Evelyn Johnson is determined to take back her life. The life stolen from her by an abusive husband. The life she’d thought she would have as a teenager, before she met the man of her dreams. The man who quickly became a living nightmare.
She lands a job, enrolls in college and rents an apartment. When she sees a flyer asking for volunteers at the local domestic violence shelter, she doesn’t hesitate.
At first, she finds it difficult seeing herself in the women there. Until she meets Leslie and latches onto her, confident she can help the young woman escape. But when her life starts to unravel and tragedy strikes, Evelyn is left questioning her past, her future and her own strength.
The sequel to Finding Evelyn, Reconstructing Evelyn continues Evelyn’s journey as she works to rebuild her life – one shattered piece at a time.
Read an excerpt
Evelyn glanced at one of the large screen televisions as she slipped through the crowd of hyped-up football fans. Only one quarter to go. Expertly raising the two full beers above her head to avoid a random elbow knocking them from her hands, she weaved her way around the tables. While she normally would be thankful for the extra tips, her only thought was the long night of studying for an algebra exam awaiting her.
It had been over six months since that car had freed her from Lance for good, four since she’d returned to the farm and asked Chris to forgive her for turning him away. He had, and for a while, things had been good. Her days were spent helping Lou around the farm. The regular evening meals at the dinner table had been nice. Nights sitting on the front porch swing, nestled against Chris, lazily swinging, helped calm her spirit.
Lance’s voice, though, was ever present in her head. She wasn’t good enough. She’d never amount to anything. The love he had given had been all she deserved. It wasn’t long before she started looking around the farm and the room that had been her safe haven and saw someone else’s space. A place that could be removed from her if things went south.
It started slowly, just a little flicker of wanting more. The desire to return to the young girl who had gone off to college with big dreams of a bright future. She started with a job, wanting to make money to replenish the nest egg she had squirreled away, thanks to her father-in-law’s check. The one he gave her to buy back his family’s home, left to her when Lance died.
Lou had refused Evelyn’s offer to pay rent or to even help with groceries, but she still had personal items that cost money. She hadn’t spent much, but she had watched the amount in her bank account dwindle, with no money coming in. It scared her, frankly.
She’d been without money before, helpless and stuffing dollar bills into a mattress. The thought of being there again terrified her. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for work in the small, rural town. With her bartender experience, Misty’s Pizza was the closest fit. She’d applied. Chris had put in a good word. And she had been hired. For a short time, getting that paycheck had calmed the restlessness, but it didn’t last long.
She wanted more. She needed more. She wanted to finish what she’d started. It had all happened so quickly, even months later she was reeling. On her own, she had visited the small college in the next town over, expecting there to be a long enrollment process. Instead, she’d walked out of that visit officially a college student again. While on campus, she’d seen a flyer asking for volunteers at the domestic violence shelter.
By the next week, she had gone through the process and was officially volunteering once a week. Both Lou and Chris had been supportive until she’d informed them she also planned to get an apartment near the college. Both had just stared at her–Chris slack-jawed, Lou confused.
“Well now,” Lou had said to break the uncomfortable silence. “That’s that.”
“That is not THAT,” Chris had snapped. “An apartment? Why?”
Evelyn had twisted the napkin in her hand and pushed her plate back. She’d known this conversation was going to be difficult, had gone over it in her mind but found she still wasn’t ready for it. “It’s thirty minutes away and I will have a full load of classes.
“Plus, volunteering at the shelter. That’s a lot of commuting. A lot of time I could be studying. And during the winter, I won’t have to worry as much about driving to school when the roads are bad.”
“Do you plan to keep working at Misty’s?” Chris asked.
She nodded. “For now, anyway.”
“Then you’ll still have to drive there. What’s the difference?”
She’d already thought about that. “It will still be less driving. I don’t work every day, and I don’t have to be there until evening, usually. By that time, the roads should be clear.” It was a thin excuse, even to her ears, but it was all she had.
He was quiet for a moment, his finger tracing the wood grain on the kitchen table. “I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again—you wouldn’t have to work at all if you stayed at the farm.”
