“Cecily!” My father’s voice bellowed through our ranch house. I swore the force of his words shook the beam above our heads.
Mom pulled her hands from the dough she was kneading and wiped them on her apron. “Scamper, Little Mouse.”
The familiar code made my stomach cramp and palms dampen. How many times had she drilled it into my head? “Scamper, Little Mouse. Find a nook to hide, just like a tiny mouse would.”
I bit my lip, shaking my head. “I want to stay with you.”
“Cecily! Where are you?”
“I’m in the kitchen, Allen. Just making your favorite biscuits for dinner.” She pushed me towards the back door, her hands warm and soothing but forceful. “Go, Little Mouse.”
I opened my mouth to try another argument, but her sharp look had me snapping it shut. The door closed quietly behind me. Mom knew better than to advertise that someone had made an escape.
I stepped to the side of the door and pressed my back to the siding of the house. I held my breath as I waited. Dad’s footsteps pounded against the floor. I watched the back step tremble with the force of them as though we were having our own little earthquake. One that only reached our house.
“John said you left today. Without me.”
I knew the words came through gritted teeth. I could picture my dad—the set of his jaw, the clench of his fists. The red that crept up the back of his neck.
“We were out of baking soda, and I knew you wanted biscuits with dinner. You were out all day. So, I took Addie into town with me.” Mom’s voice was soft, but it didn’t waver.
“Adaline should be home like her mother. She needs to learn how to tend this house so she’ll make a good wife one day. But I can’t imagine that’s possible with you teaching her.”
I pressed my hands harder into the wood of the house, splintered pieces embedding in my palms. I fought the urge to run inside. To tell him to shut up. It would only make things worse.
“I wanted to make sure you had what you wanted for dinner.” Mom’s voice sounded defeated, almost as if she’d given up.
“Then you should’ve planned ahead. Checked our pantry before I took you to the store on Sunday.”
“I’m sorry, Allen.”
There was silence for a moment, and I could picture Dad staring at her. Sometimes, he prowled around her like a jungle cat, looking for any signs of weakness.
“Tell me the truth. Were you going to meet a man?”
Mom let out a small gasp. “No. I would never. You know that.”
“Lies. I see the way you flirt with the ranch hands.”
I went up on my tiptoes, craning my head to get a glimpse inside. My stomach knotted as I took them in. Dad had grabbed Mom by the collar of her dress, pushing her against the refrigerator.
“I don’t. I would never disrespect you that way.”
“Bullshit.” He hauled back, slapping her so hard she crumpled to the floor.
A small sound escaped my lips, a panicked, keening noise. Dad’s head snapped around as he looked for the source of the sound. I took off running. My legs pumped hard as I cut across the back field towards the woods.
Our ranch butted up to national forest land. Those trees were my refuge and solace, the only safe place I’d ever known. I pushed my muscles harder, even once I’d reached the shelter of the woods.
My lungs burned as I dodged tall pines and fallen logs. Tears streamed down my face as the guilt grabbed hold. How could I have left her? I’d learned the hard way that it would be worse for us both if I stepped in. Still, I should’ve stayed close.
My run slowed to a walk as I wrapped my arms around my waist. I followed an invisible path I knew by heart and sent up a silent prayer for my mom’s protection. But I wasn’t sure that God heard me. If He did, He’d remained silent in response so far. I prayed harder, pleading and begging—for safety and for freedom.
My muscles burned as the path moved into the foothills of the mountains. The sound of rushing water teased my ears—it only made my tears come harder. This was the place that my mom had shown me, the one we’d bring a picnic to in summer or hike out to in our snow boots in winter.
I stepped out of the trees and took in the waterfall. The crashing of the water onto the rocks below reminded me that there were forces more powerful than me in the world. More mighty even than my father and his fists. I only wished I could channel them to take him on.
My head jerked in the direction of the voice, my heart hammering against my ribs. I let out a shaky breath as I took in my cousin. “Evie.”
She strode towards me quickly, her horse, Storm, grazing by the edge of the pool of water. She framed my face with her hands and then pulled me into a hug. “What happened?”
