Series: Shelter Sisters #2
Published by: Jelly Bean Press Co
Release Date: March 3, 2020
Contributors: Heather Tullis
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Love is not on Sheila’s side. She isn’t sure if she just has terrible taste in men, or if she actually changes nice guys into total jerks, but she’s done with romance. Her resolve hasn’t been challenged for the past three years—but that was before she met Ethan Wolf. Still, if she can focus on building her decorative metal pieces, maybe she can work him out of her system.
Ethan’s time as an Army paratrooper is nearly over and he’s been looking for a place to settle down and start his security company. He was attracted to Sheila from the first time they met, but respects her clear hands-off signals despite his increasing attraction.
Intrigued by the single mother, he’s glad when she takes him up on the offer to help her with a large project for the building she and her five friends are renovating. Sheila finds herself softening as she gets to know Ethan better, but just as she starts to think there might be a man out there for her after all, her abusive ex-boyfriend tracks her down.
It’s going to take all of their ingenuity to figure out what he wants before someone pays with their life.
Also in this series:
Sheila crouched, huddled facing the corner, covering her head with her hands. Rod slammed his fist into her back again, causing pain to explode through her torso—was that a kidney?—and kicked her in the hip. She ached all over. He had probably only been hitting and kicking her for two or three minutes, but it seemed much longer.
“Maybe next time you’ll remember, I don’t like it when you ask questions—how many times do I have to tell you? Now, clean this place before you leave. It’s a sty.”
Afraid he might change his mind, she whispered out, “Of course. I’ll take care of it.”
His footsteps pounded across the floor and the front door opened and closed. A moment later his truck engine roared to life. When the engine’s grumble was long gone, Sheila stood, gingerly, feeling every blow he had rained down on her. This had been mild compared to the beatings her mom had endured from her second husband. She wiped at the tears on her face, careful of her split lip.
One thing was for sure. Sheila wasn’t going to stay around to be anyone’s punching bag. She’d seen her mom live with the beatings week after week, month after month, believing Lenny when he said he’d stop if she were a better wife. Sheila’s sister followed in their mother’s footsteps and had taken the abuse for three years before a miscarriage forced her to make a different choice.
Her brother, Garrett, seemed to have equally bad luck with women, though in a different way.
Sheila may have terrible taste in men, but she wasn’t stupid enough to stay where Rod could hurt her again. Her muscles screamed as she turned to look around the room. He had made a mess of the place in his rage, knocking dishes off the counter, the lamp from the end table, and shoving her against the shelves. She said she’d clean it, but she’d lied.
Sheila grabbed her purse, then noticed a couple of her books, a sweater, and some other miscellaneous items of hers. She located a plastic grocery bag and stuffed her belongings inside, picking around the debris to make sure she got it all. She added some toys she had brought along for her daughter Chelsea, and, on impulse, grabbed the ragged Furby of Rod’s that Chelsea loved so much. Lately he had refused to let her play with it, but he’d left it on the living room shelf as if to taunt her.
Limping out of the apartment, Sheila headed for her tired, blue Ford Escort. She was pretty sure nothing was broken, but she’d be in pain for a while.
In the past, Rod had yelled a few times, even threw something once or twice, but he’d never hurt her—looking back, she should have seen it coming.
How could she have been such an idiot to keep dating him? As she drove home, she thought about the way he had treated her, the small indications that he considered her more of a possession than a partner.
He’d come looking for her if she stayed in LA. She couldn’t stay.
She parked in the back lot of her crummy apartment building—the most recent in a long line of crummy apartments she had lived in for her whole life.
Sheila looked around the room at the faded paint and watermarked ceiling. She had wanted a better life than this for her daughter. Maybe this was the first step. She didn’t have much furniture; it was second, third, or even fifth-hand. At least leaving it behind wouldn’t hurt much.
Having Chelsea in all-day kindergarten had been a real blessing, especially now when it meant Sheila could pack without distractions. Ninety minutes until she picked up her daughter from school, and she wasn’t coming back. Rod should work until the pawn shop closed at six, but he was the boss, so he could go home to check on her if he wanted. As she worked, an underlying fear pushed her, worried her that he might burst through her door at any second.
Sheila froze halfway through packing her kitchen when someone knocked at the door. A moment later Nesta, the fifty-something woman who often watched Chelsea at night, spoke through the wood. “Sheila, I know you’re there. I can hear you moving around.”
Relieved, Sheila opened and hurried the woman in.
“What happened to you?” Nesta gingerly took Sheila’s chin and turned her face for a better look.
Belatedly, Sheila remembered the bruises growing on her face. “Rod. You always told me this would happen. I’m leaving. I can’t stay or he’ll come looking for me.”
