AVAILABLE JULY 16th, 2020 

For Spenser Ingram love is an abstract concept. Friendless and fearless, he happily walks his own solo path. Encouraged by his parents to wield his cold-blooded ruthlessness like a weapon, the boy who never cried grew into a man who regularly makes others weep.

Sent to deliver a message to a local motorcycle club that’s standing in the way of his family’s never-ending pursuit of power, he encounters Poppy Tennyson and is immediately captivated.

For the first time in his life, Spenser wants something for himself.

Unfortunately, a decades-long conspiracy is playing out behind the scenes, and he’s quickly left questioning if his affection for Poppy is genuine or a carefully crafted illusion created by the one person he thought he could trust.

The Dangerous Son is a dark and erotic romantic thriller set in a world where deception is the norm and the truth can’t be trusted. 

THE DANGEROUS SON WILL BE AVAILABLE IN eBOOK AND PAPERBACK ON RELEASE DAY

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PROLOGUE

“People say that bad memories cause the most pain, but actually it's the good ones that drive you insane.” ~Kid Cudi~

SPENSER

Almost twelve years old

Holding her hand out, the little girl looks up at me with big, hazel eyes filled with nothing but trust. I drag in a deep breath, then extend my arm to accept her offer. When my skin makes contact with hers, I’m surprised to discover that the icky churning I usually get in my stomach doesn’t flare up. Instead, all I feel is the warmth of her touch and a glowing type of satisfaction from her confidence in my ability to help her to the top of the outcropping above the beach at Elmer’s Point.

As a small amount of enjoyment settles into my gut, I smile down at her and mentally celebrate when she grins back at me and her freckled nose wrinkles as she squints in the bright afternoon sun. Walking backward, I guide her upward as we pick our way over the jagged rocks that lead to the summit of the cliff. Whenever she struggles to find a foot hold, I use my strength to tug her upward. It makes her feet dangle in the air for a few seconds until I steady her on the rock next to me.

Every time I do this, she giggles like it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to her.

At seven-years-old, she’s a tiny, dainty thing, especially compared to my above-average size and height, yet there’s a fierceness in her expression that makes her appear both older and bigger than she really is. Her posture is stiff, and she glances around us like she’s anticipating an attack every time my identical twin and her three older brothers rush past us so they can jump off the clifftop and into the ocean below. While we are slowly making our way to the top, they’re acting as if the water will disappear and the cliff will crumble into the sand below if they don’t swim back to the shore and run back to the peak quick enough.

I’m in no hurry to make excuses when my brother asks why won’t take my long-sleeved top off once it’s wet, and it seems like she’s not eager to plunge into the crashing waves against the sheer rock face. There’s an unspoken understanding between us that reaching the summit isn’t necessarily the goal.

If anything, I’d hazard a guess that she’s only playing at the beach with me and my brother’s best friends—her boisterous brothers—because I’m here. Since I’m at boarding school, my brother gets to come here more than I do, and he’s mentioned that every time he comes, she seems to have become quieter. The only change in her is when I’m home from school. When I’m here, she talks about everything, from the colors of the sunset to the verses that intrigued her most at Sunday School, and I’m more than happy to share my thoughts as well.

Our “nerd talks” are something her second eldest brother ruthlessly teases her about. Although, his taunting doesn’t deter her from seeking me out whenever I’m with my family when they come to see the Montgomery family. Plus, despite my twin’s sage advice to, “ditch the kid and be normal,” I find myself drawn to her company as well. She is comfortable and familiar. Peaceful and calming. All things that have been lacking in my life since my uncle returned from Israel four and a half years ago and took a special interest in me.

A shudder runs the length of my body as I think about what he’s interested in and I nearly forget how to breathe. The only thing that stops me from dropping to my knees and crying is her. She trusts me to keep her safe and I can’t do that if I’m lying on the ground crying.

Too soon, we reach the top. The cool breeze from the beach takes on a definite chill as we stand at the edge of the outcrop that hangs over the ocean. On our left is the lighthouse. Even in the bright afternoon, its light spins in circles to alert sailors to the dangerous reef hiding beneath the tide. Still holding her hand, I look out to the horizon at the sun that’s beginning its long descent toward nighttime.

