“I can't do this, Charlie; I'm not the man you want me to be.”
"Then be the man you want to be."
A brand new contemporary romance.
PAPER CUTS - Book One in the Paper Cuts Trilogy
Author note: This is not the final published version. There may be slight errors, and the chapters are subject to changes before final publication.
Trigger warning! The prologue contains sensitive scenes.
There was blood everywhere.
Smudges up the wall in a number of places. A trailing hand print just above the handle of the door that led to the kitchen. The grey rug was ruined. Too much on it to clean.
The mess? Anyone could be forgiven for thinking the place had been ransacked by a group of thugs.
He knew better.
There was only one explanation.
A fight had taken place in the dingy front room, and as he stood there, frozen, ignoring the broken ornaments, the chair that was on its side over by the window, and numerous other things that contributed to the carnage, the trembling began to travel through him, like a delayed shockwave taking over his entire body. Somehow, as his eyes tried to comprehend what they were seeing, he found himself walking towards the sofa where the woman lay, her body splayed out over the faux brown leather in a weirdly contorted way. Arm above her head, her face tilted up to the ceiling. Her body faced away from him while one leg had dropped off the edge, foot at a strange angle on the floor. Her eyes were vacant, staring lifelessly at what they’d paused on as she’d taken her final breath. Her neck was deep red where the hands that had no doubt ended her life had been.
He was numb. Like he wasn’t standing there in his own body.
No thoughts. No feelings. It was the strangest thing.
It wasn’t until his knees hit the floor that he realised he’d collapsed. And when he took her delicate, blood-soaked hand in his, that was when he lost it. In a rush, he felt everything, his body, his heartbreak. Inconceivable pain. It hit him all at once. He cried out in agony, his throat stinging from the sheer force of it, unable to comprehend what had happened. The woman he loved with everything he had. His world.
She was gone.
No longer living.
He’d lost her in the most brutal way and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to change that fact. No amount of pain and anguish would change anything. No matter how loud he cried with grief, he couldn’t undo it. He couldn’t rewind time. He couldn’t bring her back.
She was gone.
His world had shattered into tiny little specs of dust. He was broken.
Still, the loss alone wouldn’t be what changed his life and his future. The moment things went even more wrong for him, wasn’t when, in his grief-stricken state, he saw the hilt of a knife sticking out from under the sofa. No. It was when, without thinking, he picked it up to see it drenched in her blood, holding it in his hand as he knelt over her, too shocked to move.
The echoing voices didn’t register straight away, and what followed happened so quickly it was hard to accept it as reality.
Rough hands grabbed his shoulders and dragged him up from the floor. He held onto her hand for as long as he could, knowing the moment he let go she would disappear forever; he knew he would never see her again.
The separation happened when his arms were wrenched around his back.
“No!” he heard himself cry. “Let me stay with her.”
Something cold and hard slammed around his wrists, then words were said beside his ear.
“You have the right to remain silent. . .”
He didn’t hear them. Not really. It was hard to hear anything above the rage that was now coursing through his blood.
Vaguely aware of being led from the room, images of the past shot through his mind like someone was hitting the forward control on a slide projector fast. The shouting, the backhands, the bruises, all of which had gotten more frequent, the violence intensifying, leading up to this moment.
His world had ended the moment he’d walked into the room he was being led from in cuffs. Grabbing hold of the inferno raging through him with both hands, he knew there was only one reason for living now—the only thing that would get him through.
He’d make damn sure that bastard paid for what he’d done.
“How are things going with the mission?”
“I’ve been avoiding him.”
“What? Why?” Charlotte Sommers had heard no end of talk about Nathan from her best friend over the last few weeks. She’d chased and chased the guy, not that he’d ever known it because the woman had been too shy to actually chase the guy so she’d mostly done it from afar, until eventually Charlie had to make an intervention and introduce them in a casual way the canteen at uni. At first Nathan had looked at Charlie stupid, and rightly so seeing as she’d never spoken to him before, and had accosted him on his way from his lunch break. Since the introduction, Cara and Nathan had said hi to each other in passing, and had even had a short conversation, which, Charlie was sure she knew every word of by now. “I thought you were making progress.”
“Maybe because I. . .” When Cara paused, Charlie thought they’d been disconnected and glanced at her phone screen. “I’m coming now,” she heard her friend say when she put it back to her ear. It was distant, as though Cara had pulled the phone away from her mouth to talk to someone else.
Charlie pressed. “Because what?”
Cara’s volume had dropped to almost a whisper when she started talking again. “I practically threw myself at him at Full Circle on Friday night. That’s because.” Back to a normal level again. “I’m aborting the mission for a little bit. I’m also giving up drinking. And clubbing. And also showing my face in public.”
When Charlie laughed out loud at her best friend, the four other people waiting in line for orders at Hot Wok noodle bar turned to look. Her cheeks heated as she gave them a tight lipped smile before lowering her voice. “Sure you are, Car. I’ll give it until Thursday at the latest.”
“Well I’ll get to prove you wrong Thursday night at open mic night. I’ll be on soft drinks only. You wait.”
At that Charlie winced but her lack of response alerted Cara to the impending refusal. “No way,” her best friend said, her voice straining like she was fighting to keep her volume down. Charlie glanced at the clock above the counter in the takeaway. Cara would be at one of her evening classes. “Don’t you dare. You’re not about to tell me you’re not coming are you?”
“Number sixty five!” the guy behind the counter called out.
