It was only seconds later when she got back to me.
I shoved my phone in my pocket and logged off the computer.
“Hey, what’s up? Where you off to?” JT asked. I hadn’t told him the whole story about what had happened between Jillian and me, but between my sour mood and the timing of Jillian’s departure, he suspected. He tried—repeatedly—to get me to tell him what happened, but I wouldn’t utter a peep. I didn’t want him getting the wrong idea about Jillian and then spreading it around the office.
“I’m taking the rest of the day off. Cover for me.”
“What do you mean you’re taking the day off? You never take time off unless someone’s dead. And even then you’d probably bring your laptop to the funeral. So what gives?”
I paused, scrubbing my hand over my forehead while I tried to think of what to tell him. “Something came up that can’t wait. I know it’ll be hard, doing it alone and all, and I feel real bad leaving you in a bind. So if anything major comes up you can’t handle, I’ll come back tonight and I’ll fix it.”
JT crossed his arms. “Pfft! I can handle anything that comes up. Go on, get outta here. I’ll hold down the fort.”
I smiled wickedly as I made my way toward the car. JT had fallen right into that, and he didn’t even see it coming.
But all thoughts of JT faded as I drove. What could have happened to make Jillian contact me? Whatever it was, it was urgent. I hoped nothing happened with her grandmother again. That family had been through enough recently.
I made it to the playground twenty minutes later. I could see from the parking lot that Jillian was there, pacing back and forth between the sliding board and swings with her hand to her mouth. Knowing her, she was biting the side of her thumb again. She looked stunning in a strapless purple sundress bathed in the Georgia summer sun. She paused and took her hair out of the braid, piece by piece until it was all free and cascaded in waves down her back. She began braiding it again and then shook it free once more. The soft locks almost looked like a dark gold at this angle. I wanted to stand back and watch her all day. I could have, she was that beautiful.
But even at this distance, I could see she was plagued with worry. Even if she was pissed as hell at me, I couldn’t stand by if there was something I could do to ease it—if only for a few moments.
She turned my way when she heard the car door slam, and even at this distance I saw her face crumble. I quickened my pace, anxious to get to her. Her lip quivered as I approached, and then the tears fell as I scooped her in my arms. Her knees buckled, so I carried her to a nearby bench and let her just cry.
A ton of worst-case scenarios ran through my mind as to why she was so upset, but I didn’t want to ask. I knew she’d explain why she’d asked me here as soon as she was ready. Until then, I was content to have her in my arms again.
When her crying slowed some time later, she began to speak—softly, as if it were a secret.
“I should have listened to you. I was so naïve. I must have been blind not to see it all this time.”
“What didn’t you see, Jillian? What happened?”
She sighed. “I don’t even know where to start. Everything just unraveled and then it exploded.”
She lifted her head from my chest and faced me. It was the first time I’d gotten a close-up view of her face today, and I was floored. I held her chin gently between my thumb and forefinger and turned her face slowly from side to side, examining her. She had a large, purpling bruise on most of her left cheek, and her eye was beginning to swell. There was no cut, but there was a faint outline of three fingers near her temple. Someone had hit her—hard.
I fought to remain calm, but it was a losing battle. I couldn’t see straight as every instinct in my body told me—urged me to action. “Did that son of a bitch hit you?”
Her eyes began to pool again, and she only nodded in reply.
“That god-damned piece-of-shit motherfucker.” I growled, breathing heavily through my nose to keep my temper in check. I clenched and unclenched my hands, wanting to punch something. My heart raced with a surge of adrenaline, and I began to shake in anger. My muscles tightened as rage filled me, consuming and overpowering any rational thought.
I wanted to leave her here and go hunt him down, but I knew I couldn’t. She was still on my lap and had seen enough violence for one day. The last thing I wanted to do was scare her. I let out a deep breath and cupped her face, laying the gentlest of kisses on her bruised cheek before I said anything else.
“Jillian, I don’t know what happened, but I need to say this. It is, under no circumstances, permissible for him to lay a finger on you. There is nothing you could have said or done to deserve such an action.” I paused, letting out a deep breath while I tried to gather just the right words. “I promise you, it will be the last time. And he will regret this. He will regret harming you, disrespecting you, and not honoring your trust. I will make sure he knows—in no uncertain terms—that any such actions have consequences. Like beating the shit out of him to see how he likes it. And making sure he can’t do it again by ripping his arms out of his fuckin’ sockets—and beating him with them until he’s reduced to a bloody pulp.”
