Prologue (Smith’s Corner)
The heavy tread of his shoes on the polished floor sent shivers through me, and I worked to stop my hands from trembling as I continued to chop the vegetables for dinner. No matter how hard I tried to get my heart rate to slow with the breathing techniques I’d learned from the secret classes I’d been taking online, they weren’t working. His mood had been more erratic of late, and I eyed the counter to make sure everything was as orderly as I could make it.
The air hissed between my clenched teeth at seeing nothing that looked out of place, at least to me. That, however, meant little. No matter how hard I tried to have things the way he wanted them, he would always find fault. I’d learned over the years that the light of glee in his eyes showed exactly how much he got off on terrifying me. The control he needed in his life was attached to everything, from how I put a plate on the table to the way I stood.
It didn’t matter what it was. He had an opinion on how it should be, and only his opinion counted in this house. The only time I could breathe freely was when I was at work. But lately, he’d started to make grumbling noises about it taking too much of my time away from the house and him. I’d become terrified that would be the next thing he’d take from me.
I’d been in my final year at college when we’d met. I’d been flattered by his attention and bowled over by how attractive he was. Hunter, my best friend at college, had warned me that there was something a little off about Kingsley, but I thought it was a little bit of jealousy as I was no longer able to spend as much time with Hunter. He was gay and a huge guy many thought was straight because of his size and inherent flirtatious nature. Kingsley had been no different, thinking that Hunter only wanted to get in my panties. So I’d distanced myself from my best friend and, to my peril, ignored his warnings. By the time I’d realized what had happened, I was married and ostracized from my friends and family.
Kingsley had moved us to River Canyon, thousands of miles from everyone that would see what he’d been doing to me. See what he was doing to our daughter. The bright, bubbly girl had changed over the last year to an introverted child who jumped at her own shadow.
It was time to take a stand, but how to do it was the hard part. I had no one here to help me. They were all Kingsley’s friends, ones who couldn’t see beneath the mask he wore to hide his dark side.
I worked on slowing my breathing to stop showing any signs of distress as he pressed his large body against me. His aftershave was cloying as it filled my nose. The muscles he was so proud of rippled while he pushed his pelvis against my backside. His lips touched my bare neck. The caress did nothing to me, but I gave a breathy moan, one he’d expect.
He’d long since beaten out the love I had for him, if it’d been love at all. Of that, I was no longer sure. I’d read extensively about the manipulation of men and how a person could be brainwashed over time. I no longer believed anything that came out of his mouth. How could I when no matter how many times he apologized, the following day he’d start all over again, letting his temper rule our lives. The one time I’d stupidly suggested therapy to help with his anger issues, I hadn’t been able to take a breath without pain for a month due to the broken ribs I’d sustained.
The only time he’d let up was when I’d gotten pregnant, and for a while, I’d hoped that our daughter would be the one thing that would stop him and make him seek help. Within weeks of her birth, he was back to normal, but he was jealous of the time I had to spend with Royal. As she went from baby to toddler to a child who was aware of her surroundings, I’d slowly come to the realization I had to change things. Yet, I hadn’t figured out how because he controlled everything, including my money.
“What are you making?” There was an edge to his voice I’d come to recognize and fear.
“The beef casserole you love.” I kept my tone respectful while the hand holding the knife trembled without my permission. It drew my gaze.
Could I stab him?
Would I have the courage?
What if you don’t succeed? What would happen to Royal? The voice of sanity questioned.
I laid the knife down and attempted to twist to face him, to see how bad his day had been. Whatever went wrong in the company he owned that paid for the fancy house we lived in tucked away from all the other houses in town, it always became my fault somehow.
His hands stopped me, his fingers biting into my hips, surely causing more bruising to add to the fading collection that covered my skin under my clothes. He was never stupid enough to mark me where others could see.
“We had this last week. Do you have no imagination?” His laugh was hard and bitter. I braced, but it was too late. He was already jamming my body against the counter hard enough it stole my breath. Pain shot through my stomach as it connected with the marble top.
A hand pushed my head down toward the chopping board full of vegetables. He stopped just short of ramming my face into the knife I’d put down. A sob rose, and I closed my eyes and prayed that Royal would stay in the other room.
