The Story of a Story
Once upon a time, many moons ago, I had this character pop into my head. He was scary. He was not like any of my other characters. He made me very nervous. A loner from a fictional, tiny town south of Atlanta, Ginger Belle, Dusty came from a dysfunctional family riddled with mental illnesses. By chance, he meets a city girl fleeing Nashville because her parents are gone and she’s restless to see stars and find out what’s beyond the city lights. They are nothing alike, and shouldn’t be together. But, sparks fly. In writing their part of this saga, I had really mixed emotions. I liked Dusty’s character; I almost felt sorry for him. His paranoia, his jealousy, the hallucinations — there was no mistaking that Dusty was mentally ill. And I wanted to help him.
I also knew that his illness would go undiagnosed, he’d have a daughter, and, eventually, he’d be consumed by impotent feelings of inadequacy, by jealousy and rage and, yes, by the symptoms of an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. Dusty becomes something different than he was when he first met Dana; Dusty violently mistreats his daughter. He chains her, he keeps her in a box, he brands and beats her; rape is used to “cleanse” her of the evil spirits that he believes are living within her tiny, five-year-old self. His paranoia transforms into vivid and dangerous delusions; hallucinations become harder for him to fight off.
Dusty made my nightmares burst.
I’d write a sentence and then find myself shaking uncontrollably, and stop, pushing it away, saying, “I can’t do it. I can’t write this book.” I’d apologize to Daphne, Dusty’s daughter, who was really the main protagonist of this story but who I didn’t really know yet because she was still so little. I didn’t even know my hero’s name yet, and the idea of someone “saving” Daphne made my blood curl. I’d already written that book and, the thing is, no one can save another person. Not possible. So I didn’t want to write it. Instead, I’d move to this second book I was writing simultaneously (which is something I’ve also never done: I write one book at a time). It was set back in the time of Hans Christian Andersen; the vague theory was that this was a “storyteller” — I wanted to write a book detailing how stories tie us all together. The main character, Henry, was to be an “original storyteller” — you know, the vagabonds who traveled from village to village telling stories. They were treated as heroes. Henry was going to be loosely based on the imperfect Andersen.
But guess what?
I got stuck on that book, too. I couldn’t fit all of the pieces of the story together. I’d written a hundred pages or so but I couldn’t work out the overarching plot. I couldn’t spell it out. Also — it didn’t make my heart squeeze — even though Henry was my main character, I didn’t feel quite connected to him as I usually do. So, I’d write a little, then stare at the other book, the one with Dusty (which, at that time, I was calling “Dreamcatcher”). I’d agonize — how can I write or publish a book that even remotely suggests that a mental illness – no matter how awful or serious it is — could justify child abuse? It can’t. Nothing justifies child abuse. Being perfectly clear: mental illness does not excuse or in any way rationalize or undermine abuse of any kind.
My father was clinically diagnosed as bipolar with psychopathic tendencies. And, even though I can say, “That does not change anything” — the truth is — I didn’t know if it did or not. If someone is ill, if, say, like in Dusty’s case, they genuinely believe that evil spirits are trying to hurt them… does that negate, in any way, what they do to another human? What if that human is completely, utterly defenseless, a child, whose entire world is turned inside out because of these actions? If they don’t truly know the difference between right and wrong, are they responsible for their actions? I wanted to say yes. I wanted to believe that, even though the abuser would and should have access to care and medical treatment and psychologists who could help them, ultimately, the child’s life mattered, too. Ultimately, one person’s mental illness didn’t take precedence over the well-being of another. And I was not willing to release a story that other survivors might read and think, “Well, my abuser had __________. So maybe it was not his fault; he couldn’t help himself.” I wasn’t willing to risk putting another survivor through that.
Slowly, though, as Daphne aged, I couldn’t stop myself from comparing her to Abrielle.
Abrielle was abused in mind-numbing ways. Raped, beaten, kidnapped, I mean, she had some issues. And, when I wrote Abrielle’s character, I have the original “character sketch” on which the words, “Some pain doesn’t go away.” I consciously wanted to show that there are types of pain that never go away, that scar the person forever. It’s why her ending couldn’t be a happily-ever-after. Because her purpose was to demonstrate, in a heartbreaking way, that some pain can’t be forgotten. To make this point, Abrielle was fragile. She wanted to be strong, but she wasn’t. She was terrified, and her entire life was defined by that fear. The one thing that gave her hope was that she met Clayton Cunningham.
