“I’m not like you,” he said, bracing himself to answer the questions he knew would come next—and which he would no longer be able to avoid. “I’m not the guy you see on the surface. I’ve done things...had things done to me...that I can’t change. And it makes me unfit for the kind of human habitation you’re talking about.”
Surely the way he’d taken her—not once, but twice now—proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt? The animal instincts, the desperate need to claim her, to mark her as his, came from a fear which he’d never been able to overcome—that deep down he knew he deserved to be lost in the dark forever.
“Are those things the cause of your nightmares?” she asked softly.
But it wasn’t softly enough to stop the shame which he had kept buried inside for so long from careering to the surface like a runaway train and smashing the last of his composure to smithereens.
* * *
Katie watched his head jerk up and saw the naked pain in his eyes. Emotion trembled in his arms as he braced them against the countertop, drawing her gaze to the wounds on the tanned skin of his forearms.
“What happened to you, Jared? Can you tell me?”
He dropped his chin to his chest, the dejected nod almost more than she could bear.
“When I was a little kid it was just me and my mom.” He began talking in a flat monotone, as if he was reciting a story that had happened to somebody else. “We lived in a tiny walk-up in Brooklyn. She held down two jobs. We were barely getting by from pay check to pay check, but I didn’t know that, because she made sure I had everything I needed. Then she hooked up with a guy called Bannon. He was the local bookie. It was cool at first. I liked him. I’d always wanted a dad, someone to play ball with. And he made a fuss of me. Called me ‘son.’”
He shrugged, the movement brittle, the sheen of sweat visible on his chest despite the hum of the air conditioning.
“First time I saw him hit her, I persuaded myself it was her fault. He was a jealous guy, he loved her—and he was screaming at her, saying she had flirted with some other guy. I was ten years old, I didn’t understand adult relationships, and it was easier to blame her than to admit the guy I hero-worshipped was a monster.
“By the time I was eleven, he had gotten over his jealousy, because he had her turning tricks for him. She was tired all the time and strung out on the drugs he got her hooked on. She wasn’t my mom anymore. She had become a shadow of the woman she’d once been. I still made excuses for him. Still tried to make it right in my head. But I knew it wasn’t.
“Then one day, not long after my eleventh birthday, which my mom had forgotten about, he told me he was taking me to see the Yankees to celebrate. Even though I was wary of him, I believed him. I was so excited on the way there. He bought me a hotdog and a soda and a ball-cap. We watched the game. I’d never been to the stadium before and I was high on the whole experience. The Yankees snatched it in the final innings. But when we headed to the subway to go home, he took the wrong train. We got off at a stop I didn’t recognize, in the Bronx. My mom wasn’t much good to him anymore he told me, but I...I could make some dough for us both. ‘You’re a good-looking kid,’ he said. ‘And small for your age. I know guys who will pay a pretty penny for a piece of that. And I’ll give you a cut.’ I threw up the hotdog. Even at eleven years old, I knew what he meant.”
Katie covered her mouth, the horror story unfolding making her yearn to take him in her arms. But she knew if she touched him too soon he would break. As he continued to talk, though, her heart broke for that little boy.
“I kicked up a fuss and he swiped me, hard across the face. It was the first time he’d ever hit me. I tried not to cry, but I was so scared. The best day of my life had suddenly turned into my worst nightmare. He picked me up and carried me kicking and carrying on to this house with neon lights over the door. Once he got me there he took his cigarette and burned my arm a couple of times, until I stopped shouting and screaming and I was just numb. Then he locked me in there and told me he’d be back and I better behave or there would be more of the same. I kicked and carried on when he came back and he burned me some more. It went on for days. Until there wasn’t any fight left in me. That’s when...”
She saw him swallow and knew this was the worst of it. She swallowed too, her own stomach raw. “He brought some guy back with him and he raped me. It hurt like hell. But I didn’t even cry—because I couldn’t. When it stopped, and they left, I lay there for a long time looking at the neon blinking over the door. It hurt to move, but some part of my mind knew that if I stayed there I’d end up like my mom, a shell of myself. So I broke the window and climbed through. And then I just ran. The cops caught up with me and stuck me in the system, but every time they put me with a new foster family I ran again. And I just kept on running until the night when I decided to palm Dario’s wallet in Greenwich Village and he caught me. But a part of me never got out of that room. And it never will.”
A sob choked out of Katie’s throat and Jared’s head rose, the blank expression turning to bone-deep regret.
She brushed away the tears she hadn’t even realized were streaming down her cheeks. “It’s not your fault. What he did to your mother. What they did to you. You do know that?”
“My rational mind wants to believe that. Dario paid for therapy while I was in the home. And the guy told me that. But whenever I go back to that room in nightmares, I hate myself more each time. Don’t you see what that nightmare is telling me? I can’t be the guy you need, Katherine. Not in the long term. Because I’ll always be that scared little kid, trying to get out of that room.”
The relief was palpable as she realized how wrong he was about himself. All she had to do was make him see it. He wasn’t scared of loving her, he was simply scared of not loving her enough.
“But that’s not true, Jared. You got out of that room, and you helped me get out of that room too. You didn’t just face down your own demons, you helped me face down mine. What if the nightmares aren’t telling you you’ve failed, but that you succeeded?”
“How can that be true when I just took you like a madman again?”
She stepped toward him, seeing the anguish in his eyes. Sliding her hand into his, sh
e lifted the back of his fingers to her cheek. “No, you didn’t. You gave me a choice. A choice I wanted to make. A choice I enjoyed.”
He stroked a fingertip down her cheek to tuck the unruly hair behind her ear. “That’s just the sex talking, Katherine. Good sex. Great sex. But it’s just sex. You don’t know that, because I’m the only guy you’ve ever had sex with.”
She sniffed and a small smile tugged at her lips as she realized how wrong he was. “True,” she said, suddenly feeling euphoric. “But you’re also the only guy I’ve ever fallen in love with.”
He looked shocked and wary. “Why would you love me when I’ll always need you so much more than you can ever need me?”
“That’s simply not true, Jared. I need you more than you can ever know. I did five years ago. And I do now.”
He shook his head, still unconvinced, still so unsure. “You had a crush on me five years ago. That’s all.”
“Maybe it was a crush, but even then there was something there, a connection that neither one of us could deny. You looked at me and you saw me. I was just a bratty kid, desperate for attention and affection, but you made me feel like so much more than that. And even then you protected me, from myself most of all.”