When she found out how I’d been spending my days and nights before she showed up on my doorstep, she took action. The dead, lifeless eyes that looked up into mine and begged for a place for her and my niece to stay, if only for the night were suddenly filled with determination. For someone who had lived in her own private hell for seven years, she wasn’t afraid to call me out on my bullshit. It only took six little words from her one night three months ago to make me pull my head out of my own ass.
When the fuck did I put a tilt-a-whirl in my house? And when did tilt-a-whirl employees start smacking their riders?
“Brady! You son of a bitch! Wake up! God dammit, wake up!”
Gwen’s screams made the room stop spinning so I could finally focus, but too bad the spinning was now replaced with an ear-splitting headache.
“Jesus Christ! I’m up, I’m up. Stop smacking me,” I complained with a groan as I rolled over away from her and tried to get comfortable in my bed.
My eyes flew open when my hand smacked down in a puddle of vomit two inches from my face. I looked around and realized I was sprawled out on the kitchen floor wearing just my boxer briefs and the phone number of the stripper I was pretty sure I banged tonight written in black pen on my forearm.
“Where’s Emma?” I croaked, wincing at the raspy, worn-out sound of my own voice as I avoided the puke on the floor and pushed myself up to my feet, trying not to wobble but being unsuccessful.
Gwen quickly wrapped her arms around my torso, supporting my weight and helping me over to the sink to wash my hands and splash cold water on my face.
“She’s next door with Mrs. Nichols. I decided to come here first after my shift to check on you before I picked her up. Thank God I did. What a great way for your six-year-old niece to come home from the babysitter. Finding her uncle facedown in a pool of his own vomit, smelling like a hooker.”
Between the stale whiskey and the disgust in her voice, my stomach started to churn.
Still dripping with water, I squeezed my eyes shut as I turned the faucet off and flung my arm out to the side blindly as Gwen smacked a dry dishtowel in my hand.
“I don’t smell like hooker. Stripper maybe. Probably. But never hooker. That’s just gross,” I said with a laugh as I wiped the towel down the front of my face and chucked it into the sink.
“Don’t you dare,” she whispered, tears forming in her eyes. “Don’t you DARE make light of this. Do you honestly think it would have been fun for me to walk in here to find you dead? Do you think I like working my ass off at a job I HATE, spending too much time away from my baby who asks every day when she can see Daddy? Do you think it’s fun for me to worry all day, every day, if today is the day I’m going to have to plan your funeral?” She swiped angrily at the tears that poured down her cheeks. “You need to stop this, Brady. Right now. Nothing that happened was your fault. Not in the Dominican, not here in Nashville, and certainly not my marriage. None of it.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t stand to be in my own fucking skin half the time, and I honestly didn’t know if I COULD stop what I was doing to myself.
“You promised me, Brady. You promised you’d never leave me,” she whispered.
Those six little words from Gwen that night were all it took to end the self-destruction. I said goodbye to the booze, goodbye to the random hook-ups with all the nameless, faceless women, and I said goodbye to the worry I saw etched all over Gwen’s face every single day when she looked at me. Unfortunately, the guilt and the nightmares that ate away at me every night wouldn’t be dismissed as easily. But I cleaned up my act, opened my own business, and made sure I would never, ever break that promise to Gwen again.
Except now I may have to if I can't figure out a way to pay the bills.
“Please tell me there's a few checks I can deposit in that stack of mail so we don’t have to work like the cavemen did. I am not in the mood to chisel stone instead of use the computer,” Gwen states as she walks up to me and leafs through the mail, tucking a blue strand of hair behind her ear.
“Bill, bill, bill, meet interested singles in your area, bill, bill...” she turns the envelopes over one by one and places them face down on the desk “...increase your penis size in just five days.” She purses her lips and lets out a sigh. “Awww, Brady, did you send away for something to enhance your teeny tiny weenie?”
Gwen laughs at her own joke while I stand there staring at her with my arms crossed over my chest and one eyebrow raised.
