When I heard the knock at my door, I closed my eyes and made a silent wish that it was Bennett and not Bennett all at the same time.
As soon as I pulled the door open, he said, “She’s thinking about transferring her credits and coming to school here.”
“So she can be closer to you?” I moved aside to let him in.
His dark-wash jeans and messy hair didn’t go unnoticed. Had Rebecca’s fingers been in that hair?
“Who knows? Not sure I care,” he said, and the heaviness in my chest lifted. “Anyway, I told her I’d show her around campus today. So, I did.”
“And where is she now?” I sat back down on my couch.
“On her way home.” He sat next to me. Close enough that our knees touched. “It’s only a thirty minute drive. She could commute here for classes.”
I stared at the TV infomercial. “And stay at your place whenever she needs to crash.”
He elbowed me gently. “Avery Michaels, do I detect a certain tone in your voice?”
I arched an eyebrow. “What tone?” I was so full of shit, and he knew it.
He turned to face me. “Five words or less: How did you feel when Rebecca opened my door?”
I fumbled with the remote. “I felt nothing.”
“Really?” A crooked grin draped his lips. He wasn’t letting this go anytime soon. “Let me see if I can help you out. Maybe the same way I felt when I heard how Oliver talked to you at the shop, or when you were standing at the door in your pajamas, with Rob.”
Heat splashed across my cheeks.
“And how’s that?” I mumbled.
He inched closer and fused his eyes to mine. “Surprised . . . curious . . . PISSED . . . jealous, jealous, jealous.”
“You’re bending the rules. That’s six words.”
He arched an eyebrow. “I thought I’d let you borrow one.”
I felt an electric current coursing through me. “Why?”
He smirked. “If you can’t say it out loud, then I’d be helping you out.”
My fingers fisted the blanket.
All at once he grew serious, his eyes large and sincere.
“Why did you stop over tonight?” His voice was soft, like a caress.
“I . . . I owe you an explanation for the other night.”
“No, you don’t,” he said. “I scared you, and I’m still sick about it.”
“You did scare me,” I said, and his head dropped. “But not in the way you think.”
He looked up at me. “How, then?”
“The way you were talking to me.” I took a deep breath. “It brought up some memories I had locked away.”
“Shit.” He rushed his fingers through his hair. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, Bennett. It’s not like I thought you’d hurt me,” I said and then cleared my throat. “Actually, I’ve never felt safer with anyone else.”
His breath hitched in the back of his throat. He raised his fingers to touch me, but then dropped his hand. “You are safe with me, Avery.”
“It’s an idea I need to get used to.”
He nodded and then sat back, waiting on me. He became so still. As if he’d dissolved into the furniture, afraid to even stir the air. Afraid I’d changed my mind about talking to him.
“When I was sixteen, my mom had a boyfriend named Tim, who was a cop.” When I looked at Bennett, his eyes were wide and intense. “I always got the feeling he was checking me out or looking at me in a different kind of way. The way he should be looking at my mom.” Bennett put his fist to his lips, but remained silent.
“He took an interest in me—in my schoolwork, my activities—he tried to build my trust. When I started dating Gavin, my first love, Tim acted strange. Almost jealous.”
Bennett reached for my hand and I offered it willingly, even though I was ashamed of what I would tell him next. Revealing this to him was like stripping the nerves from my body one strand at a time.
Painful, nearly impossible, and scary as hell.
What if he didn’t believe me, either?
I shook those thoughts away. He was not my mother. And he certainly wasn’t Tim.
There were few people in this world I trusted—and Bennett was quickly making the short list. He had somehow embedded himself beneath my skin, made me feel secure and protected, and here I was telling him one of my deepest, darkest secrets.
The flip side of telling him was that it felt necessary. Because saying it out loud made it more real.
And would help clear the shadowy corners of my soul. At least, I hoped it would.
My breaths came out in sputtering gasps. Was I brave enough to do this?
