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Into The Briars

By Cassandra Godin All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Fantasy

Blurb

All she wanted was to be away from cheating bastards, and the world in general. She hadn't expected to find a kindred soul in her hideaway - or the strange things hiding in the Briars.

Part 1: The Forgotten Refuge

A light storm, the radio had said. Just some scattered showers here and there, nothing substantial, nothing to worry about.

The rain beating against her windshield was much more a torrential downpour then a light storm, practically obscuring her vision entirely despite her wipers frantic dance across the glass. Brand new wipers, brand new vehicle, caught in a bloody storm. Thank God I have all wheel drive now.

The pit stop to switch vehicles had been worth it, it seemed; her old car would have gotten stuck long ago, where the compact SUV was made for this type of terrain.

Still, she wouldn’t feel safe until she’d reached her location, praying that it was still in favourable conditions.

She hadn’t even remembered it existed until her mother’s secret will had been delivered to her not a month prior.

A rumbling CRASH of thunder snapped her from her thoughts, muddy eyes locked on what road she could see as she grit her teeth, fingers clenching tighter on the steering wheel.

Focus, Piper. Get to the summer house in one piece. Then reminisce. Maybe. Never.

Thankfully, her GPS - somehow still able to maintain a signal even through the storm - said she would be reaching her destination shortly, giving her the energy she needed to continue forwards, much more lenient on the gas than usual.

It had been a long day, and a long drive. The trip from Toronto to Peterborough had taken forever - she’d taken the bus, paying with cash, trying to avoid anything that would allow people to track her.

Buying the Trax in Peterborough had been easy but annoying; she had all the proper documentation to back her up, knew exactly what she wanted. It just skeeved the dealership out that she wanted to pay for it up front with a check since, okay, no one did that. But the secret bank account her mother had set up and left for her had had more than ample funds to buy the SUV outright, and so they had relented in the end, swearing that they would keep the deal private.

The cell phone had been slightly easier, though they’d been startled when she’d given them the cash to cover at least four months worth of bills.

Piper had just finished devouring a greasy Big Mac in Bancroft - which she knew she would regret later but couldn’t bring herself to care at the moment - when the clouds began to roll in, cloaking the sky in grey and black.

She’d been on her away immediately, though the downpour hadn’t hit until after she’d hit Maynooth. Small miracles, because even with the GPS she would have missed her turn off had it been raining so hard then.

Now, finally, the GPS voice droned out its ‘after 300 meters, make a right turn. You have arrived’ and she spotted a tiny, weathered white street marker up ahead, worn out letters barely reading ‘Briar Trail’.

Carefully, Piper made the right onto the even smaller road, glad that the Trax was steady on the muddy paths as the wipers kept up their furious battle against the rain. It would be the first drive way on the right, she knew, once she actually hit that first drive way, the knowledge coming to her easily even though she had all but forgotten about this house for six years.

That thought still bothers her - who forgets about a summer house they own? - but it’s not important right now, and ahead she spotted her target, manoeuvring onto the end of the long drive way.

She’d forgotten how long it was - you could fit at least six vehicles, and it had a garage as well. Not wanting to chance a slick stop - or to attempt getting into the garage, as who knows if the door still works or how it’s operated - Piper breaked slowly, pulling the Trax to a stop maybe ten feet from the front porch.

First, Piper dug through her purse, locating the key that had arrived with her mother’s secret will - the keychain a small dream catcher made of briars and blue feathers and beds, matching the full sized one hanging from her rear view mirror. That in hand, she closed her purse, pulled her hood up, and flung the door open.

The mad-dash to the covered porch was an interesting one, and Piper nearly went flying several times when she stepped in a deeper spot, or caught her foot in a lump of mud.

Once under the porch cover, Piper tested the door - locked, good - before inserting the key and twisting, perking just a little when the lock clicked and she pushed the door open.

Shuffling inside and wincing at the mud and rain she was tracking in - you can clean tomorrow, Piper - she let the door close behind her, muffling the sound of the thunder as she ran a hand up the wall, looking for the light switch.

Finding it, she flicked it.

Nothing.

Grumbling, she flicked it off and on again, sighing wearily when she remained in darkness and shoving her hand into her purse, coming out with her portable flashlight.