Evelyn visibly squirmed in her chair. She didn’t want to tell them the real reason behind her decision, afraid it would hurt them even worse. Afraid it would come out as if they weren’t good enough or the farm wasn’t good enough. While her relationship with Chris had been steadily progressing and the thought of their relationship failing made it hard for her to breathe, she hadn’t thought her relationship with Lance would have turned out the way it did, either.
Worse than the fear of losing Chris, the fear of being back in the situation she had been in, with no options, with nothing belonging to her, scared her more. She needed her own place. Her own space. A safety net. A home that was hers, regardless of her relationship status.
But to admit that meant admitting she didn’t know if she and Chris were ultimately going to work out. Admitting it meant she had plans for an out. Admitting it meant she didn’t completely trust him.
So, she didn’t admit any of it. Instead, she just simply said, “I know.”
He started to speak again, but Lou’s hand slipped onto his forearm. “Well, Evelyn. I hate that. I really do. But your reasons are your reasons. And I respect them.” Chris stewed in his chair as Lou stood up, crossed around the table, and opened her arms. Evelyn stood and embraced her.
“It’s not forever,” Evelyn said. “And I can come here on the weekends or during breaks.” She was facing Lou, but her words were directed at Chris.
“You’d better,” Lou said with a wink, then picked up two plates from the dinner table and disappeared to the kitchen.
Evelyn stared down at Chris, waiting for him to process the information. Finally, with a sigh, he stood up and crossed to her. His hand moved to her cheek, and his lips brushed against hers. Then he cupped her face between his hands. “Is there something else going on here I need to know about?”
She stared into his eyes, and the urge to tell him everything played on the tip of her tongue. But she swallowed it back down, smiled, and shook her head.
“Okay, then,” he said with a shrug. “I guess we’re apartment hunting. I mean, assuming you want me to go with you on that.”
“Yes, I do. That would be nice.”
At the time, she had honestly thought she could handle it all. Now, more than a month into classes, she was struggling. Getting back into the swing of school had been more difficult than she’d thought it would be. Five years out was a long time. She was barely keeping her head above water and still had no idea what major she wanted to declare.
Then there was the shelter. There was a rule that anyone who’d been a victim of domestic violence had to wait a year before volunteering. For some reason, when that question had come up in her interview, she had lied. Flat out, no question about it. As far as she was concerned, her past had nothing to do with her present. She wanted to help. She wanted to give back. That was all that should matter.
At first, it had been difficult to recognize herself in the broken women. Most of her time was spent helping out around the shelter, cleaning, sorting donations, whatever was needed. Because she couldn’t talk about her experiences with them, for fear it would get out, she spent the rest of her time playing board games or watching movies.
Sometimes, they would open up to her and the stories and excuses she heard were often familiar. Some were scared. Some closed off. Some were just waiting for the storm to pass. The desire to connect with them on a personal level was always hovering there. At first, she’d thought it would be enough, but as the weeks wore on and the women revolved in and out of the shelter, most returning to their previous lives, she’d started to wonder if she was doing any good. She had almost decided to quit.
Then came Leslie. Arriving at the shelter with ugly, purple bruises in the shape of fingers around her neck, a black eye nearly swollen shut and a split lip, Leslie had immediately started asking questions about the best way to get out. Though she was afraid to go outside of the shelter, inside she had started making her escape plans with the help of the staff. While Evelyn couldn’t help her with the legal stuff, when Leslie had made the decision to get her GED, Evelyn had jumped on helping her. Sometimes she did so at the expense of her own studies.
She focused on building Leslie up, and if she heard anything remotely close to a consideration of it being easier to go back, she delivered to her reminders of why easier wasn’t better. In short, she latched onto Leslie like a life jacket, determined to help her. She spent more and more time at the shelter, trying to squeeze in an hour here and there before she had to go to work or to class.
This resulted in her being late to work several times. Enough so that at the beginning of the shift, her manager, Bill, had pulled her into the office to discuss it. Never a good sign.
All of that had impacted the amount of time she was spending at the farm. She had just realized, between all of her stuff and Chris’s work schedule, she had only seen him once in the past week.
She was cleaning up an empty table when she felt a presence behind her.
