Tyler Foxx let himself into his extended-stay hotel room, too tired to consider cooking tonight. For the first time since he'd arrived in the city to complete a photography assignment that, while intense and time-consuming, was one of the shortest he'd ever undertaken, he picked up the room service menu. The selections were barely passable for someone who enjoyed cooking so much he carried his own pots and pans and spices around with him from hotel to hotel, assignment to assignment.
After calling in his order, he sank down on the bed and unfolded his electronic tablet. Almost without thinking, he performed his usual after-work ritual of clicking on the button in the browser's favorites bar that took him directly to Syracuse, New York obituaries. His mind was tired following little if no sleep the night before and more than thirteen hours of working. Yet the slap in the face he'd been waiting for every single day of the last twenty-five years still stunned him and made him feel winded. Sitting up, he read: "After battling cancer for five years, Ebenezer 'Eb' Foxx, age 68, of Syracuse died on Sunday, March 6th, surrounded by loved ones..."
Each word written resounded bitterly inside Ty's brain. The person who'd written it couldn't have known the old man, had no idea the bastard didn't deserve to die in peace, surrounded with family, allowed a loving send-off before being ushered into the scorching halls of hell where he belonged. The worthless SOB deserved to die like the son he destroyed did--alone, a dirty needle in his arm, in a place of filth, sin, certain death. Not surrounded with a "loving" wife, his youngest son, Shane, and grandchildren.
Ty had spent the past two and a half decades watching over his siblings from afar so the "survived-by" listing in the obit was familiar to him. His oldest and youngest brothers were both married with kids, as was their sister.
Would they attend the funeral of a father none of them could claim to love, let alone feel anything less intense than pure, unadulterated hatred? Even that was too good for the demon.
"Funeral services will be held Saturday, March 12th..."
Realizing his breathing was ragged, as if he'd been running for an hour instead of sitting comfortably on the hotel bed, he swallowed and tried to consider what the old man's death meant. It's time...and I don't know if I'm ready, any more than I was twenty-two years ago, after I found Jeff dead.
Ty had promised himself he'd reconcile with his family once their devil of a father perished, preferably in as much pain as physically possible. As soon as the devil was dead and buried in the cold, unforgiving ground, Ty had vowed he'd go home. Considering that his mother never been especially healthy, he'd worried she would go first. For all her faults, a part of me hoped I'd see her again, even if it was just one last time. With the old man alive, there was no way I'd ever return to the place I despised above any other. Nothing could've convinced me to do that.
But it was his sister that Ty most wanted to see again--and not from afar, as he had all this time away. He'd worried about Darlene and Shane almost constantly ever since he'd done the only thing he could do by taking Jeff out of the situation that had eventually destroyed him anyway.
Jeff died twenty-two years ago. I told myself I stayed away from the rest of my family all this time because I couldn't take the reminders...of the past, my own abysmal failures. I convinced myself somehow that I'd heal, deal with all the crap, the horror that drove me to do what I did, setting myself up as a hero I once-upon-a-time believed Brett--I don't even like admitting to myself I idolized him--to be. Ultimately, all I ever did with my actions was stall the inevitable. I'm no hero, no more than Brett proved himself to be.
Ty had learned in bitter lessons that he couldn't save Jeff, sure as hell couldn't save himself. He blamed the old man most of all for that, for causing irrevocable damage in the first place, but a part of him also blamed his oldest brother Brett--for not being the one to execute the hard choice that Ty ended up making for Jeff. He also blamed himself because he'd never realized the truth about what was going on until it was too late for his younger brother, until all Ty could do was try to temporarily block the shadows of the night from his brother's sight.
Better to be done with all this. I can't go back. I've been dead to Darlene, Brett, Shane, our mother all these years anyway--as dead as Jeff has been in my reality. None of them tried to find us, and, even if they did, I made it impossible for them to. So maybe it's better to let the past and any family ties go, let the hell I endured die with the devil that's tormented me all my life.
Even as Ty sat in the growing darkness of his hotel room, he accepted uneasily that he couldn't hide anymore. He couldn't control the bleeding wound inside him that ensured that, by not going back, he'd be holding onto the past as if it was his only anchor for the rest of his worthless life. One way or another, he was at the end of the road. Forty-three years was enough. Whether or not he was ready, whether or not this nightmare would get better or worse, it was time to go home.
Cherish Stephenson conceded with a groan that changing her hairstyle a few months ago from the bun that required almost no work had led to her downfall. Now that she left her long, ash-blond hair down and spent at least twenty minutes every morning getting the wavy style to look just right, she was invariably late for work nearly every day. Even getting up twenty minutes early hadn't helped.
I suppose someday I'll figure this out and it won't take as long, she thought, stabbing at, smoothing, attempting to shape the varied, soft layers framing her face. Ultimately, she grimaced in helplessness at her untutored attempts. In the meantime, the change was necessary. I needed this--needed the kick in the pants to get me out of the rut where I wouldn't and could never heal and be capable of being in a romantic relationship. At this stage in my life, I'm embarrassed to admit that that's what I want more than anything else in the world. A love that will heal.