Thankful she had thought to buy the damn thing, Piper hit the switch and swept the beam of light over the room, checking things as best she could. She was in the main foyer, she remembered, and the steps to the basement - and the fuse panel - would be straight ahead and to the left.

Moving slowly, Piper froze when she heard a creak off to her right, swinging the flashlight in that direction.

Nothing moved, and she forced herself forwards, halting again when a creak sounded in front of her. Once more she swung the light, seeing nothing.

Free hand ready to punch, she inched forwards, following the quiet creaks further into the house, finding herself in front of the door to the basement. Biting her lip, Piper slowly pulled the door open and, seeing there was nothing waiting for her, descended, keeping the light pinned in front of her.

The breaker box - she’d thought they were fuses, but thankfully not - was straight ahead on the nearest wall, and she flipped them all on, light erupting around her so suddenly she had to clench her eyes shut in surprise.

Blinking rapidly once she was able to open them again, Piper glanced around, taking in the space. Fairly large, mostly finished but not perfectly. She had plans for this area.

For now, all she wanted was sleep.

Clicking off her flashlight as she trudged back up the stairs, the redhead cringed as she spotted the full damage she had done with her dirty shoes, muddy-footprints leading over laminated floors from the front door to where she stood.

Shedding the shoes before she could do even more damage, Piper paused, scowling at the feel of the tile beneath her feet. She’d expected the house to be grimy, since it hadn’t been used in so long, but the floor felt clean.

In fact, asides from some dust - much less then she’d expected - the space was immaculate.

Figure it out tomorrow. For now, find a bed.

Stripping as she went - because she was still wearing soaked clothes and didn’t really want a cold - and turning off lights, Piper found the room she wanted and did her best not to cry at the sight of it.

Though technically it had been her parents room, all her memories were of times spent with her mother there, reading stories and laughing before bed.

This had been her mother’s house, plain and simple.

How could I ever forget this place?

Clothes deposited in the somehow still in-tact hamper near the door and hair released from its braid to become a massive mane of fire-red curls, Piper flicked the light off and practically dove for the bed, surprised and pleased by the fact that it wasn’t dusty at all.

She nearly did cry when the scent of prim roses, her mother’s favorite flower, hit her from the pillows, weariness taking her before a tear could pass.

Curious, cautious eyes watched from the shadows, taking in the sleeping woman who had welcomed herself so easily, known where she was going, where the power box was, where everything was.

Piper hadn’t remembered to lock the door.

~*~*~*~*~

Piper didn’t know what time it was when her stomach decided to wake her up, twisting painfully as punishment for the greasy food she’d downed the day before.

Scowling and cracking an eye open, she stared blankly at the ceiling for a moment before another pain shot through her, forcing her out of the bed and padding across the - freezing! - tile in the vague direction of the bathroom.

She had enough lucidity to make sure there was toilet paper - and nothing gross around the toilet - before giving up and sitting down.

Finished and feeling significantly better, Piper flushed and washed her hands thoroughly - thankfully the water was in working order and the plumbing was up to date - then planted her hands on the edges of the sink and stared at her reflection in the mirror.

A mess scowled back at her in the faint light coming through the window shade, hair a fiery mane around her face and eyes a dull, tired brown. Her skin looked gross and sweaty, her eyes were red, and she felt itchy all over, though the only marks on her bare skin were the old scars and bruises.

Trudging back through the house until she found where she’d dropped her purse - in the hallway just before the living room, along with her still-wet sweater - she snatched it up and dug around for her iphone, yanking it out and squinting at the time readout.

6:03 AM.

God forbid she be allowed to sleep in, ever.

Regardless, it sounded like the rain had calmed down, and she very much wanted a shower.

First, though, she would need to grab her duffel from the Trax so she could put clean clothes on afterwards.

So, grumbling the entire time, Piper gathered up her damp clothing from the hamper and pulled on the pants and t-shirt, shivering almost immediately when the cold fabric clung to her skin.

Striding through the house to the foyer, Piper wrinkled her nose as she silently stepped into her muddy runners, car key in hand as she gingerly reached for the door handle and pulled it open.