“Hanging in?” She flashed Chris a smile. The first true smile she’d probably given all evening. He was still in his uniform, which reminded her, with a small twinge of guilt, that he was coming off of a double shift.
“You should be home in bed.”
“Headed that way. Just wanted to see you.”
She sighed and glanced over her shoulder as the crowd erupted in cheers. “Just ready for it to be over.”
“Coming over tonight?” he asked, wiggling his eyebrows.
She laughed. “No. I have to study.”
His smile dipped before returning. “You know you can study at the farm, right?”
“Yeah. The wiggling eyebrows say I would be getting a lot of studying done, all right.”
He chuckled. “Touché.”
A mix of cheers and groans sounded behind them. When she turned to look, she saw Bill eyeing her from the office doorway.
“You’d better go. I’m already on thin ice,” she said picking up the bin.
His eyes widened in surprise. “For?”
“Tell you later.”
Chris followed her gaze and waved confidently at Bill, who reluctantly returned it before glaring at Evelyn. “Nice,” Evelyn said, then chuckled. “Go before you get me fired.”
“You think he’d mind if I kissed you?” He moved forward, but she pushed him back.
“Yes. I think he’d mind,” she said. “Go. Get some sleep. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Fine.” His lips pursed into a pout. “Have I told you lately how crazy it is for you to have an apartment when you could stay at the farm?”
“Why, yes, actually. You have.”
“Okay. No more. Tonight anyway,” he said with a grin. “Be careful going back to your apartment, though. Still some slick spots out there. And call me when you get there.”
“You’ll be asleep.”
“Call me anyway.” He cut her off.
At first, it sounded like the normal chaos of the game crowd until the sound of glass shattering pierced through the chatter. Patrons scrambled off their stools, some moving away, others moving toward two men circling each other with their fists raised.
“Let’s go! Right here!” one of the men shouted.
Before she could get a good look at them, Chris’s back was blocking her view. One arm snaked protectively behind his back and around her upper body, the other rested on the butt of his gun. Then he was striding confidently through the crowd and between the two men.
From his backroom office, Bill rushed into the crowd. The bartender, Robert, scrambled over the bar, pushing customers out of the way as he slid across. All three of the men converged on the fight, Bill moving behind one of the men, Robert moving behind the other, and Chris stepping in between them.
His arms outstretched, palms out as a barrier, Chris yelled at them. “Hey!” When one of the men moved, he shouted louder. “Hey!” Chris pointed at him. “Harold! Do you want me to take you to jail? Do you?!”
Evelyn got a closer look as the crowd parted. The man Chris had identified as Harold looked familiar. He’d been in the pizza shop before. The slight sway of his body indicated he was drunk. A shadow of a growing beard adorned his face and she could see a tuft of greasy hair sticking out from under a ball cap, a match to the jersey he was wearing. The other man was unfamiliar to her. Since Chris hadn’t called him by name, Evelyn assumed he didn’t know the man either. He was dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, and there was no sway to his stance. The way he was squared up, Evelyn’s bet was on him should a fight break out.
Harold took a step back at Chris’s threat, wobbling as he dropped his fists to the side. The other man, realizing the moment was over, followed suit.
“No need in that, Chris,” Harold slurred. “We were just playin’ ‘round. Ain’t that right man? Hey! Hey!” Evelyn followed his gaze to a woman pressed up against the back wall, her eyes wide. “Sorry about that! Didn’t know you was taken! See, Chris. All good, man, all good.”
The moment over, the black t-shirt guy walked back to his table, picked up the overturned stool, and sat down. The woman moved next to him, her arms slipping around his bicep and hugging it to her chest while she warily moved to put her date in between herself and Harold. He kissed her forehead and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and grabbed her purse. Hand-in-hand, they strode past Evelyn to the exit.
“Got it, man. Got it,” Harold slurred loudly in response to whatever Chris was whispering to him. “No problem here.” Then he disappeared into the crowd.
Chris spoke to Bill and patted him on the shoulder. Robert shook Chris’s hand, then hopped back over the bar and went to work. Bill disappeared into the crowd toward Harold.
