Authors: Molly McAdams
O YOU EVEN
know anyone who’s going to be there, Ty?”
“Just Gage. But this will be good, this way we’ll be able to meet new people right away.”
I grumbled to myself. I wasn’t the best at making friends; they didn’t understand my need to always be near Tyler, and when I’d show up with bruises or stitches, everyone automatically thought I was either hurting myself or Tyler and I were in an abusive relationship. Of course that wasn’t their fault; we never responded to them, so the rumors continued to fly.
“Cassi, no one will have any idea about your past, the last of your bruises will be gone in a few weeks, and you’re gone from there now. Besides, I hate that you don’t have anyone else. Trust me, I understand it, but I hate it for you. You need more people in your life.”
“I know.” I instinctively wrapped my arms around myself, covering where some of the bruises were. Thank God none were visible right now unless I stripped down to my skivvies, but I couldn’t say the same for some of the scars. At least scars were normal on a person, and the worst of them were covered by my clothes, so I just looked like I was accident-prone.
“Hey.” Tyler grabbed one of my hands, taking it away from my side. “It’s over, it will never happen again. And I’m always here for you, whether you make new friends or not. I’m here. But at least try. This is your chance at starting a new life—isn’t that what that favorite bird of yours is all about anyway?”
“The phoenix isn’t a real bird, Ty.”
“Whatever, it’s your favorite. Isn’t that what they symbolize? New beginnings?”
“Rebirth and renewal,” I muttered.
“Yeah, same thing. They die only to come back and start a new life, right? This is us starting a new life, Cass.” He shook his head slightly and his face went completely serious. “But don’t spontaneously burst into flames and die. I love you too much and a fire wouldn’t be good for the leather seats.”
I huffed a laugh and shoved his shoulder with my free hand. “You’re such a punk, Ty; way to kill the warm and fuzzy moment you had going there.”
He laughed out loud. “In all seriousness”—he kissed my hand, then met and held my gaze for a few seconds before looking back at the road—“new life, Cassi, and it starts right now.”
Tyler and I weren’t romantically involved, but we had a relationship that even people we’d grown up with didn’t understand.
We grew up just a house away from each other, in a country club neighborhood. Both our fathers were doctors; our moms were the kind that stayed home with the kids and spent afternoons at the club gossiping and drinking martinis. On my sixth birthday, my dad died from a heart attack—while he was at work of all places. Now that I’m older, I don’t understand how no one was able to save him; he worked in the ER, for crying out loud, and no one was able to save him? But at the time, I just knew my hero was gone.
Dad worked long hours, but I was his princess, and when he was home, it was just the two of us. He’d brave tiaras and boas to have tea parties with me; he knew the names of all of my stuffed animals, talked to them like they would respond; and he would always be the one to tell me stories at night. My mom was amazing, but she knew we had a special relationship, so she always stayed in the door frame, watching and smiling. Whenever I would get hurt, if he was at work, Mom would make a big show of how she couldn’t make it better, and I’d have to hang on for dear life until Dad got home. She must have called him, because he would run into the house like I was dying—even though it was almost always just a scratch—pick me up, and place a Band-Aid wherever I was hurt, and miraculously I was all better. Like I said, my dad was my hero. Every little girl needs a dad like that. But now, other than precious memories, all I have left of him is his love for the phoenix. Mom had let Dad have his way with a large outline of a phoenix painted directly above my bed for when I started kindergarten, a painting that’s still there today, though Mom constantly threatened to paint over it. And although I tried to keep a ring he’d had all his adult life with a phoenix on it, my mom had found and hidden it not long after he died, and I hadn’t seen it since.
My mom started drinking obsessively when he died. Her morning coffee always had rum in it, by ten in the morning she was making margaritas, she’d continue to go to the club for martinis, and by the time I was home from school, she was drinking scotch or vodka straight out of the bottle. She made time for her girlfriends but stopped waking me up for school, stopped making me food, forgot to pick me up from school—pretty much just forgot I even existed. After that first day of being forgotten at school, and the next day not showing up because she wouldn’t leave her room, Tyler’s mom, Stephanie, started taking me to and from school without a word. She knew my mom was grieving, just not the extent of it.
