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Chapter Twenty-Six

Bennett and I were inseparable the following week. He attended Mrs. Jackson’s funeral service with me, politely introducing himself and shaking family members’ hands.

Her daughter, Star, seemed to know more about me than I thought she had, which comforted me. It cemented the idea in place that Mrs. Jackson was as fond of me as I was of her.

At the wake, she whispered, “Bennett seems like a good man. Momma would have liked him.”

Bennett surprised me by bringing a bouquet of daisies to the cemetery. We stood with Mrs.

Jackson’s family as everyone departed, throwing the long stems onto her casket, one by one.

Work that week had been tough. A new resident had already taken Mrs. Jackson’s bed, as if trying to wipe clean the memory of her. But she’d always be with me.

Her kind and wise words. Her confidence and biting humor.

The new resident was a crotchety old man named Mr. Smith, and I snickered every time he barked an order as I crossed into the room. I figured Mrs. Jackson would get a kick out of it, too.

You’re trying to make me miss you, aren’t you?

And then Bennett drove with me to Mom’s court hearing. He asked if he could tag along, and at first I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. It was as if he were inserting himself into my past and all its ugly secrets.

He had taken the morning off work and said he wanted to come to the courthouse for moral support—that he’d wait in the car or the lobby for me.

He knew there was the possibility that Tim would be there. The defendant had the right to attend the hearing. If he didn’t show, he’d still be served the paperwork. As we pulled into my mother’s driveway, my palms became slick on the steering wheel. Adam was at school, Bennett would be meeting Mom for the first time, and my queasy stomach refused to cooperate.

I’d already met Bennett’s family, and we definitely shared similar backgrounds. But I was afraid he’d uncover just how f**ked-up my reality was once he met my mother.

Mom was chain-smoking at the kitchen table when we stepped inside. Her fingers were shaking, and shadows had formed below her eyes, alerting me that this decision had taken its toll.

“Mom, this is Bennett.” I refrained from saying that he was my boyfriend. I was just getting used that idea. But she knew the deal. I had never brought any guys around before.

“It’s nice to finally meet you, Ms. Michaels.” Bennett cleared his throat and gave a small smile.

“You, too.” I could see Mom checking him out, her gaze wandering up and down his body as I clenched my teeth.

He was half her age and still she thought she could act that way. She needed to stop thinking I was her competition, and after today I’d damn well let her know it.

But for now, before this hearing, I’d let it go.

“Ready, Mom?”

Bennett had been teetering in the doorway, hands deep in his front pockets, and he looked relieved that her scrutiny of him would be ending.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.” As she stood up, I realized she was wearing a modest blue dress, and I was thankful that none of her cle**age was showing. “It’ll be hard to face him if he shows up.”

“Hard for both of us, Mom.”

Bennett squeezed my hand as we headed out the door.

Bennett drove my car and dropped us off at the front entrance of the courthouse. Said he’d park and join us in the hall.

Mom exited the backseat and started to head inside. She had retained one of her lawyer exes to help her through the proceedings and was meeting him before the hearing. She had been with Lance for a few months a couple of years ago, and even got a used car out of the deal. Too bad he’d been married at the time. I wondered how she’d be paying him this time.

As my hand reached for the door handle, Bennett pulled me into a kiss. It was sweet and reassuring, but still warmed my belly, despite the enormity of the situation.

“Good luck, baby,” he whispered in my ear. “You were strong back then, and you’re even tougher now.”

My stomach flipped somersaults all the way up the stone courthouse stairs. It was an old historical building in the center of town, and I’d visited once with Gavin when he met his father there about excessive parking tickets. Gavin was always leaving his car at empty meters across town, and it had finally caught up to him. Like Tim, Gavin also had a little of that overconfidence gene in him, being the mayor’s son. I couldn’t totally blame him for it. It was just how he was raised.

But from what I could gather about Tim, his boldness was all DNA, and being on the police force had only helped bolster that inflated opinion of himself.

Mom had already checked in and was meeting with her lawyer friend, who was dressed sharply in a shiny black suit and red tie. I sat down beside her on the cold wooden bench and looked around, hoping not to lock eyes with Tim. I was dressed in simple black pants and a blouse, with flat shoes. If he showed up, I wanted him to know I was a grown-ass woman, not the scared teen he’d known four years ago.

The place overflowed with people like us, waiting for their cases to go before the judge, and I figured we were in for a long morning.

When it was finally our turn, I was thankful that we had gone to the police station and filed the report the day after Tim assaulted Mom. The pictures of her bruises were on file, and Lance assured us it would be a clear case in our favor.

With my permission, Mom had also disclosed that Tim had assaulted me years ago, but Lance was confident that extraneous evidence to Mom’s case would probably be unnecessary.

He had been right.

The judge fairly quickly granted a permanent restraining order, good for five years.

Bennett was waiting in the lobby as we exited the wooden doors, and I told him the news.

His jaw remained locked. “Was he in there with you?”

I shook my head. Tim had never shown his face, and I breathed a sigh of relief, despite the small part of me that wanted to see the bastard. Over the years, I had built him up in my mind to be a monster.

I had only been sixteen, and I figured he might look quite different to me now.

Mom had to wait at the courthouse for an official copy of the document to keep in her possession should she ever need to call the police. She assured me that Lance would drive her home after they had gone to lunch to celebrate.

I bet they’d celebrate.

“I wanted to make sure we called a locksmith before I left today, Mom.” Of course she hadn’t done it yet. How could she still be so oblivious about her own safety?

She looked down, biting her lip. “Oh, um, Lance said he knew a good locksmith and would make the call for me.”

I sighed. Here we go again. Eager for a man to call all the shots.

But maybe I couldn’t blame her. Wasn’t she just hoping for someone to take care of her heart, too?