Bright and full of promise, the sun doesn’t seem scared of the darkness it leaves in its wake.

Five years ago, I wasn’t scared of the night, either.

Nowadays, I fear the dark because that’s when my monster comes out to play with me.

As the boys run up the hill toward us, she giggles.

“What’s so funny?” I ask. Looking down at her, my gaze follows her thin finger when she gestures toward the lighthouse and laughs once more. “It’s a lighthouse, squirt.”

She runs her tongue between her top lip and her teeth. “What did the ocean say to the lighthouse?”

I screw up my nose and stare at the lighthouse trying to remember the punch line. Her father made this joke at the dinner table last night. At the time, I wasn’t paying attention because my uncle was sitting next to me, and I was trying my hardest not to move a muscle so he wouldn’t realize that I was so close to him.

“Something about the waves, isn’t it?” I mutter.

“Almost, Sabra. The ocean says nothing, it just waves.”

When she shakes her head and scoffs at my lack of knowledge, I don’t quite register her good-natured teasing. Instead my attention is captured by the mark I see on the inside of her upper arm as the cotton tunic she’s wearing over her swimsuit blows open. Taking hold of her wrist, I pull her arm out straight and slide the tunic off her shoulder.

Recognition burns up my throat and I find myself swallowing down the bile that erupts into my mouth. The matching marks I have on my own body pulse with shame. I drag her into my chest and hug her small body tight. 

“Who did that to you?”

“Nobody!” she screams. Writhing in my embrace, she attempts to fight me off her, but I won’t let go. Rather than scare her, I drop to my knees, so we’re almost the same height. Grabbing hold of her upper arms, I hold her at arm’s length and look her right in the eye. As our gaze’s lock, she bursts into sobs. “N-nobody. N-n-nobody.”

In her, I see the same fear that’s dogged me since the first time I tried to tell my parents what was happening, and they took his denial as truth instead of believing me. Touching my fingertip to her forehead, I run my finger down her nose and over her lips to her chin in the same way my dad touches me when I can’t sleep. It always helps me relax, so I’m hoping that it will work on her.

I need her to calm down.

I need to know the truth.

Her cries turn into hiccups, and she hits me with a tear-filled plea, “Don’t say n-nothing. Please?”

“Who did he threaten to hurt if you told?” I ask. In silence, we watch her brothers and mine run past us without stopping to spare us a glance. “Was it your brothers?”

She shakes her head.

“Your mom and dad?”

Once again, she shakes her head.

Since he uses my twin to keep me in line, I find it hard to think of anyone else. Wracking my mind for other people that he might use to scare her, I run over her family in my head. She has a mom and dad, the three brothers’ cliff diving with us today, and two more younger brothers playing at the church under the watchful eyes of the adults. I almost give up until it hits me.

“Did he say he’d hurt the baby?”

“Yes,” she admits in a lifeless voice. Although her mom is almost five months pregnant, she is barely showing. I mentally high-five myself for remembering that her mom is pregnant and allow the knowledge that she’s not far along to soothe the guilt that’s eating at me. He hasn’t been hurting her for years like he has me. “H-he said the b-baby would die if I told anyone.”

“That’s bullshit,” I declare in an angry voice. When she recoils from me, I pull her closer and whisper, “He’s bullshit, not you.”

“O-kay,” she replies. Lifting her eyebrows, she tilts her head to the side. “It hurts, Sabra. It always hurts.”

“I know.” The agony in her voice hits me right in the chest. “I know it does.”

“You’re big. Can you make him stop?”

“No,” I reluctantly admit. Big, fat tears begin to roll down her cheeks and each one stabs me in the heart harder than the one before. I wipe them away with my thumbs as I add, “I can’t make him stop, but you can. Promise me you’ll tell your parents, squirt. Tell them tonight and they’ll make him stop.”

When she doesn’t answer straightaway, I lean closer and demand in a louder voice, “Promise me.”

Her throat works as she swallows her sobs. Blinking fast, she nods once and says, “I promise.”

“Good.” I offer her a timid smile that she returns after a beat too long. “I want you to tell them the second we drive away tonight.”

