Authors: T. J. Kline
Alyssa didn’t miss the look of warning Franklin shot Justin. She doubted a restraining order would be worth any more than the paper it was printed on. And Elijah had frightened her a few times, but he would never actually hurt her. The image of his eyes, furious and frenzied, when he’d ordered her to leave filled her mind.
Are you sure?
The press conference didn’t make any sense. He obviously wasn’t the man she’d fallen in love with in college. She wasn’t sure that man ever existed.
“Aly, he’s already gotten to your parents. I called them this morning. He’s convinced them that you ran away with a lover.”
“The only thing I can figure out is that he’s trying to leave you with nothing after the divorce. Not just without money, but if he turns your family against you, you have no place to go. If he can turn the media against you next, there’ll be no coming back to your career.” Franklin looked at Justin then back to Alyssa. “You need to strike first. He has investigators searching for you, and I’ve hired my own to get proof of his infidelity.”
“Why bother?” she scoffed. “It’s Hollywood. No one cares who is sleeping with whom. It’s more abnormal
to sleep around. You know that.”
Franklin arched a brow skeptically. “If that’s how you felt, you wouldn’t be here now.” He passed her a large stack of papers in a folder. “These are the divorce papers. Take a look at what’s in them, but I’m going to take him to the cleaners. You won’t get everything we’re asking for, but this will give us room to negotiate down.”
“I don’t want anything from him.” Her voice sounded more confident than she actually felt.
Both men looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. Justin simply raised a brow in curiosity, but Franklin shook his head in disbelief. She knew they wouldn’t understand, but she didn’t want anything from Elijah. Settlements and monthly alimony checks would tie her to him. She didn’t want anything that would give him control over her again. The past few days had been a wake-up call, reminding her of the strong, independent woman she’d once been. A woman who knew what she wanted and went after it. A woman who felt more than fear and trepidation. She wanted to become a woman who embraced her future with open arms rather than cowering doubt.
“Aly, you are listed as the CFO of the agency. He wouldn’t have anything if you hadn’t given him his start and his credibility, let alone the money to fund the agency. Half of everything is yours. At the very minimum, the court will demand child support.”
She shook her head adamantly. “All I want is a trust fund set up for the baby, including a college fund. He can keep the rest. I don’t want it.”
“Aly,” Franklin tried to argue.
She scanned the document detailing the value of her marriage, counting the days in terms of property and possessions to be split into shares. The pages didn’t mention the nights she’d spent waiting up for Elijah when he claimed to be working late at the office, or the movies she’d lost because of his desire for her to retire. The documents didn’t show how he’d crushed her confidence with his constant criticism. There was nothing in the legal document about love. Her entire marriage was reduced to a monthly payment, like a credit account.
“I need a few minutes to think. I’m going to take a walk.” She rose but Franklin reached out for her hand, intent on persuading her to see this his way. She didn’t need persuasion, she needed a moment to grieve the loss of her marriage, of the life she’d thought she would live. “Just a few minutes.”
Justin didn’t look happy but he gave her a quick nod, as if he understood her need to be alone. “Just stay in view of the house, okay?” His voice was quietly reassuring.
Ever her protector.
She had no doubt he would have walked with her if she’d asked, but this was something she wanted to do alone. Once she started down this path, in opposition to the man who had controlled every part of her life for the past six years, there was no turning back. This was the first step of many toward returning to the woman she’d once been.
USTIN WATCHED FROM
the window as Lyssa made her way past the barn and around the corner, just out of sight from the kitchen. He’d wanted to go with her, to offer her support, but he’d sensed something changing in her. There was a determination in her eyes that hadn’t been there before. She needed a moment to gather herself. He’d been around strong women enough to know when to give them some space.
“You want coffee,
?” he offered. Justin wasn’t sure yet how to feel about Alyssa’s lawyer. He seemed awfully friendly with Alyssa, but he didn’t want to jump to conclusions.
The man at the table shot him a scathing glare. “It’s
. And, no thank you.” Franklin stood and tried to look for Lyssa as she made her way back into their view, walking over the short grass toward the tree line at the back of the house. “I don’t like her going out alone.”
“She’s fine,” Justin assured him. She was far stronger than this man was giving her credit for. He’d already seen that with Lucky and the decision about Rocky. Once she took a stance, she wasn’t about to back down. “Does she know you’re in love with her?”
Franklin spun back to face Justin. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Alyssa and I have been friends for years.”
Justin chuckled quietly. “Maybe so, but that doesn’t change the fact that you love her.”
He could certainly sympathize with the man. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to find himself in the same predicament. There was something about Alyssa Cole that made a man want to sacrifice everything for her, including his heart.
“I do love her, but not like that. She’s like the little sister I never had. I care about her, a lot. We were best friends for a long time.” His voice took on a sentimental note.
“Sure. Friends,” Justin repeated, trying to keep the jealousy rising up in him from coloring his voice.
“I don’t really give a crap what you believe. I’m not here for you.” Franklin eyed Justin defensively before crossing his arms over his chest and giving Justin a laugh. “You’re jealous, aren’t you?” Justin took a sip of his coffee, ignoring Franklin’s insight. “You don’t hide it nearly as well as you think you do,” Franklin pointed out.
