“I can’t believe you’re helping Murrell, you know he’s dangerous.” Haven’s nostrils flared angrily. The others had gone inside and the neighbors had been shooed off, but we’d still walked nearly to the back of the property by the tree line for some privacy.
I looked up into the trees as if hoping a loose branch would fall and knock some sense into him. “To who? Me? You must’ve been hexed because you’re imagining things. He saved my life. Besides that, why would he bite the only hand willing to feed him?”
“Because he’s rabid.” I wondered if Haven was actually seeing red right now for all the bull he was shoveling.
“He is not. You don’t know him-”
“I know enough. He killed Batista and put Peter in a coma. For heaven’s sake, he killed his own wife.”
“… Peter’s in a coma? Since when?” I stared, barely able to pull in air for how tight my chest had grown. He looked to the side his lips thinning. He hadn’t meant to tell me that little tidbit of information. “Why wouldn’t you tell me? What is wrong with you? He is my boss, my friend. He was my first real friend since I made the mistake of coming home.”
I could imagine steam coming from his nose and ears by the look on his face. “If coming back was a mistake, why are you still here?” He yelled. “I figured you’d be gone by now.”
“You’re right.” I felt cold. Numb. He was right. Or I was right? Coming back had been a mistake. I turned away.
“No, that’s not-”
“No, you’re right. I never stay where I’m not welcome and I’ve overstayed mine.”
Haven’s phone went off.
“You should take that. It could be important.”
He growled and I heard rustling before he curtly said, “Riley.”
I walked back toward the house, through the kitchen and up the stairs to my room. And Haven didn’t follow.
After taking a warm shower, my head was still full of the ridiculousness that had been this morning. I began pulling out drawers and taking stock of what was there after setting my travel bags on the bed. I didn’t think everything was going to fit, so I’d have to pick and choose. That’s when I saw the manila envelope marked with Victor Sinclair’s name.
That’s right. Before I did anything else, I decided I had to go check on Peter. I was probably just being rash about leaving again. I’d take the time to think about it. And if I did end up leaving maybe I could give Victor the envelope early. Peter had said to deliver it after May 26th, but… Yeah. This was my best chance for an in-person delivery and if that fell through I’d leave it with the nursing staff or at the Daily Grind. By the time I got to the hospital, the edges of the envelope were more worried than I was. Peter was fine. He always was. He’d never met a problem he couldn’t get out of. This was just a misunderstanding on the doctors’ part. But then I saw him.
His face was so pale I nearly looked around for the video camera that had to be recording some kind of horror film. I gingerly sat at the edge of the chair beside him.
“Heeeey, boss. How are you?” I grimaced. “Sorry, stupid question, I know. Um, can you hear me?”
“That’s also a stupid question,” a voice that drove down the temperature of the room spoke behind me. “And I think the individuals that ask such questions should leave.”
I turned to see a tall man with dark hair, a very nice, if rumpled, suit and cup of hospital coffee giving me the iciest glare down his nose I’ve ever seen. And, trust me, I’ve seen a lot. “Excuse me?” Was all my dumb brain could muster.
“You have ears. I assume they’re operational. I want you to leave.”
I blinked. “Do I know you? Did I do something to offend you?”
“You should know me, but I doubt you do.” he scoffed. “I know you, unfortunately. Ashley Raphael Keelan McCormick. Killer of hopes, destroyer of families, and traitor to shifter-kind.” I stared, fingers going numb. I’d been attacked before but this was something else, something deeper. “I will only say this once before I call security, so listen carefully. You are not welcome in my husband’s hospital room. You are not needed in his café. You have, in fact, been costing him customers.” I opened my mouth and shut it.
“Oh, didn’t know that, huh? I left to try to make him see reason. No one wants you in Hidden Pines. No one needs you here. We’ve all been better off without you causing chaos. I have no doubt that it is because of you that he’s in this state. I never, never, want to see you again.”
I remembered him now. He was the quiet boy that sat at the front of the class, but off in the front corner desk. He was always so studious. He never raised his hand to answer questions, but if he was called on he always got them right. He always looked at me with disdain, but today that look cut to my core. It ripped through my façade and bared the broken soul within. They say you have to watch out for the quiet ones. Now I know why.
