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Seduced, Page 25

Melody Anne

  As they walked hand in hand toward the hospital entrance, Shane smiled down at her. Lia had effectively taken his mind off of the upcoming visit to the woman who had given him birth and little else but misery, and he felt relaxed, ready for this next step in his life. It had been a long time coming.

  Once they walked through the doors of the institution, however, his shoulders tensed. This wouldn’t be easy — not at all. At least he had Lia by his side.

  “It will all work out fine, Shane. I’ll be with you the entire time,” Lia said, her hand rubbing along his back in comfort. Miraculously, her touch soothed him again, calmed his nerves as he approached the thick-glassed windows.

  “How can I help you?” the man behind the counter asked.

  Shane looked around the sterile lobby with plain chairs and a counter that was protected by bulletproof glass. He felt as if he were in a prison facility, but then, that’s essentially what it was. This was a place for criminals — like his mother.

  “We’re here to see Betty Grayson,” Shane said, and Lia realized she’d never heard his mother’s name before. Shane didn’t refer to his parents by name, but only as the people who had created him. It was a distinction he made to remove himself from them further than he had when he left their house for the last time.

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  “One moment, please,” the clerk said, not showing a reaction as he looked in the computer. “And how do you know Ms. Grayson?”

  Shane was quiet for a moment before finally speaking. “She’s the woman who gave birth to me,” he finally said. It would be too much for him to say she was his mother.

  “Your name?” The man didn’t even blink at Shane’s choice of words.

  “Shane Grayson, and this is Lia Palazzo. ”

  After a little more typing, the man looked back up. “I need your IDs, please. ”

  Shane and Lia passed them through a small dipped opening and then waited a while longer. Shane was hoping they would be turned away. Then he could honestly say that he’d tried but there was nothing he could do.

  Of course, with his clearance, he could get in to see her if he truly wanted to, but Lia didn’t know that. Yet.

  After a few moments, the man handed them each a visitor’s badge, then buzzed open a door next to the counter. “Go through to the left, and wait at the door there. ”

  Shane sighed in resignation.

  Shane and Lia walked through, then waited for another door to be buzzed open for them. Another staff member led them through a maze of hallways.

  “If you’ll wait here, we’ll bring Ms. Grayson in to visit with you,” the aide said before leaving them in a plain room with four chairs, a table, and nothing else.

  After they sat there for several tense moments, the door opened again, and Lia had to fight a gasp when a woman was brought in. Stringy hair hung down, covering half her face and her reed thin body, wasted body was the picture of unhealthiness. But what shocked Lia the most was the vacant look in her black eyes — the same eyes as Shane had.

  Dark, unhealthy circles adorned the area beneath her eyes, and her lips were just lax; there was no expression in her features. Her eyes traveled over both Shane and Lia with a complete lack of interest.

  The aide led her to the chair across from them, and she and Shane locked gazes. He was surprised to feel pity for this tiny woman. He thought he would always have her image burned into his brain, but it had been nearly twenty years since he’d last seen her, and if he had passed her on the street, he wouldn’t have recognized her.

  He noticed that her eyes were the same color as his, but that’s where the similarities ended. She looked washed out and vacant, her body just an empty vessel for a lost soul.

  “Hello, Betty,” he finally said, and she turned her head and she assessed him, a spark of something entering her eyes for only the briefest of moments.

  “Do you know who I am?” he asked, his voice quiet, not harsh but not friendly.

  She didn’t do anything for several moments, then gave the slightest nod, so tiny a movement that if they hadn’t been watching her steadily, they would have missed it.

  Then she turned to look at Lia, and her eyes were puzzled for a moment, but quickly went vacant again as she turned back toward Shane.

  “Do you talk?” he asked.

  “Not much,” she whispered.

  Lia tensed at the childlike sound of her voice. This woman, who had caused so much trauma and pain for Shane, was clearly gone. Lia felt that some people who were locked up in mental facilities instead of prisons got off easy — got a free ride. This wasn’t the case for Shane’s mother. She was clearly in the right place.