Evelyn realized she hadn’t moved when Chris finally made his way through the restaurant back to her.
“You okay?” he asked.
She nodded, shifting the weight of the bin to her other hip.
“Who is that guy?”
“Harold. Okay guy, when he’s sober. Complete ass when he’s drunk,” Chris said. “We go way back. Maybe I should hang out here until the game’s over.” Two deep lines formed on his forehead. Worry lines, Lou had called them.
“No, you don’t. You need to go home and go to bed. It’ll be fine. And, if it isn’t, Richard will take care of it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Go home anyway,” she said, cutting him off with a smile.
“Okay, okay.” He raised his arms in mock surrender. “But you call me if there are any problems.”
“Will do.” She glanced around, saw the coast was clear, and pecked him on the lips. As she turned away, his hand wrapped around her waist and pulled her back to him. When his lips landed on hers and his tongue parted her lips, she almost forgot she was at work as a shiver radiated through her body.
And then his lips were gone. There was a quick kiss on her cheek, a chuckle, and he was walking out the door, leaving her to collect herself. Cheers erupted behind her, snapping her back to the present, and she turned to head back to the kitchen.
The fight was apparently forgotten; all eyes were on the televisions. She glanced up. Twenty seconds left on the clock. She’d check with her tables after dropping the bin and make sure they were planning to stay longer than the game.
Missy was stepping away from the bar carrying a tray full of beers as Evelyn walked by. “Oh hey!” Missy chirped in the fake, bubbly way that made Evelyn want to stab her with a fork. “These are for your table. I took care of it while you were talking.”
“Thanks,” Evelyn mumbled, knowing there would be no offer to swap out loads.
“Just helping a coworker out!”
Evelyn clenched the bussing bin and continued to the backroom. It wasn’t that Missy had waited on her table. Had it been anyone else, Evelyn would have been genuinely grateful and probably would have slipped that person some of her tips. She had learned the hard way, however, that Missy did nothing out of the goodness of her heart.
When Evelyn had been hired, given their first meeting the week she had been at the farm when she had pretended to be Chris’s girlfriend, she’d expected Missy to give her the cold shoulder. That wasn’t the case, though. Instead, Missy had been nothing but welcoming. Even taking Evelyn under her wing to show her the ropes. It had been weeks before Evelyn had realized it was all a ploy, and Missy was systematically undermining her to Bill behind her back. The last thing she needed now was another reason to be pulled into the office.
With a sigh, Evelyn dropped the bin of dishes off at the sink and picked up an empty tray. From the dining area, a roar of mixed boos and cheers signaled the end of the game. And more importantly, a closer end to Evelyn’s shift. As she opened the door, she was forced to wait as tables of fans began their exits, picking up their belongings, giving hugs and high fives.
She eyed her tables. Only one group wasn’t preparing to leave. The same group Missy had delivered drinks to. And where there had only been two men and a woman the entire evening, now there was a fourth. Harold was now seated at the table, his hands flailing around as he talked. For just a moment, she considered offering the table to Missy. But the call of possible tips was too strong. Straightening her apron, she made her way toward them.
“You saw that, right? I’d a wiped the floor with that guy had the pigs not showed up,” Harold bellowed. He took a long swig of his beer, watching Evelyn from the corner of his eye as she stepped up to the table.
“Hey, ya’ll. Last call. Can I get you anything else?”
Harold turned to her, his eyes glazed from too much alcohol and unreleased adrenaline. He grinned a sideways grin and looked her up and down. “Too late, honey. That girl over there got us already. Guess she’ll be getting your tips tonight.” He howled at his own joke.
Her original customers shared a look, and then one man shook his head at her, while the woman mouthed, “Sorry.”
Evelyn smiled to let them know it was okay. “Care if I go ahead and clear off the table?”
They all leaned back a little to give her room. Everyone except Harold. Moving around him, she reached across the table and started to pull empty beer bottles.
