he dryness in her throat made it hard to breathe. Her bare feet were bloody from the pine needles and broken twigs that covered the forest floor. Excruciating pain shot up both of her legs. None of that mattered, thoughâCrystal only needed to escape. She had to get as far away from him as possible before she dropped from sheer exhaustion.
Besides, the pain was nothing compared to what he'd do if he caught up to her.
“You're only making it harder on yourself, sweetheart!”
Oh God, Richard. How had he found her so fast? Just the sound of his voice was enough to send shivers up and down her spine. That slick, mesmerizing baritone that had lured her in from the beginning now made her sick to her stomach. She heard his voice in her nightmares. Would hear it in her nightmares for years to come, no doubt.
Crystal ran faster, panicked now with the knowledge her husband was closing in on her. Her sweaty, long brown hair whipped her face in punishment. The belt he'd used on her earlier had left her thighs bloody and her nightgown a shredded mess. Somewhere in the dark recesses of Crystal's tortured mind, she knew she'd never leave the forest of trees that so completely enveloped her now.
“Ah, my sweet wife,” Richard called out as he caught her by the arm and yanked, hard, pulling her to a stop. “You ran from me. You'll pay for that, I'm afraid.” Then he raised a fist and punched her in the jaw. Her teeth rattled in her head and her vision blurred. The warm trickle of blood from a fresh cut at the side of Crystal's mouth went unchecked. “Please, don't,” she shamelessly begged. Her words fell on deaf ears, though, as Richard hit her again.
When had things gone so wrong? She didn't know. One day he'd come home from work and flown into a rage because she hadn't washed the sheets on their king-sized bed. As a result, Crystal had received her first beating. It'd been so violent that it had hurt to sit down the next day.
These days it took so little to rile his temper. After dinner, he'd yanked off his belt and whipped her. Crystal wasn't even sure why this time. When it seemed he had finally finished his tirade, Crystal had tried to stand, but he only started on her again, blow after blow until she'd finally passed out from the pain. When she'd woken, Richard had been gone from the room. Crystal had taken the opportunity to run. Just run. She had no real destination other than away from him. She'd reached her breaking point. But Richard had been quicker than her, and he'd easily caught up to her.
He would make her pay for leaving him. The terrifying knowledge that she might not live through another of his beatings tore at the forefront of her mind. As Richard hit her once more, Crystal felt her body go limp as the black void of unconsciousness stole through her.
Richard wasn't sure why he didn't just leave Crystal there in the woods. She was useless to him. She'd been a huge disappointment practically from the first day, but he'd thought he could teach her how to be a proper wife. But nothing had worked, and he was just about done bothering with her. Still, there was something so tempting about Crystal. His fascination with her baffled even him. Hell, she didn't even take good care of herself. Since their wedding, she'd put on weight and had let herself go. She didn't even take pride in their home. He was constantly reminding her of her household duties. But some softer part of him kept him from abandoning her. As he picked her up and carried her back to the house, Richard knew that their time together had come to an end. He'd wasted enough time and energy on her as it was.
Crystal had been like a lost lamb when he'd met her at a New Year's Eve party two years earlier. She was the sweet to his bitter, and he had known he had no business anywhere near her innocence. But in one thing, they were the sameâthey both longed to be loved, and in that, they were a kindred spirit. So he'd swooped in, and it hadn't been long before they were married. God, if he'd known what a colossal waste of time she'd be he never would have given her the time of day.
Crystal woke to a splitting headache. As she opened her eyes and tried to focus, the room tilted and the pain intensified. She touched her lip and realized it was swollen. She'd have bruises on top of bruises this time. Richard had outdone himself. The room he'd put her in was dark, but she knew where she was. The guest room. He always put her there after one of their fights. It was where he liked to discipline her. Crystal's stomach knotted as she thought of all the horrors that room held.
As the fuzz in her brain began to ebb, Crystal became aware of a heavy weight across her belly. Tentatively, she took her hand on an exploration to see what it was that kept her immobile. It was as she skated her hand down her body that she felt an arm, strong and firm, holding her in place. Richard. Oh God, would this night never end?
Another hand clamped over her mouth, and Crystal winced at the pain in her already swollen mouth. “Why'd you try to leave? Don't you love me anymore?” When she only lay there, eyes wide in fright, he went on. “Cat got your tongue, sweetheart?”
Still, Crystal didn't move, didn't dare. She knew this was the calm before the storm. Once again, she wondered why Richard didn't just kill her and get it over with.
“If you promise to be good, I'll remove my hand.”
After a few moments of debating her optionsâwhich were fewâshe realized she was going to have to obey him if she had any chance at an escape. She nodded her acquiescence. True to his word, Richard removed his hand. He stood, but before she had time to think of her next move, the glow of a single candle lit the room. What did he intend to do with her? Crystal shook her head, not even willing to consider any of that right now. She would not panic, not again. She had to keep her wits about her if she was to get away from him with her life.
Her gaze wandered around the room. When she saw him sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, Crystal took a chance and sat up. Richard stood, then crossed the room. Oh God.
He tilted his head, as if baffled by her actions. “You're terrified of me, aren't you?”
What was he up to? She took a chance and nodded.
He snorted. “You are so pathetic. If I wanted to, I could have you on your knees in front of me, begging.”
She kept her breathing at an even tempo, praying she wouldn't do something to send him into a rage again.
“You seem to get under my skin and push all my buttons,” Richard said after several beats of silence. “I have no excuse for being so brutal, except that you just never seem to learn,” he said.
