FINE LINE (CROSSING LINES, #1)

CHAPTER ONE

Savannah—Two Years Later

 “We’re moving you out of that apartment today. I’ve been waiting for this day forever. No more excuses about waiting until your lease is up.” Karen slings her backpack over her shoulder and jingles her car keys in her hand. “Let’s go do this.”

“What if he’s still there?”

“That’s why my husband and his friends are meeting us. We need their muscles to carry your furniture, and the fact that they’re all cops doesn’t hurt either.” Karen smiles broadly, knowing Butch wouldn’t dare start something with them around. “You know, you’re welcome to stay with Spencer and me anytime you want. For example, if you wake up in the middle of the night scared and don’t want to be alone anymore. Or if you just want to have a slumber party full of alcohol and junk food. Just show up at my house and make yourself at home.”

“That sounds like so much fun. I don’t know how to thank you for this, Karen.” The shame of my situation is almost unbearable. All the time I’ve wasted, being afraid of Butch and what he’d do if I said or did the wrong thing when he was around. Not living my life to the fullest, enjoying every minute of every day. Not doing all the things I’ve wanted to do when I wanted to do them. Not spending time with my family so I could keep them as far away from that bastard as possible.

Being controlled and dominated by a cruel man.

“You can thank me by staying away from him for good. By calling the police if he comes anywhere near you again. By asking for help if he finds a way to back you into a corner again. I will get you out—one way or another. You are not alone in this, and you are not to blame.” Karen grabs my arms to emphasize her words, and I consciously avoid wincing in pain from the pressure on my bruised skin. She doesn’t know the bruises are there; I’ve hid them well.

Guess old habits do die hard.

“You have my word. Once I’m rid of him, it will be once and for all. There will be no going back or letting him in again for any reason. I’ve honestly wanted this for a long time, but I never could make it work. I think this time will definitely be different. For the first time in a long time, I have hope for a better life.”

“It’s all yours, babe. All yours for the taking. Once we get you moved, we’ll work on finding you a real man. I’m sure Spencer has at least one single, handsome friend we can set you up with.”

“Oh, no. No, no, no. I’m not interested in anything remotely resembling a man in my life. I’ll just borrow your husband and his friends for heavy-lifting duties and scaring away bad guys. That’s as close to having another man as I want to get.”

“Woman-to-woman…friend-to-friend…I have to be brutally honest with you, Savannah.”

“Go ahead. I know you. You’ll explode if you don’t get it out.”

“It’s not you I’m worried about as much as it’s your poor, neglected, prune-shriveled va-jay-jay. I mean, it’s seriously been three years since you took it out for a sit and spin? No squats in the cucumber patch? No gland-to-gland combat? We’re both mandatory reporters, and you are definitely way past neglecting the old bearded clam. I think I need to turn you in to the nearest hot policeman.”

Before meeting Karen, I’d almost forgotten how good it felt to simply laugh with a friend. To say whatever crazy thought came to my mind without fear of ridicule or reprisal. To have someone on my side, in my corner, standing by me no matter where the chips may fall. Stella was the last person I was semi-close to, but my friendship with Stella was nothing like the one I now have with Karen. We tease each other relentlessly, and I always tell her she elbowed her way into my heart, never taking no for an answer.

And saved my life in the process.

Now she’s adding fun, love, and laughter too. Maybe the old me will emerge like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon.

We arrive at my apartment complex and find Spencer is already here waiting for us with his own small army. He pulls Karen into his arms, a warm, sweet smile on his face as he looks at her and kisses her hello. He’s not at all shy or embarrassed by public displays of affection—or showing how completely and utterly in love he is.

Watching the two of them embrace, I’d swear the depth of their love for each other is their source of strength.

Butch insisted love was a weakness. A way other people could use you without explanation or a chance for retribution. He didn’t believe anything that exposed your vulnerabilities could possibly make you stronger.

Butch was wrong.

I see it so clearly now, watching my friends. They give me something to aspire to reach in relationship goals—one day, possibly. The way I feel right now, I’d never trust a man enough to feel safe with him. To give him all of me and believe he’d do the same. Perhaps I’ll find that man at some point in my life, but I plan to focus on myself first.

My goals.

My hopes.

My dreams.

I’ve put them on the back burner for a man who wasn’t worth even a second of my time. Today is the first day of the new me.

“Hi, Savannah. Good to see you.” Spencer turns his attention to me, keeping his arm wrapped around Karen’s waist.