“I’m sorry. I can make something else,” I pleaded, all the while hating myself just a little more.
Hot breath touched my ear before his mouth pressed against the shell, and he shouted loud enough to cause pain to radiate up into my skull. “Fucking useless is what you are. How the fuck did I end up with you?”
I bit the inside of my cheek to stop myself from crying out, knowing that would only anger him further. The slap to the side of my face stung, and my eyes opened, and I looked directly at Royal’s terrified face. Something he’d broken long ago seemed to snap back together at the sight of Royal’s tear-drenched eyes.
Do something! Do it now! If not for you, do it for Royal.
The internal voice was deafening. It was all too much. I wrenched my head from his hand and slammed it back into his face hard enough to see stars. The loud crack was followed by wetness splattering my hair before I was released. Instinct kicked in, and I grabbed the knife, knowing that when he gained his senses, I’d pay dearly for this retaliation. He’d staggered back far enough to allow me to breathe. His eyes were wide and full of shock as he held his bleeding nose. Not once had I ever fought back, struck him. Never again was I going to be his punch bag!
“Royal, come to Mommy.” Whatever was in my voice, she ran to me without question. The second she touched my side, I pulled her to me. The knife I kept in front of me and my eyes on the man who’d been my husband for too many years.
He shook his head and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. His eyes narrowed, and cold dread unfurled in my stomach. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The steel in his voice stabbed at my control, my hand shook, but I didn’t lower it. The car keys I’d left on the hook by the back door were right there. Freedom, if I could just get to them. Could get out the door without him stopping me.
His hand dropped to his side, and he took one step toward me. “Don’t move,” I said, working on keeping my tone even. “It’s over. This, you and me, the abuse, the controlling. It’s over.”
The smirk left me struggling to pull in a breath as he actually relaxed back against the breakfast bar behind him. It was fake. He was no more relaxed than me. I’d played this cat and mouse game too many times to be fooled. I edged my way to the door, not taking my eyes off him for a second. The smile was sinister by the time I got to the door. The silence almost deafening as Royal clung to my leg and didn’t let go.
The keys were right there, but could I risk taking my eyes off him? The hand holding the knife was slicked with sweat as I considered if Royal was tall enough to grab the keys.
“Put the knife down, and we’ll forget this little indiscretion.”
Did he think he was fooling me? “Royal, grab Mommy’s car keys.”
His lips curled up as he spat out, “Touch those keys, child, and you won’t sit down for a week from the spanking.”
The sobbing tore at my heart but was swiftly filled with pride as Royal reached for the keys and took them off the hook.
Kingsley hissed a loud curse, but he didn’t move. His eyes were back to going wide. He thought he’d broken me, and maybe he had, but there was still some fight in my little girl. I reached back with my hand and searched for the door handle. Everything from then happened in slow motion. He lurched forward as I twisted the handle and pushed it open. The second the air hit my back, I threw the knife, uncaring what I hit as I reached down for Royal. Spinning, I dove out the door clinging to my child.
Never more grateful that he always insisted the car be right by the back door, I snatched the keys from Royal, clicking the fob. The sound of the locks disengaging was the sound of freedom. My whole body shook, the terror so huge I grappled with the door handle for a second until it opened, and then I launched both Royal and me into the driver’s seat. A second later, the door was shut and the locks engaged.
He howled nonsensical words and hit the car with such force I felt it shake. Royal whimpered in my lap, and I ran a shaky hand over her hair. “Baby, I need you to get in your seat. Can you do that for Mommy?” I could hardly hear myself speak with the angry cries continuing outside the car.
She nodded. Her eyes were so huge that they appeared to take up her whole face as I shook and helped her strap in. Key in the ignition, I didn’t look out the window as I started the engine.
His spit ran down the window as he bellowed, “Get out of the fucking car, Faith.”
The years of keeping control broke, tears ran down my cheeks, and I madly dashed them away. I met the stare of the monster outside the window. “Fuck you, asshole.”
I hit the gas pedal, not once looking back at the manic who proclaimed to love me screaming my name. Love was for fools. One look at my daughter’s terrified face, I vowed I’d never make that mistake again.