Stupid, stupid, stupid.
“I’ve told you a thousand times about Ruger, but you still don’t listen,” he continued. “You never get it through your head, do you? I guess sluts like you can’t control themselves … You need to be trained, like dogs. Bitches. Do you want me to train you?”
I took a deep breath, then let it out, closing my eyes tight. I knew what the next step was. Our little dance was well-choreographed.
“Yes, Zach,” I whispered, feeling my soul tuck down deep inside, hiding from what was coming. If I drew far enough away from reality, it wouldn’t hurt as bad when he started really hitting me. “I want you to train me.”
“Good girl,” he murmured, sounding almost human.
I knelt down and opened the drawer under the oven, looking for something to cook the eggs in. I had a small, non-stick frying pan I usually used. There was also a large, cast-iron skillet that I’d found when I moved into the apartment.
I’d never cooked with it—cast iron always seemed sort of strange and scary to me.
Why should I be afraid of using a f**king pan? Because it was different than what I was used to? But changing how you do anything is difficult.
I could do it, though.
I could use that pan.
Almost in a dream, I reached down and picked up the skillet. How hard would it be …? Harder than a man’s fists against your flesh? Harder than cracked ribs, blackened eyes—your baby screaming for an hour because Mommy can’t get off the floor to pick him up?
Changing how you react to a man hurting you is hard.
But it can be done.
The pan was heavy. Really heavy. My arms were strong, though. I’d been carrying Noah for years—this was nothing in comparison. I stood up and set the skillet on the stove, reaching over and turning on the burner.
“I think we need to get something clear,” Zach said. He leaned back in his chair, grinning at me, all pleased with himself. Only seconds had passed as I found the skillet, but everything had changed. I felt my soul uncurling from its hiding place.
“You sent me to jail,” Zach continued. “That was a very, very bad thing to do. I’ll admit it threw me for a while. I let you get away with it. Then you stole my money, and that’s more than a man can take. You try to fight me, I’ll kill you. In fact, I won’t just kill you, I’ll kill Noah. Never did like that little shit.”
Another gut punch. He hadn’t used his fists this time. He didn’t need to.
I looked down at the slowly heating skillet.
“Maybe I’ll just make him disappear,” he muttered. “Just take his little ass and dump him somewhere. You’ll never find him again, always wonder if he’s dead or alive. Maybe if you’re really good, I’ll tell you where the body is for his eighteenth birthday …”
I turned to grab eggs out of the fridge, glancing toward Zach. He was looking down at one of his hands, forming a fist over and over, flexing the muscles in his arm. I set the egg carton on the counter. Then I reached for a bowl to mix them in—he liked them scrambled, a mixture of full eggs and egg whites for extra protein. I started cracking them, the hard white shells looking like little skulls.
They broke open so easily.
I flicked another glance at him. He was still gazing down at his fingers, flexing and fisting.
Getting ready to hit me again.
“I’m gonna f**k you in the ass, I think,” he said casually. “Make you beg for it. I’ve missed that about you, the way you beg.”
My chest tightened, but I didn’t let myself react to his words. I just picked up a towel and wrapped it around the hot pan’s metal handle. Then I took a deep breath and thought of Noah, of what his little face would look like after Zach finished with him. Nope. Not gonna happen.
You can do this, I told myself, and I knew I was right. I could.
I lifted the pan, took three steps toward Zach and raised it high, bringing it down on his head with all my strength.
He never saw it coming.
Then I hit him a second time, just to be sure. And a third.
The smell of scorched meat filled the kitchen.
He felt his phone vibrate, and he seriously considered just ignoring it.
It was nearly three thirty in the morning, and the girls had arrived at the Armory an hour ago. He’d never seen Marie so drunk. She wore a little white veil on her head and a white sash that said “Bride” across her chest, and she was carrying around some weird electronic vibrating thing like a trophy. Maggs said it was a sex toy, but damned if Ruger could figure out what it was for.
Horse was drunk, too, although not as bad as Marie. He’d carried his bride-to-be off not long after she arrived. They were upstairs now. That was the last they’d seen of them, although Dancer was trying to convince the girls that they needed to go and rescue Marie. That kept setting them off cackling like a bunch of damned witches.
Ruger pulled out his phone and saw Sophie’s name. Fuck. Now what? He was trying to give her space, but it was f**king hard to pretend everything was fine while he waited. He missed her. The Jacks had taken her away from him for less than a day, but those hours had nearly killed him.
He needed her back. He needed her back now. Wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take.
“Hey, Soph,” he said, stepping out the door into the night air. It was almost October, but it was still warm out. A perfect Indian summer night.
“Ruger,” she said, and her voice sounded strange. “Um, I have a problem.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t think I can tell you over the phone. Would—do you think you could come over? I mean, I know you’re at the party … are you safe to drive, do you think?”
Double f**k. Something was really wrong. Her voice all but screamed it.
“Yeah, I’m good to drive,” he said, and thankfully he was. Hadn’t been in the mood to drink—too many thoughts running through his head. He heard her breath catch. “Should I bring anyone with me?”
“Um, we should probably be discreet,” she said slowly. “I’m in some trouble here, Ruger. I don’t know what to do.”
“Are you hurt?” he asked quickly.
“I don’t think so,” she replied. “That’s not really the worst of it … Ruger, I’ve done something bad. I think you should come over right now. I need you to tell me what to do. I know I keep asking you to stay out of my life, but I was wrong about that. I can’t do this on my own.”