“You’re no idiot,” Karen said firmly. “Trust me, I can tell. I promise, nothing you tell me leaves this room unless you want it to. I’m good at keeping confidences. I won’t even tell my brother, no matter how much he nags.”
“Okay.” Mary sighed. “What have I got to lose?” She took a drink of the water while marshaling her thoughts, and jumped when she heard the door chime in the other room.
“It’s all right,” Karen assured her. “My brother and Jackson are out there, and I locked this door. Go on.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Mary took a deep breath. “I moved here a little while ago because I had a line on a new job. Dean had moved here a bit before that, and we’d been long-distance for a while. He wasn’t the main reason I came, but it was a plus, you know? At least I thought so.”
“Anyway, I got here and the job didn’t pan out. It wasn’t working out with Dean either. Jesus, I can’t believe I didn’t see it earlier.”
“Sometimes things aren’t clear right away, but it doesn’t mean you did anything wrong,” Karen told her. “When you aren’t expecting something, it’s harder to see it.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right.” Mary nodded. “Anyway, I was going to break up with him this morning and he suggested we come down town and walk. I thought good, it’ll be in public, he won’t make a scene, all of that. Then he starts talking about tattoos and next thing I know, we’re walking in here.” She rubbed her temples.
“It’s all right,” said Karen.
“I’m sorry he was so awful.” Mary said, then cringed again when she heard raised voices.
Karen laid a hand on Mary’s arm. “Don’t apologize for him, it’s not your fault. And don’t worry, we’re not letting him anywhere near you.”
Mary smiled and wiped at her eyes. “You don’t even know me.”
“Sure, I do,” said Karen. “You’re brave, and strong. You moved and even though you were scared, you dumped the only person you know in town so you could get to a better place. It takes guts to do that.”
“It doesn’t feel like it,” Mary said. “It feels like I finally wised up after too long.”
“It might feel like that, but it doesn’t mean you aren’t brave, and it doesn’t make it all mean any less. Give it a while, you’ll see.”
Mary sighed. “I hope so.” She jumped at a knock on the door.
“Karen, it’s me. Open up. He’s gone.”
Karen opened the door and Mary tensed as a tall, lanky man walked in. She recognized him from before. She realized he probably wasn’t as big as she thought; she was scared and sitting down, and that made for a skewed perspective. However, he was taller than Karen, and then there were the tattoos, faded t-shirt and blue jeans. He didn’t have Karen’s easy demeanor, though there was a physical resemblance. This must be Karen’s brother.
He was handsome, and she could imagine the crooked grin he’d have when he found something funny, but nothing was funny at the moment. Mary shrank back in the chair as he stared at her.
“Hey, Tony. Everything ok?” Karen asked.
“Yeah. He’s a lot of hot air and we took it out of him.”
Karen snorted. “I don’t suppose you mean that literally. Oh well, one can dream. Tony, this is Mary Stone. Mary, this is my brother, Tony Chandler.”
“Hi.” Mary tried to ignore her feeling of intimidation.
“Hi. What’s with the ice pack?”
It seemed Karen had the tact in the family, Mary noted, but Tony deserved a response. She cleared her throat and made herself answer. “Dean hit me.” Mary realized she needed to say it, to make herself face what had happened and not rationalize it away.
Tony’s face darkened. “He did?”
Karen turned to her brother. “Don’t, Tony. He’s a jerk, and I’d like to take a piece out of his scrawny ass myself, but this isn’t about us.” She cast a look at Mary. “Don’t mind him, he’s always had a protective streak. He’ll settle down.”
Tony relaxed a little and looked slightly abashed. Mary couldn’t help a small smile at Karen’s remark, and her brother’s reaction. It was a relief to have someone on her side, even if she’d just met them.
However, even with a couple of new allies, Mary knew she had to find a way to handle this, because she couldn’t rely on someone doing it for her. It had been her idea to come seek her fortune in the big city, as Allie had said, and she would have to deal with the fallout.
In that moment, Mary realized that she had no job, no car, nowhere to live, and not a lot of money, not to mention all of her stuff was at Dean’s house. Now that she’d had a moment to think about what she’d done, she felt as though she’d made a huge mistake. Not leaving Dean—she should have done that ages ago—but that she should have done it on her own terms, the night before, as Allie had said.
Oh god, she thought. What am I going to do?
Mary bent her head and covered her eyes so the others wouldn’t see the tears building up. They’d already done so much to help her, she didn’t want them to have to tend to an emotional wreck as well.
“What’s wrong?” Tony said sharply.
He sounded angry, and no wonder. She’d come in to his place of business, argued with her boyfriend, run away and then run back, and asked them to hide her. Then her boyfriend—ex-boyfriend, she reminded herself—had followed her and there’d been some kind of confrontation. Surely that had not put him in a good mood.
Jesus, she felt like she was going to hyperventilate, and Tony’s icy glare wasn’t helping matters.
“Back off, Tony.” Karen jabbed a finger at her brother’s chest. “You’re scaring her.”
“What? No, I’m not.” Tony rubbed where she’d poked him, wondering if her long nails had drawn blood. Karen gave him a look and tilted her head in Mary’s direction.
Tony saw Mary and took her in: small, trembling, and trying to calm herself down. Karen was right, and he felt terrible. He hadn’t meant to scare the woman, but he was off-kilter. The intensity of his feelings, even though they’d just met, was unsettling.
Karen nudged him and indicated he should go over to Mary. He gave her a questioning look, and she just sighed and shook her head and nudged him again. He shrugged in surrender and sat down across the table, making sure to leave space so Mary didn’t feel threatened.
He cleared his throat. Mary’s breathing started to even out, but she didn’t look at him. Karen gave him a frustrated look. Fine, he thought. Fine.
“Mary, I’m sorry,” Tony said. He cleared his throat again. “I’m sorry if I scared you. Karen’s right, this isn’t your fault. If it helps, nothing happened. Dean came in but he was all talk. He acted tough, but when Jackson said he’d call the cops, Dean left. Really. It’s okay.”
She nodded, took a deep breath and at last, looked up. Tony met her eyes and felt everything in him shift for a second. Her eyes were brown with gold flecks, and he saw both bravery and vulnerability. He wanted to pull her against him and soothe the fear away.
What the hell? This whole thing was messed up. No woman had ever messed him up this much, this fast.
Mary took one last breath and let it out slowly. Tony realized he was watching her chest rise and fall and averted his eyes.
“Thank you. Thank you, both.” Mary’s voice was soft but grew stronger as she spoke. “I’m sorry to have caused you so much trouble. If you don’t mind, I’ll just take a few minutes to get myself together, and then I’ll head out.” She gave a weak smile. “It’s been kind of a day.”