Did I not lock the door last night?

The thought didn’t last long, chased away by the sight of a thankfully clear sky and semi-drier front yard then the night before.

Still, she picked her way slowly across the drive way, being careful of sink holes and mud piles made to trip her.

The SUV was coated in mud on the bottom half, as she’d expected, though otherwise looked no worse for wear. The steel-grey of the paint still managed to shine in the sun - a grey car of all things, she hated grey, she was a colour person, blue or green or red or just colour but she needed to be inconspicuous and black was too hard to keep clean dammit - and she yanked the back door open, hoisting her duffel over her shoulder and trotting carefully back to the house.

This time she kicked her runners off outside the door, tip toeing around the dried mud on the floor and heading immediately for the bathroom.

Piper didn’t even bother shutting the door; she stepped in and dropped her duffel on the closed toilet, stripping and tossing her dirty clothes in a heap on the ground. She placed her phone on the counter and opened her music app - she’d gotten unlimited data for a reason, since god only knew if wifi would work out there - turning it to full blast and hitting shuffle. Then she located the tiny travel bottles of two-in-one and body wash she’d grabbed at a store and stepped into the - somehow, magically spotless - tub, cranking the shower to full heat and flipping it on.

As good as the scalding water felt, Piper reluctantly turned it to a more normal if still slightly blistering heat when her skin went red, scrubbing at the dirt and grime that clung to her.

She stayed in until the water ran cold, shutting it off and stepping out feeling slightly more human. She didn’t even care that she was dripping everywhere as she padded to the linen closet across the hall, pulling it open and selecting a soft pink - pink like prim roses, her mother’s favorite - towel, the scent and familiarity enveloping her as she pressed it to her face, inhaling deeply.

Sappy moment over, Piper toweled herself off vigorously and grabbed two slightly more-worn towels from the cupboard, tossing them on the ground to soak up the water she’d splashed everywhere.

Clothes were extracted from the duffel, panties and sports bra yanked on in quick motions, jeans with rips in the knees - real ones from hard work, thank you very much - and a fitted t-shirt reading Does it look like I care? across the chest pulled on over top.

Socks she balled up and shoved in her pocket for the time being, since as much as she’d have loved to go out in sandals she’d probably lose them the second she stepped off the porch. But the muddy runners were her only pair at the moment, so they would have to do.

First things first: laundry.

Piper carefully gathered up all of her muddy clothing and headed for the basement, flicking the light on before trumping down the stairs.

A new set of high efficiency machines sat innocuously at the very back corner of the space, shiny and clean and probably never used. Piper would have been surprised, if not for the letter that had accompanied her mother’s secret will.

The rest of the family may have forgotten about this summer house, but Jeannette Connors had definitely not. She’d been having someone watch over it the whole time, had updated furnishings and appliances.

Had probably spent time here while Piper was busy letting Aaron rule her life.

Heart clenching painfully at the thought, Piper scowled and practically through the clothes into the washing machine, following the printed instructions and dumping some of the - not quite expired yet, awesome - laundry detergent into the specified slot, hitting start and walking away when the machine started making the familiar whirr.

As her memories came back to her of the place, Piper realized that this truly was a summer house. Not a cottage or cabin or back-water hide away.

It was a full, functioning, all-weather proof house.

Which makes it perfect.

Leaving the basement door open so she could hear the washing machine, Piper stood still for a moment, planting her hands on her hips and just listening, trying to bring back all the memories of the place, memories of better days.

Absently pulling the house keys and their Briar keychain from her pocket and twirling them in her fingers, Piper walked through the house, assessing what work needed to be done and where to start.

Though not huge, the summer house was spacious, perfect for just a few people.

The front foyer was just a small entryway leading off the covered porch, really; opening straight into the hallway that connected the rest of the house. The living room was the first room to the left, followed by the smaller bedroom she had once shared with Grace - very briefly, the last time she’d visited - then the bathroom and then her mother’s room. The kitchen took up the entire right side of the house, a fact that thrilled the chef in her.

Asides from dust, everything was clean and looked after; the furniture barely showed any age, even, a feat in itself.

I’ll have to thank whoever it is that’s been looking after the house.