“No, I’m pretty sure that came free when you signed up for the Itty Bitty Titty Club,” I deadpan.
“Oh, you’re such a riot. Now tell me, what are you going to do about getting this electric turned on? Because hey, I’ve got a great idea. There's this awesome job where you can get paid up front―”
“No,” I interrupt before she's finished.
“Brady, stop being so damn stubborn.” She's starting to whine and I'm losing my patience. “They called again and raised the price. All you have to do is―”
“NO.” My feet slam back down to the floor, and I raise my voice, letting her know this isn't up for discussion.
“You don’t even want to know how much they want to pay you?” Gwen asks in a high pitch voice that makes me want to stab a pencil in my ear as she follows behind me like an annoying puppy—like Mitzy, but yappier.
“No amount of money is enough for me to follow around some pop star diva princess who has more money than she knows what to do with and probably invented this little stalker because her name hasn’t been in the tabloids in at least three point two days. Sorry, no.”
I press the power button on my computer, completely forgetting about the whole no-electricity dilemma.
“Hey, Einstein, last time I checked, computers run on electricity,” Gwen says cockily.
“It’s too early for this,” I mutter, scrubbing my hands over my face. “I need coffee.”
“In case you weren’t aware, coffee pots also run on electricity,” Gwen says with a smirk before she turns and walks over to her desk and takes a seat, turning her chair so she can stare at me and smile.
I ignore her gaze and pick up the phone to check my messages to see if any new clients had called overnight.
“Oh yeah, remember that new phone system you said would be more efficient? Guess what it runs on?”
I grind my teeth together and exhale loudly through my nose, counting to ten in my head before I do what I really want to―pick up the phone console and heave it across the room, preferably at my sister’s head. My mood instantly sobers when I remember the kind of life she's lived for the past seven years.
I slam the receiver down in its cradle and sit silently at my desk, tapping my fingers on the wood.
If I only had my well-being to worry about, this wouldn’t even be an issue. I'd decline the job and figure out another way to pay the bills. There's a cheating spouse job I had put on the back burner because it's boring as hell, but that would only last a day or two. It may pay the electric bill, but it won't pay Gwen’s salary. Asking her to quit her full-time waitressing job where she was guaranteed a paycheck puts added pressure on my shoulders. I'm still kicking myself in the ass every single day for being too caught up in the Navy SEALS, and then the police force, to notice what was going on with my own sister. I'll do right by her and make up for everything she's gone through if it's the last thing I do. Even if it means taking a job that goes against every single moral, ethical, and personal belief I’ve ever had.
When I first left the Navy SEALS a little over a year ago, I spent a few months with the Nashville police force. I experienced my fair share of celebrity craziness from arresting the spoiled daughter of a hotel mogul for a cocaine bender that left one of Nashville’s most popular restaurants trashed beyond recognition to turning down “tips” handed to me on the sly if I just did the collagen-injected, silicone-enhanced country music star one “teensy tiny favor” and not put that she was having sex with her underage back-up dancer when her husband came home and died of a heart-attack in my police report. I couldn’t make that shit up if I tried. I was quickly tiring of the outlandish, overindulgent, spoiled rich kids. After my last SEAL mission where my best friends had been injured, and an entire team of SEALS I'd known since the Naval Academy were all killed, I thought maybe the hustle and bustle of the Nashville police force would keep my mind off of the dark thoughts and endless guilt. All it did was make things worse.
Three months after moving to Nashville, I went out on a routine domestic violence call. Everything should have been cut and dry: separate the victim from the supposed attacker and get each of their statements so we could sort things out back at the station. I had no idea we were walking into a hostage situation and the husband had no intention of letting anyone live.
That night, my partner, a thirty-five-year-old father of four, a twenty-two-year-old mother, her little girl, and a very disturbed twenty-five-year-old young man all lost their lives.
How I managed to make it out alive is still a mystery.