Jillian leaned up and put a hand on my arm, causing me to pause. “It’s okay, Grant. I’m okay. And I left as soon as it happened. I won’t let him ever get close enough to try again. I promise.”
I pulled her back to my chest and hugged her tight. “God, Jillian. When you called me, I never would have imagined. I honestly want to kill that fuckin’ bastard. It’ll be worth every moment I spend in jail if it means he can’t go near you ever again. Near any woman. I mean, I never would have let you go back anywhere close to him if I’d known he’d do this.”
She wiped her eyes on the back of her hand, wincing a bit when she brushed over her sore cheek. “He’s selling weed. And coke. You were right. I’m so sorry I didn’t listen to you. I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to believe he was lying to me for so long. He swore to me a year ago that he was completely done with the stuff and I believed him.”
“Start from the beginning, and tell me what you need. Name it and it’s yours.”
“I was at his work, and he left to go get lunch. Some guy came and said he had a package. It seemed shady, ya know? Just the way it was delivered, and then it didn’t say anything on the box, like no name or anything. And I kept hearing your voice, your accusations. And I wanted to prove you wrong. So I opened it.
“God, Grant, I’d never been so freaked out in my life. I was holding ten thousand dollars’ worth of drugs. In that moment, all I could think of was the decades I’d spend in jail if anyone were to come in and catch me with it. So I flushed it. I flushed all of it. I didn’t want any part of it anywhere near me. Christian caught me.”
She paused, bringing her hand up to her cheek and lightly touching it. “You know, when I was sixteen and I first met him, I was so enthralled that someone so popular and so much older wanted a simple sophomore like me that I let it color how I saw him. My friends and I put him on some type of pedestal, like a movie star. I mean, he was the most popular boy in school, captain of the basketball team—and he chose me. I didn’t really know him, ya know? I knew his image, the one he pretended to be. And even after we started dating, I somehow convinced myself that the image was who he really was. I never looked too far below the surface. There were signs, and red flags, but I buried them. I didn’t want my image shattered. ‘Cause if I really confronted who he was, it meant that I had to face who I was: a shallow girl who didn’t care what he was really like because all I saw was a pretty face.”
I stoked her hair, running my fingers through the wavy strands. It helped assuage my anger, which was barely at bay just under the surface, primed and ready to come out if given the chance. My revenge would wait. Right now, I focused solely on her.
“I don’t believe that, Jillian. Everyone makes stupid mistakes in high school. We have no idea who we are at that age, so we pretend to be who we think others want us to be, or expect us to be. We go along with whatever’s in vogue just to fit in. I was a skinny, runt of a kid who liked computers and math through most of high school. The only people who liked me were teachers. But kids are stupid. Hell, most people at your age or even my age still haven’t figured it out. I haven’t figured it out. That’s what growing up is for—figuring shit out. Please don’t blame yourself for any of this. He lied to you. He hid who he really was. He’s a fuckin’ coward who knew what he was doing was wrong and did it anyway.”
She shifted on my lap and looked up at me. “What do I do now, Grant? Do I turn him in? Do I pretend like it never happened? Tell his parents? Try to get him in rehab or something?” She paused, groaning. “Ugh! What am I going to tell my parents about my face? My dad will go ape-shit if he finds out. He’s stressed enough with work and Gamma. I can’t tell him this.”
“The first thing we’re going to do is go get some ice on your cheek and eye before it swells any more.”
She smiled shyly. “We? You’re not mad at me for being an utter bitch to you?”
I brought my lips to hers, kissing her gently. “Yes, we. For as long as you’ll have me.”
A week later, my bruise had faded from vibrant purple and throbbing to a dull yellow-green and sore to the touch. That first day was by far the hardest I’d ever had in my life. So many emotions ran through me, and nothing made sense. I felt adrift at sea. Amazingly, my anchor who stabilized everything was Grant.