Her mother hadn’t mentioned a name. She hadn’t gone into any detail about the house’s temporary keeper, actually, so Piper had no idea who they were or how to contact them.

Once she realized she only had to dust and clean up the mud tracks she had made the night before, Piper allowed herself to relax just a smidge, retrieving her still-blaring iphone from the bathroom and heading for the kitchen, stomach now rumbling incessantly in that you seriously need to eat way it had.

The kitchen was gorgeous, as she remembered it being. White marble counters, light sandalwood cupboards, beautiful black appliances - those are new I swear - and an island with more drawers in the centre of the room would have made her swoon on a good day.

The table remained under the back window as it had been, right beside the door leading to the back covered porch; glass and sparkling in the sunlight now streaming in.

Following the lure of the sunlight, Piper left her cell phone on the island counter - currently blaring some new pop song about love, yuck - and crossed to the door, unlocking it and sliding it open to step out.

Then she stopped, staring in surprise, eyes brightening to amber.

Were the Briars always that thick?

No, she was definitely sure they hadn’t been. When she was a child, she remembered there being Briar patches along the woods, twisted green things with flashes of blue, eerie and beautiful.

Now the entire edge of the forest was lined with briars, tall, twisted things, looking thorned and unwelcoming. They ran the entire length of the foliage, even past where she could see further along, towards the other house she knew was there somewhere.

A shiver ran through her suddenly, Piper rubbing her arms as she turned and headed back inside, slightly unnerved.

She’d just finished locking the screen door when a quiet yip made her pause, slowly lifting her head.

A cat sat on the island counter, sniffing curiously at her iphone. Piper’s shoulders slumped, relieved.

“Hey, you scared me, you-” closer now, Piper froze, eyes flaring brighter, “...not a cat...”

No, now that she was looking closely, there was no way this thing was a cat. The basic body shape was like a cats, sure, and the head shape, but the ears were too big, long and pointed and with feathers along the edges, and its tail was shaped more like a rat’s, looking prehensile and it had feathers on it to and-

The not-cat noticed her and lifted its head to look at her and it’s eyes were black with no pupils, soulless, and it almost seemed to smile and show off a row of sharp looking teeth.

No, no, definitely not a cat. Imp was the first word that popped into her mind, but normal people weren’t supposed to see these things and sure she was sick of pretending to be normal but could she just have a break for a day please?

“Hey, uh... not-cat... ” slowly inching closer - because the thing wasn’t making any aggressive actions and it was right next to her fucking phone - “You, uh... friendly, I hope? Some sort of spirit of the house or something?”

The not-cat didn’t answer, merely blinking those soulless eyes and waving its tail a bit at her.

Cautiously, Piper stepped up beside the island and lifted her hand, extending it to the thing, her left gripping her keys and briar keychain tight at her side in case she needed to strike.

The not-cat - Imp, she was going to call it Imp - let out a very cat-like purr and immediately began rubbing itself against her hand, clearly wanting pets. Indulging herself, Piper stroked along the creatures back, somehow not surprised by how soft the white creature was.

“Alright, Imp, I guess you’re okay.” the thing’s ears lifted at the name and Piper smirked, eyebrows lifting; it already knew it’s name apparently. “So long as you don’t cause trouble, you can stay. Deal?”

Imp merely purred some more, climbing her arm suddenly to drape over her shoulders like a shawl, still rumbling in its chest.

Lips twitching, Piper resigned herself to her living-scarf and grimaced when her stomach rumbled loudly, reminding her that, hey, she hadn’t eaten since the Greasy Big Mac she’d already purged from her body.

Crossing to the fridge, she reached for the handles and hesitated, warm brown sliding down to her new furry friend, “Think there’s anything terrifying in here?”

Imp made a little ‘squeak’ of a noise as if to say ‘let’s find out’, tail swaying languidly.

“I blame you.” she grunted, taking a deep breath and then yanking the doors open.

Empty. Asides from a few water bottles, which didn’t count.

Shoulders slumping in both relief and annoyance, Piper snatched one of the bottles and let the doors swing shut again, cracking it open and exploring the rest of the cupboards.