Charlie lifted her hand for her order and made her way to the counter. “Yep. I am about to tell you exactly that. And besides, you just said you weren’t showing your face in public again.”
“Char! You know I’m not serious about that. This will be the third week in a row.”
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just. . . Randall is kicking my arse with this dissertation. He’s got all of us on a tight schedule with it.” The disappointed sigh her friend let out made Charlie’s stomach tighten. For the last few weeks she’d barely left her apartment outside of classes, and felt guilty about letting Cara down again. Her excuses were genuine though. She really did have to finish her work by the end of the week. The end of term was almost in sight. Soon she would have finished year two of her studies in psychology. She just needed to get through a few more nights of study, then she’d be able to breathe a little. At least until next week. “I’m almost done. I promise I’ll be at the next one.”
“I’m holding you to it, Char. Don’t let me down again. Shit! Gotta go. Harper’s clocked me. Text you later.”
Smiling, Charlie knew her friend was about to get a hard time from her lecturer. Harper was one of the worst for discipline. So Cara kept telling her.
Armed with her meal for one, she headed down the street in the direction of the train station, readying herself for yet another evening in front of her laptop. Three stops later and she hurried from the train, scooped up in the crowd as people from all walks of life rushed up the steps to street level, as if they were all late for dinner, most of them heading home. It was still pretty busy on public transport at 6PM in Hertfordshire. Although she hated the busy trains and stations, Charlie preferred going home at this time. She hated having evening classes because she didn’t drive so the train was her only affordable form of transport. Always looking over her shoulder, she always felt unnerved when she travelled home later, particularly in the winter months when it was dark for her whole journey.
Out on the street, the sun was now disappearing behind the clouds and there was a damp feel of condensation in the air as the temperature dropped. British springtime at its best. Cold in the mornings so you put more layers on, only to lose them one by one over the course of the day, only to need them again later on. She’d left her jacket in her locker back at uni. Now she was regretting it.
Before she knew it, she was home, rounding the corner into her street, heading to the last building tucked away in the corner where her first-floor flat was. Crossing the street, she approached the main door to the building and frowned, not at the motorbike she’d seen parked out the front plenty of times, but at the pair of navy overall-covered legs that were twisted around the back wheel. She struggled to get a look at the guy who was working on the bike as she walked past, trying not to look too obvious. His head was nowhere in sight, but she did hear a sharp curse before the clink of something metal hit the concrete.
Unlocking the door, she looked over her shoulder once more just as he sat up, but still all she saw was the top of his head. At least now she knew her new neighbour’s hair was dark brown before walking inside. That’s all she did know about him. Up two flights of stairs and along the hall, Charlie desperately wished she lived at number four instead of all the way to the end at number six. Her feet were throbbing, and she couldn’t wait to get in a hot bath.
Half an hour later, Charlie was submerged in deep, hot water covered with a mountain of bubbles listening to Jason Mraz on her portable speaker. It was well deserved after the tough day—no, tough fortnight—she’d had. At least at this point in her studies she felt good about herself for a change. It felt like all her hard work was beginning to pay off. It was good to feel confident for a change.
Her eyes were closed and she was drifting in and out of consciousness, lulled by the soft music and the relaxing scent of her rose and peony bath water when over by the sink her phone rang.
Ignore it, she told herself, wanting to stay put for a little while longer. The water was still a nice temperature and it was the first time in weeks she’d managed to clear her mind. Whoever it was could leave a message or call back if it was important. When it eventually stopped, she sunk down a little further, getting back into the zen-like state where she planned on staying for at least another thirty minutes.
Then it rang for a second time.
That meant someone really did want to get hold of her. Had to be. She was never this popular. Cara maybe, calling to beg her to go out for a drink because she’d already fallen of the teetotal wagon. Or maybe it was her mum. Which meant she shouldn’t really ignore it any longer. Perhaps there was something wrong back home.
Admitting defeat, Charlie got out of the bath, the cold air hitting her wet skin like she’d stepped outside, her teeth almost rattling. That bloody boiler. She needed to call the landlord about the crappy thing. It kept switching off at random times. Grabbing a towel, she wrapped it around her body, tucking the corner in under her armpit, and reached for her phone. When the screen lit up she froze. What the hell? She swiped to unlock the phone, barely trusting her eyes, and noticed her hands were trembling which this time, wasn’t from the cold air in the room.
Why had he called her? Twice?
Holding her breath she pressed the little ‘i’ icon next to his number, scrolled down the page and hit ‘block contact’ as quickly as her trembling fingers would allow.
Pacing the small, damp room, Charlie tried with everything she had to keep her mind from going back to the past she’d long moved on from. After he’d done such a good job of taking over her mind, it had been hard to leave Dale behind even though she’d travelled two hundred miles away from him. Years it had taken her to stop having nightmares about the man she’d almost married. Charlie thought it was done—the darkness of her past had slowly become faint shadows and eventually they’d left her. Mostly.
With just two missed calls, every memory, every feeling. . . it all came back, hitting her unexpectedly with the force of a hurricane.
Could it be a coincidence? What if someone else now had his phone? Perhaps he’d sold it to someone and she’d received a wrong number call. The moment she thought it she knew it was wishful thinking. It was him. Without a doubt.
Why the hell was her ex, the reason she’d left Warrington for good almost three years ago, trying to get in touch with her now?
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“I can’t do this, Charlie; I’m not the man you want me to be.”
“Then be the man you want to be.”
He’d finally glanced outside of the darkness that had consumed him for so long, and he liked what he saw.