Bella looked up from my knee. We had resumed our earlier positions on her couch, content to simply listen to the rain as I stroked her hair and let her relax and calm herself.
"I don't want to upset you again, but can I ask you a few questions?"
She nodded up at me warily and I smiled at her expression.
"Here's an easy one — how old are you?"
"Ah. An older man."
I grinned and leered at her. "Yep. Look out, little girl. I plan on having my wicked way with you."
She giggled softly as I ran my hand along her brow, my voice turning serious.
"You're … awfully young to already be doing what you do, aren't you?"
She pursed her lips before answering me.
"Well, first off, my career choice doesn't take as long to accomplish as a practicing medical doctor— there is no residency to go through or as many years at school. And as I told you earlier, I didn't have any friends, or really much of a life outside of school. But I loved learning, and I was pretty young when I decided what I wanted to do with my life. I spent so much time at the hospital when I was young … and I always thought I wanted to be a doctor. I volunteered in the summer at the hospital so I could get a feel of what actually went on," she explained, grimacing slightly.
"Not for you?"
She shook her head. "I realized pretty quickly the intensity and dealing with the patients wasn't right for me. But I still wanted to do … something medical. Something that made a difference. One day I got sent to deliver a sample to the lab and I was instructed to wait for it. The technician was an older lady and very nice. She saw I was interested and let me watch. I was hooked. Afterward I immediately went to the library and started researching things and knew what I wanted was to work behind the scenes. Help discover something to ease people's suffering."
She was quiet for a minute and I let her gather her thoughts, my hand slowly stroking her hair. She looked up at me, her eyes hesitant, and her voice quiet. "I like it when you do that."
"Good. I like it, too. Your hair is so soft, Bella. I love how it feels under my fingers."
Shyly, she smiled at me and I couldn't resist leaning down and kissing her, thrilled when she lifted her head to accept my caress. Her lips were warm and pliant under mine as they moved together, sliding softly against each other. I kept it chaste and drew back, my thumb stroking her bottom lip. "I like that as well," I grinned down at her.
"Good," she wrinkled her nose at me adorably.
Bella sighed quietly. "As I got older I spent a lot of time at the library. Mrs. Cope was the head librarian and she was always … well, she was what made the difference in my life. She talked to me, helped me find the books I needed, encouraged me. She was the one person who seemed to see me, and the only adult who made me feel as if they cared. She always had time to talk to me, or listen, you know?"
"I'm glad you had her."
"I think she knew I didn't have a good home life and she tried in her own way to make a difference."
"Bella …" I trailed off uncertainly, unsure if I should even ask.
"Why didn't anyone ever do anything? To help you?"
She shrugged. "What were they going to do? I was fed, clothed; I went to school every day, and I got good grades. My dad was the local Chief of Police so who would they go to? If anyone suspected I had a less than happy home life, they weren't going to go against him." Her voice dropped. "He didn't break the law, he just ignored me. And it wasn't like they could make him love me, Anthony."
My heart clenched at her sad words and I shook my head. "He didn't just ignore you, Bella, he neglected you." I sighed. "But at school? Nobody there helped either?"
"The term bullying wasn't used the way it is today. I never complained, so who was going to come forward? And I got good grades, I never showed any bruising or marks that weren't easily explained by my own clumsiness and Mike was smart enough that he didn't mess with me in front of adults. I was … just a shadow. To them I was shy, not very sociable; just another student who didn't fit in. Simple as that."
"They all failed you."
She was quiet for a moment. "Mrs. Cope was different though. When I told her what I wanted to do she encouraged me. As soon as I was able to, I worked every job I could, waiting tables, cleaning offices, tutoring other kids, anything to save money. And I studied. All the time. Mrs. Cope even hired me at the library, although most of the time she made sure I studied." Bella smiled softly. "I trusted her, so I gave her all my money and she kept it safe for me, so Mike or Dad couldn't get to it. Not that they even noticed I wasn't home. I made sure they had their meals and the house was clean. They just thought I was at the library all the time or tutoring. Which I may have told them I did for free." Bella paused and smiled up at me. "That was Mrs. Cope's idea. She wasn't overly fond of either of them, and didn't trust either of them at all."