Though there was no food in the house - which, really, as hungry as she was, Piper could still admit that not having anything moldy in the house was a good thing - the cupboards were fully stocked with tableware and drink ware, pots and pans and a kettle and a coffee maker tucked safely away.

“I have to go shopping.” she muttered, leaning back against the island and tilting her head back to take a long sip of water, the cool liquid soothing her bellyache only slightly. She needed groceries, clothes, toiletries... everything she had been forced to leave behind in her hectic rush to get away, to disappear.

Well, at least Mom covered me for several years, if not forever. Plus her own savings added up to quite a bit, and she still had whatever sales came in from her cookbooks, whenever Grace figured out how to get the money to her without making her traceable.

Imp purred again, and her lips twitched, “I guess I need food for you to, huh? Hopefully you’ll eat cat food.”

A shrill beeping from her phone caught her attention, drawing her eyes to the time readout of 8:30AM and the title of the reminder, Mistake Prevention.

Imp made a curious sound as she went looking for her purse again, locating it and grabbing the pill package she’d been damn-sure to throw in it, popping out one yellow pill and returning to the kitchen to swallow it with a gulp of water.

Seeing the strange look her scarf was giving her, Piper grinned harshly, “Don’t ask, let’s just say I never intend to get pregnant ever again. Or have sex again, for that matter, but it’s better to be safe.”

Imp blinked it’s eyes and made a strange sort of yip then, looking almost amused.

Silencing the alarm, Piper groaned when her stomach rumbled loudly, pain flaring through her along with a wave of dizziness. “Okay, I need food. I don’t even care what it is so long as it’s sugar. Know any good cafe’s nearby, Imp?”

The not-cat blinked once more and she grinned, grabbing her phone and shutting the music off as she headed for the foyer, doing a search for restaurants that served breakfast nearby. Much as fast food was the last thing she needed right now, it was better than passing out from low sugar.

Timmies was a very tempting name at the top of the list, but it was closer to Bancroft then Maynooth - at least a 20 minute drive away, if not worse depending on the state of the back roads - and Piper knew she wouldn’t make it that far.

She settled instead for what read to be a small family-centred cafe and inn in Maynooth named - and this had her heart lurching briefly - The Primrose Inn and Cafe, just a few minutes up the road into Maynooth proper from her turnoff the day before.

“Into town I go.” Piper muttered under her breath, not bothering to dislodge Imp from her shoulders as she pulled her socks on and stared at her muddy shoes for a moment, really not wanting to put them on. Then she gave up wishing and reluctantly stepped into them, shuddering slightly from the squishy feeling of the soles.

“New running shoes added to the list.” she grumbled, grabbing the clean sweater she had packed and her purse and then pausing as she moved for the door, eyes sliding to her breathing neck-piece.

“Hey. I don’t think cafe’s like animals.”

Imp merely blinked at her, body boneless as though to say ‘an animal, me? I’m just a scarf.’.

Piper could only snort, more amused than she would ever admit as she opened the door and stepped outside, making sure to pull it tightly closed and lock it behind her, “Alright, just sayin’. Don’t blame me if they kick you out.”

Unlocking and climbing into the Trax, Piper pulled the door shut and started the SUV, engine roaring reassuringly to life, making her fears that it had already been messed up in the crazy drive-in vanish.

Imp dislodged itself from her shoulders to curl up on the passenger seat, allowing her to do up her seatbelt and glance around, still surprised by how much nicer the weather was.

No complaints.

Throwing the car in reverse, she turned to look behind her as she backed slowly down the drive way, glad again that she had gotten four wheel drive as the Trax easily navigated the mud and stones.

No longer half blinded by rain, Piper eased onto the road and switched to drive, easily navigating down the road and to the weathered street sign reading Briar Trail, still as dilapidated and worn as it had been the night before.

Hanging a left, she took off down the slightly-sturdier road, glad that there weren’t many debris lying around.

Not a soul passed her as she drove back to the main highway, happy when she finally reached the familiar intersection ahead.

She came to a stop and waited patiently for the few cars to pass before turning left onto the freeway, driving the whole ten seconds into Maynooth Proper.