Nesta’s eyes widened with concern. “Oh dear. Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. Vegas?” She hadn’t considered a location, but Vegas wouldn’t be far enough. Texas was more like it. Or possibly Maine. Though she was being ridiculous, Sheila couldn’t help wanting to get as much of the country between them as possible.
“I hate to lose you, but let me help.” Nesta hurried back to her own place and returned with three boxes and a wad of shopping bags. They packed quickly and carefully, making sure they only packed the most important things.
When it was time to pick up Chelsea, Sheila had almost finished packing the things she cared about. She still had to load the car. “I just need twenty more minutes.”
“I’ll go get Chelsea, that will give you time to load. Promise me you’ll stay in touch.”
“Of course, you have my…number.” On the phone that belonged to Rod. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, letting him add her line to his plan, saving her a bundle. However, he’d used the fact that he was paying for the phone to track her location before. “Actually, I have to leave the phone here. It’s Rod’s. I’ll write down your number before I go. I’ll call when I get a new phone. Anything I leave behind that you can use is yours.”
Nesta pulled her into a careful hug, mindful of the bruises. “It breaks my heart to lose you.”
Sheila hugged her back. “Me too.”
“I’ll go get Chelsea. I might as well take a load with me to the parking lot.” They both took as many bags as they could to the car and Sheila stacked it all into the front passenger side. She re-locked the car and headed back for more. When she packed in the last few bags, she wondered if Chelsea would have room to shift her feet. She didn’t have much cash, though, and they wouldn’t be able to replace anything for a while.
She found a notepad and copied the important numbers from her contacts list before making her calls. First to the school to tell them Chelsea wouldn’t be coming back—refusing to listen when they said that she needed to come in and officially withdraw her from classes. Next, she phoned her boss to tell him she wasn’t returning to work at the call center. She was leaving a message for the landlord when Nesta returned with Chelsea.
Nesta parked a few spots away and Chelsea bounced out with her backpack, grinning and ready to chatter about her day.
“Hey there sweetie!” Sheila wrapped her in a hug, glad she had taken a few minutes to use cover stick on the bruise that was rising on her cheek.
“Mom, what happened.” Chelsea pointed to her fat lip.
“I’m a klutz, ran into a door.” That phrase was practically code for “got beaten up by someone,” but her daughter was too young to realize it.
Chelsea looked over her shoulder at the car. “What’s all that stuff?”
“We’re taking a trip.” Sheila passed the phone and keys to Nesta. “Drop these in the manager’s box, will you? And if Rod asks you, tell him you were away and don’t know anything.”
Nesta hugged her one last time. “I’m going to miss you, honey. Both of you. Take care of yourselves, and good luck.”
“I will. Thanks so much. You’ve been a lifesaver. Seriously.” Sheila managed to keep the tears at bay, but she knew it wouldn’t last for long. “Chelsea, give Ms. Holmes a hug goodbye and tell her thanks for picking you up.”
“Bye,” Chelsea said, hugging Nesta. “See you when we get back.”
Nesta and Sheila looked at each other; they knew they’d probably never see each other again.
“Sure, honey. You listen to your mom.”
“I will!” Chelsea bounced into the back and Sheila settled her in the booster seat with the snack she had set aside for after school. She wanted to get to Vegas before they stopped for dinner—with any luck they’d be out of the city before the traffic got too crazy.
“Where are we going, Mom?” Chelsea asked as Sheila put the car into drive.
“It’s a surprise.” Even to me.
They pulled around the building and onto the road. Chelsea tapped on the window glass next to her. “Hey, there’s Rod.”
Sheila glanced back and saw Rod walking into her apartment building and let out a breath of relief. She turned right at the next corner and put as much distance between herself and her life in LA as possible.
Three years later.
Sheila watched as everyone congratulated Meena and Kaleb on their engagement, surrounded by red and pink hearts and streamers for their group Valentine’s Day party. It was an appropriate setting for an engagement.
She couldn’t help thinking about how much her life had changed since she’d run from LA. She’d been alone—she and Chelsea and the baby she hadn’t known she was carrying yet. They drove almost non-stop for two days before pulling into the small town of Crystal Creek just north of Kansas City, looking for somewhere to stay for the night. And then she’d realized she’d left her wallet on top of her car at the last gas stop and had no money for a hotel.
Officer Lisa Weight—who was now her sister-in-law—knocked on the car window in the school parking lot where Sheila had pulled over to sleep for a little while. Lisa had helped her and Chelsea move into the local women and children’s shelter. That’s where she’d met these five women, her sisters, who were as much family members to her as her brother who’d moved to the area after Sheila had decided to stay.