She sighed, dropping her brush on her dresser. If only I hadn't had such a knee-jerk reaction when Rox tried to fix me up with William Decker. None of my friends dared played matchmaker before that. And, in retrospect, I can see that William would be perfect for me. Despite the fact that he's tall, muscular, breathtakingly masculine--definitely intimidating!--I know as Rox's long-time friend and bodyguard, he wouldn't hurt me for anything in the world. Deep down, I could trust him. No denying he's gorgeous, too...but I'm not attracted to him despite all the reasons why I should be. That he's in love with Roxanne herself could certainly have been a large part of my reluctance. Still...maybe I'll never feel attracted to a man again. And, with forty-two looming on my horizon in just a few days, I'm getting too old to entice any man, let alone a good looking one.
Totally unladylike, Cherish snorted in despairing disgust and pulled herself away from the mirror. She had to go or she'd be seriously late. Luckily, her most valuable employee, Darlene, was returning to work today, after attending her father's funeral in Syracuse. She'd left last Tuesday. Darlene worked harder than any other employee and she rarely took time off, not even after she gave birth--something she was getting closer to doing for the third time. Because of that, Cherish couldn't have forbidden her from going, but mostly because Darlene was her best friend. Though her issues with her father had led to as many neuroses as Cherish herself had, she'd needed to attend that funeral--if not for love and loss, then for closure--for the kind of elusive healing that came so rarely after life-shattering trauma.
Cherish rushed to the kitchen and took a bag of chicken breasts out of the freezer and set it on a plate in the fridge. Tonight, she'd make a week's worth of meals from it.
With that part of her morning ritual checked off her mental list, she rushed to the front door of her apartment to slip into her coat. Then she retrieved her purse and keys from their designated places. If she arrived at the shop later than the 6:30 a.m. morning flower deliveries, Darlene would be there. And somehow, in the holiday traffic that'll come through the shop today, I have to find time to call a photographer...but first I have to finalize my bouquet designs for the New York International Bridal Week trade show next month. There's no time, but my business tripled after the show last year. This year, I have to go bigger and better because I won't be the only florist attending.
She'd almost reached the elevator when her cell phone played a snippet of her favorite Classical piece by Ravel, alerting her to an incoming call. Without thinking or looking at the screen--assuming Darlene was calling, possibly to ask for another day off to recover after the stressful past few days she'd had--she brought the device to her ear. "Darlene?"
The single word, spoken plaintively in the voice she'd come to dread more than any other since the new year rolled around two months ago, made her stop walking...stop breathing. "Why are you doing this?" she demanded, feeling winded.
She'd blocked Liam's calls from her phone each time he'd contacted her but kept the record of them because her cousin Sapphire had warned her that if either of the men who raped her ever contacted her, she should preserve all the proof she could for the police.
Liam had worked for her father's political campaign when she was only sixteen. He'd been one of three, male college students there who'd had political aspirations of their own. She'd flirted with them shamelessly, recklessly, not heeding her long-term boyfriend's jealous warnings against the practice she'd considered pure, superficial, even harmless fun. She'd started modeling locally that year, reveling in the fact that others found her attractive. She'd enjoyed the attention she got, mostly from men, regardless of their ages.
In retrospect, she'd been as stupid as Samuel had told her she was being. How often had he called the aggressive, shocking flirting and seduction "baiting the bear"? He'd said something about how, at heart, all men were animals. If a female appealed to a male's base instincts, she'd bring out the worst in him. And she'd done that to the extreme, making ridiculous promises she'd never intended to keep. She'd assumed Liam and his friends were taking her attempts at being contradictorily naughty and coquettish as the boss's daughter amusing herself. At some point, she'd crossed a line--and, though one of the men chickened out, Liam and the other man had decided to force her to live up to her scandalous flirtations.
That one night had ruined her life and changed everything for her. Never once had she considered that either man would regret what they'd done to her. But Liam had called her this past January and claimed he couldn't go on if she didn't forgive him for his crimes. In all the years since that one of horror, he said he'd never forgotten her, what he and his friend did to her. Cherish had hung up on him as soon as he'd said those words the first time. The second, she'd told him to never call her again or she would go to the police. Now, as soon as her question was out, she realized she was giving him ground, allowing him to insinuate himself into her life, by not hanging up instantly.
"I can't go on living without your forgiveness, Cherish. I told you that. Please--"
"How dare you! After what you did to me, you think I should care if you're tormented? Even if you commit suicide you're so grieved? Care about whether or not you can be forgiven by me, by God? I'm not your priest. If you want forgiveness, you go to the police and tell them what you did to me. Turn yourself in the way you should have when you and...whatever his name is...convinced my father that I was lying about the whole thing. I won't save you. I shouldn't have let it go the way I did then. You have no right to ask anything of me. For the last time, leave me alone or I will contact the police myself."
She hung up, unable to move forward she was shaking so badly. After that rape, she'd been shell-shocked, unable to function, desperate for no one to find out what'd happened. I felt guilty--just like Samuel was always trying to make me feel. He believed my flirtations led to the rape, that I'd done plenty to warrant what came to me. Maybe nothing can justify Liam's actions, that of his friend's, but I was wrong to have my fun that way at their expense. Their sins didn't wipe out mine. Ultimately, maybe I was no more than a stupid teenage girl with no clue of what would happen to me if I "baited the bear".
