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The Strong One
A Plus One Parties Novel
By Stella Hunter
David Nobel has lusted over his sister’s friend Megan Scott since high school. Back then, she rejected the advances of the scrawny boy that he was. Now, he is a popular personal trainer and self-defense coach, which he credits to all the time spent in the gym after that fateful rejection. When David finds a scared, scarred Megan hiding out from her brutal ex-husband at his sister’s house, he must find a way to convince her just how strong she truly is—before his sister, Bethany, and her family get caught in the crossfire.
As David teaches Megan self-defense, his long-forgotten feelings return in force. The long sessions of close contact teach them both how to trust again. As Megan slowly takes back her life, David is left wondering if she’ll find any room in it for him.
With Megan’s ex-husband stalking her every move, David must show her that love is not a weakness, it is what makes her strong.
David let himself into his sister’s house, already planning what he and his niece and nephew could do for the night. He grinned at the thought of watching Allysa’s favorite princess movie and singing all the songs. He knew it was quite a contrast he presented—a grown man wearing a tiara and prancing around. Allysa would carefully instruct him whenever he did something wrong, giggling all the while. She was five. Two-year-old Lance wouldn’t care what they did.
“Hey, sis,” he called as he walked in the door.
Heading to the stairs and the kids’ rooms, he passed the living room where he saw his sister, Bethany.
“Oh, hey,” he said, stopping in the entryway. “I was looking for you. Are you ready to leave already?” It took him a few seconds to notice someone else in the room with her. The woman’s head was lowered and her brunette hair was swept forward covering most of her face. Still, David felt a sense of familiarity. He just couldn’t place the woman.
“Uh, sorry. I didn’t know you had company. I’ll just…” He pointed to the stairs, indicating he would go see the kids.
“David, I’m sorry.” Bethany put a hand to her forehead. David recognized her tell for being under stress and wondered what could have brought it on. Bethany handled stress better than any person he knew. He always figured it was a survival mechanism she learned from being in PR and dealing with the messes left behind by the celebrities and companies who were her clients. She continued, “I completely forgot to call and cancel.”
The other woman looked up then, seemingly agitated that she was causing them to change plans. “I’m, I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I didn’t mean to cause you trouble.”
David blinked at seeing the darkest chocolate-brown eyes he had ever seen, and his heart did one double beat in his chest. Those eyes. They reminded him. But no, he thought. It couldn’t be her.
Bethany put a gentle hand on the woman’s arm before she could rise from her seat. “You are not causing us any trouble.” She turned back to David. “David, don’t you remember Megan? Megan Scott?”
“Megan?” he repeated stupidly. It was her. He couldn’t believe it. It had been…he did a quick calculation in his head…nine, ten years since he had last seen her.
She met his eyes briefly before dropping them back to her hands in her lap. “Hey, David.”
It took him another heartbeat, but his game face fell into place just like it used to around her. He let a cocky smile spread on his face and started toward her with plans to envelope her in a hug. “Where you been all these years? I thought you must have run off with a billionaire and were too busy enjoying the good life to come see your old friends!”
Bethany stopped his advance with a look and a hand up. Okay, he thought, something was wrong. This was how he’d always acted with Megan. He didn’t know any other way to be. It had always been his way of coping. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to handle his teenage emotions at the time. He let his arms awkwardly drop to his side. It was funny when he thought about it. Here he was, no longer the scrawny teenager, having worked hard to build himself up to not be that person. Yet he still felt the exact same around Megan. Where did all his confidence go? It wasn’t like he wasn’t attractive. He knew he was. He had certainly changed since being a teenager. Back then, he had started working out so he could impress Megan. Unfortunately, he didn’t get that growth spurt to a man until after he left Megan behind for college. That hadn’t stopped him though. Now, he knew he was the kind of man that most women desired. He better be too. His job as a personal trainer required it.
“Megan, I’ll be right back,” Bethany told her. “Let me get David set up with the kids, okay?”
