I’m about 47,000 words into book four of the Women of Willow Bay series—Sarah Everett’s story. If you’ve read Sex and the Widow Miles, you’ve met Sarah—she ran the resale shop at the Chicago women’s shelter where Julie worked as a volunteer. Sarah’s story has been in my head for three years, but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to let her tell it. I think the reason it’s taken so long is that her situation is so alien to me and my life, and I wasn’t at all sure I could write it with any gravitas. I'll tell you the truth, it's been hard so far.
You see, Sarah is a woman who stayed in an abusive marriage for eighteen years and only left it when opportunity presented itself so clearly that she had no other choice but to flee. I have a dear friend who stayed in an abusive marriage for twenty-five years, and she graciously gave me insight into why women stay. Well, why she stayed. It was eye-opening. Then I did extensive online research, read articles, and watched several films and documentaries, and man, that was even more eye-opening.
Here’s the main take-away from all the research and conversations with my friend. Fear makes you do things you never ever thought you’d do—makes you become someone you never believed you’d be. Fear can turn you from a carefree, smart, happy young woman to a cowering, impotent victim as you try to convince yourself that if you just do this one thing right, you can save your marriage, rescue the man you fell in love with, and have the fairy tale. Fear will make you leave your situation, but fear will also keep you in it—terrified of what will happen if you leave. I had no idea. I'd always been one of the people who said, "Why doesn't she just go?"
The dynamics of abusive relationships are intricate and confusing, and when you finally manage to extricate yourself, the trauma of the years you spent in hell will stay with you and affect every decision, every choice, every relationship you ever have for the rest of your life.
And that’s the woman that easygoing Tony Reynard, the hero of this story, encounters at the beginning of chapter two. You might remember Tony from Once More From the Top—he’s the burly captain of Liam Reilly’s yacht. Well, since Liam and Carrie got married and built a house in Willow Bay, Tony decided to stay too. He’s settled into the village quite nicely, taking care of the boat, working as a deputy sheriff, and moonlighting as the town handyman.
Here’s Sarah and Tony’s first meeting (I hope you’re intrigued):
It never occurred to Tony Reynard that someone would be in the apartment over Noah’s old boathouse because no one was supposed to be there. Carrie had told him yesterday that Julie’s friend wasn’t due until the weekend. He’d been patting himself on the back for the last two days for getting the closet build-out done so quickly. All he had left to do was install the poles for the hanging clothes, which was where he was headed when a little redheaded spitfire stepped out of the bedroom with a damned gun in her hands. And, oh shit, those hands were shaking.
It took about ten seconds for him to assess the situation, slowly step down one step from the top, and hold his hands, full of closet poles and a shopping bag, up in the air.
“Hello,” he said, keeping his tone as even and measured as he could.
“Who are you?” Her voice trembled. Clearly, she was terrified, even though her crystal blue eyes were shooting angry sparks. She was tiny—not much over five feet—and if she weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, he’d eat his favorite Chicago Cubs hat.
“I’m Tony Reynard.” He glanced over his shoulder and backed down another step.
“Don’t move.” She shook the gun at him and he realized it was a .22 semiautomatic, which could certainly be deadly, although by now he was fairly sure she wasn’t going to shoot him. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I’m going to put my hands down now, okay?”
“I wouldn’t,” she advised, sounding a little bit braver. “Unless you want a bullet through your heart.”
“Look, sweetheart, I’m the local handyman.” Tony kept his hands up and moved down one more step so they were more eye-to-eye. He’d reached his full height by the age of sixteen, so he’d learned not to tower over people. He didn’t mean to be intimidating, but six feet three and two hundred and thirty pounds of bulky male tended to be daunting. “I’m here to install the poles in the new closet.” He peered around her. “Looks like you could use them.”
“I’m not your sweetheart.” She eyed him suspiciously. “What’s in the bag?” She jerked the gun toward the sack in his right hand.
From his vantage point, Tony could see that the safety was off and her finger was inside the trigger guard. Shit.
He was fairly sure the damn thing was loaded—she seemed too serious to be trying to frighten him with an unloaded weapon. She was afraid but she meant business. He wasn’t interested in getting shot by a crazy-scared female, so he gave her his best charming smile even though sweat ran down his sides.
Just act calm. Show her you mean her no harm. That is the key.
“Hangers. I bought some of those velvet hanger things at the Target in Traverse City. Julie said you were arriving with only your clothes and nothing else from your place in Chicago, so I thought you might be able to use some hangers. I’ve also got some drawer liner here. Package says it smells like lavender.”
She stared at him for what seemed like an eternity, but he didn’t let his gaze waver . . . or his smile. Finally, she took a deep, shaky breath and slowly dropped her arms, still holding the gun in both hands.
“Maybe you could, um, take your finger out of the trigger guard and put the safety on before you shoot yourself in the foot,” Tony suggested. “And I’m going to lower my arms now.”
When she didn’t object and did as he recommended, he sagged against the stairwell wall for a moment before he said. “You must be Sarah, Julie’s friend from Chicago.”