Excerpt from AFTERMATH:
"I didn"t expect Joe Marsh to be so...." Anna couldn"t seem to find the right word as she sat with Wesley in the car still parked at the curb.
"Yeah, he"s a good looking guy." Wesley polished off his pop-up and licked his fingers without looking at her.
She allowed him an impatient glance and took a sip of coffee before she halfway smiled and slumped back against the passenger seat. "You finally got it right, Stemmons--heavy on the creamer, not too much sugar. Thanks."
She offered him the other broken half of her pastry. He waved it off and looked out the driver"s window, watching for Marsh. "Eat up, woman. It"ll make you feel better."
She chuckled softly and the sound, so foreign after all this time, obviously surprised them both.
"No, it"s you, Weslee, making me feel better, dragging me out of one gory scene right into another."
"I wouldn"t call the scene at my apartment gory."
A troubled expression took her face and she shook her head. "No, I guess not. But if we"d gotten there any later we might have caught them in the middle of...." She hesitated.
"What? Anna, go ahead. You know the word. The F word. Say it. What would we have caught them in the middle of doin"?"
She bit her lips, shook her head and refused to answer.
"There"s nothing wrong with a little consensual foolin" around, Anna. Sex. It"s not an evil thing. Nothin" compared to the murder scene we were at before daylight. Same way your own pitiful little experience doesn"t compare to an honest-to-God sex crime."
Anna felt the demons inside come alive. "What are you talking about, Stemmons? To someone like me, being beaten to a pulp or dying would have been better than what happened."
"And just what did happen to you, Anna? Tell me. It"s just us here, talking like we do. You can tell me anything and I swear it"ll never leave this car." He lowered his voice. "What did happen to you, exactly?"
She shivered, turned her head and cast her gaze out the passenger window. "I don"t want to talk about it." She paused without shifting her stare. "I don"t want to think about it. I wish he"d killed me."
"Hush, now, woman. Don"t be talkin" like that. It"s not like you, gettin" maudlin. You used to make fun of melodrama. Call it crap." He waited, but she didn"t offer to explain, so he continued. "A lot of women have endured a lot worse, Anna, and walked away healthy, mentally and physically. You weren"t even raped."
She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. "I"m not going to talk about it, Stemmons. I"m not going to think about anything but sunshine and light."
"What about when it rains?"
"I"ll stay inside, leave all the lights on."
"How do you manage at night?"
"Like I said, I leave all the lights on."
"All the time?"
She touched her forehead to her knees but knew that, as closely as he was watching, he could see her chin quiver. Biting her lips, willing herself to straighten up, she held her position for several ticks, until she got her volatile emotions under control.
Putting her feet back on the floor, Anna dug one finger into the pop-up on the seat beside her. The filling oozed. Pondering, she picked up the pastry and bit into it.
Stemmons" expression and mood seemed to darken.
She breathed deeply through her nose trying not to gag before she said, "Can we please get out of here?"
He squared himself with the steering wheel and put the key in the ignition. Marsh appeared, coming from the breezeway at a lope.
"Here he comes."
She turned to look, a grudging concession, but wanting an overall take of this man whose mind and spirit had sustained hers during her ordeal--comforting, encouraging, challenging her, all by some kind of brain-to-brain communication. She thought she had only imagined it, but he was aware of it too, reinforcing her belief in their strange connection.
Marsh"s gait appeared effortless. He wore khaki slacks, laced deck shoes and a sport shirt open at the neck under a blazer. In spite of his clothing, Anna could still visualize the muscular definition of his chest, the brawny arms and shoulders. He was an enigma to her, a man whose easy patter and dimpled smile were part of a disarming facade for depth he apparently preferred to keep secret.
Still, something about him intimidated her and since her abduction, she made it a point to avoid men who set off warning bells in her head. Consciously or not, she now shunned most males, but most particularly the sleek, predatory types. In spite of his self-effacing ways, Marsh triggered her inner warning system.
Startled by his answering gaze and his relentless approach, Anna looked toward Wesley. "Don"t leave me alone with him, Stemmons. Please don"t. And tell him not to touch me."
"You tell him, Anna. Whatever you do or don"t want from him, it"s up to you to tell him."
"But I don"t know him."
"Oh yeah, you do. You two communicate just fine. How he treats you is your responsibility. Yours and his."
Joe flung the passenger door open, drawing glares from both Wesley and Anna.
"Move over." He nudged her shoulder.
Anna shuddered, twisted away from his hand, and leaned forward, her body language suggesting he push the seat forward. "Sit in the back."
"Not unless you sit back there with me."
Wesley snorted. "Oh, no. I"m not chauffeurin" the two of you. I ain"t no cabby."
Anna started to get out, trying to get around Joe without touching him, but he settled a hand on her shoulder. She tried to shrug it off without acknowledging the contact verbally.
"I"ll sit in back," she said.
Joe grabbed her forearm near her wrist. She struggled to free it but he wouldn"t release her. Instead, he stared at her, his face deadly serious. "I"m sitting next to you, sweet thing. What"s more, I am going to touch you. I"m going to touch you any damn time I want to. I"ve earned the right. Don"t make it any harder on yourself than it has to be. That"s how things are. Get used to it."
She opened her mouth but words wouldn"t come. Tears glistened in her eyes and she began to spasm, her arm beneath his hand quaking as if it were palsied.
Marsh watched, let her struggle for several seconds to overcome it, then threw his hand up releasing her. She scrambled by him and bolted a dozen steps down the sidewalk, putting thirty or forty feet between them.
Marsh started to go after her but Wesley shouted him back. "Let her go, Joe. She needs a minute."
"How did she get like this? Was she this bad when they found her?"
Wesley gave him a hapless smile. "Worse. It was a lot worse before. That"s the reason she only works with me. I let her be. I never lay a hand on her. If she stumbled, I wouldn"t try to catch her. I know better. It"s finally got so she touches me some. The first time, she wanted me to turn around for a shot and she pushed my elbow. It would have been nothin" coming from anyone else, but I was flattered as hell. I figured that shove signaled some kind of progress. That happened three weeks ago.
"Since then, she"s grabbed my arm a couple of times. Last Thursday, she caught my hand, flesh on flesh. As far as I know, it was the first time she"d voluntarily touched another person"s skin since the abduction. You should have seen her. When she realized what she"d done, she got all teary and blubbered like a baby. I would have put my arms around her, but she wouldn"t let me get within ten feet.
"Once she got through cryin", she was pretty pleased with herself, like a kid who"d just rode her bike alone for the first time."
Marsh glanced toward her. "Lee, it"s been more than a month."
"Six weeks, but I figure slow is better than no progress at all." He hesitated, also looking toward her. "It"s my fault. I was meetin" her at the pageant. I went to the auditorium instead of back to the dressing rooms. I was just sittin" there waitin" when he took her." He hesitated, then added, " Snatched her out of the parkin" lot on her way into the place, they said."
"You can"t blame yourself, man. What is, is what is. Why won"t she do the counseling? Did she tell you that?"
"Same as she told you. She don"t wanna think about it, much less spew it all out into the air in words. She takes pills to sleep. Just a while ago, she told me she leaves all the lights on in her apartment, all the time."