The Primrose Inn and Cafe was right smack in the middle of the tiny town, an elegant looking building that had been well maintained but never updated. Piper pulled the Trax into the lot and parked at the far end away from the five cars already there, staring at the building for a moment before shutting the SUV off.

Imp was immediately draped over her shoulders as soon as she undid her seatbelt, making her smirk despite herself.

“Remember, not my fault.” she warned the creature as she slid from the car and swung the door closed behind her, only earning a quiet ‘yip’ in return.

Treading carefully across the still damp parking lot, Piper slowly opened the door with its cheery ‘Open!’ sign and winced when a bell rang over her head, stepping in quickly and looking up at the space.

No one had looked up at her entrance or, if they had, they’d quickly looked away. Only three of the tables were occupied, which meant one of the cars belonged to the owners or a guest who hadn’t come down yet.

It was a cozy space; a large, open dining room with big windows and elegant but comfortable furnishings, including a lower set of arm chairs and coffee table near a big fire place.

To her left was a counter that clearly acted as both greeters booth and Inn check in, judging by the open bookings-binder sitting on it. The kitchens were off past the booth to the left, the smell of food making her stomach rumble longingly.

“Good morning, dear! I thought I heard the bell. Breakfast or a room?”

Piper started at the sudden voice to her left, amber eyes whipping to the source. A rather motherly looking woman had appeared, with grey-tinged blonde hair and kind green eyes, smiling from a wrinkle-lined face. She was dressed nicely, and Piper could only assume she was the operator of the Inn.

“Breakfast, please. Um...” remembering Imp draped around her neck, Piper jerked her thumb at the content creature, “My, uh... cat kinda decided to tag along. I can put... Imp back in the car if it’s not okay-”

“Honey, s’long as the darling stays where he is, he’s completely welcome. Such a sweet little kitten.” the woman reached out to gently pat Imp on the head, making the thing purr contentedly. Piper tried not to roll her eyes to obviously.

So I was right, normal people see a cat.

Any other thoughts were cut off by her stomach rumbling even louder, a faint tinge brushing her cheeks as the woman chuckled good naturedly, motioning into the dining room even as she produced a menu from the greeting stand. “Make yourself at home, dear, sit where you like. I dare say you’re starving with a growl like that! My name’s Martha, I’m the manager and, for today, waitress as well. Would you like something to drink, honey?”

“Coffee, please.” Piper replied immediately, taking the menu gratefully.

“Cream and sugar, dear?”

“Sugar, yes. Um... you don’t happen to have soy milk...?”

“I do indeed.” Martha smiled warmly, “I’ll bring it out for you, go find yourself a seat.”

“Thank you.” she sighed in relief, knowing that whatever she ate was going to mess with her stomach anyways but at least attempting would make her feel less guilty.

Slightly.

Mental note, buy lactose pills when you go shopping.

Once Martha had disappeared into the back, Piper made a beeline for the armchairs near the fire place, still slightly chilled from her earlier excursion in wet clothes. Imp slid into her lap once she’d sat down, curling up and making itself comfortable as she glanced around again before digging into her purse, pulling out her phone and pen and then cursing when she realized she had no paper. Sighing, she opened the menu instead, perusing the delicious looking variety.

By the time Martha came back, Piper knew this cafe was going to be a very bad thing for her stomach, but she would love every minute of it.

“Have you decided, dear?” Martha was still smiling as she set down a tray on the table, a small single-serve coffee pot, mug, bowl of sugar packets and small carton of soy creamer balanced perfectly on it.

“Yes, and you’re going to think I’m a pig.”

“Most of our customers are, dear. Go for it.”

“Okay. Can I get the french toast with strawberries, and a side of bacon as well as a side of hash browns, please?”

“Sweetheart, you think that makes you a pig? My goodness, dear, what do you usually eat?”

Piper flushed, chewing her lip in annoyance, “Mostly vegetables, so breakfast food like this is going to kill me but I’m starving. I’ll probably be putting in another order after wards to take home, to, if that’s okay?”

“No problem at all, dear. Oh, here,” Martha ripped a couple of pages off her note-book, holding them out, “You looked like you needed paper, so here.”

“Thank you.” Piper’s voice was full of sincerity, not used to people being so... nice without an ulterior motive.

