Zack didn’t know where he was going and didn’t care. All he knew was that he needed to get as far from Ryan Hayes as possible. The things that man did to him…his scent, his touch, even those damn gorgeous eyes penetrated every barrier he’d erected. It scared him shitless that he could fall for someone so easily, who looked like the devil himself.
He swiped at the tears falling from his eyes with trembling hands, but more tears kept his vision blurred. Blinking rapidly, Zack started running at a full-out sprint. It felt good to run. He felt freer at that moment than he had in years, as his heart raced, shoving oxygen into his body and his lungs, exhaling it just as forcibly.
Soon his chest began to ache and his legs burned as the muscles working as one were pushed beyond its limits. It wasn’t until he reached a bench in the center of a park did he ungracefully collapse, allowing his body to rightfully scream its anger at its abuse.
Luckily the park was mostly deserted, it being a weekday and most of the Alameda’s population was either in school or working. Zack’s head fell into his shaky hands, shoulders bobbing from the deep sobs finally surfacing. He finally relented, letting out years of regret, resentment, and humiliation as his soul began its cleansing.
Zack didn’t know how long he sat there and cried. It could have been a minute, an hour, or even a day. To him, time seemed to have stopped. His body jerked in defense and a whimper escaped when an arm wrapped around his shoulder.
“Zack, it’s okay.” Charlie’s voice was calm and smooth. “It’s just me.” His arm stayed in place.
Embarrassment flushed his cheeks, though Zack doubted it could be seen over the red of exertion his run had caused. Still he was mortified to have Charlie find him such a wreck. He squeezed his eyes, willing the spout of tears to dry up, but found it difficult now that it had been opened.
Zack didn’t want to look at Charlie. He didn’t want to see the pity in his friend’s eyes. But was he going to be a coward the rest of his life? Charlie had seen him at his best and worst. Charlie, like Maria, knew all of his shortcomings and still was his friend.
Slowly Zack opened his eyes and lifted his head. Only then did Charlie remove his embrace.
“Are you alright?”
There was no pity in Charlie’s eyes. Only concern…and compassion. Much like a set of eyes he’d been gazing into earlier.
“Zack? Talk to me, buddy. You’re really scaring me.”
“How…” his voice was harsh and dry. He swallowed and cleared his throat. “How’d you know I was here?”
Charlie’s expression hardened. “Hayes called. Ryan, that is. He said that you left his place pretty upset.” He shook his head. “What in the world were you thinking, Zack? What made you go over there? The last thing you need is to be involved with anymore Hayes.”
Zack let out a tired sigh. “Don’t you think I know that?” He squeezed his eyes shut and grimaced as he straightened out his legs. Amazingly, he could still feel the heat from Ryan’s lips upon his own. He could still taste the other man in his mouth. Could still smell that deep masculine scent on him. And hated that he wanted more.
Prying his eyes open, hoping to soften his senses and the permanently embedded memory of how Ryan felt pressed against him, and met Charlie’s stare. “I went for a walk and ended up there. I don’t know why. I just needed to see him.”
“What did he do to upset you? If he threatened you or touched…”
“No!” Zack interrupted. “It wasn’t him. It was me. God!” He ran a hand through his hair, sweeping the damp strands from his face. “We were,” Zack paused. Shit, he couldn’t tell Charlie that they were making out. He’d kill Ryan for sure. Looking down at the grass, he tried to fix his near mistake. “We were just talking. He’d cut himself and I bandaged it. But then I started to panic and I ran. I couldn’t help it.”
Charlie’s hand lay on Zack’s shoulder comfortingly. “You still shouldn’t have gone over there. Especially by yourself.”
Zack nodded, knowing he was right. Charlie cursed beneath his breath.
“Don’t blame Ryan. Don’t retaliate against him for my panic. It’s not his fault I got upset.” He lifted his gaze. “Ryan is a good guy. As much as our initial instincts tell us different, he’s not like Rob. You have to believe me, Charlie. Where Rob is dark, Ryan is light. Where Rob is hateful and selfish, Ryan is kind and helpful.” Damn, Zack knew he was going too far, but like the tears he had trouble curbing, the same was for his words.
Charlie’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t know him that well, Zack. How can you say that about him?”
Zack’s heart fluttered and his stomach churned. He tried to be nonchalant in his shrug, not wanting Charlie to find out that he held a higher esteem of Ryan than he logically should. “I just do.”
“It could all be an act. Have you thought of that? Rob seduced you also with kindness at the beginning also. Then, once he got his hooks into you, he showed his true colors. Or have you already forgotten that?”
Zack stood abruptly, shaking off Charlie’s hand. He held out his casted arm. “I haven’t forgotten a single, damn thing that man did to me,” he said through clenched teeth.
Charlie stood. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“Yes you did.” Then Zack let out a defeated sigh, his shoulders slumping, his legs trembling.
“Charlie. I remember all the shit Rob put me through. I remember it whether it’s every time I look in the mirror or not. And yeah, I shouldn’t even think about anything that has to do with Ryan Hayes. But there’s something about him. He’s different than his brother. He’s…I don’t know.” He’s known pain, the same gut-wrenching, heart shattering pain as I have, he thought, but wouldn’t voice.
“Zack,” Charlie sighed and closed his eyes.
“If you can’t trust me, how can I ever trust myself? If I even want to think about getting on with my life, I have to figure out how to do that. And I need the support of my friends.”
“I don’t like you getting involved with Ryan.”
“I know. But I promise you that I won’t let what happened with Rob ever happen again. I’m breaking the cycle. And I promise to go to you and Maria if I need help.”
Charlie stared at him for several breaths before he nodded. “Come on. I’ll take you home before Maria starts to fret about you.”
Zack followed Charlie to his car feeling less burdened than he had since the abuse from Rob started. He was drawn to Ryan. Attracted to the man who looked so much like the monster he hated with all of his being. But right then, in that park, Zack vowed to himself that he would never fall victim to abuse again. He would take a stand and know he had loved ones to back him up and support him. He just wished he’d realized it and done something about it sooner.