“I will,” she vows.

As our brothers throw themselves off the clifftop with a holler, we walk to the edge and peer down at them. They land in the water, the dark depth swallowing them up until their heads reappear, and they wave up at us.

When they yell for us to jump, I usher her forward. “You first.”

“Okay, Sabra.”

Trust in her eyes, she hurls herself off the edge before I can say another word. I watch her fall. Arms at her sides and her feet pointed downward like I showed her, her little body plummets to the water. She’s swallowed by the ocean and I can’t see her for a few seconds. I hold my breath, waiting for her to reemerge. When she breaks the surface, she kicks onto her back and signals for me to follow her down.

She’s safe.

I exhale.

Regret grips me when they all start shouting for me to jump. I step away from the edge and out of their view. Looking out at the lighthouse, I try to push away my worry that I’m setting her up for a world of hurt by telling her to tell the truth.

Surely her parents aren’t like mine. She’s a good kid. They’ll believe her, and maybe, just maybe, if they listen to her, then they’ll tell my parents, and it will all stop.

God, I hope so.

I don’t know how much more I can take.

“Spenser,” my uncle calls from behind me. I spin around to see how far away he is and almost burst into tears when I see that he’s only a few steps away. “Come down to the chapel with me. Everyone’s busy… we’ll have it all to ourselves.”

Even his voice makes my skin crawl. I can’t bear to think of him touching me. Not now. Not after I’ve discovered that he also does it to her. I’m big, I can almost handle it, but she’s only a little girl.

“No!” I shout.

“Oh, come on,” he retorts. Cocking a hip to one side, he arches an eyebrow and peers at me with a look that makes me feel like vomiting. “There’s no time to play hard to get. Let’s go.”

“No! No! No! No!” I scream until my throat is raw.

He steps forward. I turn around and run for the edge of the cliff. Leaping off the edge, I count in my head as I fall. One, two, three… I make a bet with myself that if I get to lucky number thirteen before I hit the water, we’ll both be safe. Me and her. It’ll all end.

Four.

Five.

Six.

The boys’ shouts are suddenly louder.

Seven.

Eight.

Nine.

Ten.

Sabra,” she calls out. “Point your toes.”

Eleven.

Twelve.

I hit the water and sink like a stone.


ONE 

“How unhappy does one have to be before living seems worse than dying?” ~Deborah Curtis~

SPENSER

Present day

“That’s the best you’ve got?” My taunt ends with a grunt when he lands another punch. After the second impact, I feel something break. A rib or two, most likely. Although my skin burns from his touch, I suck in a harsh breath and relish the searing pain it brings. Prodding my right side, I laugh. “Much better. Now, let’s see what else you’ve got.”

He strikes me again. On autopilot, I punch him back. When the naked man staggers to the side, I follow him. I take hold of his sweat-soaked hair and hold him upright. Our eyes lock, both gazes filled with fury, yet for different reasons.

I want to die.

Theodore Oberon would give anything to live.

As usual, there’s going to be only one winner.

The wrong one.

Me.

While I’m lost in my own head, Theo finds the energy to headbutt me. Our foreheads clash hard enough that my teeth rattle. Bright stars circle my head and I temporarily lose my sight. Seizing on my blindness, the man I’m supposed to kill knocks me to the cold floor and kicks me in my already damaged ribs three times. Every time he hits me, I feel my ribs crack further until my entire right side is ablaze with enough pain to nullify the flames, his touch causes to flare under my epidermis.

My self-preservation kicks in.

Of course, it does.

It is impossible for me to do anything right, even suicide by fellow hitman.

Just ask my dad, he’ll tell you how useless I am.

The next time Theo kicks me, I snatch hold of his calf and twist until something in his knee gives out. He falls to the floor and I retake my feet. An infernal level of dizziness grips me, but I grit my teeth and swallow back the bile that fills my mouth when I lean down and drag him back to a standing position.

I sway on the spot as Theo glares at me.

“Come on,” I mock him. Making a “come hither” gesture with my hands, I beckon him forward. “Hit me.”