If this man could see it, surely Lyssa could, too. He wanted to turn his back on this entire mess of drama she’d brought to his doorstep—puppies, crazy exes, and now, a lawyer. The only thing missing was the media, and he was sure they’d be here as soon as Franklin filed the paperwork.
“I knew Aly back in college, when she got started acting and got her big break. She hadn’t even graduated before Elijah reached for her coattails like the leech I suspected he was. I couldn’t stand him from the start.” He shook his head and peered out the window to where she stood at the edge of the tree line. “I tried to convince myself it was because I was jealous of the time she was spending with him, but when her career took off, I made sure I was right beside her. I would have stayed there, too, if Elijah hadn’t fired me.”
Justin stared into his coffee, shaking his head. “You’ve got a few reasons to hate the guy.”
“You have no idea,” Franklin confessed. “He and I had plenty of battles over what was best for Aly’s career. Try watching your best friend give up everything for a man who doesn’t deserve or appreciate her. I always thought he was cheating on her, but I couldn’t prove it.”
Anger began to bubble in Justin’s chest. “But you let her stay?” Every man she’d trusted had let her down. He set the cup on the table and stalked closer, ready to pummel this
of Lyssa’s for allowing things to come to this. “You knew what was happening and turned your back on her?”
“What was I supposed to do? By then, they were married. Even when I did tell her, she didn’t believe me.” Franklin stood straighter, not about to back down. “This Aly you see, this isn’t who she was with him. I don’t understand how it happened, and it was so gradual I almost thought I’d imagined it. But within a few years, she’d ‘retired’ from acting and said it was for their marriage.” Franklin shook his head.
“She didn’t talk to me for a few years after that. Then, almost a year ago, she called me to have lunch. We rarely talk about Elijah or her marriage. She’s still reserved, but I get glimpses of the way she used to be, before she started dating him. I didn’t want to take a chance that pressing her about her marriage would push her away again. I wanted to believe she was happy.”
Justin could feel his anger at this man waning. It wasn’t Franklin he wanted to kill, it was Elijah. “She won’t admit to him being abusive.”
“I know. She minimizes it, or takes the blame. But I’m not sure she sees what he did as being physically abusive, although pushing and shoving absolutely are.” Franklin took a deep breath and looked out the window again. “There was enough emotional abuse to see it changed her. You have to help me convince her to go through with this. This is the most determined I’ve seen her in years. I don’t know what you’ve done in the past two days, but don’t stop now. This is the Aly I remember from college. I don’t want to see her go back to that empty, unhappy Stepford wife he turned her into.”
Justin couldn’t ignore the gnawing ache at the thought of Lyssa returning to the life she’d left. He’d already seen the fear and hesitation that haunted her eyes disappearing. He’d known her only a few days, but even he could see the changes taking place, the confidence returning to her. He’d seen glimpses of the fire in her that he hadn’t expected from the woman who had first arrived, and the thought of her returning to her ex-husband, going back into that dysfunctional life, made him want to put his fist through the wall. He couldn’t entertain the idea that she would even consider putting herself or her child back into that kind of situation again.
“What makes you sure she would?”
A frown curved Franklin’s brow. “I’m not, but I’m also not completely sure she wouldn’t.”
LYSSA WANDERED DOWN
the walkway toward the tall pine trees, inhaling deeply. She almost turned back for her sweater but didn’t want to face the two men in the kitchen just yet. She knew what they wanted—for her to sign the papers and be done with Elijah once and for all—but it wasn’t that simple. This was her marriage, to a man she’d once been sure she loved. The man she’d thought loved her. If she could make a mistake this enormous, how could she ever take another chance on love again? How could she trust any of the decisions she made?
Her hands curved around her belly, caressing where her child was nestled. She took another deep breath, trying to let the quiet of the crisp early winter morning breathe confidence back into her. She could be a good mother, even if she was single. She wasn’t going to let the mistakes she’d made in her past dictate her child’s future.
She’d spent hours fantasizing about her baby, what color eyes he would have, his smile. What would her child be like? She’d loved every doctor’s appointment because she’d been able to listen to that strong, steady washing-machine heartbeat of the life within her. Elijah had never had time for any of it. When she’d asked him whether he wanted a boy or girl, he’d shooed her out of the room, claiming he needed to make phone calls. When she asked for his help picking decorations for the nursery, he’d turned the conversation back to his latest television project instead.
A tear slipped down her cheek. This baby deserved to be loved by his father, but he would never get that from Elijah. Neither of them would unless Elijah changed dramatically, and since he didn’t feel he was the one who needed to, she’d done the evolving—into someone she didn’t recognize.
She’d seen the press conferences he’d done, replayed repeatedly over the past twenty-four hours, as he pleaded for someone to find her. He looked every inch the doting husband, devastated by the loss of his wife and child. But was any of his act real? Or was Franklin right? He still hadn’t tried to call her phone. She’d spent so many years giving him the benefit of the doubt, convincing herself to believe what she later found out were lies, that she wanted to be persuaded by the man she saw on the news. She had to know for sure.