Clayton is not perfect either but, I swear, I love him. He was tender and compassionate and he came from a world-class, five-star, all all-around perfect family. I have needed a Pete my entire life (Pete was Clayton’s father) and I have dreamed of being surrounded by a loving, supportive and demonstrably close group of family and friends … really, forever. Clayton was the antithesis of Abrielle. And yet–this perfect (he was not perfect; have I mentioned that? He made serious flaws, but at the time, he was as close to perfect as I’d ever written. More importantly, he was perfect to Abrielle) person accepted her, no questions asked. No matter how crazy she was, no matter how dysfunctional her family was, no matter how hard she made it to care for her–he didn’t leave and he didn’t think less of her.
So–as I struggled with this new story, and character Daphne, I consciously decided Daphne was not Abrielle. Daphne’s purpose was different. Maybe there are types of pain that never disappear, but they can heal. Not only that, but sometimes going through a holocaust makes you bolder, more confident in who you are. Daphne doesn’t need saving. She needs a friend. There’s a big difference. Subtle differences started making me admire Daphne; she’s funny, she’s brave, and she’s able to do things on her own. Daphne has a different point that she’s making than Abrielle. Daphne’s point is that sometimes pain can manifest itself physically. To demonstrate this, as a result of abuse, Daphne is selectively mute. She doesn’t speak. And she has never gone to school, so she doesn’t know how to read or write. Cole has been teaching her to read and write and , by the time of this excerpt below, she can do those things. Cole wants her to speak, but she has not yet been able to. Caring for this character made me see more clearly that Dusty’s abuse was exactly that: abuse. By definition, abuse is not okay. It’s a crime, and it doesn’t matter whether the abuser is mentally ill or not.
But also — gosh, I loved writing Daphne and Cole’s story. Daphne doesn’t wear shoes, so he calls her Cinderella. When he realizes she doesn’t know who the princesses are, they watch the movies; Daphne loves Rapunzel. I didn’t try to make this happen, but suddenly I realized that all of the characters in this book, all of them, their lives had been tremendously impacted by stories. Suddenly, I heard Daphne say, This is ONE book. That second story I was writing about “the storyteller” — Henry wasn’t Hans Christian Andersen, he would be the missing piece of THIS puzzle, of Cole and Daphne’s story.
All at once, the excitement that usually accompanies a story, but that had been lacking in this one, bloomed. I got it. I understood what these crazy characters wanted me to do. It was a story about stories and how they connect us all, and oh, the way it connected them is both heartbreaking and spine-tingling wonderful. When the girls asked me about the story, I told them. Breathe helped come up with Cole’s name and Alight became a source of endless conversation. She helped me add critical elements to the story, she helped me name the dog, but also helped fill in missing gaps of the ending. Those conversations with her made this story more precious because it wasn’t just mine anymore, it had been the source of Chatter Chats that made my bond stronger with my daughter. The fact that that took place during the writing of a book about stories made me melt.
Clayton. Out of nowhere, Clayton Cunningham wanted an appearance. In this story. Which I never do. At first, it made me cry. How? I demanded of him. You expect me to write you when you don’t have Abrielle? Are you crazy? Are you trying to hurt me? I can’t do that. But Clayton didn’t leave. He hung out on the edges of my brain, reminding me of how much I love him. See, I’ve always loved Clayton. I don’t really know why. I can’t justify it because he’s not particularly well-written or complex in his story. But… he’s magical to me.
The below is an excerpt from when Clayton meets Daphne in The Storyteller. It is not my favorite scene in the book. And yet it is because Clayton brings with him a strength and a friendly face that’s not going to ever demand or ask anything of Daphne. Cole loves her, but with romantic love eventually comes physical expectations. Clayton is not interested in romance, so he doesn’t bring that to the table. All he cares about is kindness. Not shown in this excerpt but he, and his family, ultimately become very close to Daphne. They help plan a wedding, and the scene in which Clayton hugs Daphne made my whole self melt because, sometimes, all you really need is a friend.