I never thought of myself as a girl who would hide behind a man or rush to have him save her. I wasn’t a damsel in distress. Trish, Ava, and I had all taken a self-defense course when we were seniors in high school, and I’d always thought I could handle myself if the time ever came. What I didn’t count on when learning the steps was the emotional impact of being attacked. Even a single blow packed more of an emotional punch than I could have imagined. The betrayal, the shock, or the fear would paralyze you from thinking, let alone defending yourself.
I second-guessed everything I did that day over and over in my head. What should I have done differently? How did I not see this coming? Was I so blind to all the red flags? Should I have waited and confronted him? I had too many questions, and no answers.
The worst part was that I couldn’t stop the haunting images of Christian, of his drug-dealing buddies, and what might happen next because of what I did. The threat of the consequences of my actions was paralyzing—except when Grant was with me. My whole body calmed when he was there, like my subconscious knew he was my safe place. When I saw him coming toward me that day on the playground, I could finally breathe.
The day of the attack, Grant and I went back to my house to talk things over. Ava and Trish were there, all psyched to take me out for my birthday. When they saw my face, Trish went ballistic, throwing herself at Grant and pounding on him thinking he was the one who hit me. I loved her a little more for that. Ava had to literally sit on her to prevent her from getting in the car and going after Christian once we told her what really happened. Hell, Grant was ready to go with her.
And when I told them the reason, what he’d really been up to—let’s just say Fidel Castro probably would have gotten off easier with the three of them.
We went round and round for hours, debating on the best course of action. There were a lot of factors in play, but in the end we decided as a group to not go to the police. The drugs were gone, I had no idea who the dealer was who delivered them, and there was no other hard evidence against Christian, the surf shop, or anyone else. The only thing going to the police would have done was stir up more trouble for me, and I wanted to pretend like the whole thing hadn’t happened.
My eye swelled, requiring two steaks and a bag of peas before it subsided. There was no hiding it from my parents, but I couldn’t tell them what had happened. Daddy had too many rifles for that.
I ended up telling my dad that I got smacked with a softball during a friendly pick-up game. I wasn’t sure if he totally bought it, but I began avoiding both of my parents so they couldn’t ask too many questions. Questions like why I’d suddenly broken up with Christian out of the blue, and why Grant was now coming over every single day.
Grant was amazing through this whole thing, but to say he was slightly over-protective would be an understatement. He didn’t want me to go anywhere alone, insisting he or one of my friends accompany me on every errand, no matter how small. I understood and appreciated his concern, but I really didn’t think Christian was going to confront me in the middle of the Piggly Wiggly.
Christian did try several other times, however. He came the night of my birthday and screamed outside on my porch for a half hour. Luckily, my parents were away still, and the only ones home were Grant, Trish, Ava, and me. He yelled for so long and so loudly that old man Weatherling came out, yelling about all the noise, but he never called the cops.
“Please, baby. Just talk to me. Just let me explain. You know I never meant to hurt you.”
I refused to answer him, just sitting in my bed, shaking. Grant was ready to explode, shaking in anger. His face was bright red, and I had to sit on top of him and wrap my body around his to keep him from running out the door and killing Christian. “Please don’t leave me, Grant. I know you want to hurt him for what he did, but stay with me. I need you here with me.”
“C’mon, Jillian!” Christian yelled. “You’ve got to talk to me. What the fuck am I supposed to do now?”
Ava stormed into my room with my dad’s golf clubs. She was angrier than I’d ever seen her. She began to pelt Christian with balls. “Get the fuck out of here, Christian. She’s never taking you back. You’re lucky you’re not behind bars right now.”
“Goddammit! Jillian, call off your fucking bitch friends and talk to me. Fuck! C’mon, Ava. Make her see reason. It’s not like this was my fault. Why’d you even open the package? Damnit! I swear to God, Ava, if you throw one more thing at me I’m going to beat the shit out of you.”
“No! You’ve gone too far this time, Christian. I backed you up for years. After the Abbi incident at prom, after the drugs—but I’m done. This is not forgivable in my book. So go ahead and try, asshole. I’ll call the cops so fast you won’t be able to say Miranda. You know my cousin’s the sheriff.”
