It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2) (18 page)

BOOK: It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2)
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She nods. “He does. He’s never been late.”

I’m relieved he at least provides her that, but knowing the answers to these questions is making Lily’s situation seem even more precarious.

“Why?” she asks.

I shake my head. “It’s not my business.”
Is it?
I don’t even know. I’m trying to take things slow and give Lily space, but that part of me is warring with the part of me that wants to protect her.

Lily lifts a hand and pulls my focus to hers. “It is your business, Atlas. We’re together now.”

Her response makes my heart stutter. Did she just make us official? “Are we? Together?” I smile and urge her closer to me, my pulse thrumming. “Are me and you a thing, Lily Bloom?”

Her lips grin against mine. She’s nodding when she kisses me.

I think we both knew it was official long before last night, but if her daughter weren’t asleep on my leg right now, I’d probably pick Lily up and spin her around. I am that happy.

And that much more invested.

My quick burst of adrenaline begins to slow again, bringing me back to my thoughts from before Lily declared us official.

Ryle. Custody. Immaturity.

Lily’s head is on my shoulder and her hand is on my chest, so she feels it when I exhale all the air from my lungs. She lifts her head and looks at me anxiously. “Just say it.”

“Say what?” I ask her.

“Your thoughts about my situation. Your eyebrows are all scrunched together like you’re worrying about something.” She lifts her hand and uses her thumb to smooth out my serious expression.

“Is it too late to tell the court he was a danger to you in the past? Maybe that would help prevent him from getting overnights with her.”

“Once two people agree on a custody arrangement, you can’t use past evidence to modify an arrangement. Unfortunately, I never reported him, so I can’t use the abuse as a defense at this point.”

That is unfortunate. But I can understand her attempting to keep things civil with him at the time. I’m just worried it might come back on her in a negative way.

“He’s too busy to have her half the time, or even overnights, really. I doubt he would ever try to get joint custody of her.”

I press my lips together and nod, hoping she’s right. I don’t know him like she does, but from what I do know of him, he seems to hold grudges. And people who hold grudges tend to need retaliation. Parents do this all the time.
They don’t like what another parent is doing, or who they’re seeing, so they use their child as a weapon. And that worries me. I could absolutely see Ryle making the decision to take her to court, simply to get back at her for being with me. And he would likely get what he wants. He’s never hurt Emerson, he’s never been reported for hurting Lily, he’s never been late on child support. And he has a successful career. All these things are in his favor.

When I glance at Lily, it looks like she’s about to sink into the floor. I didn’t mean to upset her even more by talking about this.

“I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be a pessimist. We can change the subject.”

“You aren’t a pessimist, Atlas. You’re a realist, and I need that from you.” She lifts her head off my shoulder and peeks over at Emmy, who is still asleep on my leg. Then Lily settles against me again, releasing a quiet sigh. “You know, even if I had reported Ryle and fought for sole custody, my chances were slim. He has no criminal history, and he has money for the best lawyers. Almost every lawyer I spoke to encouraged me to work it out civilly with him because they’ve seen cases like ours, and the arrangement Ryle was agreeing to at the time was my best option.”

I grab her hand and lace my fingers through hers. She wipes away a tear that skates down her cheek. I hate that I even brought it up, but these fears are already in her. I’m just glad to know she’s thinking about it because she needs to stay a step ahead of Ryle. “Whatever happens, you aren’t alone in this anymore.”

Lily smiles appreciatively.

Emerson begins to stir awake on my leg. She opens her eyes and looks at me, and then immediately searches for Lily. She makes a beeline for her, right across my lap. When she’s in Lily’s arms, I lift my leg and stretch it. I haven’t been able to move it for over half an hour and it’s asleep.

“We should go,” she says. “I feel guilty for even being here with her. I’d be livid if Ryle took her around a girlfriend without me knowing.”