Although she'd wanted to keep the rape silent, she hadn't been able to completely. She'd been too traumatized, both physically and mentally. She'd told her parents, but they'd refused to believe her...more like, refused to believe that some of the best, most loyal and hardworking volunteers on her father's political campaign would do such a thing. Cherish hadn't wanted to accept the truth at the time, but she'd realized afterward that her father's political career was too important to him and her mother for them to believe her. They'd put everything they had into her father's dreams and hadn't wanted a single hint of scandal to tear down all he'd been building.
When she'd gone to Samuel, begging him to believe her, he had--and unfortunately couldn't tolerate that his predictions had come to pass. His jealousy had always been over the top. After finding out about her brutal rape, he'd seen her as something dark, evil, unclean. He'd broken up with her.
Demoralized by her fiancé's rejection, Cherish caved under her parents' pressure to hush up something they insisted couldn't have happened. Despite that, her father hadn't been elected then or in all the years he'd run afterward. Eventually her parents had made overtures to reconcile with her, and she'd accepted their belated efforts to support her. And she'd forgiven them for reasons of her own.
But not Liam. Never him or his friend.
Hearing a sound at the end of the hall broke her out of her paralysis. She quickly looked at her phone and blocked Liam's phone number so he couldn't call her again. Somehow she knew he'd find a way around that. How could he possibly have her phone number? No one she knew would give him or any other stranger her number. How could Liam have even found out where she lived? She'd moved out of Albany as soon as she graduated high school, legally taking her mother's maiden name. It'd been twenty-five years. True, she hadn't exactly hidden here in New York City. Her business was high-profile, especially since she'd expanded (exploded successfully, more like) into mail order bouquets, but she'd made a point of insinuating herself into trade magazines--bridal, flower, women's--and media coverage in the area of her expertise. But what would possess Liam to read any of them? Back when he'd known her, he'd had no idea she was interested in flowers. Politics had been her passion, as it'd been his. He certainly couldn't have known her mother's maiden name without going to trouble to find out, and then on the assumption that she'd changed her name to it. Unlikely.
Cherish stepped into the elevator, knowing she needed to take her cousin's aggressive advice. She had to make changes. She couldn't do what she always had anymore--ignore things she didn't want to face and hope they would go away on their own. She needed to change her phone number, needed to get past this one thing that'd done so much to screw up her life. Since Samuel dumped her with his cruel "I told you so", she'd avoided romantic relationships, too terrified where they might lead. She'd fled dates before, even during...and no amount of counseling, group sessions, treatments however radical, had gotten her past the block.
In the past, she'd found New Year's resolutions ridiculous, but she'd made one this year. She would start dating again--even if it meant throwing herself at the next man she found mildly attractive. In the months since, she'd done nothing in that regard, heeding her fears each and every time opportunity presented itself.
As she hurried to her car, she rebelled against the memory of Sapphire's insistence that she needed to move to another apartment. But Liam couldn't know where she lived. If he did, he would have shown up on her doorstep--only to be turned away by the rotating-duty concierges.
Dear God, what would I do if Liam did try to get in?
Abruptly, she felt as exposed as she had all those years ago. She unlocked her car and jumped in, shoved the key in the ignition, which engaged all the door locks in the process. Only then did she feel slightly safer. To keep her nervous dislike of changes and curve balls, like Liam's phone call, at bay she forced herself to consider her list of chores for the day. At least Darlene would be there. If she wanted more time off, she would have called much earlier.
The warmth of the friendship melted the chill inside her. She'd met Darlene while she'd been in college, getting her degree. Though Darlene herself had no formal training or schooling, she had an instinct and knack for floral design. Cherish had started a flower arrangement delivery service from her dorm--in anticipation of opening her own flower shop when she graduated with her degree, and Darlene had done most of the work then, since Cherish's education had all but consumed most of her time. She'd hired Darlene wisely. I couldn't have done any of it without her. Although I'd never had a true friend other than my grandmother growing up--the rest of my school and recreation friends had proved to be superficial--I trusted Darlene when I trusted no one else. And our relationship developed into the kind of friendship I didn't expect to count on the way I do. It means everything to me now.
Darlene's friends had become Cherish's friends in the last few years...Roxanne Hart, Diane Hoffman, Savvy O'Brien, and their significant others. But those friendships were still developing. Until recently, Darlene remained the only one of the group who knew about her rape. Shocking herself, Cherish had confided the undetailed truth to Rox a few months ago. That'd been a major step--almost as major as confiding in Darlene all those years ago. Cherish had known Darlene had her own scars, which she'd also confided, mostly with her father who'd been so abusive and ugly to his wife and children, damaging and shattering them. His death was nothing to grieve. The opposite, in fact, but Cherish realized there were other issues involved than his demise. She wanted to be sensitive to whatever Darlene might be going through today. After all Darlene had done for her, she considered this consideration the least she could offer.