“Hey, Avery, it’s okay. You don’t have to tell me anything.” He tucked a stray piece of hair behind my ear. His scent wrapped around me like a warm blanket.
“Yeah, actually, I do. If not for you, then for me.”
He nodded in understanding as his fingers grazed my cheek.
“Tim and Mom drank a lot together and I wondered sometimes if he was trying to get her drunk enough to pass out.” I sucked in a deep breath. “Tim started coming into my room in the middle of the night. It began innocently enough. He’d feign being drunk and crash next to me, or he’d just rub my back or stroke my hair. I never had a real dad, so in some twisted way, it felt kind of nice. Like maybe something a real dad would do.”
Bennett was holding on to my hand for dear life, anticipating what I’d say next. But his face remained neutral. “But then things changed. He started talking dirty to me. I was a . . . a virgin, and he found that out just by . . . by touching me. And I became afraid of him. He had this way of threatening you while keeping a calm voice and a straight face.”
“Fuck, Avery.” Bennett jumped up and started pacing. “I want to kill that bastard.”
Hearing him say that gave me the courage I needed to go on. He did believe me, and deep down I had always known he would. I was just too chicken to admit it. I waited for him to get over his initial shock. He took a few deep breaths and then sat back down. “I’m sorry. Please, I want to hear the rest.”
“I had this great boyfriend, and we were getting serious. I wanted my first time to be with Gavin.
Not Tim.” Bennett cringed and I felt my pulse becoming more erratic. “I mean, I knew he’d be taking something I wasn’t offering. He’d be stealing it from me. So technically, he wouldn’t have been my first.”
“Fucking scumbag,” Bennett mumbled to himself.
“This one night, I had a feeling Tim was going to make it happen. My mom got sloppy drunk and I heard him telling her stuff about me. That I was dressing like a whore and that my boyfriend was a loser.
He was setting the scene, turning my mother against me. I knew she’d never believe me over him, anyway. She was blindly in love with him.”
Bennett squeezed his eyes shut, anticipating the rest.
“So I hid a pair of scissors under my mattress. When he came into my room that night, I acted like I wanted him to be there, so I could catch him off guard.” I gulped in several breaths to keep my voice steady. “When he was really . . . getting into it, I reached for the scissors. I could have killed him, Bennett. And damn, I wanted to. But I told myself I was only going to scare him.”
“God, Avery,” he grunted. “He could have overpowered you. Used the scissors on you instead.”
“I knew that going in,” I said, tears burning my eyes. “But I was willing to take that risk over getting raped.”
I watched as Bennett’s chest moved up and down in harsh breaths. He cupped my cheeks, his eyes wide, fear coursing through them.
“I told him in a calm voice that my boyfriend had found out about us. And since Gavin’s father was the mayor, he was threatening to tell him.”
When Bennett’s eyes locked on mine, I saw something different there. Something like admiration, or maybe respect. Maybe for the sixteen-year-old girl who had taken matters into her own hands. Who knew at that point she’d be completely on her own.
I was in awe of her, too. For being so brave—so self-possessed. It was one of the reasons I still held on to her values, her ideals, her beliefs, so fiercely now.
“I told Tim that if Gavin hadn’t heard from me by midnight, he was going to tell his father everything. And that stunned the hell out of him.” My tears had spilled over, and I couldn’t wipe them away fast enough. “And I used that opportunity to stab him in the arm. I didn’t go deep, but deep enough. And I warned him to never f**king touch me again.”
My body started shaking, and Bennett pulled me onto his lap, his strong arms bracing me from behind. He covered us with the blanket and held me while I sobbed and trembled and relived that night in my memory.
Getting it out again after all of those years felt like a release.
It was liberating and terrifying all at once.
“I am so sorry that happened to you.” Bennett kissed my head and whispered my name again and again, until finally there were no tears left and I sagged into his chest.