“I think your situations are a little different. Ryle isn’t having to find a safe place to hide your daughter for the day because he’s scared of your temper. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Lily shoots me a grateful look.

I help her gather their things and I walk her to the car. Once Emerson is in her car seat, Lily moves close to say goodbye. I burrow my fingers in her hips and tug her closer. I dip my head, grazing her nose, and then I catch her lips with mine. I kiss her deeply, wanting her to still feel it on her drive home.

I slide my hands into the back pockets of her jeans and squeeze her ass. It makes her laugh. Then she sighs wistfully. “I already miss you.”

I nod in agreement. “There’s been a lot of that on my end,” I admit. “I’m kind of obsessed with you, Lily Bloom.” I kiss her cheek and then force myself to release her.

This is the only negative aspect to finally being with the person you’re meant to be with. You go years aching to be with them, and when they finally become a significant part of your life, it somehow hurts even
more
.

Chapter Twenty-Six
Lily

You disappoint me Lily.

I’m staring at my phone in shock.

Is this a joke?

You treat me like a monster im her goddamn father

It’s five in the morning. I woke up to use the bathroom, and naturally, I glanced at my phone before attempting to get the last hour of sleep before my alarm goes off.

All the texts are from Ryle. I haven’t heard from him since he showed up at my house on Sunday. It’s been four days, and he never even bothered to reach out and apologize for losing his temper on me. He was silent for four days and then
this
?

I was happier before I met you.

I read through the barrage of text messages, knowing full well he was drunk when he sent them last night. The first one was sent at midnight, and the last one, from two in the morning, reads,
have fun fucking the homeless guy
.

I drop my phone onto my bed, my hands trembling. I can’t believe he sent these. I was hoping the four days of silence was a stretch of remorse on his part, but it’s obvious he’s been stewing in his anger.

This is so much worse than I thought.

I try to go back to sleep, but I can’t. I get up and make myself a cup of coffee, but my stomach is too upset to drink it. I spend the next half hour standing in my kitchen, staring at nothing, replaying those texts over and over in my mind.

When Emerson finally wakes up, I’m relieved. I am more than welcoming to the distraction of our chaotic morning routine.

By the time I drop her off with my mother and make it to work, it’s eight o’clock sharp. I’m the first one at the flower shop, so I distract myself with as much as I can until Serena and Lucy show up. Lucy can tell something is wrong with me, she even asks me if I’m okay at one point, but I reassure her that I’m fine.

I pretend I
am
fine, but I’m watching the front door every chance I get, expecting Ryle to angrily burst through it. I wait for another mean text from him. I wait for the phone to ring.

Hours go by and there’s nothing. Not even an apology.

I don’t tell Atlas, I don’t tell Allysa, I don’t say anything to anyone throughout the day about what he’s done. It’s embarrassing. It’s insulting to Atlas; it’s insulting to me. I have no idea what to do about it, but I know that this isn’t something I’m willing to tolerate. I refuse to go the next seventeen years of my daughter’s life being abused in any way, even through text messages.

Serena has gone for the day, and it’s just Lucy and me when the inevitable finally happens. It’s after five, and we’re just getting ready to close up shop so I can pick up
Emerson from my mother’s when Ryle walks through the front door.

My anxiety shoots through me like an explosion of lava.

Lucy has never been Ryle’s biggest fan, so she groans under her breath when she sees him and says, “I’ll be in the back if you need me.”

“Lucy, wait,” I whisper. I look down at my phone like I’m busy with something so Ryle can’t see my lips moving. “Stay.” I glance at her so she can see the concern in my eyes. She just nods and finds something to make herself look busy.

My heart is hammering against my chest when Ryle approaches. I don’t even try to hide behind a fake expression when I look him in the eye.

He holds my stare for a few seconds and then side-eyes Lucy. He nudges his head toward my office. “Can we talk?”

“I was just leaving.” My words come out quick and firm. “I have to pick up our daughter.”