“Thank you for doing this, Spence. I don’t know how to repay your kindness—and all your friends. I wish you’d let me pay you for your trouble.” My gaze drifts to each of his friends standing by the moving truck—and I immediately regret it. Though they try to mask their thoughts, I see the judging stares and disgusted glances.

I can’t exactly hide the black eye I’m sporting, though it has mostly faded to light green bruising.

They’re asking why I’ve stayed so long.

They’re questioning what I’ve done to deserve this.

They want to know why I’m so weak and spineless to let someone treat me this way.

I’ve experienced these reactions so many times from other people. Until they’ve walked a mile in my shoes, they’ll never understand what it takes to be able to get out of a situation like this. Now that I’ve lived it, I can honestly say I didn’t have a fucking clue what I was talking about when I used to pass those same judgments on other women.

“You’re not paying us one single penny. We’re happy to help.” Spencer releases Karen and steps toward me. “Can I have your keys? Jake and I are going up to your apartment to make sure it’s safe. Stay here with Terry, Jarod, and Trent until you hear from us. Then you and Karen can pack your things and we’ll get you away from this asshole.” Jake steps up next to Spencer and inclines his head at me as Spencer speaks.

“Sure. This one is the door key, this one is to the top bolt, and this one is the bottom bolt.” I hand the keys over, feeling guilty for allowing complete strangers to stick their necks out for me. They’re off duty, doing this as a favor to Spencer.

“I sure hope he’s up there. And I hope he puts up a fight. At the very least, a little resistance. All I need is one good reason to take him down.” Jake cracks his knuckles and sneers his lip. “I’m more than willing to pay him back on your behalf, Savannah.”

Could I have been wrong? Could their expressions I took for judgment against me have been disgust with Butch instead? Have I read others wrong too?

“I appreciate the offer, Jake. But I don’t want you to get in trouble because of me.”

“You’re looking at it all wrong, sweetheart. All he has to do is touch me wrong one time and he’s assaulted a police officer. That’s a serious offense, one he’d be hauled away in handcuffs over.” Jake smiles, hopeful for the chance to arrest Butch and avenge me in one fell swoop.

One can hope he’s in my apartment. Right?

***

Both fortunately and unfortunately, Butch wasn’t in my apartment, and he never showed up while we were there, packing and moving all my belongings out, cleaning up afterward, and leaving the complex without a trace we’d ever been there. While I would’ve enjoyed seeing him hauled away in handcuffs by a few of DC’s finest detectives, I’ll take the stealthy approach we pulled off over a confrontation with him any day.

My new home is actually in a newer apartment, but the rent is affordable, and the neighborhood is on the trendier side. This area is nice and safe. I spotted a small coffee shop down the street. Cozy and quaint, it looks like the perfect place to work on my secret project. Something I’ve decided to do just for myself as much as for others.

“This place looks great!” Karen walks in like she lives here—after unlocking all my locks and bolts with the extra key I gave her—and I wouldn’t have it any other way. “You must’ve been up all night, unpacking and decorating your new place.”

“I couldn’t sleep. I was too excited to close my eyes.”

She drops her purse on the couch, places her hand on her hip, and quirks one eyebrow up at me. “For the record, I’m letting you get away with that abbreviated answer because there is some truth to it. Don’t think for one second you’ll get away with that shit in the future, though.”

“Fine. I was also checking the door and window locks every five minutes and thirty-six seconds. And my ears were oddly in tune with every loud engine that drove past, regardless of the hour.”

“I knew I should’ve spent the night with you last night, even though you insisted you’d be fine. It’s really too bad Butch didn’t show up yesterday. I would’ve enjoyed seeing the guys take care of him. But that also means he has no idea where you are now. There are over six million people in the DC metro area. You could live in Virginia or Maryland now for all he knows.”

“But he knows where I work. He could follow me home from the hospital.” With that thought, I can’t help but glance nervously around my small condo, even knowing he isn’t inside it. It’s a reflex, as if mentioning his name will actually conjure the man out of thin air. “And it’s not like you can just move in with me, so enough of the guilt trip for not spending the night.”

“Let’s devise a plan in case he does show up at the hospital or spots you on the road on the way home.” Karen gives me her undivided attention. “Watch your surroundings at all times. We’ll alert human resources and arrange for a security guard to escort you to your car every morning. If you think anyone is following you, don’t go home. Drive straight to the police station and call me on the way. I’ll get Spencer and the guys on the case immediately. Stay in public sight, and never yell for help. Always yell ‘Fire.’ That draws more people faster than screaming for help does.”

“You are definitely married to a cop.”