I’ve overshared this book already — posted too many excerpts. At first, I didn’t care because I didn’t think I’d be able to release this story. I still haven’t signed a contract with Adam but a saga, a coming of age saga that includes Rapunzel, a heroine whose nickname is “princess” because she doesn’t wear shoes, and where there are lanterns and where every character tells stories …it is my heart. See, the bad parts, the painful parts — that’s one piece of my life’s story. I really do remember the fear, I really can recall smells and things that no child should ever, ever, under any circumstances, go through. It really did scar me, in so many ways. I can’t tell you how much my heart aches for and misses a blonde haired, blue eyed little girl who never felt free. But also—that’s not the only part of the story. And the abuse is not the only part of Daphne’s story. Dusty is mentally ill. He loved Dana. He likes riding four wheelers and living in the gulley and old Indian legends. He is also violently, viciously abusive. These are pieces of the same story.
Anyway — I love this book and, even though I probably have overshared — I can’t resist showcasing Clayton in this new story. I almost chose one of the later excerpts with him, but the knowledge of what seeing Daphne, who has black hair like Abrielle and appears at his doorsteps bruised, would have done to his heart made me pick this one. To set this scene: Daphne appears at Cole’s farmhouse, her face busted, clearly having been through trauma. At this point, Cole has seen evidence of physical violence , but only in the form of scars that are old. When Daphne tells him of what happened to her face, he gives her a choice: she can stay with him at the farmhouse indefinitely or he can call the police to escort her back to her home and arrest Dusty. Neither option feels like a workable solution to Daphne and she panics. Cole asks her to trust him; there’s a friend he wants her to meet before deciding on a plan. This excerpt picks up as they make their way to Clayton’s.
During the ride, Cole plays music. The rhythm and beat of the music reverberates throughout my bones, making me nod my head. I hold my hand out the window and let the wind rush over it. It feels like it is flying.
When Cole sings along, I pretend the sound is awful, first covering both my ears with my hands. My smile gives me away, though, because Cole chuckles, reaches out, pulls one of my hands down from my ears and keeps singing.
It isn’t until we stop for lunch that I start to feel nervous. How many people are we going to meet? Why does he want me to meet this man? I reach out, taking the pencil that I keep with me now, and the small notebook. With a shaky hand, I write, “Lot of peeple?”
Cole glances down, then frowns. “Nicely done. People is weird. It sounds like it should be e-e-but it’s actually p-e-o-p-l-e. Hm. Clayton has a big family. He has a son and a daughter who I think just turned twelve or something. Her name is Mally; Andrew is, maybe, five? He’s very close to his parents, and a small group of friends. So, I can’t ever be sure who will be at Clayton’s, or who will show up.” He pauses, then adds, “But they are all exceptionally wonderful people who have been through a lot in the last couple of years.”
Curiously, I tip my head, listening.
“Clayton’s wife, Abrielle, died two years ago. She wasn’t just Clayton’s wife; she was truly his soulmate. I didn’t think he’d recover, not sure if he really has yet or not. But he has a great support system, and he still owns his own gallery that’s been part of his family for years. Abrielle was an artist. She mainly did sketches, but she also painted some, especially later. I love the one of the dreamcatcher she gave me.”
As we cross into a quiet neighborhood with lawns and homes that seemed perfectly manicured, I quieten. As circumspectly as possible, I tug some of my hair around my shoulders, using it to hide the bruises on my face.
Using the pencil again, I write, “Home?”
“Yes, Clayton isn’t at the gallery today; he’s going to meet us at his house.”
When the homes progressively got larger and more ornate, the anxiousness grows. Finally, Cole slows and pulls into the circular driveway of a mansion. Larger than the farmhouse, it looks like something out of one of Cole’s books.
Before we ring the bell, the door opens. A young girl of maybe twelve or thirteen stands; she has brown hair and pretty eyes, a spattering of freckles on her face. “Cole!” Mally throws herself forward into Cole’s waiting, open arms. “Hey, Mally! It’s so good to see you!”
It isn’t until Mally looks at Daphne that the girl’s smile dips. She blinks hard, then looks at Cole. He nods imperceptibly, and Mally’s smile is back. “Hello. My name is Mally. What’s your name?”
I look at Cole, who smiles. “She’s fond of going barefoot, so I call her Cinderella most of the time. She doesn’t speak, so we’re still figuring out how she can tell us her name.”
