“No!” Anton shrieked. His fists connected with the side of Domini’s torso as he pummeled Cam.
“That’s enough!” Cam backed up.
Domini spun around.
Cam tried to deflect Anton’s blows, but Anton was undeterred as he kept hitting him. Face cherry red, fury darkening his eyes.
“Domini, stay out of this,” Cam snapped.
Anton resembled the Tasmanian devil, his limbs flailing as he attempted to corner Cam. He was repeating, “No, no, no.”
“Listen to me, Anton—”
“No!” he screamed and rushed Cam, putting his head down low, aiming for Cam’s groin.
The wounded animal wail coming from Anton ripped a hole in Domini’s heart. She slapped her hand over her mouth, forgetting about the water and suds covering her hands until liquid dripped down her chin.
Cam dodged Anton, and held the boy’s hands at his sides. When Anton tried to twist out of the hold, Cam pulled Anton’s wrists behind his back and kept a wide stance in case Anton started kicking.
“You done?” Cam said coolly.
Anton’s chest rose and fell as quickly as a trapped bird’s. He was crying in great big, gasping sobs. His hair covered his face.
Cam waited a minute and repeated, “Answer me. You done?”
“Good. Now I’m going to walk over to the chair and sit down. If I let go of your arms and you run, or try to hit or kick me again, and we’re gonna have a serious problem, understand?”
He nodded again.
Domini watched as Cam sat and brought Anton around to face him, not sure if she should get in the middle of it.
“What was that attacking me crap about?” Cam asked.
“Anton. Look me in the eye and answer the question.”
Defiantly, Anton lifted his head. “You were hurting her. She said no, I heard her. And you didn’t listen, you just kept doing it! Just like him.” Tears tracked his face.
“Cam wasn’t hurting me, Anton,” Domini said softly.
Cam shot her a look that clearly said stay out of it.
“That’s what my mom said too, but she lied! He always hurt her, always, even when she said he wasn’t!”
What this poor boy had been through made her want to curl her body around his and protect him from the world. “Oh sweetling, it’s not the same…”
“Domini. Will you please let me handle this?”
“Fine.” But could Cam handle it? When he’d shown no interest in Anton whatsoever? Good or bad?
“First off, sport, I wasn’t hurting Domini. I’d never hurt her. Ever. We were just kinda goofing around like…you did with Ky a couple weeks back.”
Anton’s teary eyes were filled with skepticism.
“Second, not all men are like your dad. Most men aren’t like your dad. I’m not like your dad. Just because I’m big doesn’t mean I’m…well…mean. But I will not put up with any hitting in this house.”
Cam’s firm, yet gentle tone stunned Domini.
“So there will be consequences for your actions of taking after me. We clear on that?”
“The two of us are gonna take a walk. Wait on the back deck for me.”
Anton slunk out the sliding glass door without looking at Domini.
Her gaze connected with Cam’s and she knew he read every question in her eyes.
“Before you say a word, understand this, I won’t hurt him. I won’t berate him. But it’s time he learns how things are gonna go around here. It needs to come from me, not you, so I’d appreciate it if you’d give us some time.”
Cam left her staring after him. She thought she’d wanted him involved with Anton on a deeper level. Now she wasn’t so sure.
“Let’s head over to the corral.”
“I’m in trouble, huh,” Anton said quietly.
Even Gracie was subdued as they traipsed along. When they reached the fence, Anton blurted, “Didja bring me out here so Domini won’t see you whippin’ me?”
Cam scowled at the kid. “I’m not gonna whip you.”
“No. When I said I won’t tolerate hitting in my house, I meant for everyone. Including me.”
“Look. I ain’t gonna pretend to know what you were thinking when you saw me and Domini in the kitchen. It was a private moment between a husband and wife you misunderstood and I’ll leave it that.”
“Now you wanna tell me what’s really goin’ on with you?”
Shit. Cam had no idea how to do this. How did he get the kid to talk? About what? Or did he start right in on the lecture? Just as he was about to give up and detail specific punishment, Anton spoke so softly Cam struggled to hear it.
“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.