I snorted. "The woman had good taste."
Bella sighed softly. "She always made sure I had a little pocket money for things, but otherwise she put it all in the bank for me." She glanced up at me. "I think she added to it as well, but she never admitted to it."
"She sounds great. I'd like to thank her for what she did for you."
"We could … go see her … if you wanted? She's retired and lives with her granddaughter up North …"
I nodded. "Yes, I want to. We'll do a road trip. Keep going, Chefgirl. Tell me."
Bella sighed quietly. "I worked really hard and I graduated high school a year early, with honors. I got a scholarship and went to University at seventeen. It was only a few hours down the road, but I was away from them. I lived in the dorms and ate Ramen noodles for months at a time, but I did it."
"I assume your father didn't help with the costs?"
Bella laughed. "No. When I told him I was leaving to go to University he told me it was a waste of money since I would never amount to anything."
"That must have hurt," I observed quietly.
She was quiet, before nodding. "But, for the first time in my life I ignored him and did it. I went and I worked, I studied and I paid for it myself, and I walked out of there with a Ph.D. in medical science."
I gazed down at her fondly. "I told you that you were brilliant."
"Not brilliant enough."
"Just after I graduated, Mike called and told me Dad had fallen. I hadn't seen either of them since I left to go to school. I never went home for holidays or anything."
"Can't say I blame you for that."
"I didn't ever want to see them again. But Mike kept calling and pressuring me, so I went to see him." She sighed heavily. "One thing led to another and before I knew it I was back there, looking after my father and brother."
I shook my head. "Bella."
"I know. I was stupid. I thought maybe this was the chance I had been waiting for. I was grown up, and they seemed to need me. I had been offered a job at a hospital in Mississauga and I thought I could look after Dad, and work and maybe we would finally be a family." Her voice was sad. "Maybe I would finally belong."
My fingers stroked her cheek gently. "That didn't happen, did it?"
"No. I didn't like the job and things at my father's hadn't changed. I was just someone to look after them for free. My father was as distant and ungrateful as ever ... and Mike … well, he was just Mike. Nothing I did was ever right."
Bella shifted and rolled toward me, and I wrapped my arm around her, pulling her closer, sensing her need to be nearer to me. "What happened?"
"Dad wasn't getting better. In fact, he'd had some small strokes so he was getting worse. He was getting to be more than I could handle and even his own doctor said he needed to be in a care home. He kept refusing homecare, but I was running myself ragged between work and him and I didn't know how I could keep going."
"What was Mike doing to help?"
Bella laughed. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He just continued on with his life. Working at the garage, drinking with his buddies, making snide remarks about me."
"Fucker," I growled.
"I got called out of the blue for a position at the Research Centre here, which was where I had wanted to be after I graduated. When I was offered the job I knew I couldn't do both – look after dad and travel here every day." She drew in a deep breath. "I wanted this so much and for the only time in my life, I put myself first and accepted the job. When I told Mike and Dad I was leaving and Dad would either have to pay for home care or go into the care facility … well, it was ugly. They said some awful things and Mike pushed me really hard into the wall. I could hardly move one shoulder for days." She looked up at me unhappily. "That was when I knew I would never be anything to them but a free maid. They didn't love me as a child, and they certainly didn't love me as an adult."
I looked down at her sadly, tamping down my feelings of rage toward her asshole brother. He had better hope we never ran into each other in a dark alley. Or even a brightly lit one. "What did you do?"
"I went upstairs, packed my few things and left after they went to bed. I started my new job, and I found a small apartment and for the first time in my life I lived on my own." She smiled. "I'd never had that kind of freedom before and I loved it."