The six women had helped each other through the months in the shelter and continued to collaborate after they moved out on their own. Sort of. Andrea, who, along with her son Bobby, had been Sheila’s roommate for most of the past two years, sidled over and wrapped an arm around Sheila’s shoulder. “Can you believe it?” Her nearly black eyes sparkled against her brown skin and tight afro curls.
“He seems nice enough.” Not like any of the abusers or deadbeats she’d known, though it had taken the past six weeks for her to be sure of that.
She still wasn’t certain about Kaleb’s two Army buddies, Ethan and Nash, who were also at the party.
“Come on, girl. You know he’s just right for her. We wouldn’t have her without him.”
The thought of Meena in that psycho’s hands made Sheila’s skin crawl. They’d had a real scare that day when Meena had disappeared, but the three men brought her home, and that was all that mattered. She’d try to keep that in mind as she dealt with them.
“Cupcakes, ladies?” Nash asked, holding one in each hand. His muscles bunched in the regulation Army uniform that the guys wore for a day at work on base at Leavenworth. His dark hair and eyes made her guess he was at least half Latino, though his name indicated otherwise.
“Thanks. How much do I owe you?” Andrea asked since she’d been the one to order them, but Nash picked them up.
“On the house this time.”
“Thanks. And for helping bring Meena back. You have no idea…” Andrea sucked in a shaky breath.
Sheila understood—the memory of wondering if Meena was alive or dead after being abducted by her stalker still lingered in her mind despite her relief.
“You’re welcome. Ethan and I, we’d do anything for Kaleb. Like the way you women feel about each other. He got me through some rough times.” Nash’s normally cocky attitude had toned down a few notches tonight.
“It looks like we’re not getting rid of any of you anytime soon.” Sheila would have to think about that. She looked across the room to Ethan, the other man who could easily burst out of his shirt thanks to his very nice muscles. He met her gaze and his intense brown eyes seemed to see right through her. He always made her nervous—not in a bad way like other men did when they paid too much attention to her—but in a good way which made her equally nervous. Attraction fluttered between them from their first meeting, but she was not planning to date again. Possibly ever. It was fine for Meena and Andrea to look for love again. They were both widows and had done well enough the first time around.
Sheila had never been interested in anyone who wasn’t serious trouble—even the guys who seemed nice at first ended up being a big mistake. So, she’d abstain from relationships, because the last thing she needed was to complicate her life further with a man.
She just had to remind herself of that when Ethan looked at her with his curious expression. As if she were a riddle to figure out, or a computer code he couldn’t quite unravel.
Sheila turned her attention toward Chelsea and her son Parker—her two reasons for living. Chelsea was unwrapping a cupcake for her younger brother, “accidentally” getting a large dollop of frosting on her finger as she handed it to him. This “forced” her to lick it off. The girl was addicted to sugar.
Parker didn’t seem to notice the pilfered frosting, so Sheila let it go. Tonight, after everything else that had happened, she wouldn’t make an issue out of it.
After thirty minutes, Sheila herded her kids across the drab hallway to their apartment to settle in for the night. The party had run later than expected and dealing with cranky children in the morning was not on her to-do list.
The other women followed soon and through her open door, Sheila heard Ethan telling someone goodbye in the hall. She came out of the kids’ room to find Ethan standing just outside her doorway, which stood open as usual when she was around and awake. Since the six women had won the lottery together the previous summer, they had purchased an old, abandoned apartment building. The six of them were the only ones living on the second floor so there were no strangers to worry about in the hallway.
“Did they settle in okay?” he asked in his soft Texas drawl.
“For now; we’ll see how long they stay in bed.”
He hooked his thumbs in his back pockets. “It must be hard.”
Even with the other women helping with childcare, it was overwhelming most of the time. “Sometimes. But they’re worth it.” She had crummy taste in men, but at least she got two amazing kids out of it. But surely that wasn’t why he came to talk to her. “Can I help you?”
“Actually, it’s the other way around. I hear you’ll be installing the stair rail soon. I wondered if you could use an extra pair of hands to fetch and carry and hold things upright while you connect the pieces.”
That intrigued her, mostly because he offered himself as the grunt instead of insinuating that she couldn’t handle the tools herself. “I may need a fetch-and-carry person. I’ll keep you in mind.”
“So, you’ll be thinking of me. I can’t ask for more than that.” He held out a business card though he didn’t step through the doorway into her apartment.
Grateful that he was respecting her private space, she crossed over to him and took it. The ivory card was one of Meena’s but his name and number were scrawled across the back of it.
“Call me if you decide you need a hand. Really. Since we work twelve-hour shifts at the prison, I have a lot of free days. I think what you’re doing here is amazing, and I’d love to help with it.”