“I like Cinderella. But my favorite princess is Merida. She’s the bomb. Come on, I think Dad’s in the living room with Andrew.”
Cole put a hand behind my back and winked at me. I didn’t notice a little boy in the room, but the man that stood from the couch when we entered the light-colored living room made my stomach drop. His dark chocolate colored hair gave him a carefree appearance but the warmth in his eyes, made him seem older than he was. Only a hairs breath shorter than Cole, the two of them resembled each other, both having only one dimple, both having that sense of belonging I don’t have.
But Clayton… I feel as though I know him, or, rather, almost as though he knows me. Like Mally, he blinks when he sees me. I watch as his eyes canvas my face, then slide to my branded, scarred arms, and watch his jaw harden.
“Good God,” he breathes, covering his mouth with a hand, raking it down. He looks at Mally, who nods, sitting now with her hands in her lap in one of the chairs. Slowly, Clayton approaches, holding out his hand to shake Cole’s.
“It’s good to see you, Cole.”
“Yeah, same. Thanks for meeting with us. This beauty is the nameless woman I was telling you about. Remind you of anyone?”
Clayton drew in a shaky breath, nodding. “Yes.” His eyes turn to me, and I know using my hair to shield my face won’t work. Cautiously, I take a tiny step backwards, trying to hide behind Cole, my eyes falling to the floor. “My wife had black hair, like yours.” He offers.
I lift my eyes to see Cole, who nods.
“She had the most unusual eyes, piercing, really, a violet color. You could read her every thought by looking at her eyes.” I don’t know why, but I know this man Clayton is my friend. When he waves a hand at the sofa behind us, we sit.
Mally says, “Do you like to draw, too?”
I shake my head. No.
“My sister liked to draw. She wasn’t, like, my real sister. We had different parents. But she raised me. She liked to draw a lot.”
“She did. I met her because she would walk miles to the sit outside of my gallery, even in the cold weather, just to look at the few paintings she could see from the window.”
My eyes softened.
Suddenly, the door bursts open, and a beautiful little boy bounds into the room. He’s covered from head to toe in mud. Cole and Clayton start laughing.
“Been having fun, son?” Clayton asks, reaching out to pick the boy up. Andrew chatters away, telling him about the pirate adventures he’s been having in the backyard. When Mally offers to give the boy a bath, Clayton sends them off.
“Ever played cards?” Clayton asks, continuing to watch me. Cole quirks an eyebrow, clearly wondering what Clayton is thinking, but he goes along, encouraging me by promising to teach me how to play.
Clayton shrugs. “Ah, it’s not hard,” he reached out and pulled the drawer of the side table open to retrieve a pack of playing cards. The next hour passes quickly as I learn the basics of cards. Sporadically, I catch Clayton watching me, but it never feels invasive. Instead, there’s a sadness lingering in the air. As we play, he asks, “So, Cole tells me you needed help for your dog, so you walked to the farm?”
I nod, my eyes cast down on my set of cards.
“How did you know about Cole being a doctor?”
I shake my head, shrugging.
“You didn’t know?”
I wave my hand back and forth. Then I pointed to my ear.
“You weren’t sure, but you’d heard of him?”
I smiled, glancing at Cole again, who had laid his hand of cards down and leaned back in the sofa and was watching me with a warmth in his eyes that left me unable to look away. Carefully, I reached my hand up in the air, pretending to pluck something. I then stuck the hand with the imaginary apple behind my back, then plucked another imaginary apple, hiding it, as well. A slow smile dawned on Cole’s face.
“What am I missing? You hid something? You took fruit or something from one of his trees?”
“Yes, she was a real-life Aladdin. Snuck into the backyard one night, stole some apples… and a chicken,” he added, amusement hugging his voice.
I drop my head but can’t stop the answering smile from ruining a contrite expression.
“Did you stop her?” Clayton asked, also clearly amused.
“No, of course not. It was a chicken, not a diamond.”
Clayton laughed. “Okay, so did you steal the fruit –“
“Apples first or bring your dog first?”
I plucked the imaginary apple, widening my eyes, shrugging my shoulders.
“What happened to your dog?”
I reached down and touched my leg, wincing in pain.