My parents, world renowned doctor, Beth Marshall, and Supreme Court Judge, Patrick Marshall, incorrectly assumed their prodigal son would come running back home and do their bidding by becoming a son they could be proud of and brag about over mint juleps and games of Canasta once I left the Navy SEALS. They wrote me out of their lives once again when I chose to become a cop instead. My parents' blatant disapproval of my life choices and their constant need to remind me about how I wasn’t living up to their expectations pushed me further and further away until the only contact I had with them was the occasional greeting card on birthdays and major holidays.
Unfortunately, the distance I put between myself and my parents over the years also affected my baby sister. Gwen never agreed with their opinions of me, but at that time in my life, contact with her just brought the pain to the forefront. In order for me to excel at my job, I needed to remove all the negativity. I had thought Gwen was well taken care of and that was all that mattered. Even though I cut off contact long before that fateful SEAL mission, I still kept up with the news. I read all about her famous plastic surgeon husband and saw pictures of the smiling, happy couple at events throughout the years. I never really cared much for my brother-in-law the one time I met him at their wedding seven years earlier. He was pompous, had no sense of humor, and our parents treated him like the son they always wanted.
“What time does your flight leave?” Gwen asked, looking up at me while I spun her around the dance floor, trying not to trip over the train on her Vera Wang wedding gown.
I removed my hand from her waist and checked the time on my black, waterproof tactical watch required by the SEALS.
“In about two hours. I need to get going. Don’t want to miss my first mission as a big, bad Navy SEAL,” I told her with a smile and a wag of my eyebrows as the song we were dancing to slowly came to an end.
My father's loud, booming voice echoed through the vaulted ceilings in the ornate banquet hall. “Son! My favorite man in the room. Come over here. There are a few people I want you to meet.”My shoulders tensed as I turned my head in his direction. We hadn't spoken one word to each other since I flew in the day before for Gwen’s wedding. I should have known he wasn’t talking to me. My eyes narrow in undisguised irritation as I watch my father throw his arm around Gwen’s new husband’s shoulder as they shared an obnoxious laugh, continuing to walk past us and towards a group of men I had never met.
“Hey, look at me.”
Gwen’s soft voice forced me to tamp down my anger, and I turned around to meet her bright blue eyes.
“Nothing he says or does means anything. Your happiness – that’s all that matters,” she told me with a smile as she pushed a stray piece of long blonde hair behind one ear.
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I smiled. “That’s a two-way street, Gwenny.”
“I know. Don’t worry. I’m happy. I found my Prince Charming, just like mother always wanted me to.”
Not wanting to place any type of wedge in Gwen’s relationship with our parents by forcing her to choose sides or clouding her happiness by voicing my opinion of her husband, I spoke to her less and less until one day we just weren’t speaking at all anymore.
I felt like shit after the SEAL mission―physically and mentally. After losing my partner and watching two young people die right in front of me a few months later, I fell into a black hole of booze and women that I still couldn't remember half of.
Three months ago, Gwen showed up out of the blue at my townhouse at four o’clock in the morning. Aside from the initial shock at seeing my sister standing on my doorstep after she'd traveled over a thousand miles in the middle of the night, the two black eyes she hid behind dark sunglasses, the cast on her broken wrist, and the way she gingerly held her hand against her side to protect her two broken ribs threw me into a murderous rage. Not to mention the curly-haired, towheaded six-year-old little girl that stood next to her sucking her thumb and looking up at me with the same big, bright, curious blue eyes my sister used to have before that asshole broke her.
To ward off the memories of that dark night, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. The guilt still overwhelms me every time I think about all of those phone calls I never returned and voice mails I deleted without listening all the way through. If I only got off my high horse and returned just one of those calls, I might have been able to save Gwen from the monster she married. If I’d listened to her voice mails, I might have been able to prevent my niece from witnessing her mother having the shit kicked out of her on a weekly basis for the first six years of her life.