  “I didn’t want to come today,” Shane told her, again keeping his voice neutral.

  “Why did you?”

  “Lia thought I needed to get some answers from you. I don’t think you can give me any,” he told her honestly.

  “I was bad to you,” his mother said, looking right at him, her eyes unblinking, her hands motionless at her sides, as if they were just hanging there, useless limbs on an unused body.

  At her words, Shane sat back in shock. Just the slightest tensing of his muscles betrayed his reaction, but Lia knew him enough now to know the words affected him.

  “Yes you were,” he said.

  “That man. He was a bad, bad man. I killed him. He had to die,” she went on, her eyes sparking for just a moment, but the emotion in them shocked both Shane and Lia. It was terror. Her hands twitched as if she was getting ready to move, but then she stilled again.

  “Yes, you did. Why did you stay with him if he frightened you?” Shane asked, his body relaxing as he leaned slightly forward.

  “Nowhere to go. My daddy said I was a naughty girl and I deserved to be with him. I was a sinner, a sinner! I deserved to burn in hell! A sinner!” she screamed as she looked at Shane, her hand suddenly shooting out and gripping his arm, her short nails digging into his flesh.

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  Lia didn’t know what to do. Shane stayed oddly calm while his mother’s fingers tightened around his flesh, her grip unyielding.

  “No one deserves to be raped or beaten, Betty. No one deserves to go through the pain either of us went through,” he told her, his voice still calm even with her growing hysteria.

  “Hank hurt me so much. Hurt me all the time. He laid on me, pushed in me, hurt me. Then you were there. My belly grew with you, bigger and bigger. He told me I was bad. I was a slut. His slut. He was mad that you was in there, in the way of his grunts and groans. He hurt me. ”

  “You hated me,” Shane said. Still no inflection in his tone as he looked in her crazy, lost eyes.

  “Yes, I hated you. I hated him being inside me so long. So long. He was inside me for too long. I thought it would stop, thought he would leave me, but then you were there, and then you came out, and he hated you, too. ”

  Betty spoke with childlike honesty, her words tearing Lia’s heart in two. She’d been so wrong to ask Shane to come here, so very wrong.

  “Why didn’t you give me up for adoption? Why not let someone else raise me if you didn’t want me?” This was the one thing that Shane needed to know.

  Betty looked at him in surprise and thought about the question. Maybe the idea had never crossed her mind. Maybe no one had told her that was an option.

  “I was bad. I had to live with that. Live with being bad. You were my punishment. If you weren’t there, I wouldn’t be punished. I had to be made to suffer for being bad. Yes, I was bad. ”

  Shane sat back, looking at her with pity. This woman was gone. She’d been gone for a long time. There was no use in staying there with her any longer. There was nothing she could tell him, no answers she would be able to give. Maybe she’d been lost from the first moment she’d met the man who had raped her and caused Shane’s existence. Maybe it had been before that moment.
Either way, she was just a shell, and he would never get any clear answers from her.

  He rose, and Lia quickly followed.

  “I won’t be back, Betty. I’m sorry you’ve had such a difficult life,” he said as he looked down at the woman, who was now rocking herself back and forth, back and forth.

  “Please, Shane, please,” she pleaded, holding her legs as she rocked in the chair.

  “Please, what?” Both he and Lia were puzzled.

  “Please don’t hurt me anymore. I was just bad once, just once. Please set me free,” she begged, her eyes showing emotion as they teared up.

  What Shane did next nearly dropped Lia to her knees.

  He walked to Betty, and Lia was afraid he was going to hurt the woman, but she should have known better. This man would never hurt anyone — not even a person who had helped to ruin his early existence.

  He kneeled down and put his hand on hers, which was resting on her legs. “You are free, Betty. Do you hear me? You’ve paid for your crimes. It’s time for you to be free. There won’t be any more punishment. You don’t have to be afraid anymore,” he whispered while looking in her eyes.

