"Baby," Travis said, pulling off his jacket and tossing it to the bed. "I said I was sorry."
"I know," I said, kicking off my heels.
He was two for two, getting kicked out of The Red the second time that month for fighting. Instead of being more relaxed because we were married, any guy that gave me a second look, offered a flirtatious smile, or even attempted to speak to me was a threat. In Travis's mind, he was now protecting his wife instead of his girlfriend. The stakes had been raise, and for him, that meant being more sensitive to any potential disrespect of the ring on my finger. No matter how many times I tried to explain to him that no one else mattered, Travis would inevitably threaten or swing at any stranger with a penis who paid me any attention.
We undressed in silence, took turns in the bathroom, and then Travis watched me climb into bed next to him. I slid between the sheets, and just as he reached for me, I turned onto my side, facing away from him. It was a strange feeling, being mad at him, but knowing I couldn't just catch a ride from America back to my dorm room. There would be no more break ups, no more fighting that lead to anything other than make-up sex and forgiveness. A big part of me felt relief, but the ring around my finger felt tight in that moment. Too tight.
I pulled it off, and sat it on the night stand.
Travis sat up. "What the fuck?" he said loudly.
I didn't turn to face him, but the boom of his voice and his quick movement startled me. "It's uncomfortable to sleep in."
Even with my back turned, I knew he was frowning. "Since when?"
I sighed. "Travis, please. I'm tired."
"Put on your ring, Pidge." He wasn't demanding. He was begging.
I swallowed. I had three choices. To ignore him--making a statement about my independence while simultaneously breaking his heart; to give in and continue lying, or, to give in and tell him the truth--also breaking his heart. I loved him more than anything, but I was still just nineteen. No matter how much I wanted to be, I wasn't ready to be married. Most of the time, when I was feeling particularly panicked about it, I tried to pretend we were still just dating. But at times like this, I couldn't. Travis wanted that level of commitment, and I wanted Travis. Marriage would eventually happen, but psychologically, I was still getting used to the seriousness of the choice I'd made.
"Abby," he prompted. "You promised."
I reached for the small metal circle, and shoved it on my finger. Jim had whispered in my ear one afternoon that marriage was all about compromise, but sometimes compromise felt like self-inflicted coercion. "You're right. I'm sorry."
He lay back down, snuggling up behind me, holding me close. I closed my eyes, the ring squeezing my finger, and Travis squeezing me. The air felt dry, my throat felt tight. I pushed away from him and scrambled from our bed.
"I just," I began, breathing hard. "I thought you were finished with that."
"Yes, I'm mad! And disappointed! And afraid!"
He looked horrified. "Pidge, I would never--"
"I know!" I yelled, closing my eyes. I took a deep breath, my next words softer. "I know. I'm not afraid of you. I've never been afraid of you. What I mean is that you're not just a college kid anymore who can throw punches whenever he wants. You're my husband. I love that I feel safe with you no matter where we go. I love that you would protect me no matter what. You'd never let anything happen to me. But I need you to keep your head down. Don't you remember? We've had this conversation. Just because you can doesn't mean you should."
He reached out to me, the memory making a small smile appear on his worried face. "C'mere."
When I didn't give in immediately, he became nervous. "What do you need from me, Pidge?"
"I need," I winced. "I need you to grow up, Travis. You don't have to be the biggest badass in town anymore. You don't have anything to prove. It takes more strength to show restraint."
He looked down, breathing out like the air had been knocked out of him. "He insulted you." He looked up at me. "He insulted my wife. I've beaten somebody's ass for less."
"That was before," I said, crawling into bed next to him. I cupped his jaw, meeting his gaze. "Before the wedding. Before, when you traded punches for a living and had a reputation to uphold. Before the fire. Everything is different now. We have to be careful."
He thought about my words as he pulled my hands away from his face, bringing my ring finger up to his lips. "I can be careful." He kissed down my palm to my wrist, and then up my arm, a mischievous grin turning up the corners of his mouth.
I suppressed a grin. "This isn't funny."
"No, it's not," he said, focused.
I was only covered in a black flowing tank top and matching pajama shorts. As he worked his way up to my shoulder, he noticed the strap. He pinched the bottom hem of my top, and with one hand and one motion, my torso was bare. He moved his mouth slowly and tenderly down my chest and stomach, pausing just long enough in all my favorite places to make my insides ache. I relaxed against the mattress and closed my eyes. He was worshipping my body. I was his religion.
"This doesn't change anything," I breathed.
"I know," he said, his voice muffled as he situated himself between my thighs. "But you're mad. And you know what it does to me when you're mad."
He swept the thin fabric of my shorts aside, and buried his face against my tender skin. I gasped, arching my back. "Oh, I'm mad," I said between breaths. "Pissed." My knuckles turned white as my entire body responded to every flick of Travis's tongue. "Furious." He reached beneath me, yanked down my shorts, and then returned to the apex of my thighs as if he'd been starving for me all day. My knees involuntarily quivered, and I moaned his name along with afew inappropriate religious references.
He kissed my thighs and then my stomach, gazing up at me with a proud smirk. He barely gave me a chance to recover before he was crawling up my body and sinking himself inside of me. Those were the times I was glad that he was unable to restrain himself. I'd only had a few glimpses of what Travis had been like with other women, but with me, he didn't hold back. He'd let me peel away every layer, to see every weakness--and I was one of them. He'd been waiting for me to come along, and once I'darrived, our lives began. There was no before or after. Travis knew from the beginning that we had always been, and we would always be. That truth was in his eyes every time he looked at me; in the way he was gazing at me in that moment as he hovered just inches from my face.
