“He used to come into the kitchen when she was cooking and pull her hair. Then he’d take her by the hair into the bathroom or the bedroom. I heard her cry. Even when I put the pillow over my head I still heard her.”
Cam withheld a wince. He’d had his hand in Domini’s hair, no wonder Anton freaked out, it probably flashed him right back to those bad memories.
“He hurt her, my mom.”
Interesting that Anton never said Dad or Rex, only he or him. “I know.”
“If you knew then why didn’t you stop him?” he demanded. “You’re the police! You’re supposed to help people.”
Goddamn if that comment didn’t knock the fight right out of him. “We tried. And I don’t understand either, because I’m sure she didn’t like him hurting her.”
“She didn’t.” Anton kicked a clump of dirt through the bottom of the fence and Gracie whined. “So why was she happy he was coming around again?”
Because that’s how the cycle of abuse works. “I don’t know. When he was with her, was he…pulling her hair and stuff?”
Anton shook his head.
“How long had he been coming around?”
“Since Valentine’s Day when he brought her flowers,” Anton sneered.
So Nadia had lasted a whole two months after Domini moved out before she hooked up with her ex.
“Mom made me go to my room when he came over.”
Cam frowned. Why wouldn’t Rex want anything to do with his son?
Because Rex didn’t need to win Anton over; Rex needed to win Nadia over. And if Rex was ignoring the kid, then in Nadia’s frame of mind, that probably meant Anton was safe. Or if parenting issues with the kid had been a problem before, Rex ignoring Anton would’ve been some sick kind of proof that he’d changed.
Fucked up. But most domestic abuse cases were.
“I hate him.”
His focus snapped back. “Excuse me?”
“I hate him more now because he’s the reason she’s dead.”
“Don’t you get it? If she hadn’t been with him on a stupid date, she’d be alive, I know it.”
Cam understood the logic, he understood the rage. He just didn’t know how to help the kid see the world didn’t work that way. And he sure didn’t tell him that Nadia had been driving.
“It’s his fault!”
He thought Anton was gearing up to let rage fly again, but the boy started crying so hard his narrow shoulders shook. He babbled and snuffled like Cam’d never seen from the surly kid.
A kid Domini claimed had rarely been surly.
Cam didn’t need a detective’s shield to realize something was up. Something that didn’t have a damn thing to do with him and Domini. Something had gone down with his folks. Something big that little Anton had been keeping to himself. Cam put his hand on Anton’s back, unsure what to do, and offered the kid a reassuring pat.
Which was the signal Anton needed to launch himself at Cam.
He buried his face in Cam’s stomach, wrapped his thin arms around his waist and sobbed.
Jesus. Cam’s emotions shifted from fear to resolve back to fear. What if he and Domini didn’t have the skills to help Anton deal with his grief and guilt and abuse issues? Especially when they both had plenty of their own issues to work through?
The sobs abated. Cam pushed the thick blonde hair from Anton’s damp forehead. “So, sport, you wanna tell me what really happened?”
Anton vehemently shook his head. “You’ll think I’m bad.”
“No, I won’t.”
The kid’s internal debate lasted barely fifteen seconds. “When my mom left me at Domini’s, I was mad at her about him. I wouldn’t kiss her goodbye when I got out of the car. I wouldn’t hug her either. And now I’ll never get the chance to hug her or kiss her again! Or tell her I’m sorry and I didn’t mean it!”
Cam’s heart ripped in two. The burden Anton carried was heavy for anyone, but for a confused seven-year-old kid it probably felt like the end of the world. In some ways, it had been the end of his world as he’d known it. No wonder he’d been acting out—he’d been reaching out. “Have you talked to anyone else about what happened? Maybe your teacher?”
“Why not Domini?”
“Because I don’t want her to think I’m bad.”
“But it doesn’t matter if I think you’re bad?”
“You already think I’m bad. You were mad about Gracie. You don’t talk to me unless I say something to hurt Domini’s feelings and then you get mad at me. You think I’m a pig and you get mad at me when your house is a mess.”
Dammit. Cam’s cheeks burned with pure shame. Why did he think the kid wouldn’t notice or care about his distant behavior? Had Domini noticed?
Cam would be wise to remember the only reason Domini had agreed to marry him…was standing right in front of him sobbing his heart out. If Cam couldn’t come to terms with Anton, he’d lose Domini.
You deserve to lose her. You took advantage of her. She never wanted the marriage or you. She just wanted Anton.
“Sorry I hit you and stuff,” Anton said quietly, interrupting Cam’s derisive thoughts. “I thought it was just like before. With him.”
“I know. Apology accepted, okay?”
“Look, sport, maybe I have been ignoring you. It ain’t because I think you’re bad, it’s just…well, I haven’t spent a lot of time with kids.”
“What about Ky?”
“Sure, my brothers and cousins have kids, but bein’ around them for a couple of hours once a month isn’t like living with them. When I was growing up, my dad was either yelling at me or ignoring me. So maybe I thought ignoring you was better than yelling, but now I can see that isn’t any better.”
“What did your dad yell at you about?”
“Mostly about not getting my chores done.”
“Do you really got a fake leg?”
For once Cam didn’t mind the abrupt subject change. “Yep.”
Cam half-expected him to ask to see it.
“There’s a kid at my school that gots a fake arm.” Anton squinted at Cam’s leg. “But he doesn’t hide it. Why do you hide yours?”