  The rocking motion stopped, and she looked at him with wonder. The corner of her mouth turned up.

  “I’m free?” she asked.

  “Yes, you are free. No one will hurt you anymore. I won’t hurt you. You’ve served enough time. ”

  Shane stood up and moved to the door, knocking to be let out.

  “Thank you,” Betty whispered as he and Lia left the room. The last sound they heard before the door shut was the sound of laughter, a tinkling noise that made Lia think of a child, a very young one.

  Shane didn’t say a word as they walked from the hospital, just took the time to process what Betty had said to him.

  It was good that he’d come, good that he’d spoken to her. He could no longer hate the woman who had given him birth. All he could do was feel pity toward her vacant shell, once a person, perhaps, now mentally a child locked inside a useless body.

  Now, maybe she would find a measure of peace. He meant what he’d said to her — she was free to end her punishment. He didn’t love her, never could love the woman who had hurt him so badly for so many years.

  He could forgive her, though.

  “Thank you, Lia. It was good that I went there. ”

  “I was thinking it was too much,” Lia said as she faced him with tears in her eyes.

  “No. I may have told her she was free, but I was also set free, Lia. How can I hold that lifeless woman responsible? She has punished herself far more than I would ever want to punish any person. She was wrong in what she did to me, but she’s more than paid the price. ”

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  Shane pulled Lia into his arms and held on tight. Her freshness, love, and loyalty held him on the ground, kept his heartbeat steady.

  With Lia, he could get through anything.

  Chapter Forty-One


  Something woke Ari far too early in the morning. A noise? She didn’t know what, but before she could open her eyes, she could smell the sweet scent of flowers. As she sleepily took in the room, she lay there with her mouth agape.

  Looking around in shock, she couldn’t see a single bare place on any of the tables in the room. They were filled with vase after vase of her favorite flowers, stargazer lilies. The beautiful pink-and-white flowers were everywhere, mixed with roses, lilacs, carnations and delicate greenery.

  The sight was so beautiful, Ari wished for a moment that she were a poet or a painter rather than a historian.

  “Rafe?” she called, but there wasn’t an answer.

  She turned to glance at the clock on the night stand and noted that it was midnight. Not morning, at all. They’d gone to bed only a couple hours before. How had he managed to decorate the room while she was there sleeping?

  Crawling slowly from his giant bed, she moved through the room, smelling the beautiful bouquets. On each one, there was a note attached. There had to be a hundred notes.

  She opened the first:

  Your smile is a beacon on a stormy night.

  She rushed quickly to the next envelope:

  My heart isn’t whole without you.

  She moved through the room, opening note after note.

  Your beauty is unparalleled.

  You make every day a delight.

  Nothing makes me happier than to have you in my arms.

  Your intelligence is breathtaking.

  Ari clutched note after note in her hand, collecting them all, a shy smile splitting her face. When she entered the bathroom, more flowers awaited her, along with burning candles, their scent flavoring the air.

  On the mirror another note was written in what appeared to be a permanent marker. His housekeeper wouldn’t be happy, but Ari was thrilled.

  Get dressed and come out the front door.

  Ari didn’t hesitate; she rushed back into his room and found a stunning blue dress hanging in the closet, along with fresh lingerie and stockings, and a pair of heels she fell instantly in love with.

  Dressing quickly, she then hurriedly put on a minimum of makeup, brushed out her hair and threw the bedroom door open.

  Tears filled her eyes when she saw that the hallway was lined with more bouquets, all sporting notes, all in Rafe’s handwriting. She wanted to rush out the door, but she took her time gathering the notes, opening each one and cherishing the words of his heart’s confession.

  Some were little quotes from texts and messages he’d sent her, some spoke of her beauty and talent, and some simply said, I love you. Each one she clutched in her hand, knowing she would forever hold on to them.

