Connell Ambers was fifteen when she was raped and left for dead by her brother’s best friend. Ben Reed was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and confined to a psychiatric hospital but Connell received a worst sentence; a victim of agoraphobia and continual nightmares, she becomes a recluse, taken refuge on Blood Bay Island, with only her pets and her painting to console her.
The pounding on the door pulled Connell Ambers out of the deep pit she called sleep. She’d been having The Dream again, so she should’ve been grateful, but she wasn’t. Being awake held its own nightmares, ones she couldn’t dispel by opening her eyes.
Throwing back the covers, she sat up, spilling Brad Pitt, who’d been sleeping on her chest, onto the floor. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed, wincing as her feet touched the bare wooden floor and one toe scuffed up a splinter.
Ouch! Got to get that sanded.
The pounding continued. Boom...boom... Slow, steady, like a persistent drum. Boom... Boom... Boom... But not hollow. With the solidness of a fist behind it.
Like the muted thump of knuckles against soft frightened flesh.
“Where’s my robe?” Eyes still dazed from sleep, she stared around blearily. Come to think of it, where’s my nightgown?
It had been a hot night, nightmare-filled and sweat-drenched. Neither garment was in sight. Favoring her stabbed toe, Connell limped to the window, stepping over Conan the Barbarian sprawled on the floor, while nearly tripping over Mr. Spock who appeared as if transported from Berengaria-One or somewhere and darted under her feet.
Boom...boom... The noise became an unsettling rhythm. Who the Hell can it be? Tico, Maybe? Sent by Mama Sanchez with one of her fresh tamale pies? Guaranteed to put las rosas in your cheeks, chica! Or Papa Pepe, making certain she’d heard the latest weather report and knew a storm was rolling in?
“The natives are certainly restless this morning. ”
Conan stretched and yawned and growled agreement.
Somehow, she made it to the window unscathed, calling, “Quien es? Que desea?” as she leaned out, one knee resting on the window seat. Mr. Spock leaped to the threadbare cushions and began to entwine himself back and forth between her legs, his arched spine tickling the inside of her bare thigh. She placed a steadying hand on the cat’s head.
A man’s voice. And not one she recognized.
“Que--” Wait a minute. He doesn’t sound Spanish. She shook off the sleep haze and switched to English, asking the question in a cautious growl, “Who is it?”
Damn, how suspicious that sounds! Well, didn’t she have a right? She leaned out a little farther, peering at the man a story below her.
One hand to his eyes, he was backing away from the door into the little yard as he searched the expanse of tabby exterior. Found her. Stopped just before stepping into the pine needle-filled fishpond.
Good thing, too. She’d hate to see those beautiful boat shoes ruined by pond scum. Stuff was hard to get off.
Shit, a stranger! The total kind!
Connell ducked back inside the room, reaching for the first thing available to cover herself. The curtain. Holding the frayed and shabby length of lace before her like a veil, she leaned out again.
Can’t he say anything else? She asked him exactly that.
He seemed slightly taken aback, dropped the hand, then immediately put it up again. The morning sun was bright, rising directly out of the sea and over the house, shining into his eyes.
Very blue eyes.
“Uh...sorry... I-- My name’s Tucker MacKenzie?” His voice went up in that lilt Southerners used to make a statement into a question and he stopped. Waiting. As if he expected her to recognize his name.
“Is that supposed to mean something?”
“W-well, I--” He stuttered to a halt, seemed to be think about that. Tried again. “Perhaps not.” Fell silent as if mulling over his own statement. Tried once more. “I-I saw the painting you did. At Pepe’s...”
Oh, God, he’s seen that daub I gave Papa Pepe. That silly little pastel she’d weakened one day and shown the old man; when he made such a fuss over it, she succumbed to a fit of generosity and made him a gift of the thing. That’ll teach me. Never be generous with friends. Especially if they own a business where they might display it.
“...And I was wondering if I might see some more of your work?”
“I don’t sell paintings.” She made her answer curt. It was easy. It was the way she felt. “The Artist’s Colony’s over on Isla Buena. Try there.”
Withdrawing inside the window, she dropped the curtain and aimed herself at the bed. Halfway there, the pounding started again.
Boom. “Ms. Ambers?” Boom. “Ms. Ambers!”
He was getting into a regular rhythm. Had a nice beat, too.
With a sigh, she turned around and trudged back. They could probably hear that noise all the way back to the mainland. Better shut him up before he woke her nearest neighbors on the block facing the island.
“Look--” Irritated to the point of being unmindful of her nakedness, she leaned out, feeling breasts brush the windowsill as she shouted down at him, “I said I don’t sell! Now, go away!”
He was backing up again, on the path this time, crunching leaves and twigs under his feet. Honestly, someday, I’ve got to make myself sweep the walkway. Maybe in the next century.
By now, she’d gotten a good look at him.
Very nice. Clean cut. Dark, curly hair. Not overly-long but long enough. A tan. Too far away for her to actually see his face but she got a general impression of regular, acceptable features. And those blue eyes.
Good clothes, too. Slacks, lightweight sweater over a white shirt. A shirt and sweater in this weather? Very preppy. Very proper. Probably had a blazer in the car, with his school emblem embroidered on the breast pocket.
