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Welcome to the blog of Catherine Gayle, USA Today bestselling author of Contemporary and Regency Romance.

Another Sneak Peek: Rain Dance

September 23, 2017

Chapter Two

Natalie

 

I heard the thud of flesh meeting flesh, the little boy’s screams of terror, the shifting of gravel beneath bodies, the blaring of a car alarm going off, but I didn’t feel the blow.

That was more of a shock to my system than anything else could have been.

Hayes still had a grip on my hair. He dragged me back down to the asphalt with him as he fell. My skull cracked against something, and I forced myself to stifle a sob. Crying only made it worse. Hayes always seemed to get off on my tears; I tried to never let him see how much he hurt me because then he would only hurt me worse.

Loose rock dug into my elbows, a sharp sensation that momentarily distracted me from the insistent throb in my head and the way my right eye was swelling shut.

“Dad!” the boy screamed, and then Hayes’s grip on my hair relaxed.

The release happened so suddenly that my head cracked back against the ground again, hard enough I wished I could black out.

Blacking out was always easier. But I wouldn’t be so lucky tonight.

“You son of a bitch,” Hayes spit out. But his voice was strained. Choked sounding, the way my voice did when he had a hand squeezing my windpipe. “Mind your own fucking business.”

“It is my business if you’re beating up a woman in front of my kid.”

“Fuck you,” Hayes shot back. “Take your kid home and worry about yourself.”

I blinked until everything came into focus. But I could only see out of my left eye. The right one was already completely swollen shut.

Ethan Higgins, one of the other guys on the team, had a hand around Hayes’s neck and was holding him down against the hood of a car. Ethan’s son was standing nearby, fat tears silently pouring down his cheeks. They glistened in the streetlights in the parking lot, twinkling like the stars overhead.

No child should ever see this.

I needed to end it, for him if for no other reason.

I needed to end it for me, too.

Because the longer this went on, the worse it would be for me in the end. I knew that well enough by now.

My boyfriend was turning purple, but his wild eyes bored into me. This was all going to be my fault somehow. That was what he was trying to convey to me with that look, telling me my fate without bothering with words. His words were always hollow, anyway. The longer I allowed it to go on, the worse he would make me regret it.

“Please, stop,” I said, but my words were barely more than a whisper, and Ethan didn’t act as if he’d heard me at all. I cleared my throat, agonizingly pushed myself up from the ground, and tried again. Every nerve ending in my body screamed in pain, but pain and I were old friends these days. I could handle this. I forced a strength I didn’t feel into my tone. “Let him go. Please.”

My would-be rescuer didn’t even glance in my direction, never taking his eyes from Hayes. “Carter, I need you to be a big man for me,” he said to his son, his voice somehow calm and in control. “I need you to come get the keys out of my pocket, then take Miss Natalie and go get in the car with her. Got it?”

“She’s not getting in your fucking car,” Hayes spit out, kicking wildly and making contact with Ethan’s shins, but the larger man didn’t even flinch.

I knew how much that hurt. I knew how much power Hayes could put into a kick like that. I’d felt those kicks all over my body more times than I could count. He especially liked kicking my ribs when I was curled in the fetal position.

In fact, I felt those kicks now in commiseration with Ethan’s plight. My entire body curled in on itself. In panic. In fear. In preparation for the beating Hayes would give me once we were home again.

He’d hit me in front of people a few times before, but it was never anyone who would have bothered to step in like this—it typically only happened when his best friends were over, and they were all drunk and maybe high. Those guys would never step in to stop him. They only egged him on.

Sometimes, they would hit me, too. Hayes always seemed to like that. He would puff up like a rooster, his chest heaving with pride and excited breathing, while watching his best friends beat me up.

He’d never fucked me longer or harder than he had the night he, Alex, and Jason had taken turns, with two of them holding me down while the third had lashed my backside with a leather belt. That time he’d even stripped me first, because he’d wanted his friends to see the red welts rising on my pale skin.