I can see Ryle’s left hand grip the edge of the counter. He squeezes it, and the muscles in his arm flex. “Please. It won’t take long.”

I look at Lucy. “Wait for me to lock up?” She gives me a reassuring nod, so I turn on my heels and walk to my office. I can hear him right behind me. I fold my arms over my chest and suck in a breath before I can face him.

I’m so sick of his remorse. I want to wipe that stupid frown off his face, I’m so angry.

“I’m sorry.” He runs a hand through his hair and winces, coming closer. “I had too much to drink at an event last night and…”

I say nothing.

“I don’t even remember sending those texts, Lily.”

I still say nothing. He begins to fidget, growing uncomfortable in my silent anger. He slides his hands into his pockets and stares at his feet. “Did you tell Allysa?”

I don’t answer that question. If anything, it infuriates me even more. He’s worried what his sister will think of him more than what kind of damage he’s doing to me? “No, but I told a lawyer.” I’m lying, but it’ll be the truth as soon as he leaves this building. From this point forward, I’m documenting everything he does to me. Atlas is right. Ryle looks perfect on paper, and if he’s going to continue with abusive tactics, I need to protect myself and Emerson.

Ryle’s eyes slowly journey to mine. “You
what
?”

“I sent them to my lawyer.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Seriously? You pinned me against a door on Sunday, and then you sent me threatening texts in the middle of the night. I have done nothing to deserve this, Ryle!”

He pulls his hands from his pockets and squeezes the back of his neck as he spins to face the other direction. He stretches his back while he sucks in a breath. He seems to be holding that breath in while he silently counts in an attempt to subdue the anger building in him.

We both know how those techniques have worked in the past.

When he turns around, the remorse is gone. “You don’t see the pattern, here? Are you really that blind?”

Oh, I definitely see a pattern, but I think we’re looking at different ones.

“We’ve been fine for a
year
, Lily. We didn’t have a single
issue until he showed back up. Now we’re fighting all the time, and you’re getting lawyers involved?” He looks like he wants to punch the air.

“Stop blaming your behavior on other people, Ryle!”

“Stop ignoring the common fucking denominator for all of our problems,
Lily
!”

Lucy appears in the doorway of my office. She looks from me to Ryle, and then back to me. “Are you okay?”

Ryle lets out an exasperated laugh. “She’s fine,” he says, irritated. Ryle walks toward the door, and Lucy has to press herself against the doorframe to avoid being bumped into. “A fucking
lawyer
,” I hear him mutter. “Let me take one guess as to whose idea that was.” Ryle is walking toward the door like he’s on a mission. Lucy and I both exit my office, most likely for the same reason. To lock him out once he exits the shop.

When Ryle reaches the front door of the building, he spins around and stabs me with a sharp glare. “I am a neurosurgeon. You work with
flowers
, Lily. Remember that before your lawyer does anything stupid to threaten my career. I pay for that fucking apartment you live in.” His threat is punctuated by his hands slamming open the door.

Lucy is the one to lock it after he finally leaves because I’m frozen from the impact of that last insult. She walks back to me and pulls me in for a sympathetic hug.

I realize in this moment that the hardest part about ending an abusive relationship is that you aren’t necessarily putting an end to the bad moments. The bad moments still rear their ugly heads every now and then. When you end an abusive relationship, it’s the good moments you put an end to.

In our marriage, the few terrifying incidents were blanketed by so many good ones, but now that our marriage is over, the blanket has lifted and all I’m left with are the worst pieces of him. Where our marriage was once full of heart and flesh that cushioned the skeleton, all that’s left is the skeleton now. Sharp, bony edges that slice right through me.

“You okay?” Lucy asks, smoothing her hands down my hair.

I nod. “Yeah, but… did it seem like he left here with a purpose? Like he was going somewhere else?”

Lucy’s eyes scan the door again. “Yeah, he peeled out of the parking lot pretty fast. Maybe you should warn Atlas.”

