Solemn, he nodded. “I do know. I’m not exactly the poster boy for family stability myself.” He gave her the same wry smile she’d come to expect from him, but it didn’t hold the humor he was known for.
“Yeah, anyway, I guess as a teenager, I felt unloved and unwanted and all those crappy things.” She shrugged, playing it like the memories didn’t cut her as deeply as they did. “At least, that’s what multiple therapists have told me. When I was a junior in high school, I met a guy named Aaron. In true cliché form, he was everything I wasn’t… rich, outgoing, fun, and carefree. The life of the party. He was a year older, charismatic as hell, and getting ready to graduate and go to college. Everyone loved him.” She chuckled. “He played football, for fuck’s sake.”
“And he wanted you.” There wasn’t an ounce of judgment coming from him.
She nodded. “He wanted me. The poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks who was so starved for attention she’d do damn near anything he asked.”
Jinx put his hand over hers. She hadn’t realized she’d been rubbing her knee so hard the skin became red and tender. Nearly twice the size of hers, his hand swallowed hers whole. But it was gentle and warm.
“Did he mistreat you?”
She gave the question some thought, as she had many times before, searching for red flags and signs she should have run from him before that life-altering night. “No. I can’t say he did. We certainly weren’t a match made in heaven, and what I felt for him couldn’t be described as love, even if I thought it was back then. More of an idolizing, hero-worship kind of thing. He knew how to play me, that’s for sure. Looking back, I can recognize all the manipulation for what it was. He knew how to leverage his position and maneuver me into getting what he wanted, but I can’t say I was mistreated. Certainly not abused.”
“Prickles, manipulation is mistreatment.”
“Maybe. But anything I did with him, I did willingly.”
He tilted his head. “Until…”
She inhaled as she met his gaze, then blew out a calming breath.
“You got this,” he whispered with a wink.
That had her choking out a half laugh, half sob. “Until the night we were on our way to a party with some of his friends. A real group of douchey frat-boy idiots.”
“Most college-age guys are.”
“Yeah.” She chuckled. He was making jokes as she revealed her most painful secret for the first time in years, but not in a mocking way. And she could have kissed him for it.
He squeezed her hand he still held. She turned her palm up, interlacing her fingers with his. If he minded, he didn’t say and just let her cling to him. She didn’t have the extra mental space to wonder why she sought comfort from his touch or why it felt so right to open up to him. Every ounce of focus she had went into recounting the incident without breaking down.
But there’s where the story went downhill. “Um… we were supposed to bring some beer, so we stopped at a gas station. Looking back, I can see they were all acting a little weird, but I just rolled with it. I said I’d wait in the car because I didn’t have a fake ID, but Aaron insisted I come in. Said it’d be fine. Kept asking if I trusted him.”
“Yeah. And I did trust him… or I wanted him to think I did. We got out of the car, and I turned around to find them pulling ski masks over their faces. And… and Aaron yanked one over my head as well,” she whispered. “It was shocking. Didn’t take a genius to realize they planned to rob the store.” She huffed a self-deprecating laugh. “God, I still remember the feeling of shock and horror. I tried to get them to stop, but they were determined and promised they’d only snatch some beer… not that I was okay with that. Aaron dragged me along, literally, into the s-store.” Her chest tightened as painful memories bombarded her.
“It’s okay, Harper. You don’t have to relive it. I can guess what happened from here.”
But the dam had been broken, and the words poured out of her like a surge of rushing water.
“I barely took two steps into the store when all hell broke loose. A gun was drawn, and everyone was shouting, myself included. One of Aaron’s friends shot the clerk,” she whispered. The same horrified, sick feeling she’d had that night came rushing back. “I froze. I couldn’t even blink. All I could do was stare at the bleeding man in complete shock. I didn’t want to leave him, but I didn’t want to be there. I’d never wanted to be there, and suddenly, I was involved in an armed robbery where an innocent man was shot. Shot! I wanted to help. To go to him. To call for an ambulance, but I couldn’t do any of that. I was stuck. Then Aaron screamed at me about how we had to leave before the police came. I didn’t move. I couldn’t. I kept apologizing to the bleeding man. And then Aaron left. He left me because he didn’t think I’d follow him. He’d dragged me in there but didn’t drag me back out. You know, he had the audacity to tell me to forget about the clerk. ‘Who cares about him?’ he’d said. ‘I’m the one who loves you.’ Then he walked out. All I could do was repeat how sorry I was to the man. Over and over.”