This was the second stupidest thing she had ever done in her entire life. But since this stupid thing was going to remedy the first, Gloria Parker cut herself a tiny sliver of slack.
This was necessary, she reminded herself, running her hands down the front of her white t-shirt, wincing when she brushed bruises. Life and death. Hers.
Her rusty little car was packed with her meager belongings. She wouldn’t be going “home” tonight.
“It’s going to be fine,” she assured herself, stepping onto the skinny front porch of the bar. Remo’s was the favorite—and only—bar in the town of Benevolence. Built like a log cabin, the cedar-shingled exterior invited thirsty patrons inside with its hand-painted sign and cozy patio off the right-hand side. Its only view was the gravel parking lot, but if you were visiting Remo’s, you weren’t worried about ambiance. You were there to catch up with your neighbors. Enjoy a pitcher. Sample a plate of hot wings. Or, in his case, drink until you couldn’t see straight.
She was twenty-seven years old and had never once stepped foot in Remo’s. There were a lot of things she hadn’t done. Yet. And one reason for all of it. Today, it all ended, and her life could finally begin.
It was spring. Early enough that she could still feel a few curling tendrils of winter in the air. Spring meant new beginnings. As the sun went down over the town she’d been born and raised in, so would the curtain on ten years of stupid. Ten years of pain. Ten years of a history that she was ashamed of.
Gloria swallowed hard. “You can do this,” she whispered. With a shaking hand, she pulled the thick wood door open, ignoring the purple welts around her wrist. She’d gotten good at that. Ignoring. Pretending.
She stepped through the doorway and into her future.
Cozy, not seedy, she thought. Wood paneled walls showcased beer signs and pictures of Benevolence over the decades. There was a skinny strip of stage against the back wall. A crowd of mostly empty tables and chairs clustered around the pine floor. The glass door on the right led to a patio for warm weather socializing. But her attention was on the big man hunched over the bar.
Judging from the slump in his shoulders, he’d either left work early, or he’d been laid off again from the factory and neglected to tell her. Either way, he’d been drinking for hours.
She took a shaky breath and let it out. It was now or never. And she wouldn’t survive never.
The bartender, Titus, was an older man she recognized as the father of one of her classmates. His son had just finished law school in Washington, D.C. And here was Gloria, still frozen in time. Titus spotted her, and his gaze slid uneasily to Glenn.
He knew. Everyone knew. It was part of the shame Gloria feared she would never shed. But she had to try.
Sophie Adler, crackling with energy, danced behind the bar, tying her raven hair in a tail.
“Sorry I’m late, Titus. Josh hid my car keys in the toilet again.”
Titus grunted and reached for the tip jar without taking his eyes off Glenn. He was expecting trouble.
Gloria prayed to God the man was wrong.
She cleared her throat. “Glenn.” His name came out clear as a bell with a confidence Gloria didn’t know she still possessed.
He turned slowly on his stool, an empty shot glass and a beer in front of him. His eyes were bloodshot already.
He focused in on her and lurched to his feet. “The fuck you doing here?”
That guttural growl, the threat of violence it carried, had cowed her for years. But not today. Today she was immune.
She wanted this. She reminded herself. She needed this.
She watched the man she’d fallen for at seventeen, the man she’d let systematically strip her of everything right down to her dignity, approach. Alcohol and a feeling that life owed him more had made his high school muscle bulky and bloated. It had dulled his eyes, sallowed his skin. He looked a decade older than his thirty years.
Glenn listed to the right as he shuffled toward her. Drunk but still capable of inflicting so much damage. That’s why they were here. Not in the shabby trailer they shared where no one paid any attention to the sounds of fists and screams.
Here, there were witnesses. Here, there were people who might help.
She put an empty table between them, the hair prickling on the back of her neck.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” he demanded again. His bark drew the eyes of everyone in the bar.
“I’m leaving,” she said quietly. “I’m leaving, and I’m not coming back, and if you ever touch me again, I’m going to the police.” The words poured out like water rushing over the falls. They’d been lodged in her throat for so long they’d strangled her.
His once handsome face twisted into a gruesome grimace. His cheeks flushed red. The veins in his neck corded into a topographical map. But they weren’t within the walls of his trailer. They had an audience.
It was a thin veneer of protection, and Gloria clung to it.
