How is it even possible to love someone you hate? It should be simple. Either you love, or you hate, but both?
Am I that screwed up, I can’t even tell the difference anymore? The line so far gone, blurred beyond recognition?
This is what Tyler Bradford has done to me.
He loved me fiercely.
Controlled me emotionally.
Hated me physically.
I was everything and yet nothing to him.
Years and years of promises. Promises that were made to be broken. Promises I knew he couldn’t keep, yet I hoped.
Five years of ups and downs, but that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?
Stick it out.
Give it your all.
I believed this. I lived by this. I just didn’t expect to lose myself in this.
Consumed by his profession, bound by his possession, I was held captive by a promise that would never come.
I, Penny Reed, didn’t walk away. I escaped on a chance.
Freedom. Free – dom. Freedom. I repeat the word over and over again, trying to convince myself of its truth, but the word is a lie. Freedom isn’t really free like it suggests. It comes with a price …
But am I losing myself or am I finding myself?
“Penny?” I hear someone call my name as the car begins to slow. I was swallowed by my thoughts, completely forgetting who I was with. “Sweetie, we’re here.”
My eyes begin to burn, vision blurry as I turn my head.
“Oh, sweetie. Please don’t cry over him. He isn’t worth it.” She takes my hand into hers giving me a weak smile. “Plus, I’m not wearing my waterproof mascara today and if you cry, I’ll cry. Do you see how much makeup I have on today?” She releases my hand and points to her face.
I haven’t had many reasons to smile, but Niki—my transporter and badass sister to Nina Sanders, the girl who saw herself in me—she knew I was broken and offered me an escape. The problem? Tyler. He wasn’t having it. Silently begging me to stay.
His eyes, ocean-blue. Filled with regret and sadness as the cops walked him out of the local coffee shop, making sure my boyfriend made it to his car and away from me. Since he didn’t assault me in public they didn’t have a reason to hold him, but what he did … was never in public. The bruises I wore, were evidence of what he called passion. I convinced myself it was true, fooled myself into forgiving when his passion was more than I could bear, physically and mentally.
I was wrong.
Eyes burning, I try to hold back the tears. A confession of my buried scars.
“I’m not crying …” I swipe at the tears that leave trails down my cheeks.
“Well, here then.” She leans over me and opens the glove box. Throwing a travel size package of tissues into my lap. “These are for the non-tears.” She pats my knee as she leans back into her seat.
“I mean. I-I’m crying, but not for him.” I look up, resting my head against the worn leather seat. Closing my eyes before I whisper my admission, “They’re for me.”
“I promise you. It’s going to be okay.” I hear Niki unbuckle her seatbelt. “In fact …” The door opens and before I have a chance to register what is going on she has rounded the vehicle and opened my door. “It’s going to be more than okay.” She extends her hand and nods toward it.
“I’m scared.” I take it and let her help me out shutting the door behind me.
“Wrong answer.” She’s careful, yet persistent, pulling me behind her. “How I see it, you’re brave, strong even.”
She doesn’t know. No one does.
What I went through, it wasn’t your typical abusive relationship. Tyler was different. Do I believe he loved me? Yes, and in his own way, he still does. Loving me was never the issue. It’s how he loved me that became the problem.
Tyler is the perfect boyfriend, on paper. Attractive, educated, and respectful. The problem is real life, isn’t paper. Real life? It’s ugly.
Tyler wasn’t kind or thoughtful. Not in his words and not when he loved.
Loved? Did he?
Tyler tried to be gentle, at first. Especially since it was my first time, but the longer we were together, the more things changed. I thought I was doing what was expected of me, fulfilling my duties. He was my first everything and I never knew it didn’t have to be like that.
I only knew that I gave love, hoping to get love in return. And I did, but his love hurt.
For a while, I thought it was me. Maybe I wasn’t enough. Lacked experience. He was always searching for more. Pushing me to give more.
I tried to give him all of me, but it was never enough.
Each gentle caress—a bruising hold.
Each thrust—a punishment.
I became his experiment, his release.
“Listen, I have been where you are. Confused and conflicted and I know Nina told you her story.” She drops my hand punching the code to unlock the back door of a warehouse. “You aren’t alone.”
“Are we at …?” I scan the alley and take in my surroundings. I should have asked where we were going, but with everything that was going on, I didn’t care where we were headed. I just wanted to get there.
“Spotlight. Yeah.” Niki pulls open the door and quickly stops the blond waitress passing by. “Shapiro upstairs?”
“Yeah, he’s off for the next forty-eight hours.” She looks Niki up and down. “Love looks good on you, girl.”
“Umm, thanks.” She nods toward the stairwell. “Only access, right?”
“Yep.” The blonde looks me once over before she turns her attention back to Niki. “Well, better go before your fiancé has my ass.”
“Trust me. I’m the only ass Gavin is having,” Niki responds opening the door.
I forgot Gavin Shaw, the manager of Spotlight, is her fiancé. Everything has happened so fast that I’m on information overload. I’m surprised I even remember my own name let alone who is dating who, who is working where and so on.
“Touché,” the waitress replies before turning around and getting back to work.
Standing here has my anxiety on high-alert. If we don’t take a step forward, I may take a few steps back.
Niki grabs the handle yanking the old wooden door open. “We refer to the apartments as the fourth floor, but technically they are on the third.” She notices my hesitation and reaches for my hand again. “You used to be able to access them through the VIP area, but the owner closed that off when he stayed here for a while.”
“Interesting,” I reply, letting her guide me up the stairs.
“I know you are nervous, but from what Shapiro has told me you are going to love where you are going?”
“Shapiro?” I mouth.
“Listen, Penny.” Niki turns to face me once we hit the top floor. Hands on my shoulders, she looks me in the eyes. “I know you are scared and doubting every decision you have made, but I promise you. This is the right one.”
“How can you be so sure? How is running solving anything?”
“You aren’t running. You are surviving. Big difference.” She looks around. “Let’s see. One of these apartments is vacant.” She walks over to the door and begins to knock, but it’s not the door we’re in front of that opens.
“Niki, we have a slight problem,” a gravelly voice says from behind us. “She has to stay with me tonight.”
Turning, I can’t help but let out a little gasp. This man is beyond huge. Tall, tan and eyes as dark as my soul.
Everything about him should scare me away, but instead it pulls me closer, making me feel protected.