Not that I’d ever had much say in the matter, if any. But I’d never gotten the impression that Hayes needed a reason to beat me, even if he typically gave me one just before he pummeled my body.

They were at the house tonight, actually. Waiting for us to get home. Probably already drunk or high, or maybe both.

The three of them had grown up together. They were practically inseparable. They did everything together, including beat up Hayes’s girl. They’d never given me the impression that I’d been the first they’d done this with—it hadn’t felt new—which made me wonder if they also had girlfriends that they all beat up, or how many other girlfriends Hayes had shared with them before me. I might have been the first, since we’d been together for so long. If there had been others, though, I was just the one he’d chosen to keep. Lucky me. The only thing he hadn’t allowed them to do was fuck me.

Yet.

He’d threatened it a few times, usually if I was still crying while he fucked me raw following a particularly brutal beating. They get so fucking hard, like I do, watching you cry, he’d tell me. It’s not fair to leave them to jerk off on their own. They could both fuck you at the same time, one in your ass, one in your pussy. It’s only fair, you know.

I wasn’t sure if he just enjoyed seeing my panic at the thought of his best friends invading my body in that way or if he truly intended to let them do it one of these days.

Was tonight the night?

Whether he intended for that to happen or not, I knew what was waiting for me: a beating I’d never be able to forget, and maybe more. And the longer I put it off, the longer I allowed Ethan Higgins and his son to delay the inevitable, the worse Hayes’s retribution would be.

Would tonight be the night he lost control and killed me? That might be a blessing in disguise.

“Come on, Carter,” Ethan said, ignoring my boyfriend entirely—something I could never afford to do. “The keys are in my pants pocket. Right side in the front.”

The little boy inched toward his father, sniffling but staring wide-eyed at the two men as he fished around in his father’s pocket for the car keys. Once he had them, he walked over to me and held out a hand, looking solemn and serious and scared out of his wits. “Come on. Let’s get in the car.”

“You’re not getting in his fucking car,” Hayes choked out. His face was looking closer to blue than red now.

Was that how I looked when he choked me? Did my skin take on that purplish tinge?

“No,” I said, somehow calm despite the fear-laced adrenaline rushing through my body. “I’m not getting in his car.”

Ethan stared at me so hard I thought I’d melt from the heat of his glare. “I’m not letting you go home with this son of a bitch.”

“You can’t stop her,” Hayes bit off.

“I can call the cops. There might still be some on the property, actually. A few tend to stick around after games.”

“And I can have you arrested for assault when they show up,” he shot back. “Want your kid to see that?”

“They’d arrest you, too,” Ethan said.

“Only if she presses charges, which she won’t do. Either way, your kid sees you being hauled off to jail. Good plan, hero. What a fucking dad.”

I could feel the heat of both men’s stares boring into me, one daring me to contradict him, the other begging me to do exactly that.

And there was the crux of the problem. Hayes knew I wouldn’t press charges. He knew he never had to worry about that.

Because I had nowhere else to go. No one else to turn to.

He’d made sure of that a long time ago.

But why did Ethan care? What was in it for him? I couldn’t wrap my brain around it.

Carter urgently tugged on my hand again. “Come on. Let’s get in the car like Dad said. I’ll help you.”

I allowed him to tug me to my feet, but then I broke free of his grip and crossed over to the two men. “Let him go,” I pleaded, refusing to look into either man’s eyes. I didn’t want to feel the anger in Hayes’s gaze or see the pity in Ethan’s. “Please, just let him go and take your son home. He shouldn’t see this.”

But Ethan didn’t release his grip on Hayes. If anything, he tightened it.

I might not be able to see Ethan’s expression, but I could feel it boring into me. Pity? Disgust? Anger? I couldn’t be sure.

“I need him to see this,” Ethan said, but that response made no sense at all. “And I need you to get in my car.” He was so solemn, as if there weren’t any other possible response he could have.