Alyssa pulled her cell phone from the pocket of her jeans, staring at it for a moment, gathering her courage before dialing Elijah’s number. His handsome face popped up on the screen as it rang. Twice, three times, four times.
You’ve reached Elijah Cole. Leave your name, number and . . .
She hung up and redialed, but just received his voice mail again. He was either too busy to talk to her or ignoring her call altogether. If he was trying to find her the way he claimed to be, he would have answered the phone immediately. Wouldn’t someone be monitoring his calls? She knew better than anyone that he always had his phone on him. The fact that he wasn’t answering proved, more than anything else, that the media attention was a ploy.
As much as she wanted to leave him a scathing message, it would only infuriate him, and accomplish nothing. It was even more likely he would use it against her. As it was, she’d just done two things Franklin asked her not to do—used her phone, and called Elijah.
Alyssa looked at the treetops, blowing in the wind, and ran her hands over her arms, listening to the birds chattering loudly in the distance. It was so beautiful here. It reminded her of home, and she felt a knot of pain twist in her chest. Now that Elijah had tried to poison her parents against her, she couldn’t contact them, couldn’t explain to them what was happening. Not until Franklin could get the paperwork filed and she was able to come out publicly with her side of the story.
She wasn’t about to let him charm his way to denying their child his rights, but it meant she was going to have to fight back, something she’d nearly forgotten how to do over the past few years. She knew better than anyone how ruthless Elijah could be. She had to fight smart, which meant staying several steps ahead of him. She pulled her wedding ring from her pocket, letting the sun flicker off the diamonds. Like the house, it was a monstrosity, a declaration of the wealth and influence Elijah had in Hollywood. What should have been her most prized possession was nothing more than a beautiful shackle. She slid it back into her pocket. She would tell Franklin to sell it as well.
Without any means of support until she received the money from the car, she had no option but to ask Franklin for help or continue to rely on Justin’s hospitality. It probably made more sense to ask Franklin, but she wondered if it wasn’t a conflict of interest while he was representing her. It was definitely the safer option for her emotional state. The mere thought of remaining here with Justin sent a shiver of heat through her veins as she remembered his kiss earlier.
The last thing she needed right now was the complication of a relationship. She was ending one, she didn’t want to make the mistake of jumping into another, but when Justin touched her, her reservations vanished. She felt longing coil within her. In another time, another place, they might have had something special. Not now. The timing wasn’t right.
Justin was a great guy. He deserved someone who could give herself completely, not a single mother on the cusp of a divorce without a dime to her name. For all she knew, he was looking forward to her leaving and getting his house back. It was in everyone’s best interest for her to leave with Franklin. They would have to figure something out.
head into the clinic and suspected she was going to check on Rocky. He followed her inside, replaying his conversation with Franklin in his mind. He should have recognized the signs of her abuse sooner. Almost five years ago, he’d watched helplessly while Julia had recuperated from her boyfriend’s attack. Evan had sent her to the hospital for several weeks. Lyssa might not have the physical wounds Julia had suffered, but that didn’t make the abuse, or the toll it had taken on her, any less real. She was minimizing the emotional trauma she’d faced.
Justin knew Franklin was trying to help Lyssa, but she didn’t need another demanding, forceful man in her life. That would only make her retreat further. As much as he wanted to rescue her, Justin knew she needed to find the strength in herself to take this step away from this situation, for this to be her decision to take control.
He found her standing over Rocky, her hands moving slowly over his side as he slept peacefully. The puppy was out of the woods, but she didn’t know that yet. Justin moved closer, realizing she was completely lost in her thoughts.
“You were right to save him,” he acknowledged. “He’s going to be okay.”
She gave him a sad smile. “He is? I’m glad.”
Justin could sense the hesitation in her, a distance he hadn’t seen in her until now, and wondered at the wall she’d managed to erect between them in the short span of time. The sadness he’d seen upon her arrival had returned, and it tugged at his heart.
“Lyssa? Are you okay?”
“I’m going to leave with Franklin. I’d like to stay and help with Rocky and the others but . . . ” Her words trailed off, as if she wasn’t sure how to explain.
Justin took a slow, deep breath, trying to disregard the painful constriction of his lungs. He shoved his hands into his pockets, trying to hide his reaction to her statement. “Okay.”
She turned and looked at him, surprise registering on her face. “I mean . . . I appreciate all you’ve done to help me, but I just think . . . I guess what I mean is, it’s better if I leave with Franklin in the morning. I don’t want to cause you any more trouble.”
Justin ran his hand through his hair and shook his head. He wanted to pull her into his arms, to hold her until she realized she didn’t have to live this nightmare any longer. He’d never been the kind of guy to turn his back on anyone who needed help, but with Lyssa, he knew her well-being, and that of her child, depended on making her believe her worth.
“Lyssa, my life was pretty crazy to begin with, and I’ll admit you sort of made it do a somersault, but I’m not complaining.”
She looked up at him, her green eyes wide, and he could read the doubt in them. The corner of his mouth turned up. “Okay, maybe at first I complained to my sister, but that was before I knew you, knew what you were going through. Lyssa, you’re the kind of trouble I could get used to.”