“His leg was hurt?”
“And his head,” Cole’s voice no longer sounded amused. I nod, gently scratching a line across my forehead.
“Oh, so he had a hurt leg and a cut on his head? How in the world did that happen?”
I lift my eyes to see Cole’s. Without breaking my gaze, he nods. This is why he brought me here. I don’t know why, but I know it is why I am here.
“She was also hurt that day,” Cole murmurs. I drop my head.
“You were? How?” Clayton asks, leaning forward to put his elbows on his knees, and tipping his head to try to see mine as I bow it.
I touch my nose without looking up.
“Your nose?” a moment of silence and Clayton frowns, adding, “So, wait. Your dog had a hurt leg and a gash on his head. Your nose was injured.”
I lift a shoulder, shifting my eyes to Cole. Gently, he reaches out, takes my hand in his, and squeezes.
Clayton watches the interaction, memories flashing across his hooded eyes. Clayton leaned back against the couch. “So, how did that happen? How did the dog and you both get injured?”
Quietly, I pull my hand from Cole’s so that I can cup my palms together, as if I’m cradling something. I pull my hands in to my chest and then violently throw them out in front of me. “Thrown? You’re thrown?” I shake my head. “The dog is thrown?” I nod, once. Then I make my fingers curl into a fist, and punch the air, stopping just short of my nose.
Cole’s eyes slowly close, a curse slipping from his lips. Clayton stops breathing, his eyes staring at me unblinking, as if he sees a ghost. “I see,” he murmurs softly. “Did you tell Cole this when you showed up with the dog?”
I shake my head, frowning.
Clayton moves his gaze to Cole. “Did you demand answers?”
“No, I did not,” Cole said, sighing heavily.
Silence settles like a thick cloud in the room, shame covering me as the men in the room think about what I’ve told them. Finally, Clayton asks, “The bruises on your face, the ones there right now…how did those get there? The scars on your arms? Those?”
When I’m quiet, Clayton holds out an open palm. “Listen, I know you don’t know me. I know you don’t trust me. You probably don’t trust Cole too much right now, either. And I know that inside your heart is wound so tight it’s trembling right now, terrified of everything that could go wrong if you make one move you’re not supposed to make.”
Tears blur my vision, and I use a hand to cover my mouth.
“Are you covering your mouth because you’ve been told to be quiet for, what, ten, eleven, eighteen years, and breaking that rule means hell itself will crash down on you?” Clayton’s eyes finally misted, memories creeping into the lines on her face. “You think evil is stronger than kindness because evil doesn’t play fair, doesn’t play honest, so, if you trust kindness, you’re a fool who might end up paying more than you can afford to lose.”
I wipe tears away, bowing my head.
“Clayton- “Cole’s voice is hesitant, but Clayton holds up a finger, silencing him.
“I know. I promise you–I know. But… The bruises on your face, the branding and the holes in your arms… how did they get there? Let’s start with the face.”
When I still don’t answer, Clayton shifts. Reaching out, he gently touches my leg. When I raise my eyes, he nods, “Listen to me. Evil might not play fair, but kindness is real, and it changes lives. I have seen it. Mally is living proof. Kindness can win, but you have to trust it. It’s the hardest thing to do, I know, but it’s also the bravest thing you can do. And you have it. You’re so close. Cole is right beside you, he has your hand, and he wouldn’t let anything hurt you. And, in my house, absolutely nothing will ever touch you, I swear it.” Clayton pauses, then arches a brow. “Show him how brave you are. Show yourself.” His voice hardens as he adds, “What happened to your face?”
Tears shimmer in my eyes. Reluctantly, I reach down, pretend to pick up something, then throw it. I repeat the motion again and again. Clayton shifts his weight, shaking his head. “What’s being thrown?”
I look at Cole, asking him for help, but he brushes my cheek with his knuckles, shaking his head. “You can tell him.”
Sighing, I reach over where I’ve put the notebook and pencil. I carefully write letters, then turn the paper toward Clayton: ROC.
“Rocks are being thrown at you? At your face?”
“You were stoned?”
Clayton nods, covers his mouth with his hand, then stands, walks over to the window. Bracing his hands on either side of the window, he bends his head, looking like a man in agony.