“I-I’m okay. Dad hurt Mom.” My voice cracked on my words, and the tears continued to fall.
Everly hugged me tighter. “I’d like to kick his sorry ass.”
She was so much braver than I was. So much fiercer. Never afraid to stand up to anyone, even her jerk of a brother or her dad when he was in one of his moods.
“Maybe we could poison him. There’s some rat poison at my house. We can grind it up and put it in his sweet tea.”
My hands fisted in her sweatshirt. “You can’t.”
Everly pulled back. “Why not? He shouldn’t be able to do what he’s doing to you and Aunt Cecily.” She bit her bottom lip. “Mom says we can’t interfere.”
No one wanted to interfere. I knew the neighbors saw Mom’s bruises, but they never said a word.
Everly’s fingers dug into my shoulders. “We could run away. We can gather our things, and I’ll bring Storm to pick you up. We could live off the land. We know how.”
Sure, our mothers had taught us what plants were safe to eat, how to build traps and shelter, but how long would we really last? I swallowed against the burn in my throat. “I’m going to talk to Mom. I’ll ask her to run away. We could steal one of the cars. Maybe we could take you and your mom, too.”
A look of longing passed over Everly’s face. “She’ll never leave. Dad doesn’t hit her or us. He’s just…”
Her words trailed off, but I knew what she meant. At times, it seemed as if Uncle Howard’s brain didn’t work right—he was always sure that the whole world was out to get him.
Everly’s fingers tightened on my shoulders. “But if you get a chance to be free, take it.” She gave me a wobbly smile. “You and I could go to college together.”
“Yeah.” College was a million years away. What I wanted more than anything in the meantime was to go to school. To have a real teacher and a classroom.
A crack of thunder sounded, and I looked at the sky. Dark storm clouds had rolled in, and a drop of rain splashed on my forehead. “You should go. You don’t want to get caught out in this on horseback.”
Everly looked back at Storm, who pawed at the dirt. “What about you? Want to come with me to my house? Storm can carry us both.”
I shook my head. “It’ll just make him madder. I’ll wait here for a little bit and then go back.”
Her jaw clenched. “You sure?”
“I’ll be fine.” I just hoped the same would be true for my mom.
“Okay. Let’s meet here for lunch tomorrow. Twelve-thirty?”
“I’ll be here.”
She pulled me into a tight hug. “Love you, Addie.”
“Love you, too.”
Everly released me and mounted Storm, giving me a wave as the skies opened. She kicked Storm into a canter as she rode away, headed down a path that would take her around and up the mountains to her house.
Rain peppered my skin. I hadn’t planned on this little adventure, and I was only wearing a t-shirt and jeans. I hurried for cover, but the trees could only give me so much.
The wind howled, sending the rain sideways and a chill rocketing through me. I’d just stay for a little while longer, enough time for Dad’s temper to cool. Only I didn’t think forever was long enough for that.
My body shook, the movements sending pain through me. I was burning up and then freezing. I’d throw the covers away only to desperately search for their warmth again.
My bed dipped, and rough, cool hands felt my forehead. “You never should’ve stayed out in that storm.”
Mom’s voice sounded more worried than usual. I blinked a few times, trying to bring her into focus, but I couldn’t quite manage it.
“Drink this.” She tipped a cup to my lips.
The taste of oranges was almost too sweet and burned the back of my throat.
Mom’s cool hands found my forehead again, but as she moved, she winced. “I’m so sorry, Little Mouse. I can’t do this anymore. You’ll understand one day.”
The cool hands disappeared, almost as if they’d never been there in the first place. The fire burning me from the inside intensified. I tossed and turned, sweating and then freezing. I didn’t know how much time passed, but my throat was dry, and my lips were cracked.
Dad’s rough timbre grated against my skin, but even in my half-lucid state, I could tell that he wasn’t his usual angry. He sounded more…tired somehow.
I twisted in my damp sheet. “Water?”
He picked up a cup from the nightstand and held it to my cracked lips, tipping it back so I could drink. “Reckless,” he muttered. “What were you thinking? You know I don’t have time to nurse you.”
It came back to me in flashes. Mom telling me to hide. The slap. Running to the falls. Everly. “I went to meet Everly,” I croaked. “Then I wanted to wait out the storm.” And your temper.