“Fuck you.” The man I’m supposed to be torturing for information before I kill him drags his broken leg as he tries to sidestep me while I stalk him around the small, cold room. Blood runs down his face from my earlier cruelty. It gets in his eyes and he swipes at the torrent of claret with an impatient hand. “I got nothing for you. Just kill me, freak.”

“Now. Now,” Axel interjects. “Names are uncalled for.”

His cool voice bounces off the walls of the cooler when we meet to deal with the Coalition’s messier business. Having forgotten that he was still here, I glance over to the corner where he stands. Leaning against the insulated wall, Axel Zidane meets my inquiring gaze with one of his own. He arches a dark blond eyebrow and holds my eyes for a beat too long. In his expression, I find a damning recognition of my weakness.

He sees the game I’m playing and he’s judging me for it.

Hard.

I blink first.

I always do.

I may be suicidal, but that doesn’t mean I’m devoid of shame.

“Come on, Theo,” I ask the bleeding man cowering in the corner. When he stops moving and balls his non-broken fingers into a fist, I grin. “I can call you Theo, can’t I? I mean, we’re all friends here, aren’t we?”

Theo licks his bloody lips as he cocks his head to one side. “No, Trigger. We were friends… allies even. Until the Coalition fucked me over and my wife got caught in the crossfire. If I could, I’d kill the lot of you. Wipe your filth from the face of the earth. You’re a bunch of soulless assholes who only look out for your bottom line and—”

When I crack him in the nose with a hammer fist, he crumbles to his knees. The sound of his crying fills the refrigerated room where he’s going to die eventually, but I block it out. His insults have hit home because there’s a modicum of truth in his allegations. The Coalition is soulless, however, I’m not. If I was, my life would be a hell of a lot easier and I wouldn’t battle the need to take my favorite pistol and eat a bullet every morning to escape my bleak existence.  

“Sooooo,” Axel drags that single syllable out with ominous intent. The grin that had wavered during Theo’s tirade returns to my face as my right-hand man’s meaning sinks into my head. “What you’re saying is that you do know something about the hit on Roman’s head?”

“No. No. No. I know nothing about that.” He scratches at Axel’s wrist. “Is that why I’m here? Because of Roman fucking Averell?”

“Of course,” I reply easily. “I might be a freak, but you wouldn’t be on my radar for nothing.”

Horror invades the dying man’s face when Axel snags hold of his throat and lifts him back to his feet. I circle around behind him, moving out of the way when Theo is dragged back to the hook that hangs from the ceiling of our slaughter room. Together we lift him up and hang him on the cruel apparatus by the pouch of skin I cut in his back for this specific reason after he was brought here for me to deal with. Once hanging, his tiptoes graze the steel floor.

It’s not enough to allow him to find purchase or to brace his weight.

No, allowing his feet to barely scrape the floor is designed to stop his skin from ripping completely.

Theo’s agonized screams would be music to the ears of the man who ordered his death—if he were here. As usual, Roman Averell made the call, then left the deed to his minions. Axel and I are used to being brought in to finish Coalition business. Our father’s might command a seat at the table with Roman, however, they don’t sit at the head. That position is solely held by Roman after he stole it from my family through a series of double dealing and double crosses he employed before either Axel or myself were born.

“Tell me about the hit on Roman?” I ask. When Theo balks, I limp over to the stainless-steel table that takes up one wall and select my tool of choice. The wire of the Gigli Saw glints in my grip and Theo moans. It’s a despair-filled sound that sends a shudder rippling down my spine. “Understand me when I tell you that this is going to end one way… with you dead. The only thing that you have control over is whether your little girl lives free and clear of this mess or not.”

“Please, Spenser,” Theo pleads.

I slap him across the face with an insolent disregard designed to erode his remaining pride. “Spenser doesn’t exist to you anymore. That honor died when you sold us out to the Italians.”

Holding up the saw, I continue, “Make your choice… give me the details about the hit or condemn little Lucy to a painful death.”

Over his shoulder, the shiny walls of the refrigerated room reflect my visage back to me. Despite the indistinct features that meet my perusal, I can’t find it in myself to truly look. Instead, I duck my head to avoid my reflection and concentrate on finishing this job before I talk myself into turning the handgun I see tucked haphazardly in Axel’s waistband on myself.

