Copyright is held by the author.
THE FIST fell again, shattering bone, grinding teeth against skin. Warm blood pooled in her mouth. She longed to spit it in his face, but all courage had left her with the agonizing pain of the first blow. She reached behind her, bloody hands searching for the solid support of the wall. A step back, then another, and wood, smooth and cool, was beneath her fingers. She let her battered, defeated body fall back and slid slowly to the floor.
But the angry beast had not left him yet. A booted foot was raised. It hung for a moment, like a snake ready to strike, then descended on her mid-section with all the force of his wild fury. She heard the sound of bones cracking. Somewhere in the haze of her mind she knew it was her ribs, but she was beyond feeling pain. She watched the boot come toward her again, aimed lower this time. Steel and leather connected with soft flesh in a dull thud. The haze thickened. The world went black, wrapping her in a cocoon of darkness that pain and despair could not penetrate. Nor could the steady pounding of the boot as it was raised and lowered time and time again.
Lisa looked up from her desk in annoyance. No one ever called her that except her mother, and then only in anger. Dan did too. She pushed the thought away as quickly as it had come, angry with herself for thinking of him.
It had been nearly six months since he’d come home that night, drunk and mad as hell about God-knew-what. There’d been no sign, no warning of the violence that simmered beneath Dan’s carefully controlled surface. He’d never raised a hand, or vented his anger on a wall the way Lisa’s father often had. Maybe he should have. Maybe if he’d put his fist through a few walls and released the anger, it wouldn’t have grown and festered like an untreated wound, to finally rip free with the force of a tremendous explosion.
The month after that explosion was still a blur of vague memories that stirred and rose to the surface, only to drift away before becoming coherent. A month she had spent in a hospital bed, doped up on painkillers, staring at a dingy white ceiling that at times came alive in a kaleidoscope of illusive images.
In that month her body had healed. Cracked and broken ribs were bound tight. Her smashed nose was reconstructed. Her upper lip was stitched closed where her own teeth had ripped open the skin. Bruises darkened to shades of deep blue and purple, and then faded into a horrid sallow colour tinged with green, before finally disappearing weeks later. Internal injuries were longer in healing, her mind and spirit, longer still.
Even now, six months later, nightmares invaded her mind, waking her, leaving her sweat-soaked body trembling and her mind paralyzed with fear. And even now, in waking hours, glimpses of hidden memories came unexpectedly to the surface, reminding her of things she longed to forget forever.
“Lisa, you all right?” Matt’s deep voice startled her out of her thoughts.
“What? Oh, yeah, fine. Did you just call me Larisa?”
He grinned sheepishly. “Sorry. There’s a package here for you. It’s addressed to Larisa Atkins.”
She took the package from him and stared at the printed name and address. The only people who’d ever known her full name were her parents. And Dan. Her hands jerked at the thought and the package fell to the desk. She stared at it in morbid fascination, unwilling to touch it, yet unable to look away.
The sound of Matt clearing his throat brought her back to reality. She looked up. He was still standing beside her desk, watching her hopefully. He was always looking at her that way, as though he knew that one day she’d change her mind. She supposed she was too nice about it, because he continued to ask her out, even though she turned him down every time.
“Aren’t you gonna open it?” he asked.
“Later. I want to finish this proposal before I leave tonight.” She picked up the package, opened her desk drawer, set the large envelope carefully inside and slid the drawer shut.
Matt was still there, still wearing that hopeful look. “How about dinner tonight?”
It was hard to say no to those big, blue eyes, but she didn’t need or want the complication of having a man in her life again so soon. “Sorry. I have to work late or I’ll never get this done.”
The smile never left Matt’s face. He shrugged his shoulders and replied as he walked away, “Okay, another time then.”
The minutes ticked by like hours as she waited to be alone. When the last person left the office, Lisa opened the drawer and stared at the package. She caressed the brown paper, ran her fingers over the printed letters of her name, trying to build up the courage to lift it out and tear it open.
This is crazy, she thought. With firm resolve and shaking hands, she picked up the package and placed it on her desk. Then, before she could change her mind, she ran a letter-opener along the sealed edge of the envelope.