Dad let out an exasperated sigh. “I should’ve guessed. Everly is a bad influence. Howard needs to take a stronger hand with her.”
I shuddered at the thought. “Where’s Mom? Maybe she could make me chicken soup.” I hurried to add the second part. I always needed a reason to ask for her so Dad didn’t get mad.
A muscle in his jaw ticked as he looked out the window. “She’s gone.”
I stiffened, my stomach cramping. “Gone?”
“Left last night while you were sick with fever. Said she was going to stay up with you. Instead, she stole my damn truck and took off.”
“N-no. She wouldn’t do that.”
His hard gaze cut to me. “Apparently, she doesn’t give a damn about either of us.”
I struggled to sit up, my head swimming. “You’re lying.”
He lashed out, quick as a snake, his palm cracking against my cheek. “I won’t tolerate insolence from you.”
Tears leaked from my eyes as the taste of blood filled my mouth. Footsteps sounded, then the door closed. I was totally and completely alone.
The warm, early fall breeze lifted my long hair as I walked down Aspen Street. I let the air fill my lungs, the scent of pine trees settling a peace into my bones. Not a day passed where I wasn’t grateful for the freedom I’d been granted. Something I’d almost given up hoping for.
I walked by the coffee house and some tourist shops, taking the time to admire the baskets of blooms that hung from antique lampposts. We wouldn’t have the brightly colored baskets of flowers much longer. The nights were already getting cold.
Refocusing on the path ahead of me, I made sure I didn’t crash into anyone while busy soaking in my surroundings. My footsteps slowed—the same way they always did—as I approached The Gallery. The shop tugged on me in a way I couldn’t deny—as if it were the sun, and I was a tiny planet beholden to its gravitational pull.
I stopped altogether. I didn’t have a choice. Someone had hung a new display. It looked as if it were comprised of various artists’ work—a mixture of photographs, watercolors, oil paintings, and statues. I fought the urge to press my face to the glass.
The photograph I could see best almost took my breath away. It was of a woman in a field; her face tipped up to the sun. The image itself was beautiful, but the emotion coming off the woman in the frame almost brought me to my knees. It was a visceral sadness. Grief.
I knew that emotion. We were so well acquainted, it felt as if the feeling had been scored into my bones at times. I didn’t know what this woman was grieving, but I knew that we shared that pain. Mine was a mixture of all sorts of loss. But most of all, sadness for how much life I’d missed out on.
I forced my gaze from the photo to a painting that hung next to it. The watercolor was brilliantly detailed. I swore I could feel the breeze that rippled the water. This one held a serenity that I knew it would pass on to its owner each and every day.
Every piece of art in The Gallery held a different sort of gift, and I loved imagining the type of person who would pick each one to hang in their home. My eyes shifted to take in the next painting, but I caught sight of something in the reflection on the storefront window.
Something about the movement was familiar. It had my heart picking up its pace and a wave of nausea sweeping through me. I stole a quick look over my shoulder, something in me needing confirmation. My father stalked down the opposite side of the street in that same prowling way I knew so well. A stride that spoke of the rage that lived inside him.
I struggled to get air into my lungs but forced my legs to move. I ducked into a small walkway between buildings, thanking my lucky stars that the height of the buildings cast the entire alley in shadows. Darkness brought fear to so many. But for me, it was solace and gave me shelter whenever I needed it.
I pressed myself to the cool brick of the building. The rough surface scraped the backs of my arms, but I ignored it, pressing myself flatter against the stone. I knew I likely looked ridiculous. People in town already whispered about my oddities. If they saw me now, it would only amplify their whispers.
My actions weren’t even needed. It wasn’t as if my father could kidnap me off the street. Yet, here I was, frozen to the spot. I’d made an art out of avoiding him during the year-plus I’d been free. I knew his typical schedule and did everything I could to stay out of town when I thought he might be around.
Only today, I’d taken too long at the library and then dallied in front of The Gallery. It was stupid. Reckless. And now I was trying to make myself disappear altogether.
