“Bethany,” he says, and my name is wretched on his lips. Slipping out with relief and his own fears ringing through.
I’m stiff as he drops to his knees beside me, pulling me into his hard chest. Both of his arms wrap around me and he tucks my head under his chin, rocking me and kissing my hair. I can’t focus on him though; my body is screaming in pain. I just want to breathe and stand up. Why do I hurt so much? I don’t know what to think or what to say or what to do. It’s all too much. I’m breaking down.
All I can focus on is keeping my eyes open and staying aware. He’s still shushing me when I finally push a logical thought out.
“Let me go,” I tell him, my words rushed. I have to clear my throat, but that just makes it more hoarse. My body’s still stiff and it’s then that Jase seems to notice I’m not quivering in his arms and begging for him to save me. Maybe that’s what I should have done, but I’ve always been a bad liar. “I need to move; let me go.”
The change in Jase’s demeanor is immediate and palpable. His grip moves to my upper arms, his fingers digging into my flesh and nearly hurting me.
“What happened? Are you okay?” he questions and the hardness in his words echoes the look in his gaze. Piercing me, demanding information. He doesn’t let go. There’s no sympathy from him, and for the first time, I see the man he really is. The man who rules with fear and unrelenting force.
I try to answer him, but my throat is so dry I could choke on the words. With a heavy breath out, I feel faint, staring into his eyes. I watch as his stern expression changes slowly. Before, I felt like I’d been given a glimpse, but thought I’d imagined it. This time I know I saw it.
“Why didn’t you answer me?” The words of his question waver. The guilt and betrayal flicker on each syllable and make my chest feel hollow and vacant. I’m pinned by his gaze and the nausea comes back full force.
A dry heave breaks the tension, forcing Jase to lift me to my feet and bring me to the sink. Pushing him away with one shaking hand, I turn the faucet on, my fingers slipping around the knob at first, unable to grip it tight enough. The cold water is more than a relief against my face, dripping down my neck and throat, even though it soaks into my sweater. And then drinking it from my cupped hands. I hear Jase go through a cabinet to my upper left and then he pushes a glass toward me for me to take.
One breath. And another. One breath. And another. The water swirls around the drain and I focus on two things.
Jase doesn’t know about the message in the book.
It’s hard to remember where we were before I read those lines. It’s always hard going back.
The knob protests with a squeaking sound as I turn it off, still not daring to look Jase in the eyes. Leaning my hip against the countertop to stay upright, I force myself to calm down. Still feeling dizzy and as if I don’t have a grasp on anything at all, bringing my arms up to cross in front of me, I spit it out, one line at a time.
“At first one man… or woman,” I breathe the words out. “I didn’t know who it was but…” I trail off slowly, because that’s when I remember Jase said he wasn’t coming over tonight. I knew it wasn’t him because he’d told me he wasn’t coming.
“Why are you here?” I ask him and stare into his dark eyes as I feel how heavy my own are.
“Things changed and I wanted to make sure you were all right.” Every word is spoken with a sense of calm but also forcefully. His hand on my upper arm steals my attention. Though gentle, it’s demanding just the same. It strikes me that “gentle but demanding” is exactly how I’d describe this man. The knowledge makes something in the pit of my stomach flicker to life, a dull burn.
“One man came? One man did all of this?” he questions.
One breath, one beat of my heart and I move my gaze to his. “I was in the kitchen and heard someone come in. Whoever it was went upstairs and before I could do anything, two more people came in and I hid.”
It sounds so simple when I say it like that. Only two sentences to describe the last half hour? Or maybe an hour? I peek at the oven and then swallow thickly at the red digital numbers staring back at me. Over an hour and a half. Sucking in a hesitant breath and closing my eyes, I tell him just that. “I hid for an hour and a half and they just left.”