The only thing Crystal could think to do was nod. He was being strangely kind, but Crystal knew better than to trust his current mood. Until the right opening arose when she would be able to break away from him, for good, Crystal would just have to bide her time. God, she didn't even know how long she'd been knocked out. Had it been just a few hours? Days? Focusing on the one thing she could do without arousing his anger, Crystal said, “My nightgown is mostly shredded. Can I change?” He laughed and Crystal's humiliation intensified. She wished she had the nerve to tell him where he could shove it, but he put an imperious hand in the air and stopped her before she could utter a single syllable.
He smiled. “I'm sorry for losing control earlier.” He turned away and walked to the closet. He grabbed some clothes and tossed them at her. “I'll leave you to dress,” he said arrogantly. “When you're through, please join me downstairs. We have things to discuss.”
Then he turned and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him, leaving her alone. She breathed a sigh of relief. At least he wasn't going to watch her change, and it appeared that he wasn't going to beat her again, either.
Not yet anyway.
Crystal got up from the bed but stopped when the soles of her feet stung. She lifted her foot and saw the scratches from her wild flight through the woods. She shook her head. What had she been thinking to take off barefooted? It was a testament to how scared she'd been. She bent and picked up the white blouse and faded blue jeans he'd tossed at her. She quickly slipped into the silky material. She still had on her underwear, thank God, so it didn't take her long to pull on the jeans. She buttoned the blouse and tucked it into the waist of the jeans, then zipped them up. She felt better immediately. It was stupid, but the clothes made her feel less vulnerable.
After cleaning her face and bandaging her cuts, Crystal headed for the kitchen. Richard stood at the stove, stirring something. Automatically she sniffed the air and her stomach grumbled in eager anticipation. He'd made chicken noodle soup? Her mind started working, turning over various scenarios of death by poisoning. Crazy as it sounded, Crystal wouldn't put anything past her husband. Not after the two years of pure hell he'd put her through.
She crossed the room, barely maintaining her balance. Her head throbbed and her cheek felt swollen. She pulled out the closest chair and sat down. The room stopped spinning at once.
He carried a steaming bowl to the table and placed it in front of her. “Eat,” he commanded. Crystal merely stared at him. Richard stared back. Finally, he said, “If I had wanted to kill you, wife, it wouldn't be by poisoning, I assure you.”
She thought about that for a second. He was right. Richard would probably just beat her to death. It'd be more fun for him that way. She shrugged and picked up the spoon. As she blew on the steaming liquid and took her first bite, she was surprised to note that it was actually quite good. She didn't even know Richard could cook, considering he'd never done it before. That had been her job. All the household chores had been on her. As she ate, Crystal was having a hard time wrapping her mind around the idea of him doing something as domestic as cooking. And the kindness was so unlike him that it sent chills up and down her spine.
After she emptied the bowl, Crystal picked up a napkin and patted her lips. “That was very good. Thank you.”
He nodded, as if addressing a class. “I'm pleased you like it.”
Before she could talk herself out of it, Crystal blurted, “I want a divorce.”
He leaned forward in his chair and spoke in a menacing tone. “I wondered when you'd get around to that.”
She flinched, fear racing up and down her spine, but she continued, “You've said more than once that I'm a huge disappointment to you.”
Without a word, Richard stood and went to the counter. He picked up a stack of papers and handed them to her. “Divorce papers,” he explained. “All you need to do is sign them.”
Crystal stared down at the neat stack of documents. Could it really be that easy? Suspicious that he had some vicious plan in mind the minute she picked up the pen, she asked, “If you wanted a divorce, then why did you come after me? Why not just let me go?”
He shrugged. “And miss all the fun? Not a chance.” He stood and said, “I'm going out for a bit. I expect you to be gone by the time I get back.”
“Why?” she asked, just before he walked out of the room. “Why didn't you do this a year and a half ago?”
He turned slowly, a disgusted look on his face. “I had hoped to skip the Q and A part of this, but I can see you're determined to drive me crazy right up to the very last second.”
Crystal stood, fear causing her legs to shake uncontrollably. “I'm not trying to drag this out, but I think we can both agree that you don't love me. A lot of time has been wasted.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets and let out a frustrated sigh. “I had hoped you'd improve. That discipline and a bit of training would make a difference. I can see now that I was only fooling myself. You'll always be a sad, overweight disappointment.”
Before Crystal could digest the hateful words, Richard was gone and the phone was ringing. She forced her feet to move across the room and answered it on the second ring. “Hello?”
Crystal's throat clogged with emotion. Her legs gave out and she dropped onto the nearest chair. “Mom.”
“What's wrong? And don't say nothing, because I can hear it in your tone.”
Her mother would take Richard's side. Crystal had long given up on the notion that her mother would ever fully see the truth. The sad fact of the matter was, her mom thought Richard was a wonderful man and a terrific husband. She didn't understand why Crystal was always antagonizing him. To her way of thinking, marriage was for life, and it didn't much matter whether the man you were wedded to was a monster or not.
“Richard and I, we're getting a divorce.” Crystal left out the part about the beating. Her mom wouldn't believe her anyway. Never had. Crystal had tried to tell her before, but her mother always made it seem as if Crystal was only making waves. In her mom's eyes, a woman was supposed to love and support her husband in all things. No matter what. The archaic attitude made Crystal want to vomit.
“I'm leaving him.” She thought of her friend Mollie in Cincinnati. Mollie had urged her for months to leave Richard. She'd take her in, Crystal was sure of it. “In fact, I might stay with Mollie for a bit.” She took a deep breath. “Just until I get back on my feet.”
“I see,” her mother replied with no small amount of disapproval. “I suppose nothing I say will change your mind.”
Please, for once, stand up for me.
But Crystal knew better. Her mom's stance toward marriage was as clear as day. She straightened her spine and said, “No, Mom. I'm not living this way anymore. I'm done.”
“Honey, this may be hard to hear, but I think you're misjudging Richard. I don't think he's quite as bad as you make him out to be. I mean, are you certain this is what you want?”