I immediately grab for my phone and call him.

Chapter Twenty-Seven
Atlas

It’s only been half an hour since I checked my phone, so I’m alarmed when I see several missed calls and three texts from Lily.

Please call me.

I’m okay but Ryle is angry.

Did he show up there? Atlas, please call me.

Shit.

“Darin, can you take over?”

Darin moves to finish plating for me, and I immediately walk to my office and call her. Her phone goes straight to voice mail. I try her again. Nothing.

I’m preparing to head out back to my car when my phone finally rings. I answer immediately with, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she says.

I stop rushing toward the door and lean my shoulder into a wall. I release a breath, my heart rate plummeting back to normal.

It sounds like she’s driving. “I’m going to pick up Emmy. I just wanted to warn you that he’s angry. I was worried he might show up there.”

“Thanks for the warning. You sure you’re okay?”

“Yes. Call me when you get home. I don’t care how late it is.”

Ryle bursts through the kitchen doors in the middle of her sentence. He makes enough of a ruckus that everyone notices and pauses what they’re doing. Derek, my head waiter, is right behind Ryle.

“I said I would
get
him,” Derek is saying to Ryle. Derek looks at me and throws up his hands to let me know he tried to prevent the intrusion.

“I’ll call you on my way home,” I say. I fail to mention Ryle just showed up. I don’t want her to be concerned. I end the call right as Ryle’s eyes land on me.

I don’t think he’s here to congratulate me.

“Who is that?” Darin asks.

“My biggest fan.” I nudge my head toward the back door, so Ryle starts walking in that direction.

The kitchen begins to buzz again, everyone ignoring Ryle’s intrusion. Everyone but Darin. “You need me to do something?”

I shake my head. “I’ll be fine.”

Ryle pushes open the back door so hard, it slams against the outside wall.

What a piece of work.
I head in that direction, but as soon as I open the back door and walk onto the back steps, Ryle comes at me from the left. He knocks me off the steps, and then, when I try to stand up, he punches me.

It’s a good punch, too. I’ll give him that.

Fuck.

I wipe my mouth and stand up, thankful he’s at least giving me room to do that. It’s not really a fair advantage when one person is on the ground when the punching begins. But Ryle doesn’t seem like the type to play fair.

He’s about to hit me again, but I back up and he ends up tripping. He pushes off the ground, and when he’s back on his feet, he stares at me, fuming. He doesn’t seem to be in attack mode in the moment.

“You done?” I ask him.

He doesn’t respond, but I don’t think he’ll lunge for me again. Ryle straightens his shirt and smirks. “I liked it better when you fought back last time.”

I struggle not to roll my eyes. “I have no desire to fight you.”

He pops his neck and starts to pace. He has so much anger in him, I can’t imagine what this must be like for Lily when she has to witness it. He’s breathing heavily, his hands on his hips, his eyes piercing me like knives. I don’t just see anger in his expression. I see a hell of a lot of pain.

I sometimes try to put myself in Ryle’s shoes, but as much as I struggle to stand in them, they don’t fit. They never will, because there isn’t a single human in history with a past misfortunate enough to excuse beating the person you’re supposed to protect.

“Just say whatever it is you came here to say.”

Ryle wipes blood away from his knuckles with his shirt, and I notice his hand is swollen. It looks like he was punching things before he showed up and hit me. I’m glad I know Lily is okay, or he wouldn’t be walking away in the same condition he showed up in.

“You think I don’t know the lawyer was your idea?” he says.

I try to hide my surprise, but I have no idea what he’s talking about.
Did she speak to a lawyer about her situation?
It
makes me want to smile, but I’m sure a smile would antagonize Ryle, and I do enough of that simply by existing.

My lack of response is getting under his skin. Ryle’s face twists in anger. “You might have her fooled right now, but you’ll have your first fight with her. And your second. She’ll see that marriage isn’t fucking rainbows all the goddamn time.”

