Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 28

Larkin had begun to drift off to sleep in spite of the rough tree bark scraping against her back, with her hold on the loaded gun growing lax as her eyelids weighed heavier and heavier. Aberland found her in this state when he crept back through the bushes to her hiding spot half an hour later, and in spite of her matted hair and grimy clothes, she looked so sweet and at peace that he almost didn’t want to wake her. Standing out of the line of possible friendly fire, he prodded her awake gently, and thankfully she seemed to have relaxed enough not to wake up in terror and start shooting wildly. She sat up, rubbing her eyes sleepily.

“Well?”

“The coast is clear. Do you feel safe enough to sleep in the warehouse? It won’t be that much more comfortable, but it may be amazing after sleeping in the woods lately. We can always sleep here in the woods if you’d rather do that. Your call.”

“The warehouse,” she said decisively.

“Ok then, why don’t we get you settled in there and I’ll go ‘borrow’ some dinner for us.”

She shook her head. “I don’t want to get cornered in there while you’re gone. I’ll wait here. We can go in to the warehouse when you get back.”

“Well all right, if you’re sure…” he said uncertainly.

“Yes, I’m sure.” He could glimpse the stubborn set of her jaw in the dim shadows.

“Then I’ll go find some dinner while you wait here. Try to stay awake for me, kid.”

With that he was gone again, creeping off in to the night. He had a few different options for his errand – he could cross over the grounds to a nearby house and raid their kitchen, or just sneak in to Tholen’s villa and take his chances there. The latter certainly was tempting. He knew every inch of the place inside and out and there appeared to be no guards on duty. And naturally he loved to play with fire and the idea of taunting Tholen (whether his governorship knew it or not). But it probably wasn’t the best idea. He loved poking a sleeping bear in the eye, but it wasn’t just his ass on the line this time. The other homes were very close and certainly not as risky, he decided with a little misgiving.

Aberland crossed Tholen’s well-manicured lawn without incident, and reached the street of the only quiet upscale neighborhood in Parham Town. The other residences there were significantly smaller than the Governor’s abode – 1750 square foot homes at the most – but compared to the meager 600 square foot homes available to the other poor villagers, they were practically manors in their own right.

Pools of light spilled on to the lawns of several of these well-to-do homes, likely indicating that a late supper was still going on. The ex-Seal selected the closest darkened house and lurked across the street to pause quietly near one of the backyard fences, listening to determine whether any dogs were outside, if any of these affluent neighbors owned one at all. The night was very still on the secluded street, and the sounds of a loud dinner party drifted over from across the street as Aberland silently climbed over the fence, edging around the exterior of the house.

He had lucked out. It would appear that the residents of this fancy brick house were all asleep, and there was only a faint light in the hall from a lamp or a night-light. Aberland silently opened the back door and entered the combined kitchen/living area. He checked through the rest of the downstairs briefly, and determined that everyone did in fact seem to be in their bedrooms. Crossing back to the kitchen pantry, he swiped a loaf of bread, crackers, and a jar of some indistinguishable spread, and left as hastily as he’d entered, thankfully without having to deal with encountering anyone.

Blane quickly returned to Larkin to find her still awake this time and very hungry. They left the woods without a word, and Blane handed her the makings of their dinner while he swung the old wooden warehouse door open. He did a quick walk-through of the building for a second time and found it still unoccupied for their stay. Together they found a corner that was well shielded from the view of any potential intruders by crates of merchandise, and Blane dragged some heavy bags of fertilizer over for them to lie on for the night. Larkin gratefully deposited her heavy bag of supplies and plopped down on them in exhaustion.

After resting for a minute, the tired pair needed to exchange very few words to reach the decision to enjoy their scavenged dinner in the doorway of the warehouse, since it was pitch black inside and impossible to see. Settling in to the rickety doorframe, they each took turns dipping pieces of bread in to the thick sauce from the jar and munching on crackers. Blane broke the silence first.

“Larkin, can I be really honest with you?”

Her reaction was both surprised and suspicious. After all it wasn’t every day that a man decided to have a heart to heart. And this wasn’t just any man. What exactly was about to be revealed to her? She carefully put down her food and sat back, warily prepared to hear whatever Blane needed to say.

“Yes...”

“Well when I first saw you – face to face that is – a few days ago, I felt drawn to you, like I was compelled to help you or something, even though I didn’t have to at all. Then like I explained earlier, several things fell in to place to indicate that my position here was in jeopardy. At that time I could have stopped worrying about you and just told myself, ‘I helped her escape, I did my part, now she’s on her own,’ and focused on saving my own ass instead. Which may or may not have been any easier,” he added for posterity. ‘Definitely easier,’ he thought.

“But I’ve just felt like … I guess that I just really need to do this – to look after you and make sure that you’ve got a fighting chance too. Call it a sudden flight of compassion or something like that. A shrink would say that I’m trying to right a wrong from my past, when I couldn’t save someone very dear to me and had to leave them behind. But whatever the root of it is, it doesn’t matter. I know that you’ve been wary of me, and of my intentions during our adventures, and rightfully so. But I want you to understand that I’m not going to leave you – that is, until you’re safe and/or want me to. I’m here for you just as much as I am here for me.”

Tears welled up in Larkin’s eyes, though Blane couldn’t see it. He waited in silence while she processed what he said. The girl in her wanted to breathe a sigh of relief and love that a knight in shining armor was there to rescue her. But a small part of her still held back from trusting him completely, remembering that he had conned everyone around him for the past four years or so. It was a touching little confession, however, and she knew that she was beginning to believe him in spite of herself. She felt grateful, lucky to have him helping her survive this insane hell that she’d found herself in. And there was nothing wrong with that, she told herself.

“…Larkin?”

She blinked back the tears. “Sorry. I was just … digesting all of that,” she said a little too brusquely, trying to remove the heavy emotion from her voice. She didn’t fool him though. She’d taken him at his word and believed him. That was crucial, and he was glad to have finally achieved it.

He inched a little closer, allowing her to see him better in the pale moonlight. He crossed the space between them, and coming face to face with her, gazed deeply in to her eyes with sincerity. Without another word he took her in his arms and enveloped her in a gentle, warm hug. Her tension lingered for a moment, then relaxed in to the safety that she felt there. She hadn’t realized how much she missed feeling cared for.

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