  When she reached the stairs, she found large vases with more bouquets, and candles on every other step to guide her way down. Her collection of notes kept getting larger.

  At the door, a man in a tux waited for her with a glass of champagne in his hand. She thanked him as she accepted the glass, then beamed when she saw the sparkling white limo in the driveway.

  Another well-dressed man waited there. He opened the door for her, holding her glass while she got in. Expecting to see Rafe inside, she was disappointed to find herself alone. The man handed her the champagne, then gently shut the door.

  When the engine started, a video began with the most tender piano solo playing in the background, and Rafe’s face appeared on the large screen.

  “There aren’t enough words in the dictionary for me to express how you have changed my life for the better, Ari. I was a fool for a long time, and yet you have given me a second chance. I promise you that I will never betray your trust again. I promise never to hurt you. I promise to do everything in my power to make you supremely happy. ”

  He faded away, and her mother appeared on the screen, her face beaming. Ari felt as if she could reach out and touch her.

  “My beautiful daughter. You have always brought me so much joy. I am so very proud of you and all that you do for those you love, and for those who love you. If more people in the world were like you, there wouldn’t be war or hunger. There wouldn’t be crime. You are gentle and kind, loving and giving. You are the child every parent dreams of having. I love you always. This is a special day, and I am so grateful to be a part of it. ”

  The next image was of her friends from her old job, then Lia and Rachel, Rafe’s parents, her favorite professors, a few of her students. So many people on screen telling her how wonderful she was.

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  Even though none of them could see her, Ari’s cheeks heated with modest embarrassment at a video that was all about her.

  The car slowed, and Ari’s stomach tensed. When would Rafe appear? Was this a marriage proposal? She didn’t want to hope, but suddenly that was all she could think about. Surely a man wouldn’t do all of this just to express his love.

sp; The door opened, and Ari stepped out onto a red carpet, one that led through a luxuriant garden. Softly glowing candles aligned the edge of the carpet to light the way. No one was around; the driver just gave her instructions to follow the path.

  A few steps in, there were more vases of her favorite flowers highlighted by the glow of the candles. Suddenly a song started playing over speakers she couldn’t see. Ari stopped as tears began cascading down her face.

  “Bless the Broken Road” filled the air, surrounding Ari with Rascal Flatts’s words of love, hope, and change.

  Yes, Rafe had chosen the wrong path, but he was showing her in so many ways that he had finally chosen love over pain, that he had chosen her above anything else. The song finished as she went under an arch filled with stargazer lilies and finally found Rafe in the center of a large field.

  Candles burned all around him; he stood there holding a single rose, looking unbelievably handsome in a sharp black tuxedo. She glided along the path toward him, not even sure whether her feet were touching the ground.

  Somewhere in her brain, she registered Keith Urban’s song “Making Memories of Us. ” All of it was too much, but oh, so perfect.

  She reached Rafe and he kneeled before her, the dark of the night enveloping them both, all of which made Ari’s knees shake and her tears fall.

  “I’d rather die a thousand deaths than spend one more day without you in my life. You are the air that I breathe, the beat of my heart. You are the calm in a storm, and the only person who can take my pain away. I know you would flourish on your own; I know there isn’t anything that you can’t achieve for yourself. I am the one who will fail if you walk away. I would wither, crumple to the ground. You make me whole, Ari. Please say you will end my days of agony, my self-imposed prison. Marry me. Make me a better man. ”

  Her throat closed, making it impossible for her to speak. Rafe didn’t do anything by half measures. He loved her, really loved her, and he was showing her in the only way he knew how that it was forever.

  Finally, her voice returned.

  “You are wrong, Rafe. Both of us would survive without the other, but it would just be survival; it would be empty. Walking away from you once nearly destroyed me, and I don’t think I could ever do it again. Yes, I will marry you. Yes, I would be honored to stay by your side. You have given me so much, and I only hope that I can show you how much you mean to me. ”