Martha only smiled and winked, “I’ll get your food started, honey.”

Piper watched with bright amber eyes until the woman disappeared into the back, then reached for the sugar and soy creamer, fixing her coffee. Grabbing the pen, she wrote ‘grocery list’ on one of the pages and ‘supplies list’ on the other, tapping her chin as she considered what to get.

“Almond milk, veggies, soy cheese, cereal, meat, eggs, water bottles...” amber eyes slid to the creature snoozing in her lap, lips twitching, “...cat food and treats, some toys I guess... oh, lactose pills, Tylenol, Advil, feminine crap... should probably refill my subscription to... salt, pepper, other spices, peanut butter... margarine...”

The second list mostly consisted of cleaning stuff, running shoes, toilet paper, toiletries and more clothes by the time Martha arrived with two plates, the smell making her mouth water.

“Enjoy.” was all the woman said, giving a knowing smile as she walked away, leaving Piper to dig in ravenously.

“The Briar’s are healthy again, I see.”

“Yup, they’ve been strong for about six months; stronger than ever, really.”

Piper froze with a mouthful of French toast, catching the strain of conversation from the two men sitting at one of the window booths. They didn’t notice her almost chocking thankfully, the man who had spoken first looking surprised.

“Mr. King is back then, I take it?”

“He returned about a year ago, actually, but he wasn’t quite himself at first. Now he’s stronger than ever.”

“What changed? No one really knows what happened, right?”

“That’s just it, isn’t it? He just up and left for 5 years, then came back stronger. I have no idea what happened, but he’s taking care of us again, and that’s all I need.”

Mr. King? Piper wondered, scowling around a bite of hash browns, chewing as quietly as she could. Imp peeped in her lap, looking amused as hell.

“Folks were saying that his father passing - bless his soul, that man - was what chased him away, since they were close. He probably had to learn a lot before coming back; it’s a big role to fill, after all.”

“To true. Well, he seems to be doing a wonderful job. We’re in good hands once more.”

“How’s the food, dear?”

Piper jumped, guilty brown flicking to the smiling woman standing over her.

“Delicious.” she answered honestly, hoping Martha hadn’t noticed her eavesdropping, “I may put in that second order now, but I have a couple of questions first.”

“Shoot.”

“You’ve probably noticed I’m, ah, new to town...”

“Of course. Usually see a few new faces during the tourist season - people heading to cottages and Algonquin - but gotta admit, late May is a strange time for new faces.”

“I inherited a summer house, and ah... needed to get away for a while.” Piper explained vaguely, “So, I kinda need to stock up on supplies. Are there any good places for grocery shopping or cleaning supplies around here? Or a pharmacy?”

“Well, we have a general store just across the road where you could grab some cleaning supplies, maybe a few basic groceries. I’d honestly suggest going into Bancroft for anything else, though.”

“I thought so.” Piper sighed, trying to smile, “Oh well, that’s a trip for tomorrow. Could I put in that to-go order now?”

“Of course, dear, what would you like?”

“A couple of your butter croissants, a blueberry muffin - do you have any to-go cups for coffee? Gonna need caffeine-”

~*~*~*~*~

Pulling into the now-familiar driveway, Piper pulled the Trax right up to the front and put it in park, unbuckling herself and waiting for Imp to settle itself on her shoulders before sliding out.

The ground was much drier now, thank God; revealing the gravel that made up the driveway beneath the previous layer of mud.

Piper moved to the back and lifted the hatch, pulling out the bags - one of cleaning supplies, the other of take out from the Primrose - and snatching the new mop and broom she’d purchased, slamming the hatch and heading for the house.

She hadn’t really checked if there was a broom or mop set in the house, but it could probably use a new one regardless.

Martha had thrown in an extra croissant with her order and leftovers, as well as writing down the Inn’s number on a scrap of paper.

“We take care of each other out here. You need anything, you call.”

Much as she mostly wanted to be left alone and avoid people, Piper appreciated the offer. At least she would have someone to call if anything happened.

Once more kicking her shoes off on the porch, Piper unlocked the door and headed straight for the kitchen, dropping her bags on the island counter and leaning the cleaning tools against it.