“Choose.”

My ultimatum echoes in the quiet room. Axel’s rhythmic breathing and Theo’s panicked respiration are the only other sounds to be heard until a small voice, devoid of hope and skidding on the edge of terror, finally speaks up.

“I’m the only one involved,” Theo confesses. “I went to the Marchetti’s with information about our deal at the Port in exchange for them taking out Roman for me. They agreed. It’s going down tomorrow night when the latest shipment arrives. Everyone knows Roman meets with the Croatians when they make a drop since they’re his family. I told Luigi that was their shot to take him out.”

Lifting my chin in Axel’s direction, I wait for him to nod his agreement before I wrap the sharp wire around Theo’s left index finger. Once it’s clear that we both believe the hanging man, I pull the edges of the saw together and amputate the digit at the second knuckle. Axel screws his nose up when I catch the finger with my bare hand, and then he exits the cooler to pass on the information to our boss.

“That’s all?” I inquire after the cooler door has shut and we’re alone. Theo shakes as shock sets in. Turning my back to him, I deposit the bleeding stump into a sealable freezer bag and drop the Gigli saw into a bucket of bleach for the clean-up crew to deal with later. When I scoop up my favorite pistol and return to Theo, I see that he’s accepted his fate. “Why would you do this?”

My question hangs between us. Tension grows as I pick up on Theo’s disbelief that I’ve even asked. As I press the muzzle against his forehead, his body begins to jerk with a maniacal kind of laughter. The sound makes my skin crawl. I drop the pistol and take hold of his chin to make him look me in the eyes.

“What’s so funny?”

“You’re really that fucked up, aren’t you?” Before I can respond, Theo adds, “I wish I was gonna be here to see Roman’s face the day you fall in love with someone other than your twin. He’s not gonna know what’s hit him.”

Resituating the muzzle against his forehead, I drag in a steadying breath through my nose. “Last words?”

“Yeah,” he scoffs. “Tell Roman that I’ll see him in Hell. We still have a score to settle… my wife’s blood still stains his hands.”

“Okay. I’ll tell him.”

“No, you won’t.” Theo spits a mouthful of blood in my face. I wipe it away and grind my teeth to stop myself from slapping at the burning sensation his saliva set off beneath my skin. “We all know you’re soft as shit underneath this Trigger bullshit you try to pass off as toughness. You’ll keep your mouth shut until you’ve found somewhere to hide my little Lucy, then you’ll try once more to find the balls to hang yourself or goad some other poor fucker into killing you or—”

His truth bomb is too much to handle, so I squeeze the trigger to silence him.

As the back of Theo’s head explodes and covers the steel wall behind him, I close my eyes and grind my teeth faster to ward off the anger-tinged guilt that attempts to choke me. He’s right. His daughter, Lucy, has already been whisked out of the state to live with one of her mother’s second cousins. It’s the least I can do when I have the blood of both her mother and father on my conscience at Roman’s behest.

Once I have my emotions under some semblance of control, I grab the freezer bag containing Theo’s index finger, then stomp my way to the insulated door and push it open.

“It’s done,” I bark at Axel. He opens his mouth to say something, but I cut him off with a wave of my hand. “Organize a cleanup and announce that I’m unreachable. Anyone tries to contact me during the next twenty-four hours, and they’ll find themselves swinging next to him.”

Axel closes his mouth and nods. The recognition in his gaze punches me in the chest and makes me feel smaller than a bug under his shoe. It ramps up my need to get out of here before I explode. Mind spinning, I fight back to the desire to ask him the questions tumbling around my addled brain.

Was Theo telling the truth?

Does everyone see me for the fraud I am.  


TWO

“They say time heals all wounds, but that presumes the source of the grief is finite” ~Cassandra Clare~

POPPY

“Hi, everyone,” I say with a self-conscious wave. Color flushes up my face and I drop my chin to my chest as I mumble, “I’m Poppy.”