"Baby," he breathed. He looked at me in awe, the exact expression that was on his face the first time he made love to me (and every time after), as if he was still surprised at how perfect and amazing I felt.
The hours passed, and at one point I thought I heard Shepley and America in the living room. Travis didn't skip a beat, and eventually our roommates retreated to their bedroom. My muscles were trembling with fatigue, and I was panting, unable to catch my breath, but the longer we were tangled together, the more I needed him. I felt insatiable, easily seducing Travis over and over, from one climax to the next until we were both exhausted.
I lay on my stomach, peeking from my pillow at my husband who was doing the same. Our pinkies were crossed over one another, the sheet haphazardly draped over the small section of our backsides. My skin was glistening with sweat, my eyes heavy, and my hair tangled all around me. Travis's free hand was above his head, twirling a caramel strand of my hair. We didn't speak, we didn't need to. We were saturated with one another, the air filled with sex, love, and satisfaction.
I'd been Mrs. Maddox for exactly one month when I saw Ricky and Joel, the two men who'd approached America and me at the Red--and who subsequently had their asses handed to them by Travis and Shepley. I caught just a glimpse of them as they made their way to a doorway at the end of the hall from my English Lit class. I paused to make sure it was them, and then carefully followed, being sure to remain unseen.
Once I reached the end of the hall, I peeked around the corner, watching Joel sit down behind a computer. Ricky stood nearby, a stack of papers in his hand. He seemed to be dictating to Joel. The room they were in was abuzz. Some students were hopping from one desk to the next, the others tapping away from behind their computer screens. I leaned back to see if any signage was on the door just to make sure it wasn't a small, out-of-the-way library I didn't know about. As I leaned in to try to hear what Ricky was saying, a girl I recognized from my statistics class shouldered past me.
"Excuse me," she said, in a hurry.
"Um, uh," I began.
She turned around, her expression a combination of aggravation and confusion. "What? I'm late."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I just switched classes, and I'm lost. Is this Ancient Greek Philosophy?"
"No," she said, annoyed. "This is the Eastern Star." When she saw that I didn't understand, she sighed. "The college newspaper."
My eyebrows shot up, and I mouthed, Oh as she turned on her heels to rush to her desk. I observed them for a few minutes, and then retreated back down the hall to the exit. Ricky and Joel were at the Red for information, and they'd been waiting for Travis to come back. It was fortunate one of them was stupid enough to insult me before they could question him. They could be doing a story about the Circle, or worse ... Travis's involvement in the fire. I clenched my teeth, trying to figure out how I was going to stop them from running a story. Even speculation could get students talking when they'd originally declined. College students might be hesitant to speak to the police, but a curious fellow student could potentially jar a survivor's memory.
I stopped in the middle of the hall, walked a few steps backward until my ass touched the wall, and then slid down to the floor. I perched my elbows on my knees and rested my forehead on my arms. Would it ever end? Would Travis ever be safe?
Two pairs of shoes began walking toward me, stopping just inches from the toes of my Chuck Taylor's.
"Abby?" a familiar voice finally said. "Are you all right?"
I looked up, into Ricky's eyes. His cheek was still a light shade of green from Travis's left hook a few weeks before. "That depends."
Joel and Ricky traded glances. "On what?" Joel asked, nervous.
"Where are you guys headed?" I asked.
"To ... to uh," Ricky stuttered. "Why?"
I narrowed my eyes, but before I could speak, Joel stiffened. "Are you following us? Why are you following us?"
Ricky snorted, smug. "We caught you. You thought you could sit here in the middle of the hall, and we'd pass by and wouldn't notice? You know we're journalists, right? We notice everything."
I didn't give away my confusion, I just watched them become more paranoid with every new speculation.
"Travis knows we work from the Star, doesn't he?" Ricky asked. "He heard we've been asking questions?" He swallowed. "What's he going to do?"
I stood up, allowing the tiniest hint of a smile on my face. "You'll see," I said. I turning slowly and walked away. I pushed through the glass doors and jogged down the steps, inwardly panicking. They were doing a story on Travis. They were heading out to ask more people more questions. If they kept digging, someone might crack.
I touched my jacket pocket, feeling for the car keys. My mind was racing, wondering how to head this off; how to stop Ricky and Joel without implicating Travis-- without anything short of blackmail, threats, or bribes.
A deep voice said, "Whoa!" Just as I ran head-first into someone's chest.
"Oh, God, I'm sorry. I--" My stomach instantly sank.
"Hey, Abs. I was hoping I'd run into you."
"Parker," I said, accusation in my voice. I took a step to walk around him, but he gently took my arm in his hand.
"C'mon. Don't be like that." He released my arm and smiled brightly, as if the last three months hadn't happened. "Can't we just ... talk?"
"Abby. What do you want me to do? Beg? I'll do it," he said with his most charming smile. "I'll do anything. I just want to make things right. What about lunch?" I made a face. "Or just coffee. Can we just discuss over coffee?"
"Coffee?" I asked. He nodded. I looked over my shoulder to the building I'd just left behind. I felt nauseous with just the thought. "Anything?" I asked, returning my gaze to Parker. I swallowed back the bile. I was about to sell my soul to the devil.
I closed my eyes, already hating myself for what I was about to do.