The cry escaped her lips before she even knew it was coming. Her chair toppled over backwards as she stood and jumped back in one hurried motion. Brown paper and black lace slid to the floor.
“Lisa, what’s wrong?”
She whirled around, startled by the sound of the voice behind her, and came up against Matt’s wide, solid chest. His arms came around her, steadying, comforting. She resisted for a moment before she melted against him. Hot streams of long-suppressed tears coursed down her cheeks to be soaked up by his shirt.
Matt held her until the steady flow of tears became a trickle and her sobs quieted to occasional shudders, then pulled back and asked, “What happened?”
Lisa looked down at the piece of paper still crumpled in her tightly clenched fist. She opened her hand slowly and held it up. Matt took it, smoothed it out and read the short note.
I’m returning the underwear I bought you on our honeymoon. I needed something to remember you by. Now that I’m out, I won’t be needing them anymore. Wear them for me.
Matt folded the note carefully and put it in his pocket. “Come on. I’ll drive you home and you can tell me all about it.”
Lisa was out of her apartment for the first time in two days. The package had spooked her and brought unwanted memories flooding back, leaving her holed up in bed, drowning in emotion. Matt, however, had been relentless in persuading her that she needed to get out and, for once, his persistence had paid off.
After a long, leisurely dinner, they went to a quiet pub a few blocks from Lisa’s apartment. They stayed until nearly midnight, playing darts with a couple Lisa knew from her building. Matt left her at her door, a little drunk and a lot more relaxed than she’d been in days.
The insistent banging on the door woke her the next morning. She groaned in protest and extracted herself from the sheets. Grabbing the robe from the foot of her bed, she pulled it on and made her way to the door. “Who is it?” she called.
“It’s the police, ma’am.”
Lisa came instantly awake. Her heart pounded wildly in her chest. She took a deep, steadying breath before answering. “How can I help you?”
“We’re looking for Lisa Atkins. It concerns her husband, Dan Atkins.”
Lisa put her eye to the peephole to see two uniformed cops holding up their ID. Satisfied, she lifted the chain and opened the door.
“I’m Lisa. Dan’s my soon-to-be ex-husband. I haven’t seen him since he went to jail six months ago, nor do I want to see him ever again.”
“I assume that means you weren’t on good terms?”
“I spent nearly a month of my life in the hospital because he beat the shit out of me. That does not, in my opinion, put us ‘on good terms,’ no.”
“Do you own a firearm, ma’am?”
“Where were you last night between the hours of nine and eleven?”
“I went out to dinner with a friend, and then we went to a bar down the street for drinks. Why? What’s going on?”
“Can you prove your whereabouts last night? Are there people who were with you who can identify you?
“Yes, there are. Look, I’d really appreciate you telling me what this is about.”
“Dan Atkins is dead, ma’am. He was found shot to death near his parents’ home shortly after 11 o’clock last night.”
Matt smiled contentedly to himself as he ran his fingers through Lisa’s thick, blonde hair. She sighed softly in her sleep and snuggled closer to the warmth of his body.
It had taken eight long months of waiting patiently. Eight months since Dan’s death. Eight months of saying and doing all the right things, of waiting for just the right time to ask. And her answer had changed his life. She’d given him back everything he’d lost three years earlier. He wanted to tell her about that. He wanted to trust her as much as he’d trusted Wendy. But trusting Wendy had been a mistake. She should have appreciated what he’d done for her, saving her from that brute she’d married. Instead, she’d screamed hysterically and threatened to call the police. Killing her had broken his heart, but she’d left him no choice.
This time it was different. Lisa was different. She’d turned her husband in. Wendy had loved her husband despite the vicious beatings. Lisa loved Matt. Wendy had never loved him, although he knew she would have in time. And, of course, Matt hadn’t actually killed Dan. He’d done the job himself with Wendy’s husband, had even enjoyed it. Even so, he’d decided to play it safe this time. No sense screwing up a good thing. And an alibi had been needed, not for him, but for Lisa. It had worked out well. He had so many friends in that line of work who owed him favours.
So, no, he wouldn’t tell Lisa-now or ever.
He traced the cold metal of her wedding band with his finger, lifted her hand and kissed it gently. “Mine,” he whispered, “’til death do us part.”