Imp detached itself from her shoulders in order to peer at her phone when she set it down, poking at it with a paw when she flicked her music on again.

“Just don’t break it.” she warned the creature before going through the bags, sticking the food in the fridge and sorting through the cleaning supplies.

Tired as she was - even though it was only like noon - there were a few things she needed to get done.

First, she headed to the basement and swapped the laundry to the drier, leaving it to run as she headed back up to dig through her duffle. Two bobby pins secured her braid in a messy bun, keeping it out of her face as she got to work, scrubbing away the muddy footprints she’d left through the house.

Imp watched her from the island as she swept and dusted the entire house, music blaring the entire time.

It was passed five by the time she finished, grabbing her now cold coffee and downing it, wincing as pains started in her belly.

I knew I’d be paying for all that food. Oh well, I’ll survive until tomorrow...

Piper took a seat at the table and munched at her warmed up leftovers, splitting a croissant with Imp when it yipped pleadingly at her.

By the time she had cleaned up the food and retrieved her now mud-free clothes, it was 8:00PM and she was exhausted.

Turning lights off as she went, Piper all but collapsed on the bed, burying her face in the still prim-rose scented pillows.

Imp hopped up beside her, padding at the blanket before spinning in a circle and plopping down, tail swaying slightly.

“G’night.” Piper managed to mutter at it, a quiet prrrr the only response before she was out.

No eyes watched from the darkness that night. She had remembered to lock the door this time.

~*~*~*~*~*~

The next few days were spent making trips into Bancroft for everything she needed, as well as trying to tidy things up in the house.

She’d been woken early the next morning by terrible stomach cramps yet again, swearing she would get some lactose pills and proper food that day.

Changing into the second set of clean clothes she’d brought, Piper downed a bottle of water before heading out, tossing the rest of the leftover food despite how much the waste made her wince.

Her stomach would thank her later.

Imp decided not to follow this time, still curled on the bed the last time Piper had looked.

Thankfully, there was a Walmart just outside Bancroft on the way from Maynooth, and that was her stop.

By the time she was done, the Trax was loaded with bags of veggies and fruits, almond milk and vegan margarine and soy cheese and things that wouldn’t hurt her, as well as a couple of bags of clothes and toiletries, shampoo and conditioner and deodorant and female crap, all that good stuff.

Piper had also dropped her prescription off at the Walmart pharmacy, almost wanting to laugh at the pharmacists surprised face when she said she wanted to fill the whole thing.

“You want all of it? Are you sure?

“Yes, I want the script for the year filled. I don’t want to have to drive out constantly just for the prescription, you see.”

“It may take a couple of days to fill this.”

“That’s fine, just call me when it’s done.”

She’d even remembered to buy cat food and treats for Imp, though the creature seemed dubious about it and mostly still wanted her food.

Three days later found her stocked for everything and just needing running shoes and workout gear, heading out to the Canadian Tire near the Walmart since her prescription was also ready.

Imp went with her this time, hanging limpy over her shoulders like a good living-scarf.

She picked the prescription up first, since it was easiest - also grabbing the biggest package of lactose pills they had, since she’d forgotten before.

Then Piper headed for Canadian Tire, buying a new pair of running shoes, a big package of toilet paper...

And a punching bag.

She’d been doing kick boxing since breaking things off with the scum bag, both as a way to keep fit - because her metabolism was not amazing like her sister’s - and as a means of self defense. She’d had to leave her bag back home, so buying a new one was the logical choice.

She even knew where she was going to put it! If she could get it into the house.

Two store associates had brought it out to the Trax for her, and she hadn’t even considered what she was going to do when she got to the house.

Piper had backed the SUV into the drive way, gotten out and popped the hatch before she even thought about how she was going to get the bag inside. She was strong, but not that strong.

Imp disappeared while she stood there glaring at the punching bag, hands on her hips and lip caught between her teeth.

Maybe I could just... drag it into the house? she considered, moving forwards to pull on it, getting it to the edge of the trunk space before glancing around, measuring how much mud was between the SUV and the house.

Guess I’m going to be cleaning the floors again... that thought in mind, Piper grabbed onto the package and steeled herself, ready to yank it out.

“Wuh th’hell are yah doin’?”

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