I forgot my purse.

I briefly consider turning around. But for what? How the he’ll can I even begin to explain what goes on inside my mind to Jackson? He’ll think I’m a psycho. H’ll, I probably am.

A part of me wants to turn the car around, but Jackson will just want to talk about everything. How can I tell him about this place I go to inside myself that causes me to do these things? How can I tell him that when he hurt me…all I thought about was Ford.

How can I tell him about Ford?

I know, deep down inside that Ford is the gatekeeper to this h’llhole I’m trapped in. But I can’t live without him…because he’s the only one who ever showed me love after that ho..rrible day. He’s the one who cared when I had no one else. He’s the only tie to my father I have left. And if I severe our relationship…I’ll have nothing.

I know our relationship isn’t healthy. It hasn’t been since that day in his office, maybe even before that if I’m being honest with myself.

But I know he loves me. I know he cares…and I know he will always be there for me.

Like now, I think, as I pull into my driveway and see him waiting for me in his car.

As soon as I get out of my own car, his arms are around me.

“What happened, sweetheart? You don’t look happy.” His blue eyes are piercing tonight and his expression is particularly kind.

I’m immediately uneasy. Ford hasn’t treated me like this in a very long time. Usually, he’s upset with me about something or telling me all that I do wrong. I almost want to ask him when the last time he saw me genuinely happy was…because I’m always miserable when he’s around.

I shrug as we begin walking toward the house. I don’t really want to tell him about Jackson. Besides, anytime he suspects that I’ve been out with a guy…wow he gets mad.

I decide to stay silent. Because I know that when it comes to Ford, anything and everything I say will eventually be used against me.

We walk up to the house, but I don’t invite him in. I’m too exhausted to deal with whatever it is he came here for tonight. “I’m tired, Ford. I think I’m just going to go to bed. Have a good night.”

His hand wraps around my arm and he spins me around. Then I see it. The moment he looks down at my dress and his expression fills with disgust. “I wonder why that is, Alyssa.”

When I don’t respond, he pushes me further. “I know you’ve been seeing someone.”

He says this like the concept of me actually having a relationship with anyone is utterly barbaric.

I let him continue because I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say to that. I don’t want to correct him and tell him that we got into a fi ght and might be over; because I don’t want him telling me that he told me so and that no one will ever love me.

“I know you stayed at his apartment in the city the last time I saw you. He was also who you hung up on me for during our last conversation.”

I don’t know how he has this information or why it matters so much to him. “Yeah…and? What’s your point?”

He steps closer to me and I swear his features change right before my eyes. His eyes narrow, his jaw goes rigid and his lips form a tight line. The hand around my arm squeezes so hard I wince. “You said he was important, Alyssa.”

I laugh, I laugh so hard I must sound like a crazy person. “So? He is important. What the h’ll is your deal?”

“My deal,” he grits through his teeth. “Is that there should be no one in your life more important than me, do you understand me? You are mine. My dmn wh’re, you hear me? Not his!”

And then he sIaps me. Hard. Right across my left cheek.

And then I’m crying. Because the truth hurts.

All of it hurts.

I want to go numb.

“Dmmit,” he screams. “See what you made me do?”

“I’m s-sorry.”

“Stop stuttering, Alyssa. I forgive you.”

I only stutter like this when I’m terrified or upset.

I’m about to apologize again, but I realize what he said. He forgives me? For what? I’ve done nothing wrong. “I don’t forgive you, Ford.”

He appears confused so I continue, “I don’t forgive you for that day in the office. I don’t forgive you for the way you treat me. And I definitely don’t forgive you for sIapping me.”

He looks astonished but I’m not done yet. I jab a finger in his chest. “So what? I have a boyfriend. And you know what the best part about Jackson is? He doesn’t treat me like you do, Ford. He’s nice to me. He respects me. He doesn’t treat me like I’m his property and he certainly doesn’t treat me like I’m a wh’re.”

Ford looks at me with so much pain in his eyes…I almost crumble.

He grabs my face. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart.” He leans down so we are eye level. “I love you, Alyssa.” He ksses my cheek. “Can you forgive the bea$t?” He ksses my other cheek. “For only trying to save her,” he whispers.