I thought back to Bennett’s tattoo poem and the idea of disappearing for love. I just hope she got it right someday.

Bennett had left to pull the car around, so I stepped outside and walked toward the side street to make the pickup easier for him. The turnaround in front of the courthouse was jam-packed with cars.

As I stood on the corner waiting, I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck. Maybe it was his heavy breaths or the way he cleared his throat, but I sensed him there before I even laid eyes on him.

His voice was one forever etched in my nightmares. “You look the same as you always did.” My heart thundered in my chest as I turned around to face him. Tim looked smaller somehow, less imposing. His hair was graying and he had a heavier beard. I realized it was me who had grown up, and he was the one who’d stayed exactly the same.

He stepped closer, and I could feel his emotions rolling off of him—excitement, arrogance, desire. I tried not to shudder.

Instead I found my voice. “So do you, Tim. Like a child predator. An abuser of women. You disgust me.”

His top lip curled, and I took a step back, not wanting him to see me flinch.

“So what happened, you too much of a wimp-ass to show up at your own hearing?”

“My lawyer advised me that it wouldn’t matter whether I showed or not. Your mother had a strong enough case against me.”

“So then why are you here?”

“On the off chance that you’d be here and I could finally lay my eyes on you.”

My stomach rolled and lurched as his gaze became hooded.

“I’ve missed you, Avery.”

Had we not been on a crowded street corner I might have turned and fled. I was that certain he would have tried to take me down right then and there and finally have his way with me.

But not before I put up a damn good fight. I balled my fists and stood my ground.

“Your mother might have a restraining order against me,” he said, leaning over. So close. Too close.

“But you don’t. No reason I can’t get as close to you as I want.”

Holy f**k. He was threatening me. Saying he’d come after me. Find me.

My mind drew a blank and all I saw were swirls of black and gray behind my eyelids as terror slowly consumed me.

I heard a grunt and a car door slam. “Avery?”

Tim backed away and then crossed the street in a rush. Bennett grabbed hold of my shoulders and lightly shook me. “Avery, look at me. Who was that?”

“What?” My mind was hazy with fear and disbelief.

“Who the f**k was that, Avery?”

“T . . . Tim,” I mumbled. “That was Tim.”

Bennett’s eyes widened right before he turned and raced across the street to follow him.

What the hell was he doing?

“Hey!” he yelled, and I spotted Tim, who was halfway down the block, freeze in place.

I had never seen Bennett so full of rage. It scared the shit out of me. It was enough to get my legs moving again. I crossed the street to chase after him.

Bennett was still yelling, his hands flying in the air, and Tim just stood there, a menacing smirk hanging from his lips.

“You motherfucker.” Bennett inched closer to him. “You will never lay another hand on her, you hear me?”

Then I saw Bennett’s fist clench and his arm fly forward as it crushed against Tim’s jaw.

“Bennett, no! Wait!” I was terrified of what Tim would be capable of.

Tim yanked Bennett’s legs out from under him, and suddenly they were both on the ground wrestling and landing punches. Bennett definitely had the height, weight, and raw emotion. But Tim thought he was cunning and invincible, and I knew that was a deadly combination.

“Bennett, stop. Let him go. We can handle this another way.” In fact, I was marching straight back into that courthouse and filing my own restraining order.

The sound of my voice momentarily immobilized Bennett, giving Tim the upper hand. He knelt over Bennett, his fist crashing into his stomach.

Blood was smeared on Tim’s face and on Bennett’s shirt and hands. I couldn’t tell whether it was coming from Tim’s nose or Bennett’s cheek.

Bennett looked so defenseless lying on the ground, and something snapped in the very center of me. This ass**le was not going to hurt the person I loved.

Using all the focus I could muster, I turned sideways and rotated my knee, making sure the upper part of my foot would make contact. A growl escaped my lips right before I landed a perfectly hard roundhouse kick to Tim’s back. I heard a crack and he went down, groaning.

Kickboxing classes had finally paid off.

“Get up, please.” I pulled Bennett to a sitting position and whispered to him, “Let Tim leave, trust me. I’ll handle this legally.”

Tim was already on his knees, and Bennett and I backed away to allow him room. An audience had formed across the street, and I was sure the cops would be there any moment to arrest them both. No question Tim would file assault charges against Bennett and we’d be in a world of trouble.

Tim stood up and limped a couple steps backward. I was hoping I’d cracked a rib or two. But he’d never give me the satisfaction of showing it.

“Get the f**k out of my sight, Tim. Before the cops come,” I snarled. I wanted him to believe I was letting this go. Otherwise, he’d figure out a new way to hurt us. “He won’t touch you again.”

His face was emotionless except for the tick in his jaw. We watched as he hobbled down the street and around the corner, only looking back once.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

My body sagged against Bennett and he folded me into his arms.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” I asked. I was so relieved that he hadn’t come away limping. “You shouldn’t have gone after him like that.”

“Avery, listen to me.” His breath was heavy as he held me close. “I recognize him.”

I pulled back to look at him. “What do you mean?”

“It was him,” he said, eyes wide. “He tried breaking into your window that night. I’m sure of it.”

I stumbled as my legs gave way, and Bennett scooped me into his arms.

Tim was going to rape me that night. And Bennett had saved me.

Bennett deposited me in the passenger seat of my car as I panted for air. He used my phone to call my mom.

She and Lance rushed outside and Bennett explained what had transpired. Mom sat down hard on the curb and put her head in her hands.

Lance advised me to file a restraining order and police report immediately. I didn’t dispute him.

Then he was on his cell phone, calling in a favor to the judge. He also called his contact at the police station.

While he was on hold he flipped the phone away from his mouth. “Bennett, you were smart not to say anything in front of Tim about the break-in.”

Bennett nodded. He had used good judgment even in a state of rage.