He laughed, a slow, dangerous wheeze. “You’re going to be very, very sorry.”
A chill ran through her body, lodging itself like an iceberg in her heart. She’d made a miscalculation. Her eyes flicked to Sophie behind the bar. The woman was watching her. She nodded toward the phone. A subtle signal.
Gloria gave a small shake of her head.
No. She needed to do this on her own. Make the break.
“Glenn. I’m serious. We’re done. You’re done hurting me. It’s never happening again. If you try it, I’ll take out a restraining order against you.”
He’d been a king on the basketball court in high school. Big, mean, aggressive. He’d fought his way to win after win. She’d thought winning fueled him, that hero’s adoration. But instead, it was the attention, the recognition that he was someone not to be messed with. A man. Respect through fear. Just like his father. His father drank and beat his wife…until his untimely death of a heart attack at forty-five. So Glenn drank and beat his girlfriend. Because that’s what men did.
He reached across the table quick as a snake, his meaty hand settling on her arm in a painful grip. “Let’s go have ourselves a little talk,” he said pleasantly. But there was menace behind the words, laced like poison ivy around the trunk of a tree.
Gloria fought against his hold. It always started the same, that hand wrapping its way around her upper arm and choking the blood out of it. The last three months had been so bad she’d never healed. Just bruises on top of bruises.
“Stop it,” she gritted out, desperate to yank her arm free. But it was a comedy, her small frame trying to deny his hulking strength.
He towed her toward the door like a man with a dog.
“Gonna settle up?” Titus called nervously after them.
Glenn didn’t deign to answer, just shoved the front door open so hard it bounced off the wooden, shingled exterior.
She fought in earnest now as he dragged her toward his pickup at the back of the lot. Her sneakers slipped and stumbled over the gravel.
“Let go of me!”
He tossed her against the side of his truck. Her spine jarred at the impact. “You belong to me, Gloria Parker. You don’t get to leave. Ever.”
“You don’t even love me,” she shouted the truth in his face. He didn’t know what love was. She wasn’t sure if she did either.
“I don’t have to love you. I own you,” he hissed.
Every warning bell she’d developed to alert her to his changes in moods, to danger, clanged to life in her head.
“You don’t,” she told him. “You don’t own me. You have to let me go.”
“I don’t have to do shit,” he slurred.
The backhand caught her by surprise, stunning her. She shook it off as she had so many others and pushed him back. She had to fight now like never before. Her life was at stake.
“You stupid fucking bitch. Ungrateful slut,” he breathed, shoving a hand into her hair and pulling it until she yelped. He liked when she cried. Liked when she was terrified. He wanted her to know that he had the power to end her life.
“I’m leaving you,” she said, through chattering teeth. He’d never hurt her in public before. But, then again, she’d never tried leaving him before.
“I warned you!” It was a shout of rage that carried across the parking lot.
Benevolence was a town of good people who worked hard and cared about their neighbors. He was a stain on them all and proud of it. But there was no one here to help her. It was her against him. Until the police that Sophie probably—dear God, please—called. She just needed to hang in there for a few minutes.
Gloria shoved against his chest with all her strength, but his meaty fists closed around her arms, shaking her until the back of her head hit the truck window. With a bleak realization, she knew she didn’t have minutes.
“Hey!” She heard a voice snap through the air. A woman. Blonde hair.
But Glenn was obstructing her view. “Mind your own business, nosy whore.”
“Glenn—” Gloria gasped.
“I’m sick of hearing it!” he said. His face was fire-engine-red with rage. He gripped her by the throat, lifting her off her feet.
Her air was cut off. She felt the pressure build in her head, watched the black creep in on the edges of her vision. Her feet swung uselessly, inches from the ground. It couldn’t end this way. Her life couldn’t stop at his brutish hands. She wouldn’t be just another sad statistic.
Weakly she reached for the hand around her throat. Everything was starting to go gray as her lungs screamed for oxygen.
With the last of her strength, she lashed her foot out and connected with his bad knee. At the same time, she saw a flash of blonde, and Glenn was dropping her to the ground. She landed in a crumpled heap. The gravel bit into her legs, her side, but she was too busy sucking in broken breaths to notice.
There was a commotion behind her—shouts and curses—but it sounded so far away. She rolled over onto her back and stared up at the spring sunset coating the sky in pinks and oranges.