“You know I can’t do that,” I whispered, silently pleading with him to understand. But why should I expect anyone else to understand when I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, myself?

“I know you’re scared to do that,” he replied. “To get in my car. To trust someone. To try to get away from him. But going home with this piece of shit will be worse, and you know it.”

How could I know that? With Hayes, at least I knew what to expect. I knew what I was getting into. If I did what Ethan asked of me, if I got into his car, then what?

It was the unknown. He was bigger and clearly stronger, so couldn’t he do even more damage? Better the devil you know, right?

But then I made the mistake of looking up.

Hayes was glaring at me like he’d been possessed by a demon, his face red and wild and his eyes almost fully black, bulging out of the sockets with the sort of fury he typically only unleashed when we were at home. I wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t a demon, to be honest. But there was nothing but kindness and empathy staring back at me in Ethan’s expression.

It would be tempting to trust him. Tempting to believe in kindness.

I knew better than that, though. Kindness was nothing but a façade and trust had no place in my vocabulary.

“Please,” I repeated, not allowing my gaze to waver as I stared into eyes that looked black as night. “Just let him go. It’s better this way.”

“How is letting you go home with a monster better?” he replied, his grip seeming to tighten even more on Hayes’s windpipe. “How is teaching my kid it’s okay to walk away from someone in need better? Better than what?”

I couldn’t answer his questions. There was no answer.

At least none that he would accept.

Hayes scrabbled to break Ethan’s grip on his neck, kicking and flailing to get free as he could no longer speak due to lack of oxygen.

“You have to let him go,” I pleaded. “If he dies, if you kill him, what’ll that teach your son? You can’t kill him.” It was the only argument I had, the only one I could make. If he didn’t go for it…

Apparently, it was the only argument that held any weight with Ethan. Thank goodness for that.

With a disgusted look, he threw Hayes back, releasing him with such force that my boyfriend skidded across the pavement and the car keys he had claimed I’d lost skittered out of his pants pocket, only coming to a stop when they collided with my feet.

Hayes coughed and spluttered, his hands pawing at his own neck in a similar manner to the ways I’d done when he’d encircled my throat with his punishing grip several times before. He would have bruises there, green, yellow, purple, nasty bruises where the redness remained. I should know. I’d borne them numerous times. That was why I wore so many turtlenecks, despite the sweltering Tulsa heat.

Ethan’s eyes bored into me. I could feel the intensity of his gaze even though I refused to meet it. He stalked over to his vehicle and ripped open the door, and I could finally take a breath—because he was leaving. This part of my torment was ending, and then I’d be left with Hayes and however he intended to make me pay for it.

But instead of climbing inside and starting the engine, Ethan rummaged in the center console for a moment. When he returned, it was with a bright turquoise Post-It note bearing the Thunderbirds logo, a phone number and address scrawled across it, penned by a hurried hand.

He passed it over to me, firmly closing my fingers around the scrap of paper. “Call me when you change your mind.” Then he took his son’s hand and led him to the car, making sure the crying boy was securely buckled into his booster seat in the back before driving away.

But long after he was gone, I could still feel the weight of Ethan’s gaze on me. Begging me to come with him. Pleading. Imploring me.

I shoved the wadded-up note into my pocket next to my cell phone and tried to swallow past the lump in my throat as Hayes slowly dragged himself up off the ground, but it refused to budge. Regardless of the fact that I was doing what he wanted of me, this would all be my fault. I would pay once we were home. I knew it, and he knew it, and there was no getting around it.

“Get in the fucking car,” he bit off, his voice harsher, raspier than normal, punching the button on the clicker until the parking lights flashed.

Without making a peep, I got into the passenger seat, closed the door, and fastened my seat belt, watching in the rearview mirror as Ethan’s taillights faded in the distance, along with any hope I might have once had.

Hope was nothing but a lie.

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