After a week with no clean clothes and a few rounds of trial and error, I began doing my own laundry, attempted to figure out my homework by myself, and would make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for both of us, always leaving one outside her bedroom door. Almost a year after Dad’s death, Jeff came into the picture. He was rich, ran some big company—his last name was everywhere in Mission Viejo, California—but up until that day I’d never seen or heard of him. One day Stephanie dropped me off and he was just moved in, my mom already married to him.
That night was the first time I’d ever been hit, and it was by my own mother. My sweet, gentle mother who couldn’t kill a spider, let alone spank her own daughter when she misbehaved, hit me. I asked who Jeff was and why he was telling me to call him Dad, and my mom hit me across the back with the new scotch bottle she’d been attempting to open. It didn’t break, but it left one nasty-looking bruise. From that point on, I never went a day without some kind of injury inflicted by one of them. Usually it was fists or palms, and I began welcoming those, because when they started throwing coffee mugs, drinking glasses, or lamps, or when my mom took off her heels and repeatedly hit me in the head with the tip of her stiletto . . . I didn’t know if I would still be alive the next day. About a week after the first hit was when I first got beat with Jeff’s socket wrench, and that was the first night I opened my window, popped off the screen, and made my way to Tyler’s window. At seven years old, he helped me into his room, gave me some of his pajamas since my nightshirt was covered in blood, and held my hand as we fell asleep in his bed.
Over the last eleven years, Tyler has begged me to let him tell his parents what was going on, but I couldn’t let that happen. If Tyler told them, they would call someone and I knew they would take me away from Tyler. My hero had died, and the mom I loved had disappeared down a bottle; no way was I letting someone take me from Ty too. The only way I had gotten him to agree was agreeing myself that if he ever found me unconscious, all promises were off and he could tell whomever he wanted. But that was just keeping Tyler quiet; we never had factored in the neighbors . . .
After the first three years of the abuse, I stopped sneaking out to Ty’s house every night, only doing so on the nights when it was something other than body parts hitting me, but Tyler was always waiting, no matter what. He kept a first aid kit in his room, and would clean up and bandage anything he was able to. We butterfly-bandaged almost all the cuts, but three times he forced me to get stitches. We told his dad I tripped over something while going for a run outside each time. I’m not naïve, I knew his dad didn’t believe me—especially since I was not one for running, and the only time I was involved with sports was watching it on Ty’s TV—but we were always careful to hide my bruises around him and he never tried to figure out where I actually got the cuts from. I’d sit at their kitchen table and let him sew me up, they’d let me out the front door when they were sure I was okay, and Tyler would be waiting by his open window as soon as I rounded the house. Every night he had something ready for me to sleep in, and every night he would hold my hand and curl his body around mine until we fell asleep.
So when Tyler kissed my forehead, cheek, or hand, it never meant anything romantic. He was just comforting me in the same way he had since we were kids.
“Cassi? Did I lose you?” Tyler waved his hand in front of my face.
“Sorry. Life, starting over. Friends, yeah, this, uh—will be—I need to . . . friends.” I’m pretty sure there was English somewhere in that sentence.
Ty barked out a laugh and squeezed my knee, and after a few silent minutes he thankfully changed the subject. “So what do you think about the apartment?”
“It’s great. Are you sure you want me to stay with you? I can get my own place, or even sleep on the couch . . .” My own place? That was such a far-fetched idea it was almost funny; I didn’t even have a hundred dollars to my name.
“No way, I’ve shared my bed with you for eleven years, I’m not about to change that now.”
“Ty, but what about when you get a girlfriend? Are you really going to want to explain why I live with you? Why we share a dresser, closet, and bed?”
Tyler looked at me for a second before turning his eyes back to the road. His brown eyes had darkened, and his lips were mashed in a tight line. “You’re staying with me, Cassi.”