A spot around her heart went a little gooey, but she tried not to show it. “Thanks.”
“Goodnight.” He turned and headed down the hall.
“Goodnight.” She glanced at the card again before turning to set it on her kitchen counter. Her first thought had been to throw it out, but that seemed unnecessarily rude. Of course, she wouldn’t call. No way. Though she appreciated that he had offered, she absolutely would not call.
Sheila opened her email and checked for any orders, printing two packing slips for the next day’s shipping, and responding to a customer who had requested that she submit a bid for a special order. She’d check again the next morning after Chelsea and the other girls went to school, but was pleased with the orders. Since she’d been spending most of her time making the stair railing, she hadn’t been able to create as many products for sale as the other women.
“Knock, knock.” Andrea’s voice came from the doorway behind her and Sheila turned to smile, noticing the baby monitor clipped to Andrea’s belt. “Did you get yours settled?”
“Yeah, he dropped like a stone once he was horizontal. How about yours?”
“I haven’t heard a peep. Must be a sugar coma.”
Andrea sat on the sofa with a plop. “It’s been some day.”
“That’s for sure. Could’ve been worse.”
“You know that’s true.”
Sheila took the chair across from her and her gaze flicked above the sofa to the stained-glass-style painting Comfrey made for her the previous summer. It was the only decoration she’d bothered to hang when they moved into the building at the first of the year. “Spontaneous,” she read. “I should have picked something more reasonable like ‘stick-in-the-mud’ or ‘Curmudgeon’ for my power word.”
“Whatever. We both know there’s a spontaneous soul buried inside you just waiting to come out.”
“Yeah, spontaneity hasn’t exactly been a great choice in the past—I’ve made some crazy decisions on the spur.” And yet, when Comfrey had urged her life-skills class to pick a power word—something they wanted to become—Sheila had chosen this one.
“And you packed your stuff and moved here on the spur of the moment—one very smart decision.”
“I can’t argue with that.” Still, one good decision in a lifetime of stupid ones was not a fantastic track record. Then again, dating Rod hadn’t been a spontaneous act, but something that she’d moved into after he flirted with her for a while.
“Look. You chose spontaneous as your word because you didn’t want to be afraid to get out there and do things for fun. You were restricting yourself too much. Just because you don’t plan first doesn’t mean what you’re doing is risky. But even when it is, sometimes you have to do it anyway. Take a chance.”
“Well, living with you was taking a chance and look how that worked out.” Sheila shot Andrea a sideways glance.
“You know you love me.”
“I do.” She would never have survived the past two years without Andrea, especially when Parker was a newborn.
“Do you have any packages for tomorrow?” Andrea gestured to the sales dashboard showing on Sheila’s computer.
“Yeah, and a bid request from a former customer. You?”
“Yes, I sold several prints plus a framed image I’ve had listed for months and was about to give up on. I know Meena needs to ship some earrings. If you’ll watch Bobby, I’ll do the postal run tomorrow.”
“Sounds perfect. They’ll be ready by ten.”
“Okay, I’m going to bed. Kaleb was headed upstairs when I came over here so it’s just us women again.”
“I wonder when they’ll get married.” Right now, Kaleb lived on the third floor, giving the women more privacy, but still close enough to help with security if they needed it. They had only moved into the building in January after some work had been done to make it habitable. Since it had been abandoned for a long while, it had needed a new roof and windows before the city would let them move in. These apartments on the second and third floors were only temporary while they renovated the top three floors for their permanent homes. They were also converting the first floor into office, retail, a garage, and an indoor pool.
“Meena’s thinking the wedding would be best after we move into our new places upstairs, so we’ve got a while. We’ll see what they decide.”
“September or October, then.”
“Oh, I hope so. I’m still holding out for the August thirtieth move in.” Andrea sighed.
“Dierdre told you not to trust the contractors when they said that.”
“I live for disappointment.” Andrea patted Sheila’s knee, stood, and headed for the door. “Have a good night.”
Sheila sat for a long while after Andrea left. She had chosen spontaneous as her power word for a reason. Being a stick-in-the-mud wasn’t much fun. She remembered back when she was a child, before her mom remarried, she’d been up for anything and full of ideas. Living with a step-father who wanted everything his own way, and believed violence was an appropriate avenue to get what he wanted, had snuffed that out of her. Maybe it had been the hope of a simpler, more joyful life, like her childhood. Maybe it was the hope of creating wonder and excitement for her kids. Or maybe she was fooling herself into thinking she could remake herself into something new.
Who was she kidding?
She shut the door to the hall, putting that thought out of her mind.