“I could have a million arguments with her, but I can promise you they’ll never end with her in the hospital.”

Ryle laughs. He’s trying to spin this to look like I’m the ridiculous one. I’m not the one who barged into his place of work because I couldn’t control my emotions.

“You have no idea what Lily and I have been through,” he says. “You have no idea what
I’ve
been through.”

It’s like he showed up wanting a fight, but I’m not giving him that, so he’s using it as a venting session. Maybe I should give him Theo’s number. I’m seriously at a loss here.

I don’t want to come back to this moment tomorrow and see it as a lost opportunity. My only goal is to make Lily’s life with this man more peaceful. The last thing I want to do is make things more difficult between us all, but until he gets it through his head that he’s the only one in control of his reactions, I’m just as confused as Lily as to how to deal with him.

“You’re right, Ryle.” I nod slowly. “You’re right. I have no idea what you’ve been through.” I take a seat on the stairs to let him know he has no reason to feel threatened by me. And if he tries to attack me again while I’m sitting, I’m not going to respond to him with as much composure this time. I clasp my hands together and do my very best to speak in a way that might get through to him.

“Whatever happened in your past helped make you a great neurosurgeon, and the world needs that side of you. But your past also—for whatever reason—made you a shitty husband. The world doesn’t need that side of you. Just because we get the opportunity to be something, that isn’t a guarantee that we’ll be good at it.”

Ryle rolls his eyes. “That’s dramatic.”

“I watched them stitch her up, Ryle. Wake the fuck up, man. You were a horrible husband.”

He stares at me for a beat, then says, “What has you convinced you’ll be any better?”

“Treating Lily the way she deserves to be treated is the easiest part of my life. I think you should be relieved she’s with someone like me.”

He laughs. “Relieved? I should be
relieved
?” He takes several steps toward me, his anger ascending again. “
You’re
the reason we aren’t together!”

It takes everything in me to remain on these steps, and every ounce of patience I have not to return his shouts with my own. “
You’re
the reason you aren’t together. It was
your
anger and
your
fists that got you here. I was barely an acquaintance in Lily’s life when she was with you, so do the mature thing and stop blaming me, and Lily, and everyone else for your actions.” I stand up, but not to hit him. I just need to make room in my chest to exhale because if I don’t, I’m not sure how much longer I can do this without raising my voice to his level. It’s hard looking at him and remaining composed, knowing what he’s done to Lily. “
Dammit
,” I mutter. “This is ridiculous.”

Ryle and I are both quiet for a moment. Maybe he can
tell I’m at my limit because I’m not keeping my frustration as under control anymore. I spin and face him, looking at him pleadingly. “This is our life now. Yours, mine, Lily’s,
your daughter’s
. We have to deal with this. Forever. Holidays, birthdays, graduations, Emerson’s wedding. All these things are going to be difficult for you, but you’re the only one who can make sure they aren’t difficult for the rest of us, too. Because none of us owes you our happiness.
Especially
Lily.”

Ryle shakes his head. He paces like he’s trying to erase the asphalt and uncover earth. “You expect me to what—to cheer you two on? To wish you well? To encourage you to be a good father to
my
fucking daughter?” He laughs at the absurdity he finds in the idea of that, but I keep a very straight face.

“Yes.
Exactly
that.”

I think my response throws him off. He pauses and threads his hands at the nape of his neck.

I take a step closer to him, but not in a threatening way. I don’t want to yell. I want Ryle to hear the absolute sincerity in my voice. “As happy as I know I can make Lily, she’ll never be fully happy until she has your acceptance and cooperation. And you’re making it difficult, even though you know she deserves a good life. They both do. If you want your daughter to grow up with the best version of Lily, then please work with her. This is possible for all of us.”

Ryle rolls his neck. “What are we, some kind of
team
now?”

