Fifteen Years Ago
The first blow landed precisely on its target but the second fell short. Luke didn’t have time to roll out of the way before the third, fourth and fifth more than made up for the missed second shot.
He stayed silent, covering his face too late to protect himself from the endless punches. Suddenly, Carter stopped, scowling down at his bloody hands.
Luke didn’t dare open his eyes fully. He’d made the mistake of moving too quickly after such an ordeal in the past and it hadn’t fared well for him. He had to play possum for at least a few minutes to ensure his own safety.
Wait for him to go first, the reasonable voice in his head told him. Then you can pick yourself up off the floor.
But as his swollen blue eyes squinted up, all Luke could see was his father examining his fists in surprise, as if chagrined that he had messed up his own hands so badly.
Luke willed him to leave but Carter was lost in thought somehow, his lips moving as though he was having a conversation with himself, but there were no words escaping from the older man’s lips.
Just fucking go already! Luke wanted to scream, but he was not that stupid. He tried not to even breathe, lest the beating continue.
“Look what you made me do!” Carter suddenly growled accusingly.
The boy squeezed his eyes shut, knowing what those words meant.
Carter was finished using his fists. The kicks were coming.
“I have a goddamn meeting with the Japanese in an hour and you’ve made me make a mess! Dammit.”
“Why do you make me do this?” Carter roared, administering two solid kicks. “Why can’t you just listen?”
There was no answer which would make his father stop—Luke knew that. All he could do was hope that Carter would tire, his cigar-smoking lungs weakening with each assault he delivered.
And then, as quickly as it had started, it was over, Carter strode toward the door as if to put distance between himself and the quivering boy on the floor.
“Get yourself cleaned up,” Carter barked. “You’re expected to be at that meeting too. Not that you’re learning anything. All you do is sit there and sulk.”
The door slammed, reverberating through the office, but the sound brought a great sense of relief to Luke. Silence was golden, even if it wasn’t permanent.
It took him several minutes to unfold himself from the fetal position, partially expecting Carter to return and knock him unconscious. But when he realized that wasn’t about to happen, he managed to sit up and look about.
There were the same black spots which always followed the beatings, dancing before his eyes, but Luke had certainly seen worse.
You’re okay, he told himself, rising to his feet slowly. He cracked his jaw carefully, but nothing felt broken this time.
Or maybe I’m just impervious by now.
It was a heartening thought, one that only a young boy could muster in the wake of such a trauma. He needed something to cling to in those moments, after all.
Maybe I’m becoming bionic, like a superhero.
Blood dripped from his nose and Luke used the back of his hand to wipe it, but aside from severe bruising, he was sure he had escaped relatively unscathed.
With measured steps, he moved toward the door which his father had stomped through only moments earlier and pried it open, peering down the hallway for signs of the staff in the massive house.
Unsurprisingly, no one was about. The employees tended to make themselves scarce when the beatings started.
God forbid anyone stand up to the mighty Carter Vaughan. They wouldn’t want to lose their jobs. Who cares if they have to clean up the blood of the innocent from time to time?
He stepped out of the office but before he could beeline for the stairs, he saw Rachel’s small face peer out from the room under the center staircase.
“A-are you o-okay?” she breathed, her crystalline eyes terrified. They seemed to be growing wider as her gaze raked over his battered form.
“What are you doing in there?” Luke growled. “Go to your room.”
His sister shook her dark head of hair and tentatively moved toward him, her little hand trying to clutch his.
“Let me get you a Band Aid,” she whispered and Luke felt a lance of guilt course through him. It was accompanied by a fury which coursed through his small body.
No five-year-old should have to see this, he thought, moving away from her plaintive touch slightly. Goddamn Dad for making her witness this shit.
“I’m okay,” he told her, his voice softening. She was terrified enough as it was without him adding to it. It wasn’t Rachel who was to blame, of course. If anything, she was the only thing which kept him from setting the waterfront mansion on fire.
She’s a kid trapped in this luxurious prison just like me. If anything, she might have it worse than me when I’m gone—there’s no escape plan for her.
More shame flooded him as he thought about leaving Rachel to contend with Carter. But he shoved the idea out of his mind before it could take full hold on him. He couldn’t save them both if he didn’t save himself first. Even at the tender age of twelve, he understood that.
“Let me see,” his sister begged, her eyes wide and haunted. No child should ever have to grow up so fast, but it seemed like Rachel had suffered as much as Luke himself.
She didn’t stand a chance, not after Mom killed herself. Actually, we were doomed from the minute of conception, really.
“There’s nothing to see,” Luke insisted, trying to smile but the expression came out as a grimace. “See? I’m fine?”
“You don’t look fine.”
He sighed and turned his head, eager to shift the conversation.
“Rachel, stop hiding out under the stairs. Go to your room before he realizes you’ve been spying on us.”
“I wasn’t spying!”
Luke was filled with regret at his word choice. It wasn’t Rachel’s fault she’d been exposed to the abuse. It was impossible to avoid it, even in a house that size.
“Just go!” Luke insisted, turning his back away from her. “Don’t make me tell you again.”
So far, Rachel had never received the same treatment. Their father generally left her alone, only shouting at her when she was in his way. The beatings were reserved for Luke. But it was his greatest fear that one day, that would change.
He didn’t wait for her to respond, striding toward the steps to climb them two at a time. He hadn’t meant to be harsh with her but he also knew that his sister was not likely to leave him alone unless he raised his voice.
Through his peripheral vision, he saw Rachel’s head staring up at him, tears welling in her eyes, but he couldn’t stop to placate her, not now.
His anger propelled him toward his suite and as he threw open the door to his sitting room, he willed his pulse to slow.
One day, Rachel is going to be all alone with Dad and she’ll need to know how to deal with him. I won’t be here to make her feel better. The sooner she learns to hide from him, the better off she’ll be.
The idea made him physically nauseous. What would Carter do when Luke was gone? Would he turn his wrath on Rachel?
They were questions which kept him up at night but ones which he knew he couldn’t dwell on all the same.
If Luke wanted to survive, he was going to have to get the hell out from under his father’s thumb – even if it seemed like a pipe dream to a barely teenage boy. Carter and Vaughan Industries was all Luke had ever known. As far as his father was concerned, Luke was going to run the conglomerate, but not before Carter had successfully broken his son of his “stubborn streak.”
But he’s wrong. As soon as I’m old enough, I’m getting the hell out of here, money be damned. I don’t need him or the company. I’ll escape this hellhole and make it on my own.
He made his way into his bedroom through the French doors and looked at himself in the full-length mirror, cringing at the swelling on his face.
And then I’ll come back for Rachel.
Unbidden tears filled his cobalt blue eyes but he didn’t permit them to fall. He wasn’t crying over the pain, intense as it was. No, his anguish was mental, the struggle of a trapped soul in an abusive situation. His turmoil was that of a boy who missed his dead mother.
I’ll make it out of here one day, he told himself in the now-familiar pep talk. And when I do, I’ll only come back to take my sister and maybe kill the old man.
He inhaled deeply and threw his broadening shoulders back.
One day, I’ll be big enough to take Dad on, and if he hits me, I’ll send him through a window. He’ll beg me for mercy but I’ll give him the same leniency he showed me.
Very slowly, the tiny spark of confidence in him began to resurface and he blinked away the tears in his eyes.
Soon, this will all be over, he vowed quietly. And I’ll be the one calling all the shots.