talking about playing a gig here in a few weeks. Matthew, as he always was, played the charismatic good guy. They talked about guitar brands for a few minutes.

I brought the drink to my mouth and walked past them, hoping to get by unnoticed. I heard a man's voice call my name. My fake one, fortunately.

"Lily!" shouted Jace. I stopped and slowly turned around, keeping my head down. "Hey! Look at that! Matthew Hamming is here! Come on, he said he would give you an autograph too," Jace said as he grabbed my hand and started leading me over towards Matthew. I stopped him dead in his tracks and pulled my hand away.

I looked up. Matthew was distracting himself with some bimbo in a mini. I couldn't keep it together any longer. I dropped my drink and put my hands up to cover my face. "Jace, I need to get out of here...right now!" I shouted.

"Lily, are you okay," he asked, his voice filled with concern. He put his hand on my shoulder. "Look, whatever this is, I can help. Just tell me what's wrong," he said comfortingly.

I shoved his arm off me and I continued to freak out. "What's wrong is you shouldn't have pressured me to come here!" I screamed at him. He looked hurt but I was too panicked to stay and comfort him. Fear dictated my every action at that moment. I looked up and Matthew was gone. I knew I had to get out of there.

I ran to elevator. "Hold that door!" I shouted. An arm stuck out of the elevator to stop the door from closing. I froze in my tracks. Matthew was staring straight at me. If I turned around and ran, surely Matthew would know it was me. I couldn't draw that kind of attention to myself.

I slipped quietly inside the elevator and turned my head away from Matthew. He glanced at me but his face showed no signs of recognition. The elevator smelled like day old liquor. Matthew could hardly stand up straight. I had a feeling he was so drunk he wouldn't even be able to recognize me with my blonde hair.

The elevator doors opened and I was the first to exit. As soon as my feet hit the lobby I took off in a sprint. I ran all the way home, never once looking back.

Chapter Nineteen

The first few weeks after placing Leah up for adoption were the hardest and loneliest weeks of my life. I missed her so much sometimes I didn't think I could keep living. Day by day, it got a little easier. Not once did I regret my decision. I saw Leah and her parents once since I gave birth to her. Jennifer and Matthew had such a wonderful relationship. I knew Leah was in perfect hands. Back at the shelter, I had started to warm up to the idea of tank tops and shorts instead of sweats and sneakers. The first time I wore a tank top I felt naked. It had been so long since I was allowed to show my arms. I was also given a donated personal hygiene bag with a little makeup which I now wore. I was starting to feel like my old self again.

Every week I would check the bulletin board for a cheap apartment for rent. One morning, I glanced through the ads and my eyes stopped on a little high rise not too far from the shelter.

It was a one bedroom apartment but the bedroom had two twin beds. It was meant to be shared. This was probably a good thing because I couldn't afford the rent on my own as a part time bartender. It was tiny, but looked perfect for me.

I called Cassie immediately to see if she knew of anyone I could ask to be my roommate. Cassie told me she would do some investigative work and get back to me. I gave her the address of the apartment on the ad and thanked her. I glanced at the clock. "Damn," I muttered. I was late for my shift.  

I arrived at Waylon's a few minutes late. I paused when I went in. Daisy had been talking about hiring some local acts to play on the weekends. It looked as if she actually followed through. On the stage was a man who looked as if he was the same age as me.

He was amazingly skilled on the guitar. I listened to him, entranced by his every move. I must have stood there, swaying to the beat, for a good 15 minutes. The music was great and I had to admit, the view wasn't so bad either. Finally, Daisy flagged me down to start my shift.

I worked a few hours before I took my first break. By that point, the guitarist had finished his act and was lingering around the bar meeting the locals. I glanced up and saw Cassie. I ran over to her, eager for good news. "I think I may have found you a new roommate," she said excitedly. "If it makes you uncomfortable, I completely understand, but I think it would be a great fit," she continued. "What would make me uncomfortable?" I asked her. "Well, your new roommate would be male," she answered. Male? I thought to myself. The only other boy I had ever lived with was...him. I was a little apprehensive and Cassie sensed that. "I know it's a little unconventional, but I know this man personally. He is down on his luck right now and really needs a roommate. You two actually have a lot in common," Cassie assured me. "It wouldn't hurt to meet him," I told her. "Great! I asked him to come down tonight to meet you! He should be here..." Cassie trailed off, scanning the room. I saw the recognition in her face as her eyes met with a man's across the bar. She flagged him over and my heart almost skipped a beat.