I didn’t pass out. It was more like I entered an emotionally-drained zombie-like state as I left the hospital room, got on a bus and entered my brother’s house. No one was home. Work or school or whatever. I stared for forever at my waiting bags. It wasn’t until they were blurry blobs that I realized I was crying. I wanted to curl up on the comforter, but I’d only make a mess Basil would have to clean up after I left.
So, I began packing. Pulling out whatever pieces of clothing were on top for each category, as I tried to fit as much into my bags as possible. I didn’t care what happened to me anymore. I touched my stomach. I had options. I could adopt the kid out. Or sneak back to town to ‘Three Men and a Baby’ the kid on Haven’s doorstep. Whatever happened, it seemed as though everyone would be better if I left.
It took me a moment to realize I was doing exactly what Haven had been worried I’d do only that morning. Running was the easy choice. Sure you’d have to start all over, but you’d have a clean slate. It was harder to stay and face the consequences. Even when I’d testified against my boss, I’d run. Sure, it had been for my own, very real, safety, but that didn’t mean I’d had to face the consequences of my actions. I didn’t have to face all the people who hated me, blamed me.
“So you slept with the enemy.”
I jumped and spun toward the door, heart spazing like a wild animal caught in a trap. Aunt Peggy stood with her arms bowed, hands on hips, as she regarded me. My brain tried to catch up to what she’d said. That wasn’t working. “What?”
She shook her head. “You’re working with Robert Murrell and you didn’t tell Haven.”
I rolled my eyes. “He’s not the enemy. Haven just can’t see past his own nose.” I sighed and turned to sit on the bed facing her. “I was doing it to help him, to help everyone. If we don’t stop Avery…”
“So the question becomes do the ends justify the means?” she asked so simply and stripped of any embellishment that it drove her point home.
“Nevermind,” I huffed. “No one believes me.”
“He’s just humoring me.” She raised an eyebrow. “Okay, he might’ve thought there was a chance I’m right. Or he’s a spy for Haven.” That’s when my stomach decided to base jump. “He used my own brother to spy on me. That son-of-a-witch.” I couldn’t sit still so I paced between the bed and the door, unsure whether I was going to finish packing or confront my former fiance, baby-papa, and recent ex-boyfriend. What a weird way to go about a relationship.
“Where are you going to go?” She pursed her lips. The tone of her voice seemed distant, guilt turned me to face her sad smile.
“I don’t know. If nothing else, Robert might be willing to fly me wherever I want to go and I could have my sfuff mailed. Crap, he can’t shift right now.” A text I’d received the morning of Nita’s reception popped into my head. “Oh, that’s perfect,” I snapped my fingers and grinned at Aunt Peggy who was regarding me with raised brows. “I’ve a Marshall friend who said he was going to pass through any day now. I can catch a ride with him.” I crossed my arms defensively over my chest as Aunt Peggy’s lips pressed together.
Aunt Peggy paused, then she just shook her head. “And you boys were so good together.” It took me a second to realize she was talking about Haven. Aunt Peggy really did like to jump all over in a conversation. It was like talking to mulitple people at once.
“‘were’ being the operative word.” I glared at the window behind her and sighed. “It’s too late for us. I fucked it up long before today. At least this time I didn’t do it alone.” A dog barked outside and I crossed to look out the window in time to see a startled cat fall off the fence. It didn’t land on its feet. Maybe I should’ve told Haven about Robert. Maybe. “And I have to live with that.”
“Oh, sweetie. He’d be lucky to have you,” she said as she wrapped me in a steadying hug. That’s when I noticed I was shaking and I couldn’t pick out a singular emotion among the melting-pot of them insided that could be the cause. “What’s more I think he knows it. Just give him another chance.” She squeezed for a second before stepping away with her hands resting on my shoulders and looked me in the eye. “Please. He needs you. We all do.”
My throat tightened and I scoffed, clearing it. “What is it with people asking me to give them a chance.” I flopped on the bed, dropping my head into my hands in a primal attempt to dam the flood. “I should be the one asking for one.”
“Then why don’t you?” She asked softly.
I sat as she rested a hand on my head, her fingers running comforting paths through my hair as the dam overflowed. I don’t know how long we stayed like that before I breathed stale air and stood away from her touch, turning to finish packing. A moment after, a sigh sounded behind me and I heard the whisper of shoes on carpet as they passed out the door and creaked down the stairs. I wrapped a memory of four smiling faces trapped behind the glass of a small picture frame in a T-shirt and tucked it into the front pocket of my backpack.