I sighed but didn’t say anything else. We’d had a version of this argument plenty of times. Every relationship he’d ever had ultimately ended because of me and the fact that we were always together. I hated that I ruined his relationships, and whenever he was dating someone I would even stop coming to his room and answering his calls so he could focus on his girlfriend instead. That never lasted long though; he’d climb through my window, pick me up out of bed, and take me back to his house. We never had to worry about my boyfriends, since I’d never had one. What with Tyler’s possessiveness and all, no one even attempted to get close enough to me. Not that it bothered me; the only guy I’d ever had feelings for was too old for me and had only been in my life for a few short minutes. The moment I’d answered the door to see him standing there, my stomach had started fluttering and I felt this weird connection with him I’d never felt with anyone, and even after he was gone I’d dreamed about his cool intensity and mesmerizing blue eyes. Ty didn’t know about him though, because what was the point? I’d just barely turned sixteen and he was a cop; I knew I’d never see him again, and I didn’t. Besides, other than my real dad and Ty, I had a problem with letting guys get close, strange connection or not. When my already-disturbed world turned completely upside down the minute a new man came into our house . . . trust issues were bound to happen.
Tyler had decided to go to the University of Texas in Austin, where his cousin Gage, who was two years older than us, was currently studying. I’d heard a lot about Gage and his family from Ty over the years, since they were his only cousins, and I was genuinely happy he was going. Gage was like a brother to him and Tyler hadn’t seen him in a few years, so their sharing an apartment would be good for Ty. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when Tyler left; the only thing I did know was that I was getting away from the house I grew up in. I just had to make it another month until I turned eighteen and then I was gone. But Tyler, being Tyler, made my future plans for me. He crawled through my window, told me to pack my bag, and just before he could haul me off to his Jeep, he told Mom and Jeff exactly what he thought of them. I didn’t have time to worry about the consequences of his telling them off, because before I knew it we were on the freeway and headed for Texas. We made the trip in just over a day, and now, after being here long enough to unpack his Jeep and shower separately, we were headed to some lake for a party to meet up with Gage and his friends.
Gage’s family wasn’t from Austin; I didn’t know where in Texas they lived, but apparently they had a ranch. After hearing that, I’d had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from asking what Gage was like. I understood we were in Texas now, but already Austin had blown my expectations of dirt roads and tumbleweeds away with its downtown buildings and greenery everywhere. I just didn’t know how I’d handle living with a tight-Wranglered, big-belt-buckled, Stetson-wearing cowboy like I’d seen in rodeos and movies. I’d probably burst out laughing every time I saw him.
When we came up to the lake and the group of people, I sucked in a deep breath in a futile attempt to calm my nerves. I wasn’t a fan of new people.
Tyler grabbed my hand and gave it a tight squeeze. “New beginning, Cassi. And I’ll be right here next to you.”
“I know. I can do this.” His Jeep stopped and I immediately took that back.
Nope. No, I can’t do this.
I had to think quickly of where every bruise was, making sure my clothes were covering them all, even though I’d already gone through this at the apartment. I just didn’t want anyone here to know what kind of life I’d had.
I jumped out of Tyler’s Jeep, took one more deep breath, and mentally pumped myself up.
New life. I can do this.
I turned and rounded the front and hadn’t even made it to Tyler’s side when I saw him. I don’t know if I made a conscious choice to stop walking or if I was still making my way to Tyler and didn’t realize it; all I could focus on or see was the guy standing about ten feet from me. He was tall, taller than Tyler’s six-foot frame, and had on loose, dark tan cargo shorts and a white button-up shirt, completely unbuttoned, revealing a tan, toned chest and abs. His arms were covered in muscles, but he didn’t look like someone who spent hours in the gym or taking steroids. The only way I can describe them is natural, and labor-made. His jet-black hair had that messy, just-got-out-of-bed look, and my hand twitched just thinking about running my fingers through it. I couldn’t see what color eyes he had from here, but they were locked on me, his mouth slightly open. He had a bottle of water in his hand, and it was raised like he had been about to take a drink out of it before he saw me. I had no idea what was happening to me, but my entire body started tingling, and my palms were sweating just looking at him.