Wheezing, I stared frozen in disbelief at her erratic behavior. I remained unblinking and unmoving until she sent a stinging slap so hard across my cheek that my jaw popped. Out of my stupor, I finally rolled off her. The instant she realized she was free she leapt to her feet and began sprinting away from me. "Fuck," I groaned as I hauled up out of the grass to take after her. "Mia!"
She bypassed the four-wheeler, and instead, continued barreling down the overgrown path. "Mia, wait!" When I finally caught up with her, I reached out and grabbed her arm, causing us both to skid to a stop. I realized a second too late that it was the wrong fucking thing to do when she lunged at me, clawing and slapping my face, shoulders, and chest.
Defensively blocking her hits, I then grabbed her shoulders. "Mia, it's me, AJ." Her frenzied gaze darted around the clearing. "Look at me," I commanded. "You're safe here with me. Nothing or no one is going to hurt you. I swear."
When her eyes finally locked on mine, the sheer panic in them caused my chest to ache. But slowly that look receded. It was the pain, coupled with embarrassment, shining bright in her eyes that followed that made my stomach muscles clench like I'd taken a physical kick to the gut, rather than an emotional one.
A shaky hand went to cover her mouth as tears streaked down her cheeks. Her head shook so wildly back and forth I feared she might get whiplash. "Oh God…Oh AJ, I…"
"I'm s-sorry. I'm s-so, so sorry," she replied, her voice choking off with her sobs.
"Baby, you have nothing to apologize about." Tentatively, I reached out to cup her cheek. When she flinched, I dropped my hand. Feeling a fucking mess of confusion and helplessness, I kicked at a few stray pebbles and waited for her to give me some sign as to what the hell I should do.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry," she kept mumbling absently.
"Mia, please don't say that."
"It's just you had me pinned down like he…" A chill ran through her body, causing her to shudder so hard that her teeth chattered.
Closing the distance between us, I ached to wrap her trembling body in my arms. "Amorcito mio, please talk to me. Tell me what I can do to help you," I begged.
Her only response was to swipe the back of her hand across her running nose while making these pitiful hiccupping sighs. I started tapping my hands nervously against my short pockets when she became still as a statue. It seemed like she stared dead ahead of us for a small eternity before she finally whispered, "I never wanted you to have to see this side of me."
This time when I reached out for her, she didn't cower away from me. Trying to take it slow, I swept a strand of hair out of her face and smiled. "Mia, there isn't a single side of you I don't want to see. I want to know every inch of you-inside and out."
Her lip trembled like she was about to burst out crying. "Trust me, you don't want to know this." Her expression then turned sour, like she had a bad taste in her mouth. Her emotions were ricocheting so fast I could barely keep up. "Dammit, we were just supposed to have that night together-then you wouldn't have had to see me like this. It wasn't supposed to turn into me being inadequate for yet another guy!"
My sympathy quickly turned over to frustration, and I threw my hands up in exasperation
. "Would you stop lumping me with all these assholes you've had the misfortune of knowing? That's not me, Mia. Do you see me bailing or shrinking away like some pussy? Fuck no! I'm right here, right now, wanting to know what the hell just happened so I can help you-to comfort you emotionally and physically."
She cut her eyes over at me, pinning me with a hard stare. "Yeah, I see right through your little 'knight in shining armor' routine. You think I'm broken, and by giving me a few moments of your precious time, you might be able to fix me. But trust me, you can't do shit, AJ! I'm not broken-I'm fucking shattered into a thousand jagged pieces. Pieces that will slice a perfect, pretty boy like you in two."
Although it probably wasn't the best way to handle the situation, I stepped toe to toe with her and got right in her face. "Why don't you let me be the judge of what I can or can't handle, okay?"
Crossing her arms over her chest, she scoffed at me. "Fine, you want the truth? Here it is, big boy. That freak-out I just had was because I spent almost two years with an asshole who used to beat the shit out of me."
Her words had the same effect as if she had slapped me, and I jolted back. "What?"
With a contemptuous snort, she turned away from me. "You heard me just fine, AJ."
"Jesus, Mia, I'm sorry. I had no idea." When she didn't respond, I asked, "How old were you?"
"Young and stupid," she spat.
"Just how young?"
We fell into an uncomfortable silence. Reaching out, I gently trailed my hand down her arm. I was surprised when she didn't jerk away. I drew in a deep breath. "I know it might seem like I have the perfect life. And yeah, I'm blessed to not have any real skeletons in my past. But when someone I care about is hurting, I'm there for them. So if you want to talk about what happened, I'd like to hear it."
Her incredulous gaze snapped back to mine. "Seriously?"
I gave a quick nod of my head. "I really mean it, Mia."
She exhaled a long, agonized sigh, like one who held the weight of the world on her shoulders. Chewing her bottom lip, I could tell at any minute she was either going to come clean with me or bolt again. I extended my hand. "Come on. You can tell me about it down by the river."
Almost skittishly, Mia reached out for my hand, grasping it like it was an anchor holding her sanity together. We started making our way through the high grass back down to the riverbank. When we reached the edge, I still didn't press her for more information. Instead, I remained uncharacteristically silent, waiting for her to take the lead.
After what felt like a small eternity, she turned to me. "Even all these years later and with time spent in therapy, I still can't understand why I ever stayed with him. I wasn't the girl so desperate for her father's attention that she'd let a man abuse her. No man was, or is, a better father than Duke Martinelli." Mia shook her head. "And even though my mother bailed, I was raised by one of the strongest women I've ever known-one who taught me not to take any shit from men." A smile tugged at Mia's lips. "Trust me, when you're surrounded by Italian men, that's no easy feat."