Christian flew to the porch, banging and kicking on the door. I clutched Grant tighter, unable to stop crying. “Get your fuckin’ ass down here now, Jillian. I’m not playing any more. Or I will come in there and drag you out there.”
Trish threw a shoe at Christian from the window. “If your no-good sorry ass doesn’t leave right this instant, the next thing you see will be flashing lights. Leave, Christian! Now!”
He kicked and punched the door a few more times. “This isn’t over, Jillian. You hear me? It’s not over!”
Grant got up and flew down the stairs, but by the time he made it to the front door, Christian was peeling away in his Jeep.
A week went by, and I didn’t hear from Christian again, thank God. For the most part, Grant and I were—Grant and I. We didn’t talk about anything official, he didn’t give me his class ring or anything silly like that. I wanted to tell him how much he meant to me, how hard I was beginning to fall. But I had just ended an almost four-year relationship, and wasn’t sure if I could handle another one.
So, instead we had a mutually unspoken agreement that, for now, things needed to be simple and comfortable. Take each day and see where it goes. We kept things mostly platonic over the first week—minus a few kisses. Okay, a lot of kissing. A lot (hey, a girl only has so much will power!).
Ava and Trish both jumped aboard Team Grant with both feet. They saw him as the anti-Christian (which he was), but also as someone who, no matter what it meant for him, had my best interests at heart. The three of them were always in cahoots now, which sort of made me nervous. Ava and Trish on their own could be deadly, but add in Grant’s twisted genius—we’re talking apocalyptic.
One of the schemes the three of them planned was a do-over birthday celebration. We decided to have it a week after my real birthday (since I didn’t want to look like an extra from The Walking Dead or something in all the pictures, or face uncomfortable looks from people all night) and to celebrate with a night of dancing in Savannah.
Now I sat at my vanity, fingering through the ringlets of curls and generously applying concealer to my face. Grant was sweet enough to pick up Ava and Trish, and they were all heading here shortly.
After pinning back half my hair, pulling my long bangs through so they swept behind my ear and leaving the bottom loose, I was about ready. I tried on three-quarters of my wardrobe, but finally decided on a white eyelet sundress with tiny spaghetti straps and a black satin ribbon that sat just below the bust line, cinching my waist. I paired it with my favorite red pumps and switched out the necessities from my purse for the night—lipstick, cell phone, license—into a small wristlet.
It was exactly seven when I heard Grant pull up. I rushed downstairs and threw open the door, excited about the evening and the chance to make up for the disastrous birthday from the week before.
“Wow, you look absolutely stunning,” he greeted me, taking my hand and kissing it before lifting it above his head so I could twirl around. “You put them all to shame.”
My smile spread from ear to ear. “And you, sir, are looking very dapper yourself.” He was decked out in a black linen shirt and a pair of jeans that framed his mouth-watering ass perfectly. I tore my attention away from the delectable sight of him before my willpower dissolved. “Where are the girls?”
He smiled wickedly. “They stayed in the car so I could do this.” He placed a hand on the small of my back and wrapped the other around my shoulders before dipping me back and kissing me. It started out slow, but built into something that left me breathless and me wanting more.
“Oh, wow.” I wrapped my arms around him as he righted me again and gave me another small kiss. “Now that’s the way to start a night out on the town.”
He leaned in and nibbled on my ear. “God, I can’t get enough of you. Let’s ditch those two and have a night in, just the two of us.”
Oh, that offer was tempting. But Trish and Ava were already honking the horn.
“Hey, you two! We’re supposed to be vertical dancing tonight, not horizontal! So get out here,” Trish yelled from the driveway.
“Ugh! You know she’s not going to stop until we do.”
He sighed, nodding. “If we must. But before we go I have something for you.” He pulled out a small box, which was wrapped with a tiny silver ribbon.
“Oh, Grant. You didn’t have to get me anything.”
“It’s nothing big, but it reminded me of you, and I wanted you to have it.”
I pulled the ribbon and opened the lid of the box. Inside sat a four-by-six frame, clear so you could see both sides. Inside the frame sat a small postcard with a picture of the Eiffel Tower taken in the spring at a distance. In the foreground of the photo were hundreds of blooming flowers and trees. When I turned it over, he had written in French: