“Oww! Watch where you’re going, dumb ass.”
“Well, if your feet weren’t so damn big then I’d have missed them.”
“Find somewhere else to hide. I know you’re obsessed with me, but you’re practically breathing down my neck, and it’s pathetic.”
“Pft, obsessed? Please, I can’t even begin to understand how Michael puts up with your ass. Use those big manly feet of yours and scoot over. You’re taking up all the space.”
I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose as the hushed bickering continued. The patrollers were approximately twenty feet away from the bush that kept us hidden. One wrong move, and they’d come running with their demands. Turning around slowly, I flashed my canines at the old married couple.
“Do I have to put you two in time out like little pups? If my dad finds out about this, there will be hell to pay.”
“She started it!” Derek hissed, pointing an accusing finger at Nicole. She slapped his hand away and hissed back, “You stepped on me!”
“Both of you shut up before we get caught,” I gritted through clenched teeth. Meanwhile, the patrollers moved further out, giving us the perfect opportunity to escape. Liam watched behind the adjacent tree, waiting for the men to eat more distance before he waved the signal. I wasted no time hurriedly walking to the back of the house and jumping over the tall fence.
“Blackburn is waiting for us downtown in Plum,” Derek announced as we successfully crossed River Ash territory lines. I nodded, climbing in the passenger seat of his SUV. Nicole paused before deciding to take the next car. Lucky for me, the next hour would be peaceful and fewer stops for bathroom breaks. My best friend was never my first choice as a road trip buddy.
Yawning, I propped the seat back and rested on my neck pillow. Plum was a small town close enough to the city but dull enough to avoid unwanted attention. I’d been there a handful of times to deliver some paintings. It was the perfect place to meet our frenemies.
Like most road trips, Derek kept his mouth busy with every snack known to man while I watched the blurry trees out of the window, drifting in and out of consciousness. Since the attack, my sleep schedule was anything but healthy. The constant tossing and turning, watching every dark corner until I convinced myself no one had broken inside. The traumatic experience shattered my peace of mind, but Derek’s presence brought comfort. I spaced out and finally shut my eyes for the rest of the drive.
It wasn’t until the sudden charge of sparks shooting throughout my body that I snapped my eyes open. I blinked up at Arlo, confused as he carried me bridal style to his truck. He glanced at me, setting me down on the passenger side. My heart backflipped as I realized his motives.
“I’m riding with Derek.” I began gathering my things that lay at my feet and the middle console. Arlo stood at the door, not making an effort to move out of my way.
“In the case that we are followed, it’s safer for you to ride with me,” Arlo told me with a straight face. But I knew that was complete bullshit. It had nothing to do with safety precautions. He wanted to get me alone, which I couldn’t handle at all. Not without keeping my promise.
“I’m a big girl. I can handle myself,” I told him, shifting in the seat. We looked back at the same time to see more of my warriors arriving for the travel, all piling in Derek’s car.
“Guess you’re stuck with me,” Arlo smirked, utterly pleased with his plan to spend more time together. I wanted to smack that victory grin right off his beautiful face. Sighing, I sat back in the seat.
“Last time I checked, my legs functioned properly. Why didn’t you wake me up?” I asked, rubbing my tired eyes. He shook his head, disappointed with my unmoved response to his kind gesture.
“You looked too comfortable. I didn’t want to wake you,” He said, reaching over to buckle my seat belt. I stopped him halfway, gripping his palm. Our noses brushed as he turned to look me in the eyes before they drifted down to my lips. The temptation to unite our lips slid down my throat as I gulped audibly.
The butterflies fluttered in my stomach as I remembered the last time we’d shared a passionate kiss. Kissing him was pure ecstasy. No one could ever compare to the exhilarating feeling I got with him. I hated to admit it, but I’d missed the sensation. It took all of my self-control not to give in to my desires and pull him closer.
“I think I can manage this part on my own,” I breathed, my hot breath fanning his face. He continued to stare at me fervently for some moments longer. I was nervously fidgeting with the edges of my seat in hopes he’d step back soon. I couldn’t stand to be this close to him without turning all giddy inside. At the sound of voices, Arlo finally turned away to speak with the others about directions to Salem.
Derek constantly moved his head around the truck, searching my face for any signs of discomfort. Full-on protective brother mode. He took one final glance in my direction. I nodded, assuring him my comfort even though I was a nervous wreck. The nervousness only increased when Arlo came back to the truck alone.
“What?” He asked when I stared blankly at him. Even though I already knew the answer, I asked anyway, “No one else?” My voice was ladened with hope.
“Nope,” Arlo chirped and then shook his head, “Just don’t look in the back seat, and we’ll be good,” He told me, shifting the gear in drive and pulling onto the road. I straightened up anxiously and started to turn around.
“What’s in the back seat?” I almost didn’t want to ask at the seriousness in his tone. My mind was forming wild thoughts, but they soon vanished as he smiled mischievously, lightening the mood.
“All the tools I need to sacrifice you in my ritual. You know because I’m a soul-sucking demon and all,” He joked, using his demonic voice and tickling my side. I suddenly hunched forward and let out my obnoxious laugh. I inwardly cringed, trying to control it, but Arlo kept poking at my side.
“Stop that,” I swatted him on the arm, my cheeks flushing deep red. I raised my cold hands to my face to cool them. His smile grew wider as he glanced between me and the road.
“Your laugh is beautiful,” He admitted. I grimaced at his compliment, giving off my best are you serious look. The sincere tone and sparkle in his eyes told me he was, in fact, dead serious.
“I think literally everyone would agree that you’re delusional. I sound like a dying hyena.”
“Not at all,” He disagreed, “I love your laugh. I think you should laugh more often.”
I bit down on my bottom lip, fighting back the wide smile. His compliment made this odd fuzzy feeling grow potent in the pit of my stomach. Should I tell him that I also enjoyed his laughter? I wanted to tell him a lot of nice things. But Instead, I opened my big stupid mouth, killing the mood.
“Kinda hard to do when people are trying to kill me for half a million dollars,” I said, absentmindedly looking out at the mountains up ahead. Arlo frowned. The sudden sparks pulled me out of my daze as his warm hand found mine.
“As I said before, you don’t need to worry about anything. We made a promise, remember? I’ll take care of you,” He quickly kissed my hand and rested our arms on the middle console, intertwining our fingers. I swear my heart almost exploded right then and there. I couldn’t fight back the smile this time. And I didn’t want to.
The truck came to a complete stop, alerting me out of a deep slumber. I must have fallen asleep sometime after talking with Arlo. Looking down, I noticed our hands were still connected. The sparks hummed at a comfortable low pace. Arlo smiled and released, taking the key out of the ignition.
“Where are we?” I asked, looking around the identical cabin-style homes. Each one lined up next to the other, hiding behind the oak trees. I looked past the houses, noticing only one that stood out to the others. It’s two-story building painted yellow and more business-like setting. It was then I caught the sign reading ‘The Better Place.’ Which I’d never heard of before. Kane’s vehicle appeared next to us.
“We’re just a couple miles out from Silverhill. I have some business to take care of before we leave,” Arlo explained, stepping out of the truck. I made no move to get off, allowing him some privacy to take care of his work. But he came to the passenger side and opened my door expectantly.
“Come on,” Arlo encouraged, “The children would love to meet you.”
“Children?” I echoed, feeling lost. Arlo didn’t say anything but smiled at my confusion. He grabbed my hand and led me to the much larger building. It was then I saw the Blackburn name in recognition on the sign. I turned to look at Arlo, my curious expression hinting away at an explanation.
“Kane and I bought this property a couple years back. We had the idea of transforming it into a safe place for children who come from abusive parents and unstable homes. A place where they can learn and grow until the right adoptive parents come along. So, we invested our savings into this big dream, and with the help of our amazing team and pack members, we now have The Better Place. It’s truly rewarding, in the end, to see these kids get a second chance at life,” Arlo explained proudly. I smiled at the gratifying sight of his devotion to save these children. Something told me that anyone who walked through the doors of this sanctuary was greatly taken care of.