"Did they bother you?"
"For a while. Mike would call and threaten me, telling me how much I owed them and how I had let them down yet again. I had let Dad's doctor know I was leaving and he stepped in and got Dad into the care facility. He wasn't happy about it. But the calls stopped and I thought I was finally free. I hadn't heard or seen from Mike until he showed up the other day."
"He is still in the same care facility now?"
"And he wants to leave it?" I asked, my voice taut.
My hands tightened on her. "You're not going back there, Bella. You aren't free labor for them." I stared at her intensely. "I won't let them hurt you again."
"You don't owe them anything. You know that, right? They have no control over you anymore."
She nodded wordlessly.
I cupped her face tenderly. "Good. You don't owe anybody, anything." I paused, sensing she had answered enough questions about her family for now. "What made you buy this place?"
"I had been saving for a while, thinking how much I would like a place with a little yard. I didn't need anything big or fancy. My apartment was only about ten minutes from here. I used to walk through the neighbourhood all the time when I went to take pictures in the woods or went for a run. I saw the For Sale sign go up and called the agent. I loved it right away and I put in an offer." She frowned. "It took a bit before it was accepted. Apparently the owner was very picky about who bought it."
I grimaced internally. I knew why the offer had taken so long. She had been checked out before it was accepted because of me.
"I'm glad it was accepted."
She smiled. "Me, too."
My voice turned serious. "Even if you ended up getting involved with someone who wants you to look after him, too?"
"We look after each other, Anthony. That's the big difference."
"There is another difference, Bella," I whispered.
"This someone adores you."
Her eyes were huge in her face. "You … adore me?"
I lifted my knees, pulling her up close, my arms drawing her against me. "So much, Chefgirl. So very much."
"I've never … been adored before," she whispered brokenly, her beautiful eyes swimming with tears.
"Get used to it. It's not going to change," I murmured then covered her mouth with mine, showing her just how much she was adored.
The rest of the evening was spent quietly. Bella seemed to need to be close to me and I was more than happy with that. I made her laugh with my magical microwave skills and heated up some leftovers for supper. Afterward, she curled into the corner of the couch, reading quietly, and I worked on my iPad, her legs draped over my lap. Outside, the rain continued to fall. I caught her more than once gazing wistfully out the window. "What are you thinking?" I asked quietly.
She smiled at me sweetly. "Just wondering if the rain would stop so I could go for a run in the morning."
"You run every day?"
"I'm coming with you."
Her soft laugh made me smile. "I had kinda figured that."
I squeezed her leg. "Good."
"You can't put your life on hold for me forever, Anthony."
I looked at her worried expression and shook my head. "I'm exactly where I want to be. We look after each other, remember?" I paused and wrapped my hand around hers, my voice quiet. "You are my life now, Bella."
Her amazing eyes widened; the vivid colors so brilliant as she gazed at me. "I like that," she whispered, a shy smile on her lips.
I stood up and stretched. "It's been a long day." I held out my hand. "Bring your book and come to bed with me, Chefgirl."
She blushed, but silently accepted my hand. I pulled her off the sofa and into my arms, smiling as she accepted my embrace without tensing up for a change.
"I'm going to make sure everything is locked up," I whispered into her hair. "Meet you there?"
She smiled up at me widely. "Meet you there."
First off, I want to thank you. The responses, reviews, and messages I got after the last chapter blew me away. The stories so many of you shared brought tears to my eyes. So many brave, strong women out there, who have survived so much. Thank you for allowing me a small glimpse of your pain. I hope sharing it, eased it a little. It did for me. For all of you who asked, my past is far behind me and I am in a good place in life with someone who loves me and treats me very well. I am blessed.
This chapter was just a chance for everyone to destress, hear a little more of her story and let Fenceward care for his Chefgirl.
Again, thank you. My readers are, without a doubt, the best in the fandom.
See you on Tuesday.