Ben had been clean-cut, too. He was wearing his college letter jacket when they arrested him.
“Won’t you just--”
Connell stepped back, pulling the shutters closed. She waited, hands against the wall, peering through the louvers, looking down.
He stood there a few minutes longer, before he turned and walked through the opening in the wall, shoulders slumping slightly. The defeated set of his body startled her. Once outside, he looked back once before thrusting his hands into his pockets and making his way through the nearly knee-length grass. Bet there’ll be stains on those Kenneth Coles. Too bad. Green doesn’t go too well with charcoal-gray. Back to the white Mustang convertible parked six feet past where the dirt road ended.
Just before he reached the car, he stooped and snapped off a stalk of wild aster growing in a crack in the wall. He looked back at the house again, twirling the little white flowers around and around in his fingers. Then, he squared his shoulders, got into the car and drove away.
Connell waited until the Mustang disappeared through the trees, roiling a cloud of dry-dirt dust behind it, before she opened the window again. The dust floated into the air, spread and dispersed.
She stared at the spot where he’d picked the flower.
“That’s where I’ll go today.” The place where wild asters grow in the crevices of a stone wall. Today, she’d make that the boundary line of her world.
The first three weeks she was in the house, she hadn’t set foot outside, not even opening the door except to let the animals in and out, and accept grocery deliveries, or to thrust out a hand to take the mail from the postman who very graciously parked his little vehicle and walked to the house instead of leaving it in the box at the road turn-off. He made a special trip to do that, driving over the bridge connecting the island to the little town of Stella. Somehow, Jesse had arranged it with the post office there. She didn’t know any of the details, didn’t care.
Everyone had been told she was an invalid. That was Jesse’ cover story. Her brother did all the planning; about the groceries, taking care of all the details of the utilities, making certain someone from Pepe’s stopped by at least once a week if a delivery wasn’t made. To be certain she wasn’t lying at the bottom of the rickety staircase with a broken neck or something just as dire.
I don’t want you alone here, Connie.
It’s what I want, Jess. It’s what I need.
At first, she crouched in the living room on the loveseat or huddled in the four-poster upstairs, not even looking out the windows. Then, she’d seen the ocean from the kitchen window--somehow the world looked much safer framed within the wood of a window sash. That cool, undulating strip of sun-on-water beckoned to her and continued its call, until she got out her easel and canvas and began to paint the scene. For a little while she lost herself in the beauty of the sunlight and the ocean as it rushed into the little bay surrounded by sea oats and mounds of rust-colored gaillardia dotting the sand making up part of her backyard.
Mr. Spock was the one who made her finally leave the house.
He’d caught a bird, dragging it onto the front stoop. She’d opened the door, stood there watching him maul the poor thing. At last, goaded into action, she darted out, grabbing the cat by the scruff of the neck. She startled the animal so he opened his mouth, releasing his captive who fluttered away without so much as a peep in gratitude.
After that, the trips got longer, if not easier.
She made herself walk to the middle of the path. Then to where the gate had been. Each one an agony hardly worth the little glow of triumph she felt afterward. At least, that’s what she told herself. But she knew she had to do it.
That first trip had been the longest.
It had happened at noon, the sun beating down, reflecting off the water behind the house, off the stones on the path, dappling brilliantly through the trees. Birds were singing, the dogs barking inside. There was so much noise and light and confusion. She felt inundated with sensations, wanting to cower and cover her head with her arms to protect it. A sense of disassociation...too much air surrounding her...no protection...all ganging up on her, beating down...
She gritted her teeth, clenching her hands and feeling the nails cutting her palms as she forced herself to take the shaky next step, then another...
...one foot up, one foot down...
You can do it... It’s all right. Come on, just a little more...
By the time she reached the stack of stones forming the end of the wall where the gate should have been, she was exhausted and frantic, shaking like someone with a violent chill. One hand wavering wildly, she reached out, slamming the palm down on top of the highest stone like a child tagging someone, shouted, “You’re it!” She raised her head and looked wildly around, then shrieked, “I did it! Hear? I did it!”
Wishing Ben could hear.
Then, she dashed for the door and the security of the house as fast as she could.
Once inside, the fear set in again, worse than ever, legs trembling, hands shaking, sweat pouring like someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over her. Even her teeth began to chatter and she fell to the floor in front of the empty fireplace. Curled into a stricken little ball on the sooty hearth, arms covering her head, she lay there for a full ten minutes until the spasm passed.
Conan and Brad Pitt and Spock had sat beside her, whimpering in sympathy.
Afterward, as she made chamomile tea in the kitchen, relying on the herbs for comfort, she forced herself to think of what she’d done, relishing that minor moment of triumph.
She’d actually gone outside and returned, unscathed.
Unscathed? Had her little trek really left her untouched?
It couldn’t go on, she knew that. One day, she’d either have to cure herself or seek more professional help, like they were trying to give Ben.
He was a prisoner, confined at the Hardesty Center just outside Milledgeville, kept inside by bars and stones, while she-- She was a prisoner as well, held in chains by the neurons and electrons in her brain, daily replaying the memory of what he’d done.