“You’re so strong. So brave,” he whispered. He lifted me from the couch, and my arms cradled his neck. “Let me take care of you tonight.”
He carried me to bed, gently pulled back the covers, and then tucked me in. He sat near the edge and stroked my head. “I can stay until you fall asleep.”
I felt safe and calm when Bennett was around, and I didn’t want to be alone tonight.
When I looked up at him, I saw that he was staring at his drawing, which I’d hung on the far wall. He brought my fingers to his lips and kissed the palm of my hand.
I lifted back the covers to invite him in. “Please, Bennett.”
His eyebrows drew together. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. I want to feel you next to me again.”
He stripped down to his boxers, slid in behind me, and wrapped me against his chest. “Shhh . . .” I felt warm and protected in his arms.
We didn’t speak. Only listened to each other’s soft breaths. I could feel his heartbeat against my back. It was a strong and steady rhythm.
“Avery?” Bennett asked. “Your plan worked, didn’t it?”
“Tim left that same night,” I murmured. “My mom always blamed me for him walking out.”
“Your mom didn’t believe you?” he asked through gritted teeth.
I shook my head, not surprised at his anger. My mother was a piece of work. Her denial sealed it for me. I knew I’d have to handle everything solo. And that it wouldn’t be easy.
“What about Gavin?”
“He didn’t know all of it. I didn’t want him to,” I said. “But it sure made our first time together uncomfortable. I just shut down on him. He didn’t understand what happened. We broke up after that.”
He tightened his hold on me. “You still wanted to lose your virginity so soon after all of that?”
“It’s hard to explain. I didn’t want to disappoint him. And I still wanted to share that with him. I thought it might help me somehow. Help me forget about Tim, too. It just didn’t turn out quite the way I’d planned.”
“Oh, Avery.” He kissed my hair. “I hope you realize how amazing you are.”
His arms were strong and unyielding and I relished his warmth as I caught my breath again.
“After that, something just snapped inside of me. I told myself that no one would have that kind of control over me again,” I said, my voice gaining momentum. “I’d be in charge of my own life— including my sex life. And no guy was worth losing myself again.” I’d been a mess for weeks after. Skipping school and chugging Mom’s beer, completely at a loss for how to gather the pieces of myself that had been scattered everywhere. But it was Adam who saved me.
Along with Ella, who was going through her own grief over her brother’s death. She told me she needed me as much as I needed her.
But Adam. God, Adam.
He knew something was up with me, and as I began to unravel right before him, I saw his confidence in me falter. There was fear in his eyes, and confusion, too. And I knew I couldn’t desert him. Couldn’t make him feel as alone as I’d felt. He was just a kid and desperately needed to believe in someone. And for someone to believe in him, too.
And I was that person for him. Always had been. Always would be. For as long as he needed me to be.
Bennett remained silent, as if considering everything I’d told him. Maybe he’d finally understand and decide to walk away. And I’d have to accept that. Even though I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted anymore.
“I know it doesn’t make total sense, but it’s how I got through my days.”
“It makes perfect sense,” he said, sadness in his voice. “Thank you for telling me.” Bennett held me close until our breaths fell into a similar pattern and sleep finally consumed us.
The next morning, I was still wrapped in Bennett’s arms, and it felt amazing having him in my bed again. I’d let him take care of me last night. Whether I’d admitted it or not, I’d given him a larger piece of myself. And it hadn’t destroyed me or made me less of a person. In fact, it felt like a relief. It felt . . .
I could feel his breaths against my ear and his pulse against my back. When I turned to him, his eyes were open and he was lost in deep thought.
I hoped he wasn’t thinking about what a bad idea it had been to sleep here last night. Or that he needed to get as far away from me as possible. I’d have to accept his decision if that was the case. I’d made myself vulnerable to him, but I still had a long way to go. And I wasn’t sure if waiting on someone like me was the best idea. Even though I knew his attraction to me was just as palpable as mine to him.