"Jace, this is Lily Clark. Lily, this is Jace Collins," Cassie introduced us. My mouth dried and I froze. Jace was very attractive. He had big, green eyes and an inviting smile. I could smell him from where I stood. He smelled like leather and sweat, but in a good way. I loved his style. His long hair and leather jacket made him look like a rock star. I promptly recovered and complimented him on his music. We made small talk for a while and then Cassie announced she needed to get going.

I hugged her goodbye. "If anything about this unsettles you, you'll let me know?" she questioned so Jace could not hear. I nodded. Cassie asked me not make a decision yet. Jace would be playing at the bar all week so I could take the time I needed to get to know him and see if he would make a good roommate.

I still had a few minutes left of my break so I invited Jace to play some bar games with me. "So, you know Cassie well?" he asked me. I nodded, still too shy to really open up. The implications of me knowing Cassie awkwardly hung in the air. I wanted to ask him how he knew Cassie but I thought that was too forward of me. We made more small talk, neither one of us willing to really ask the questions we needed to. I decided I would test him out a little bit. "Well, I have to get back to my shift. Can I make you a drink? It's on the house," I asked him. "Sure," he said with a smile as he followed me back to the bar.

Jace nursed the cocktail I made him and we chatted at the bar for about an hour. The cocktail seemed to loosen him up a little bit. Now for the test. "Can I make you another drink?" I offered. "No, I'm actually not much of a drinker. You make great drinks though! Thank you," Jace answered. I scrubbed a shot glass and breathed a sigh of relief. Jace had passed my first test. 

The next week flew by. Jace and I spent a lot of time together after his gigs. We kept conversation superficial but I grew to like him. He never pressured me to answer questions. I threw a few other little tests at him and he passed each one with flying colors. I shamelessly flirted with a customer one night so I could see Jace's reaction and didn't seem to mind at all. One night I came in with a top that left very little to the imagination. Jace's look was one of infatuation, not jealously or anger. I called Cassie in at the end of the week to tell her I had decided Jace would be a good fit. I was relieved to hear Jace felt the same way about me. 

Jace and I moved in the next week and Cassie stopped by to help. The living room was small and had a TV that didn't work.

There was a bookshelf in the corner but the books were extremely used and outdated.

The kitchen was small, but open. The appliances were cheap and in need of cleaning.

The entryway led to the bathroom on the left, the elevator straight ahead, and our bedroom to the right.

Our bedroom was cramped and consisted of two matching twin beds. The beds were cheap but better quality than those at the shelter.

On the other side of the room was a little green dresser and a mirror. I occupied the first two drawers and Jace filled the bottom two.

After I had unpacked, I walked into the living room to enjoy the view from our new high rise. I gazed out into the city and up into the mountains where the mansions were located. I paused and dread filled my stomach. I couldn't believe it. Our living room window had a crystal clear view of Matthew's mansion. I quickly turned away and my face paled.

"Are you alright?" Cassie asked me. "Oh...yea.." I answered. "Just a little tired," I answered as convincingly as I could. Not one person knew who I really was, not even Cassie. I didn't feel safe telling anyone. She hugged me tightly. "The shelter is within walking distance," Cassie reminded me. "If you need anything, I'm here for you."

With Cassie gone, Jace and I sat down for our first dinner together. He made a salad because he "didn't know how to work a stove." I laughed but I think he was serious. I stifled a yawn. I wanted to go to bed but I couldn't get over the awkwardness of a coed room.

Jace let me get ready for bed first. I climbed into bed and feigned sleep. I watched him walk into the room in his pajamas. Without the bulky leather jacket, I could see the muscle definition in his arms and the outline of his abs. Jace climbed into bed and turned the lights off. When I heard the slow, rhythmic breathing of Jace asleep, I finally let myself get some rest.