He was the guilty one. She was the victim. Oh yeah? If that’s so, why am I the one still suffering?
Who’ll be released first?
~ * ~
Connell Ambers had been fifteen when Benjamin Reed, her brother’s best friend, raped her.
Ben and Jesse met in high school, been best buds from freshman to senior years. They’d gone to the University of Georgia together, been roommates, and then pledged to the same fraternity before splitting up, Ben to move into the Frat House, Jess to stay in an apartment in town. Most of the time when they came home, they rode together and Ben was at the Ambers’ home almost as much as he was at his parents’.
That day, he’d been invited to go with the family to a basketball game. Jesse Ambers and his father were big sports fans. Any event involving baseball, football, basketball, they’d be there in the stands. Cheering. Then returning home to hash over the game and point out flaws in plays and praise-winning strategies.
Mrs. Ambers had gone with them, also. Not because she was such a sports maniac but because she liked doing things with her family. Not Connell. She stayed at home. Even that young, she didn’t like sports, couldn’t understand why men enjoyed getting so sweaty and injuring each other while chasing a stupid ball or running from one end of a court to the other throwing another stupid ball through a basket. So she stayed behind. Alone. Unknowingly waiting for Ben Reed to come back for her.
Which he had.
Excusing himself about half an hour into the game, he made his way to the gymnasium restrooms, then out a side door. The Ambers’ home was near the high school. Friedman Ambers bought it specifically for that reason, the year before Jess became a freshman. Ben came through the unlocked front door just as Connell was exiting the swimming pool in the back yard.
Within the space of twenty minutes, he’d terrorized, raped, and choked her into unconsciousness, leaving her for dead as he calmly returned to the school to seat himself beside her brother and cheer while the Button Gwinnet High School Colonials won the game. They’d dropped him off at his home before returning to find Connell naked and unconscious but still alive, on the living room floor. If his expression was to be believed when he opened the door to find the two men from the Savannah PD standing there, Ben had truly thought her dead and himself in the clear.
Even without Connell’s identification, the blood under her fingernails, the scratches on his wrists, and the evidence from the rape-kit left no doubt as to Ben’s guilt. In spite of all the Crime Scene Unit shows on TV, he’d not thought out his crime very thoroughly, stupidly hadn’t used a condom or tried to prevent any DNA or trace evidence.
In a single session with the court-appointed psychiatrist, Ben was diagnosed with Compulsive-Obsessive-Dissociative Disorder, Pedophilia, and Erotomania. How he’d ever managed to hide it from his parents, classmates, and his best friend, was never determined and was considered nothing short of the best acting this side of an Oscar-winning performance. He’d never exhibited any of the usual sociopathic symptoms, had never harmed or killed an animal, was gregarious and friendly, had even been a Boy Scout achieving the Star rank, a fact his former scout master now wished to forget. After a short but sensational trial, he was very quickly transported to the state mental hospital, and ordered incarcerated there until cured or his death, whichever came first.
In the following turmoil, he’d shown no remorse, never said he was sorry. He had, however, written Connell lengthy letters expressing his love and his passion...how he’d wanted her from the moment he saw her when they’d first met when he was fifteen and she was eleven...how he’d waited until she was old enough to understand the longing he felt for her...how she was his and his alone...
The letters never reached Connell; Ben’s psychiatrist made certain of that. Instead, he used them to formulate his patient’s treatment. None of which appeared to be successful in any size, shape, or form. Benjamin Reed never got better, never let go of his obsession for Connell Ambers, and until he did, there was no chance in hell of him getting out.
Connell was more fortunate--or perhaps not so, depending on how one wanted to look at it. Once she was dismissed from the hospital, she began therapy sessions designed to help her cope. Cope. A nice short word to describe a long, painful process. To help her overcome her fears...of men...of being touched. It had helped to some degree, but only a little, for in the process she had developed an even greater fear. A fear of the world outside her living room door.
She hadn’t returned to school. Couldn’t. Setting foot off the front porch stoop sent her into hysterics. Was home-tutored so she could get her high school diploma but the hope of a college education was shot down in flames. She got a degree online, expressed an interest in painting, and was supplied with anything and everything she wanted except peace of mind and a willingness to leave the house again.
In the end, she’d moved to the little cottage on Isla de Bahia de Sangre, though getting there by car had been an ordeal in itself. Once the Ambers’ summer retreat, now it became her refuge, with no one but the family pets for company. There were no telephone lines, but the place had electricity and running water, and she wasn’t entirely cut off from civilization. There was a television dish for the roof and she had her cell phone and her computer, though she continually forgot to recharge the phone and rarely answered e-mails.
She’d been there five years now. Seeing no one except those few people necessary for her continued existence...
...until Tucker MacKenzie mentioned to Jesse Ambers that he was going to be driving through Stella on his way to Florida and Connell’s brother asked him to stop by and see how his sister was faring. So Tuck agreed, not knowing that waiting for him on Isla de Bahia Sangre was a young woman desperate to join the world again, and anxious to gain the one thing she’d been cheated of by Ben Reed...