“Hello, Poppy,” the group replies as one. A couple of people re-enact my fluttery wave, a few nod curtly in my direction, and our therapist, Angela, smiles. My old commanding officer from my time in the Organized Crime Unit, Commander Renee Clearwater claps her hands and laughs, “Well, hello Poppy. It’s nice to hear your voice.”

Everyone laughs, although the sounds range from full belly guffaws to shy titters of recognition. I come to meetings religiously, but I rarely speak. Usually in group therapy, it’s frowned upon to mock or make light of another member, even jokingly, because everyone has the right to feel safe to speak or not during our sessions. My ex-CO is a special exception for me since it is well-known that we are friends outside therapy and that she’s the reason why I joined.

To say our relationship is complicated would be an understatement.

Renee is my greatest ally because she acts as a constant challenger to my habit of burying my head in the sand to avoid my past. Sharing a similar history means she understands that I need to remember the hurt in order to grow past it. If only she managed to take her own advice as frequently as she dished it out.

As the therapy session begins in earnest, I slump down in my seat and do my best to pretend that I’m invisible. Speaking about anything remotely emotional is my biggest hurdle in life. I prefer the safety of silence. Remaining quiet is both comforting and confining. On one hand, it’s a shield since no one can use my feelings against me, yet it’s also a lonely prison where I remain trapped in the horror of the past because I won’t let anyone else know exactly how I suffered.

Expressing myself has always been a crapshoot for me. There’s a fifty-fifty chance every time I open up that my revelations will be used against me. Coming from a family with seven kids taught me that as a child. My siblings were my closest confidants and my biggest bullies. They had the ability, like all children, to protect me and taunt me with my fears.

The abuse I suffered as a seven-year-old simply consolidated that knowledge.

My parents took my suffering and used it to excuse their own terrible behavior.

I saw their justifications for what they were, a balm to their guilt, and took a vow of silence instead.

What worked as a young girl keeps me hostage to my pride as a grown woman.

“Poppy,” the therapist addresses me in her soothing voice. “Would you like to provide a small update on your progress since our last meeting?”

Group therapy is supposed to be my safe space. I understand, deep, deep down that it is, and I’ve listened to enough admissions from the other members to know that this is a judgment free place. As a high-ranking officer, Renee has more to lose by her confessions than I do, yet she is open and honest about the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her father.

Unfortunately, knowing and doing are two separate things.  

“I, ah… I had a good week. Work is good. My family is good, although I haven’t been home to see them for three months because of work. My best friend dragged me to a nightclub on our day off and I, uh…” My halting explanation trails off as the words to describe what I did at the end of the night turn into a lump in my throat. When I open my mouth to continue, the only sound that emerges is a choking sound. Renee reaches over and squeezes my hand. “I, um… I did it again. It was good… he seemed into it, so I guess that’s… ah, good?”

My sexual inclinations are the main reason why I agreed to therapy in the first place. The need to be forced and manhandled by my partner during sex to the point of bruises isn’t normal, according to my ex-fiancé. It was an ongoing argument that eventually torpedoed our eight-year relationship. While my best friend doesn’t necessarily agree with him, she does worry about my habit of picking up random men in bars and goading them into violence in alleyways and the back seat of cars.

She thinks it’s unnecessarily dangerous.

I don’t agree.

As an NYPD Homicide Detective, I can handle myself in most situations.

“How did you approach this man?”

Angela’s question hangs between us while I try to form an answer. Looking around the room, I meet the haunted gaze of the man in his late twenties who always sits opposite me. Marcus offers me an empathetic smile that buoys my flagging spirits enough to croak out an answer.

“We danced a bit, then he followed me to the bar, so I asked him.” The dark-eyed man sits up straighter in his chair, although he keeps his arms crossed protectively over his chest. His interest is daunting in light of his history. While Marcus is almost as quiet as I am, he’s been much more detailed about the abuse he was subjected to and the lingering affect it’s had on him as an adult. “He was a bit shocked to begin with, but once I’d explained, he was all for it.”

“Did he hurt you?” Marcus asks. I let go of Renee’s hand and hold my arm up for him to see. Pushing my long sleeve down, I show him the bruising around my wrist. The obvious fingerprints make the rest of the group move uncomfortably in their seats, except Marcus. He nods. There’s understanding in his voice when he says, “Does feeling like you don’t have a choice make it easier to deal with the shame of enjoying it… sex?”