“What about your arms?” Clayton’s voice is firm. There is no refusing him an answer. When he turns toward me, his eyes are tender, but hard.
I close my eyes, think back to seeing Daddy smoke. My hand trembles when I pick up the pencil, holding it between my first and middle fingers. Shakily, I bring it to my mouth, pretend to put it between my lips.
“Smoking, got it,” Clayton’s voice is gruff.
I move the pencil down, rubbing it into my arm, near one of the burn marks. I glance at Cole and see him shake his head. “And the circles, these?” he asks, gently touching one of the branding marks. I shrug.
“It looks like you were branded” Cole murmurs. “Were you?”
When I nod, Cole sighs heavily, “Princess.”
“Cole, why did you bring her to me?” Clayton asks, his voice weary, raw pain etching his features and his tone.
“She said she was going home. I gave her two options: she can stay with me or I can call the police, which,” he adds, meaningfully, “I will do, if I must. But…”
“She panicked.” It is not a question.
Cole nods. “Yes.”
Clayton walks to the bookshelf that stands by the window. When he returns to the sofa, he holds out a framed photograph to me. Curiously, I reach out for it. In it, stands Clayton and a woman who resembles me. She has black hair. She is thin, and she is smiling.
“That was taken a few months before she died. Her name is Abrielle, and she is – was—my wife. Also, my very best friend.” Clayton sighs heavily. “She was mesmerizingly beautiful, and kind. She was always gracious. She spent time helping my servants clean the house, even though I didn’t want her to. She slept on the floor in her room, so that her little sister would have a mattress to sleep on. She loved to draw, but she kept them hidden in a closet. Abrielle was not stoned. She was not branded. But she was beaten, and she was raped, repeatedly, over, and over and over again, until, by the time I met her, she was terrified of everything, even basic kindness. Even, and maybe especially at first, me.”
He inhaled deeply. When he continued, his voice suddenly seemed a little more unsteady than it had before. “I’d…I’d never met anyone like Abrielle. And I didn’t have the … “he sighed, shaking his head. “She was scared, and sometimes her fear made just enough sense that I let her talk me into doing things I shouldn’t have done. As soon as I realized what was happening to her, I should have done exactly what Cole did for you—I should have told her that either she could leave on her own, with Mally, or I would call the police.” He sighed, dropping his head, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck. “I did…I did end up getting her out, but not in the right way, and not as quickly as I should have. She suffered; she was abused even after she told me. And that’s something I have to live with every day of my life because, maybe, if I had just done things differently, protected her even when she begged me not to…
Abrielle died. Maybe it wasn’t directly because of the abuse, but I will always believe that the trauma caused to her body by abuse contributed to her death. If I had things to do differently, the two things I most wish I could make different – I wish I had gotten her out sooner, no matter how hard she protested, and I wish she could have confronted her abuser, that she could have realized how wrong he was, and that it wasn’t her fault.”
Clayton grew quiet for a minute before he added, “If Cole offers you a way out, take it, because the next time, you might not make it to Cole’s farm.”
I nod, showing I understand.
When Andrew runs into the room, completely naked, followed by Mally, who throws her hands up, yelling Andrew’s name, Clayton leans back, laughing. As he stretches out an arm to grab the little boy, I feel Cole place a hand on my back. When I look at him, he winks.
***** ***** *****
Dinner at Clayton’s is an adventure. It wasn’t long before a seemingly never-ending stream of people flooded the house. Latham, Meghan, Matt, David, Clayton’s parents Pete and Olivia and a brood of children. Boisterous laughter drowned out any sadness lingering, although everyone looked at me more than once.
By the time dinner ends, Latham suggests a “hardy” game, and the group is suddenly playing Truth or Dare.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Meghan says, waving a hand. She looks at me and smiles. “So, why can’t you write your name for us? We can take turns guessing if the spelling is off.”
The kids immediately cheer on this idea and, before I can say no, there’s crayons and a pad of paper in front of me. I look at Cole. “You know, I think Clayton’s family should open up their own psychology clinic.”
My shoulders shake with a smile. Excitement courses through me as I think about the chance to share my name. Daphne. No one has spoken my name since my mother. I’m not sure I even know how it sounds, I’m not sure I know how to sound it out.