I hate that he’s trying to make any of this sound beyond the realm of possibility. “A team is the
only
thing people should be when kids are involved.”

That hits him. I can see it in the way he flinches, and then subtly swallows. He turns around and faces away from
me, taking a few steps while he contemplates everything I’ve said. When he turns back around and looks at me, there’s a little less vitriol there.

“When things don’t work out between the two of you and Lily needs somewhere to run, I’m not picking up the pieces this time.” With that, Ryle walks away. He doesn’t go through the restaurant this time. He heads down the alley, toward the street.

I can do nothing but stare at him with pity as he walks away. He truly doesn’t know Lily at all.

At all.

Lily doesn’t
run
to people. She didn’t run after me when I left Maine. She didn’t run
to
me when she left Ryle. She focused on being a mother. Yet that’s what he expects her to do if things don’t work out between us?
Run
to him like he’s her home base?

Lily’s home base is Emerson, and if he still can’t see that, he’s clueless.

If Lily had stayed with him, he would have spent the rest of their lives inventing issues in order to justify his excessive anger. Because I was never an issue in their marriage, and I never would have been.

I thought I pitied him before, but he’s fighting for a woman he barely even knows, which means he’s just fighting for the sake of fighting. He’s got a very similar personality to my mother, and sometimes there’s no fixing that. You just have to learn to live your life around it.

Maybe that’s what Lily and I are going to have to do. Learn to live our lives the best we can while occasionally having to deal with the ridiculous wrath of Ryle.

That’s fine. I’d go through this shit every day if it means I’m the one who gets to fall asleep next to her every night.

I walk up the steps and return to the hustle of the kitchen, and I get right back to work like he was never even here. I don’t know if my response tonight made this situation better, but I definitely don’t think I made it worse.

Darin hands me a wet rag. “You’re bleeding.” He points to the left side of my mouth, so I hold the rag there. “Was that her ex?”

“Yeah.”

“Everything okay now?”

I shrug. “I don’t know. He might get mad and come back. Hell, this could go on for years.” I look at Darin and smile. “But she’s worth it.”

Three hours later, I’m knocking softly on Lily’s apartment door. I texted her to let her know I was coming. I thought she might need another drive-by hug.

When she opens her door, it’s clear that’s exactly what she needs. And what
I
need. As soon as we’re inside her living room, she slips her arms around my waist and I fold myself around her. We remain embraced for a couple of minutes.

When she lifts her face, her eyebrows draw apart when she sees the small cut on my lip. “He’s such an immature asshole. Did you put ice on it?”

“I’ll be fine. It didn’t even swell.”

Lily lifts up onto her toes and kisses my cut. “Tell me what happened.”

We sit on the couch and I try to recall everything that
was said, but I’m sure I leave a few things out. When I’m finished speaking, she’s leaning against the back of the couch with a leg draped over mine, concentrating. She’s threading her fingers in and out of my hair.

She’s quiet for a long time. Then she just looks at me with a sweetness that melts over me. “I’m convinced you’re the only man on the planet who could get punched and then offer the aggressor
advice
.” Before I can respond, she’s sliding onto my lap, bringing her face close to mine. “Don’t worry, I find it so much more appealing than if you would have fought him back.”

I slide my hands up her back, surprised she’s in such a good mood. I don’t know why I thought this conversation would be a weight on her. But I guess this is the best possible outcome. Ryle knows we’re a thing, I had a chance to say my piece, and we all came out of it relatively unharmed.

“I can’t stay long, but I can probably stretch this hug out for another fifteen minutes before Josh notices I’m late.”

She raises an eyebrow. “When you say ‘hug,’ do you mean…”

“I mean get naked—we’re down to fourteen minutes.” I push her onto her back and kiss her, and we don’t stop for fourteen minutes. Then seventeen. Then twenty.

It’s thirty minutes later before I finally walk out of her apartment.

BOOK: It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2)
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