The knowledge that my abuse was mild compared to Marcus’s—not that you can rank child abuse by severity since it’s all soul-destroying—I find myself blinking back tears when the ability to respond is stolen from me by the lump in my throat once more.

Settling for a sharp nod, I close my eyes, drop my chin back to my chest, and slide as low in my chair as I can. The shame he mentioned is my constant companion, but it’s never stronger than when I’m faced by people who truly comprehend what was done to me. When I’m with them, my emotions bubble to the surface and it takes all my willpower to fight back the desire to scream. I want to shout at my seven-year-old self for not telling my dad the first time Harrison Greaves touched me inappropriately. I want to yell at my parents for taking his family’s money instead of fighting a corrupt system to send him to jail. I want to tear strips off my current self for being so weak and wallowing silently in despair over four months of sexual abuse when people like Marcus are able to face their past head-on.

Marcus was sold by his drug-addicted mother to a local gang as a four-year-old. He was raped daily for over a decade until he was able to run away. While he can’t be touched by men because he has a visceral reaction akin to flames burning beneath his skin, Marcus has created a life for himself, complete with an understanding wife and two children. Only one year older than me, he is a walking and talking indictment of my failure to thrive.

“I went home last weekend,” Renee announces when the hush that’s fallen since I last spoke begins to weigh down on my shoulders. “Faced my mom. Told her how big of a piece of shit her husband is and explained that he did the same things to me as he did to my sisters.”

“And how was that received?”

Renee’s responding laugh is filled with pain. “She kicked me out and told me not to come back until I stopped with my lies.”

This time, I’m the one who takes hold of her hand.

“How did that make you feel?” Angela inquires.

“Abandoned, I guess,” Renee replies. She returns the pressure of my fingers when I squeeze her hand. “It was the same reaction my two older sisters received from her, so I should’ve known it was coming. I guess I thought I was closer to her than my sisters. I thought she’d understand… that she’d take my side over the monster she still sleeps with to this day. Instead, I was booted out on my ass. Even at forty-two, it’s hard to separate the parents I wished I had from the parents I actually had in my head.”

“Have you spoken to your sisters yet?”

Shaking her head at Angela’s question, Renee scoffs, “Of course not. Why would they want to speak to me after I spent decades denying what he did? I’m the enemy in their eyes. I blamed them for what happened to me, then buried my head in the sand and refused to help them when they tried to have him prosecuted. I’m to blame for everything and they hate me for it. Hell, I hate me.”

Angela holds her hand up. It’s the group’s signal to stop speaking and listen to her. When Renee presses her lips together, our therapist addresses us in a fierce tone.

“There is nothing to hate in any of you because the blame lies with your abuser and the adults who helped them cover up their crimes. While you are victims, you are also survivors. As victims, you are blameless. As survivors, you are guiltfree. How you reacted to what was done to you isn’t up for judgment. How you respond to the scars, both psychological and physical, that you bear from your trauma is also not up for judgment.” Looking directly at Renee, Angela adds, “That goes for your sisters, but it also stands for you. Whether you feel that you let them down and that their anger is legitimate is a separate issue from being to blame for what happened to all three of you. There is one perpetrator… your father. Once you come to terms with that, maybe you’ll feel differently about your sisters. Maybe not. However, you cannot conflate the issues in your head.”

Discussion picks up around the circle, but I don’t contribute. Instead, I watch Marcus’ face as he adds his thoughts. The haunted look in his eyes lessens the longer the group talks. His smile becomes more genuine and he stops hugging himself. It’s mind-boggling to watch him come out of his shell while the heightened emotions have the opposite effect on me.

As the other members pick apart Angela’s announcement and twist and turn it to fit their own situation, I huddle lower in my seat and struggle to breathe. My throat closes tighter every time I think about speaking. A hole opens in my chest and my heart pounds erratically in my ears. As the conversation rages, the noise turns into a low buzz that infects my brain and wipes my mind clear of all but one thought.

Why can’t I find a way forward when everyone else can?