In my head, I close my eyes, drown out the sound of the large family around me, and think back to my mother. Daphne. With a shaky hand, I write the letter D on the paper. Cole murmurs the sound of the letter to remind me.
A is my best letter. I have no doubt of its sound.
I’m not certain of the next sound. I look at Clayton, and lift shoulders, embarrassment staining my cheeks. He reaches out and tucks a tendril of hair behind my ear. Quiet, he’s been a steady source of comfort all day long; comfort and of strength.
“Go through each letter,” he murmurs.
I close my eyes and pretend we’re at the farmhouse, playing the memory game. It’s not A. it’s not B or C. F!
I write the next one, but I get the letter backwards. D. A. F. Proud of myself for remembering the sound, I repeat the name in my head, then add N, then two Es. I look at it, sound it out again, before finally sliding it to Cole first.
He smiles as he looks at the page: Dafnee. “Daphne?” he questions so softly only I hear him. I smile brightly, nod excitedly, my eyes shining. “Daphne,” he repeats gently, loud enough this time for the group to hear.
The table erupts in cheers and conversation, but Cole’s eyes hold mine; his dark blue eyes are like magnets with the tenderness in them. As the group starts playing Truth or Dare, Mally grabs my attention. “Daphne, my turn to ask you a question. Truth?” she asks. She waits for me to nod or shake my head. I nod.
“Have you ever milked a cow?”
Smiling broadly, I shake my head. As the kids laugh and make mooing sounds, the game passes. Cole challenges Andrew to eat a spoonful of mustard. Squishing his nose, Andrew tries to get out of it by giving Cole a hug. Cole chuckles, and asks, “Where’s the mustard, hot stuff?”
When it’s my turn to ask Cole, I tip my head, smiling. Using the paper, I draw a T and a D, then hand it to him, arching my brows.
Cole leans back, eyes me suspiciously. “Hm,” he muses. “I guess I’ll say Truth this time.”
I take the paper and writes, “Ag?” He frowns. “Age?” I nod and he responds, “Twenty-eight. My turn. Truth?”
I place my palms together, then move my hands to my chin, pretending to think about it. I shake my head.
“Dare? Really? Hm.”
“She is so brave,” Clayton mutters.
“Be nice, Cole,” Pete warns dryly.
Cole leans back, thinking. Finally, he snaps his fingers. Looking toward the group, he says, “Anyone have any high heels here?”
While Mally runs to retrieve a pair, Cole reaches out and takes my hand. Pulling me up, he leads me to the door of the living room, then walks across to the opposite wall. Mally returns, carrying a pair of shoes that have sticks on them.
“Let’s see you walk across the room to me in heels.”
Embarrassed, but reassured by his playful smile, I slide the black heels on. It is hard to walk in them and I wobble, nearly tripping over my own feet. The people in the room are quiet, except for a few well-wishers. I get almost to him when the heel of the right foot gets stuck, and I start to fall forward. Before I can land, I feel the solid strength of Cole’s arms around me, pulling me up to him. “Well done, darling, well done,” he murmurs.
A moment of shame washes over me, but everyone is already focused on the next pair of players. Cole thumbs rubs circles around my hand. I lower my head, wishing I knew how to walk in heels. When Cole leans towards me, his mouth at my ear and says gently, “I’m sorry, love,” I say nothing.
When it’s my turn to question him again, I point to the T or the D.
“Dare,” Cole boldly proclaims.
Without hesitation, I smile, take his hand, and pull him up. He allows me to lead him to the edge of the room, but when I pick up the heels and hold them out to him, the billows of laughter that peal from the room drown out his playful curse.
“Will you catch me, princess?” He teases. I shrug my shoulders, smiling, as I walk to the other side of the room.
“I’ll get you back for this,” Cole warns starkly as he tries to fit the too-small shoes on. The group laughs, Cole falls mid-way across the room, and I cannot keep it from happening. Smiling, I reach out a hand to him.
“Oh, you’re going to pull me up, are you?” he teases, sliding his fingers into my palm. Without warning, he tugs, and I fall to the ground, landing beside him. My shoulders shaking with laughter, I am not prepared when he turns, shielding me from the group, and bends his head, brushing his mouth against mine in the lightest of touches. His smile fading, he brushes his fingers over my cheek, and whispers, “Stay with me, Daphne.”