“If you could, would you choose to have been born into a different family?”
Raised in an abusive and dangerous home, acting as a virtual parent to her younger sister, and isolated from any friends, Clayton Cunningham assumes Abrielle Britian’s answer would be a resounding yes. But when an old family secret is revealed through Abrielles drawings, and shes forced to question her loyalties, her family and herself, he learns that the better question would be: do deep emotional wounds really heal?
“Daddy – what?”
“You? Is that yours?” he asked, looking furiously at the bag she held. She jerked her head forward. “Y – yes, but –“ before she could get another word out, he snatched the bag from her fingers. “Good. I want everything of yours out of my house!” he yelled just as she heard a horn honk. Duncan was here and, watching as her father’s face turned red with fury, Abrielle felt her world begin to crumble. “That Cunningham?” he sneered, grabbed her arm hard and, pulling her and her bags towards the door. He stormed back into her room and returned with Mally’s things. “I even found your drawings! You’re pathetic drawings! Now, get out and don’t ever come back!” he yelled and Abrielle opened her mouth to breathe.
“Daddy, what –“
“Do you know your cop friend questioned May today when I wouldn’t listen or „cooperate‟ –“ he sneered the word. “He talked to May!”
Abrielle’s mouth opened as she heard another car pull in. Seconds later, she heard Clayton calling her name.
“I‟m s – sorry,” Abrielle whispered and her father‟s fist hit her across the face once, twice, a third time before his arm was yanked back by Clayton. “Hit her again, and you sign your own death warrant,” he shouted. Stephen yanked his arm away and spat on the ground toward Abrielle.
“Get out! How dare you accuse me of such a thing. Get out! Go back to the one who brought you like something off a train!” Stephen yelled and Clayton’s eyes closed as he cursed violently.
Abrielle’s eyes widened, her cheeks flushed and tears shining in her eyes. “What?” she whispered and, because he dared not hit her again in front of Clayton, Stephen threw her bags at her. Two of them hit her in the chest before her arms could wrap around them. She felt like the earth was spinning out of control. She had seen her father angry, many times, but never like this and who had “brought” her? He nodded, breathing hard.
“That’s right, you piece of white nothing, this man paid me money to sell you and Mally. It was the finest day of my life! He bought you and Mally. Now get the hell off my property! Both of you!”
The damage was done. When Clayton glanced at Abrielle, he saw her eyes widen with pain and then anger of her own. Stephen threw the rest of the bags out and then stormed into the house, yelling for them to get out again. Staring, unblinkingly, at Clayton and feeling his betrayal seep through her body, Abrielle backed up until she hit the doorframe and blinked, hard. Then she turned and walked off the porch
Duncan said her name softly and put a hand on her arm but she was numb. Couldn’t feel anything. Clayton raked a hand through his hair and walked towards her cautiously. “Duncan, will you pick up the bags and take them home, please?” he asked softly. Duncan nodded, looking directly at Abrielle. She wasn’t shaking, she wasn’t crying, she was completely and utterly still. Her mouth was parted and her cheeks flushed from shock, anger and her father’s three strikes.
Clayton tried to take her elbow but she moved suddenly, jerking it away.
“Don’t – don’t,” she said, raising a hand to hold him at bay.
“Abrielle, come on. Let’s go back to the house and talk about this there.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“You have no choice, beautiful.”
“Don’t call me that,” she grated through clenched teeth but Clayton ignored her, reached out and grabbed hold of her hand. His grip was much stronger than hers and she couldn’t fight him.
Instead of causing a scene which a distant part of her mind warned her would only make her father angrier, Abrielle obeyed and walked to Clayton’s car. She sat ram rod straight, her head up, her eyes staring straight ahead. Distantly, she heard him call Olivia and say that the lunch was canceled, and asked if she and Pete would mind watching Mally tonight. This was the first time he had not asked Abrielle’s permission, she noted dryly. Maybe that was because he didn’t need to since he‟d bought them.
After the phone call, the ride back to Clayton’s was complete, tension-filled silence. The silence gave Abrielle time to think about what he’d done. The answers made her anger more violent. Once they reached the house, she sat still in the car, staring ahead at the mansion before her. This was to be her place of employment, she supposed bitterly.
“Abrielle, please,” Clayton’s tight voice cut through her thoughts, warning her this was trying his patience as well. Stiffly, she walked inside and halted, her head up. Clayton exhaled sand threw his keys on the table. “Abrielle…” he started, waving a hand in the air. When they reached the small office, he‟d closed the door behind them which, inexplicably, hurt Abrielle. Did she no longer have the right to want the door open?
“How could you do that?” she said, frowning, turning until she faced him again.
“Because, Abrielle, I was tired of taking you back to that house. I wanted you and Mally safe and –“
“It’s none of your business!” she exclaimed and he walked closer to her. Whereas her voice was raised and shrill, his was calm. “Yes it is, because I care about you.”
“No you don’t! You – you robbed me of what dignity I thought I had, you tricked me – how could you have bought me when there’s a possibility I’ve been sold before? What am I? A – a commodity to everybody?” she shook her head, belated tears filling her eyes.
“That’s not –“
“I wonder, how much am I worth? A hundred dollars? Did he sell you his daughters for two hundred dollars?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“It does too!” she said, stomping her foot in frustration and anger. She shook her head. “How stupid could I be? I thought you different,” she spat the word at him through a scowl and clenched teeth. “I thought I was your friend.”
“You are. That’s why I did it. Paying him any amount of money went against everything I’ve ever known, Abrielle, but I wanted to protect you and that was the only way I knew how.”
“I didn’t need protection!”
“Yes you did!” his voice finally raised and then he exhaled, turning his head to the side. “I know you’re hurt and I know you’re angry but, dammit, Abrielle, I couldn’t shoulder the responsibility of what he was doing to you anymore. I had to do something.”
“So this is how you do it? Behind the guise of protection?”
He turned his face back to hers, a dangerous glint in his eyes. “What?”
“How many times am I going to need protection from you? Are you going to threaten to hurt Mally, too? I – I mean it – it works, you know, or – or are you going to hold your kindness over me in a guilt trip?”
Clayton‟s mouth parted. “Is that what you think? That I took you away from there to rape you myself?”
“Isn’t it? Why else do men buy women?”
For a moment, Clayton thought his emotions were going to boil through his skin. It hurt that she would even consider that he would do something like that and it angered him too because, in all the time they‟d known each other, he‟d never hurt her and it was unfair of her to suggest he would. Clayton took a dangerous step closer to her and she unconsciously backed up, until she hit the front of his desk. “If I wanted your body, I wouldn‟t have to rape you, and we both know it,” his voice was deadly and so forcefully low she could hardly hear it. The tension was so thick that the words vibrated through the air and around her like water.
As the first tear finally fear, she lifted her head and sighed heavily. “I hate you,” she whispered, walked around him and out the door. Clayton‟s eyes closed and he raked his fingers through his hair