“Guess you’ll have to move faster next time, honey!” The force of his slap on her butt cheek sent her into the table, his hand leaving a stinging sensation on the soft flesh. She spun to the side, grasping the tray with both hands and planted it hard into his chest. His boisterous laugh cut off as he fell backward, arms flapping, his body leaning forward. For a moment, Evelyn thought he would regain his balance. But then he reached for the table and grabbed hold. Her other customers grabbed their unfinished beers and leaned back just as the table toppled onto him, along with its contents. His own beer, which he’d been clutching when he fell, soaked his chest.
The jovial exit of the crowd stopped at the sound of Harold and the table’s contents hitting the floor. At first, all eyes were on him. Then they shifted to her. Her reaction had been just that—a reaction. It wasn’t until she looked around at the crowd and saw several eyes looking above her head that she realized she was holding her tray there, ready to strike Harold, if needed.
“Evelyn!” Bill rushed past her to Harold, who was now thrashing around in the mess and trying to stand. He leaned sideways and fell back to the floor. Bill reached down to grab his arm, but Harold pushed him away.
Furious eyes connected with hers. “I will kick your ass woman!” The anger radiating from his voice as he yelled sent shivers up her spine. As she stepped backward, her heel kicked an empty beer bottle. She reached down, picked up the beer bottle, and held it back like a club, locking eyes with him. She was vaguely aware that her customers, who had been sitting quietly on their stools, were now scrambling to get out of the way.
Harold looked at her, then at the beer bottle. His eyes widened, then he scrambled to his feet, swaying and stumbling to the side and into another table, before rebounding and slipping to the other side. Bill’s eyes zoned in on the weapon now gripped firmly in her hand, the tray held like a shield.
“You’d better hope you’re ready to use that!” Harold screamed as he continued his zig-zag approach toward her.
Setting her feet, she didn’t budge. Not only did she find she was prepared to use the bottle on him, she was looking forward to it as Harold’s face morphed into Lance’s. Her heart pounded as he stumbled closer, the grip on the beer bottle tightening until her fingers ached.
Bill stepped in between them, holding Harold back and looking over his shoulder at Evelyn. “Evelyn. Go,” he said, but she didn’t move. Bill had to push into Harold’s chest to stop his advance.
Two muscular arms swiftly encircled her, pinning her arms to her side, and her feet left the ground. She glanced over her shoulder to find the set jawline of Robert. The beer bottle and tray clattered to the floor as he carried her out.
“Evelyn! You’re fired! Get her out of here, Robert!” was the last thing she heard from Bill as Robert carried her to the backroom.
In the back, he deposited her gently on her feet and shook his head. “It’s been nice working with you, Evelyn.” He gave her a friendly pat on the back, then disappeared back to the dining area.
Quickly gathering her things from her locker, Evelyn walked out of the back door and toward her car. The adrenaline coursing through her body seeped out and her hands trembled as she pushed the unlock button on her keyring, opened the door, and climbed in.
Alone, she sat in the driver’s seat, tears springing from her eyes, and waited for the shaking to subside before starting her car. Her first thought was to head to the farm after all, but as she pulled up to the street and turned her wheel to the right, she stopped.
Chris had technically gotten her that job. She didn’t know what he’d had to tell them to get her hired, but she knew of others who’d had applications in long before her. He had gone out of his way to help her, and she had repaid him by making a mess of things. She had assaulted the man. What if he’d hit his head when he fell and been seriously injured? What if someone had called the police? What if the guy pressed charges? Chris would be in the middle.
And yet, there was a part of her that was proud of her reaction. That man would think twice before putting his hands on another woman. She had no idea if she would have gone through with hitting him with that beer bottle. Whether it would have stopped him was a whole other scenario. What could have happened would be the first thing Chris commented on; that much she knew. It would be out of concern for her.
Over the past months, she had learned that Chris losing his wife to a mugger had left lasting scars that went far past the pain of that loss. He was always on guard when they were together in public, especially at night and he was the first to point out how something could go or could have gone wrong.
And then there was the algebra exam. She needed to study. She’d been struggling in that class, and the exam was twenty-five percent of her grade. She couldn’t afford to fail it.
Her gripped hands slid back and forth on the wheel. She looked to the right, down the road that would take her to the farm, then to the left, the road that would take her back to her apartment. With a deep breath, she flipped the blinker and pulled out onto the darkened road.