My eyes closed, hands fisting at my sides until my nails bit into my palms. I hated weakness—the fear coursing through me. It wasn’t even fear that he’d hurt me. I’d lived through decades of his torture and knew I could take it. I wouldn’t break. It was fear that he knew exactly the right things to say to get me to return. The buttons to push and the games to play.
There was nothing worse than not trusting your mind. To know that someone could weave words to make you second-guess everything you knew to be the truth. That was my father’s greatest tool.
Footsteps sounded on the walkway, and my eyes flew open.
The rough voice that cut through the shadows had me wanting to vanish right into the brick behind me. I shifted on my feet, glancing from the man to the street, trying to map my best route of escape. “Hi, Beckett,” I croaked.
Everly’s soon-to-be brother-in-law took a step towards me. His large, hulking frame had me inching closer to the sidewalk. As I did, he froze. “Everything okay?” The words were almost growled, anger lacing through them.
I nodded rapidly, looking like one of those bobblehead dolls. “I’m fine, but I should be going.”
I stepped around Beckett, giving him a wide berth.
“I can give you a ride if you need one.”
“No, thank you.” The words trailed behind me, but I was already halfway down the walkway.
When I reached the side street, I sucked in air. My hands trembled at my sides, and guilt washed over me at my reaction. Beckett had never been anything but kind to me. But his presence was overwhelming. Tall and broad. Handsome, but with an almost feral edge. That edge told me he was a predator, and I needed to watch my step.
I wove my way home, picking the streets with the least traffic. I didn’t want to risk seeing my father or Beckett again. It took me about ten minutes longer to get there, but I breathed a sigh of relief as the white farmhouse came into view. It wasn’t mine, but it had become my refuge—the same way the falls had been for so many years.
My steps faltered as a figure rose from the steps. I relaxed a fraction as she smiled. Everly inclined her head to my tote bag. “Been at the library?”
“It was time for a new haul.” I forced myself to walk up the stone path towards her. A familiar swirl of happiness and reticence moved through me as I started in my cousin’s direction.
“Looks like a good one.”
I tightened my hold on the strap. “Would you like to come in? I have tea.”
Everly beamed, and I felt like the worst person on the planet. She was trying. Everly and her fiancé, Hayes, had done so much for me, yet I was still holding onto my fear and hurt. She had left Wolf Gap years ago. She’d had no choice, but it had left me with no one. No mom, no cousin. No one who loved me at all. She’d left me alone to deal with the monster who called himself my father. Who was to say she wouldn’t do it again?
“I’d love that,” she said. “I brought some cookies we can have with it.”
I took in a shuddering breath, hoping that with my exhale, I could release some of the memories I held onto so tightly. I took my keys out of my pocket and moved to unlock the door. My hand trembled slightly, residual adrenaline from seeing my dad and the run-in with Beckett.
It took me a moment to get the door unlocked, and as soon as I did, the alarm beeped. When I had moved into Hayes’ old house, it had taken me weeks to figure the dang thing out. I’d set it off more times than I could count, but I had finally mastered it. I punched in the code and set it to home.
“The house looks great,” Everly said as she stepped inside.
The least I could do for Hayes was to keep his house in good condition when he was letting me stay here for free. “I was thinking I might re-stain the back deck before winter hits. It could probably use it.”
“Oh, you don’t need to do that. I’ll tell Hayes, and he’ll get a crew over here—”
“No.” The single word came out more harshly than I’d intended, and I worked to even my tone with my next words. “I don’t want him to do that. I like helping, and it’ll be easy for me to do.” But, in truth, I knew I’d be a wreck if a bunch of strange men were hovering around the house, even if they were only outside.
Everly reached out as if she might squeeze my arm but stopped herself. “All right. We have an account at the hardware store. Just put whatever supplies you need on that.”
I nodded. I hated that I couldn’t afford to simply buy them the materials, but I wasn’t exactly overflowing with money. I nannied for Hayes’ best friend, Calder, a few days a week, but since Calder had married Hayes’ sister, Hadley, those hours had dwindled. Birdie and Sage simply didn’t need a babysitter as much now that they had two parents in the picture.
I jolted from my thoughts at the sound of Everly’s voice. “Sorry, what?”