I close my eyes because this Ford is so familiar. This is the Ford I know in my heart. This is the Ford I love.

His hands find my waist and his thumbs skim over my rib cage. “Please,” he pleads.

I open my eyes and look down as he drops to his knees. I’ve never seen Ford look so sad or desperate before.

He looks up at me. “I know you love me. Don’t punish me for loving you back. Please don’t punish me for being the only one who could ever love you.”

Something about that statement tears at my soul. I can’t respond to him, because if I open my mouth…something inside me will crack further. And I won’t know how to fix it all by myself.

His hands grip my h ips forcefully. “You love me, Alyssa. You love me. Let me hear you say it. I need to hear you say it.”

But I can’t. I can’t say it. He looks so wounded in this moment, it physically causes me to ache.

But I still can’t say it.

He fists my dress. “I’ll make you say it then,” he sneers.

What? No. Fear renders me captive and I attempt to shake my head, but I can’t move.

He cups my mo und through the silk fabric of my dress. “Tell me, does he touch you like this?”

I stay frozen, refusing to answer him. He li fts my dr ess and the cool breeze hits me, leaving me vulnerable and exposed. “He’s never made you come before has he?” He ¢licks his to ngue. “But then again, no one has…have they, sweetheart?”

I don’t answer him and he laughs. “You want to know why that is?”

I don’t. I really, really don’t. Because I think I already know the answer.

I just never wanted to believe it.

His head dips forward and I know there’s only one way to make this stop. “I love you, Ford,” I shout at the top of my lungs.

But he doesn’t stop.

“I own your mind,” he whispers, his breath tickling my ¢ore. “Because I was the first one to have that and make it mine.”

I crack. My body feels both lighter and heavier at the same time.

He smiles. He’s giving me that movie star smile that now makes me feel sick. “I love you, Alyssa.”

The tears hit me fast and hard.

What kind of man loves like this?

That’s easy. No man.

Because what Ford feels for me isn’t love. “No, you don’t.”

Something deep inside me snaps with that final realization. I pu sh him off me and open the front door. He chases after me, following me into the kitchen. “Get out, Ford! Get out!” I shove him. I shove him as far as I possibly can and he stumbles back. I need him to leave. I never want to see him again.

I s¢ream and pull my hair. Ford looks at me like I’m insane.

Good. Let him see what he’s created.

Before I know it, I’m reaching for a knlfe and aiming it at him. “Get the fk out!”

His eyes open wide and for a moment, I think he’s going to reach for his gu.n. But he holds his hands up instead. “Put the knlfe down, sweetheart. Look, I’m sorry for what I said. I didn’t mean it. I only wanted to hear you say that you loved me.”

“It’s your fault!” I s¢ream. His mouth drops open and for a second, I swear, panic flashes across his face.

I’m crying so hard I can barely form words. “It’s your fault I’m like this. You broke me.” I begin shaking. “And the worst part is…in my darkest moments…when I go to that place inside myself. I’m just like you.”

And it’s true. It’s so fking true. I treat others like they’re disposable. I treat myself like I’m worth nothing. I manipulate people to get my own way. And I can honestly say, that I don’t love myself.

The cold, hard reality is like being thrown outside naked in the middle of a blizzard.

I wipe my nose with my sleeve and fall down to the floor. “You don’t love me, Ford.”

He begins pacing, looking at me like I’m a mental case. “Of course, I love you!” he screams.

I look him in his eyes for the last time. “No. Because if you loved me…you would never keep insisting that I go undercover for my father’s ki ller…knowing that he might end up ki lling me if he ever found out.”

He opens his mouth to speak but I hold up my hand. “You would want to protect me. You would want me to be safe. You wouldn’t send me into the eye of the storm. You wouldn’t set me up.”

A tear falls from Ford’s eye. “Alyssa. I—”

“Just leave, Ford. Please, just leave me. That’s the only way you can ever make any of this okay.”

I hear the sound of the door closing and breathe…actually breathe for the first time in years.

I drop the knlfe and curl my arms around myself…because I’m all I have left now.

And I have to be okay with that.





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