“I need to ask Spencer about self-defense classes. I’ll go with you. We can do it on our days off.” The wheels in Karen’s head are spinning, making plans and mental to-do lists. All to ensure my safety and security.

My best friend is the best person.

“Have a seat. I’ll get us a couple of sodas from the fridge, and we’ll just bask in the newness of my new little home.” True to her nature, she refuses the seat and checks out my decorating skills instead.

“You have great taste, Savannah. I don’t know why you chose the noble but overworked profession of nursing over interior design. You could star in your own remodeling TV show by now.” Karen pops the top on the Coke can and sips as she strolls to the master bedroom. “I love how you arranged this. You need to come over to my house and help me figure out how to rearrange and redecorate.”

“You want to change your bedroom?”

“Oh no, not just the bedroom. My house. I want you to redo my whole house.”

“That’s more than just a weekend project, Karen.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m good with however long it takes. Gives me time to parade Spencer’s friends around and see which one you mesh with best.”

“Sit. Stop with the matchmaking. Talk to me about more important topics.”

We settle on the couch, facing the floor-to-ceiling windows that let in all the natural light I could ever want, and stare at the landscape of Meridian Hill Park only a block away. A light dusting of snow covers the bare trees, shrubs, and grassy areas. The temperatures haven’t dropped enough for the snow to stick to the pavement yet, and the cold wind hasn’t stopped anyone from enjoying the park.

“You know I only want you to be happy and loved, right? The way Spence loves me and puts me first in everything he does. I want that happy home life for you too.” Karen’s unusually serious tone makes my breath catch. I swing my eyes up to read her expression. Should’ve known I’d only find kindness and compassion there.

“I do know that, Karen. Sometimes when I watch you and Spence together, I’m overwhelmed by how much I wish I had what you two have. It’s not envy—it’s a goal I’ve set for myself. But whether the man for me is one of Spencer’s friends or not doesn’t make a difference right now.

“I’ve lost myself over the last three years. Butch was a different man when I first met him, though I should’ve recognized the warning signs and red flags for what they really were. The blinders I wore were my fault, and I accept the blame for that. But when the switch flipped and the abuse started, it wasn’t just physical injuries. The mental damage he caused nearly destroyed me. Before I even consider looking at another man, I have to be okay with looking at myself in the mirror again.

“There’s a fine line between love and hate. I need to find my way back across that line.”

“You know I don’t judge you for staying with him as long as you did. The threats, the violence, and being in the constant state of fight-or-flight takes a terrible toll on your overall well-being. But I am so thankful you’re away from him now, and I’m so proud of you for finding the courage and strength to do it. Just to be clear, though. I will have you committed on a seventy-two-hour psychiatric hold if you let him back in now. You have all the support you need from me, Spence, and a host of DC’s finest.”

“That seventy-two-hour hold kind of sounds appealing. A little vacation. I could use a long weekend away. Can you arrange for that evaluation to be done in the Bahamas?”

“Your sarcastic humor is what first told me we’d be best friends. You know you’re not going off to a Caribbean island for a mental-health check and leaving me here to work your shifts. We go mental together, or we don’t go at all.”

“Good to know your priorities are in order.”

“Did you expect anything less of me?” A sly smile spreads across her face.

“No. In fact, I would’ve been very disappointed in you if you had replied any other way.”

“You know me too well. There’s no mystery left in our relationship…no hidden gems for you to uncover.”

“I haven’t met all of your personalities yet. I’m sure you have plenty of mysteries left for me to figure out.”

***

Days bled into weeks with no sign or word from Butch. Over that time, I began to find purpose in my work again. Meaning in my life. A new direction to take and a way to use what I’ve been through for good. The exciting prospects of new projects, secret plans, and shifts at the hospital consumed my time. I fell into bed every day completely exhausted and thoroughly content for the first time in years.

“Have a good day. I’m off for the next four days, and I am not coming in for anyone or anything.” I’ve already briefed the incoming day nurse on the status of each patient and completed all my charting from the night shift. All that’s left is to clock out and stroll through the doors.

The snow flurries swirl in the wind outside and the skies are a gloomy shade of gray, but nothing can dampen my mood today. My neighborhood has a quaint little coffee shop at the end of the block. The scents and the scenery are calling my name. My laptop, a table with a view, and a piping hot cup of coffee are all I need to work on my life-defining purpose—a new business venture to help other women in my predicament. I’m writing a book for women in abusive relationships, and I need time and inspiration to add another chapter to the hardest story I’ve ever told.

My own.

No time like the present.


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