Concern swept across my cousin’s expression as she studied me. “Is everything okay?”
I fought the urge to scream. I was so tired of her looking at me as if I might break. “I’m fine. I was just thinking that I need to start looking for a job.”
“You can come work for me at the sanctuary—”
“No,” I cut her off. As much as I loved the home for abused and abandoned animals that Everly had created, I didn’t want a pity hire. The problem was, I wasn’t qualified for anything—no high school diploma, and certainly no college degree. Maybe I could get a job at the library restocking books. That was something I knew that wouldn’t require much person-to-person contact.
I did my best to give Everly a reassuring smile. “I’ll find something. I just want to do it on my own.”
“I’m meddling again, aren’t I?”
This time, the smile that came to my face was genuine. “Maybe a little.” I waved her into the kitchen and filled the kettle with water. “I appreciate you wanting to help, but I need to learn to do things myself.”
Everly slid onto a stool at the island, pulling a box of cookies from her bag and opening it. “I get that. It’s just hard for me not to try to make things easier where I can.”
I grabbed a box of tea from the cabinet, along with two mugs. “I know.” Everly was a helper and hated to see any creature—human or animal—hurting. Yet something about the actions made me feel weak, which only stoked my simmering anger.
The kettle whistled, and I poured the water into the mugs. “So, how are things at the sanctuary?”
“Amazing. We’ve got three school field trips this week alone, and lots of families signed up to volunteer this weekend.”
“That’s great.” I set our mugs on the counter and took a stool, leaving one open between us. “How’s Hayes? I haven’t seen him in a while.”
The soft look that overtook Everly’s face had me gripping the sides of my stool, a wave of jealousy whipping through me. The corners of her mouth tipped up. “He’s wonderful. Working more than he should, but what’s new?”
We were quiet for a moment as if after pleasantries, Everly and I didn’t have a whole lot to talk about. That burned, cutting deep into memories of a time we’d shared everything.
She cleared her throat. “I actually wanted to run something by you.”
I shifted to face her, my hand curling around the warm mug of tea. “Okay.”
“If you hate the idea, we can scrap it. It might be too much, too soon, and the last thing Hayes or I want is for you to feel uncomfortable—”
“Everly,” I cut her off. “Just ask.”
She gave me a sheepish smile. “You know how Beckett bought that piece of property and is building a house?”
I nodded. Of course, I knew. As much as Beckett scared the crud out of me, I was fascinated by him at the same time. My ears couldn’t help but pick up details about him every time I was at the Eastons’ home.
“It’s going to be about a year before it’s done, and he’s going crazy living at the ranch. He says Julia’s going to mother him to death.”
My jaw clenched. The matriarch of the Easton clan didn’t always get it right, but she cared. She did her best to make sure her children knew that they were loved and did everything in her power to make sure they were safe. Beckett didn’t know how lucky he was.
When I didn’t say anything, Everly pushed on. “This house is so big. There are three bedrooms not being used. What would you think about having a roommate?”
The whole world around me slowed as blood roared in my ears. Beckett. Living here. My pulse pounded as I took a sip of tea. “He can have the house. I can find an apartment.” It would likely be a hovel, but that was fine.
Everly’s face fell. “No, we don’t want you to move out. Beckett can find somewhere else to stay. It was just that all the apartments he looked at were awful, so I got this grand idea.”
Guilt swamped me. Hayes had been so incredibly generous to let me stay here for so long. Was I really going to force his brother into a crappy apartment, one that I should’ve been living in? “He can stay here.”
The second the words were out, I wanted to take them back. I couldn’t even look Beckett in the eyes. How was I supposed to live with him for a year?
“Really?” Everly leaned forward, studying me. “You’re sure? It’s not too much?”
I swallowed, my dry throat sticking on the action. “I’m sure. He can have the main bedroom. I stay in one of the guest rooms.” At least, that meant we’d be on opposite sides of the house. I’d simply retreat to my room as soon as humanly possible each day. Maybe Beckett wouldn’t be home much. He probably had friends and girlfriends and a full life to keep him busy.
Who was I kidding? This was going to be a disaster.
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