Megan just nodded and squeezed her hands together. Bethany got up and walked toward the stairs. When David didn’t immediately follow her, she pulled his arm until he started moving.
“If you don’t mind, we’d love for you to still watch the kids tonight,” Bethany said brightly and loudly, obviously intending Megan to hear. “They were so excited to see their Uncle David, I hate to disappoint them.”
David listened silently as they climbed the stairs. At the landing, Bethany dragged him to her bedroom and closed the door.
“What’s wrong,” he asked before the door even finished closing.
“Megan’s had a rough time. She’s going to stay with us for a while.”
“Come on, Beth. What’s going on?” He emphasized the words.
Bethany sighed and turned to look out the window. “Megan’s divorce was just finalized. Unfortunately, her ex-husband doesn’t see it that way.” She stopped talking as if hoping that would be enough to satisfy him.
“What do you mean?” he asked carefully, eyes narrowed at Bethany’s back.
She sighed again. “She divorced him because he abused her. Yesterday he found where she was staying.” She turned back to face him. “She didn’t have anywhere to go. So she found me. I’m letting her stay as long as she needs.”
David always thought the phrase seeing red was just a saying. But he was certainly seeing red now. He could feel his pulse pounding in his temples. He clenched his hands when he realized they were shaking. Abuse? Someone had abused Megan? His childhood crush, his friend? He wanted to beat the shit out of the guy. He remembered the one time he had met her husband. Megan hadn’t ever introduced any of her old friends to him, just up and married him without even telling anyone. But David had run into her one day, and her husband had been with her. She didn’t have much choice but to introduce him then. David remembered that his thought at the time was that the guy seemed sleazy. There had been something about him that made David’s skin crawl. After shaking the man’s hand, David had wiped his hand on his pants leg, that’s how bad the feeling was. How could she not have come to her friends for help? Why had she waited so long? The questions just piled up one right behind another like a train wreck.
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to get her settled in the guest room while you play with the kids,” Bethany continued as if she hadn’t just shifted his world on its axis.
David took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to shut out the flood of images his imagination was producing. “No, I don’t mind.” He opened them back up to see Bethany looking at him curiously.
“You okay?” she asked him.
He nodded. “Yeah. Just a shock that’s all. You never think it will happen to someone you know.”
Bethany shrugged. “You, maybe. I have a feeling most girls think about it more than they like.” She paused, weighing her thoughts. “I would have expected you to know that, with your job.”
This time it was his turn to sigh. “You’re right. I should. I see women every day who have the same problem. It’s still something I guess I never expected to hit this close to home.” He jerked his head toward the door. “You go. Give me a minute and I’ll go hang out with the kids.”
Bethany nodded and let her hand brush his shoulder in support as she passed him. David took another breath in, held it, then slowly let it out, counting as he did so. This was his technique to calm himself. He felt his muscles lose some of their tension, but his mind wouldn’t stop. Poor Megan. She had always been so full of life, so outgoing, mostly happy. He recalled her sitting down in the living room, shoulders hunched, head down, face tight. No wonder he hadn’t recognized her at first. She didn’t deserve that. Hell, no one deserved that. That was part of why he loved his job. He loved helping people find their confidence again. He even taught the occasional women’s self-defense class. Right then, he decided that he would help Megan. He was her friend. Or at least he used to be. And he was in a position to help her. It was the least he could do. He felt like he had abandoned her to that asshole who had been her husband. Maybe she had cut everyone out of her life, but he should have pushed harder, tried more to keep in touch. He should have checked up on her. But guilt wouldn’t do any good now. He knew from dealing with other women like her that he first had to gain back her trust. He had to convince her that he could help her without wanting anything for himself. Well, that wouldn’t be entirely true. He would love to get to know her again, spend some time with her. But first, he needed to give her space. Taking another breath, he headed for the bonus room where he knew Tom had the kids.