“Aurora?” It was Isadora.
“Aurora? Can you hear me?”
She nodded, her eyes still closed. Her head hurt too much to think about any other response to her mother.
“We’re home now. I’ll be down in the kitchen if you need me. You just rest here.” Isadora was there, taking over again to save her daughter from the cruel world. So many accidents, so many deaths. She tucked a blanket around Rory’s shoulders. “Come down when you’re ready,” she said softly before leaving, pulling the door closed behind her.
Rory managed to nod again as her mother left. Without opening her eyes, she knew that “here” was her guest bedroom. Isadora wouldn’t have put her in the master bedroom, thinking that it would conjure painful memories.
When her mother’s footsteps faded, Rory finally opened her eyes and looked around, allowing herself to feel a moment of relief. How did I get here again? Vague images of the cemetery and the limousine returned. She remembered falling toward the casket. But someone caught her. Who? Cade? She had the impression that Isadora had yelled something about getting home. She remembered waking up as they drove, crying out, and hearing Cade’s voice murmur to her. She remembered unreasonable, hysterical fear rising within her as reality returned… then darkness again.
Rolling onto her side and wrapping her arms around a pillow, she stared at the wall, absently picking out imaginary faces in the wallpaper’s marbled pattern.
I guess I’d better give Mother a good show. Get her to go home so I can be alone. Sighing, Rory sat up slowly, frowning as the room tilted the wrong way before righting itself. She slipped out of her rumpled black dress, slip, and pantyhose, kicked it all into a corner, and pulled on a pair of jeans and a blue, long-sleeved cotton shirt from the stack of her clothing that sat on the dresser. The clothing was the only visible clue to the fact that she had moved out of the master bedroom.
She took a moment to check her appearance in the mirror; it wouldn’t do for Isadora to suspect the truth until she was up to explaining everything. Rory finger-combed her hair and tried to arrange it into something presentable.
Navigating her way to the kitchen, she wondered what her well-meaning mother had in store for her, hoping that it was nothing more than a few hugs and a hot meal she could pretend to eat.
“Thank you so much for your help, Mr. Ransome.” Rory heard Isadora’s voice before she entered the kitchen and stopped, wanting to turn around and go back to bed.
“Call me Cade, please.”
“Cade, then. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t been there. I never would have been able to catch her. Though why she insisted on wearing those long sleeves today is beyond me. A simple wrap would have sufficed. But who can judge at a time like this? Rory is taking this so hard. You should have heard her on the phone when she called me. Just shock. No emotion. Nothing. First Julie and now Paul. She lost her father and brother years ago, you know. Another driver hit ice and then hit them. She was the only survivor. More coffee? Paul was the best thing that ever happened to her – enough? – and for that car accident to take him so suddenly, well, it’s amazing she hasn’t curled up and died herself. I just wish that she would cry. Cream or sugar?”
Rory closed her eyes and quit listening. The best thing to ever happen to me? Dear God, if that’s true, I’m in trouble.
Rory’s head ached and she leaned against the cool wall of the living room, willing everything to be better. Okay, time to face the kitchen. Just keep your mouth shut, Rory. She rounded the corner and entered. It took a moment for either of them to notice her standing in the doorway.
Isadora fell silent, standing there, coffee pot in hand, as her concerned eyes focused on her daughter. Cade stared as well, recognizing Rory’s wary expression but not understanding it.
Hold me. For once, she didn’t wonder where the words came from. He was here and she was glad and that was all there was.
Cade watched her for a minute longer, thinking that she looked more helpless now than when she had lain in his arms just an hour ago.
He stood and guided her to a chair. She remained silent, feeling that the safest route was to say as little as possible. At least it would allow her to remain in control. The last thing she needed was to start confessing.
Let them think you miss Paul.
“Thank you,” she said finally. Her voice was as measured as her steps had been. “I didn’t mean…” the sentence trailed off, and she left it unfinished. Oh Lord, I made a spectacle of myself. She blushed and stared at the table, hoping no one would notice.
“Rory, do you want something to eat?” Isadora offered, interrupting her thoughts.
“You should have something,” Cade urged, uneasy by the sudden color in her face and the blue eyes that focused on something secret, something going on in her mind that was not to be shared.
She blinked once and nodded to answer both of them, trying to avoid Cade’s dark searching eyes and the wish for her mother to go away so that he could hold her again and she could find some comfort.
A plate was before her in minutes. Staring at Great-Grandma Devanoy’s blue-rimmed china, heaped with the ham, dumplings, corn, and biscuits that the neighbors had so kindly sent over, Rory decided that eating would be the best way to escape prying questions or well-meant sympathies.
I just have to survive today and then I can get on with my life, she promised herself, staring at the wall behind Cade. Paul was dead. Richard was past.
It’s over, she reminded herself. Richard’s presence today was just morbid curiosity; she was sure of it. Perhaps he wanted to see her unhappiness. If so, why did he have that same soft look on his face, the one that she remembered so well?
Whatever. That’s that. I’ve had enough time to heal.
“Is your hand okay?” Cade asked.
You’re mine. Now it was Paul’s voice that echoed in her head.
He repeated the question.
“It’s okay,” Rory said, tapping her fork against the plate’s rim absently, looking down at the bandage on her left hand. “I didn’t even realize I was hurting myself. I feel so stupid.”
You’re so fucking stupid that I can’t figure out how you breathe sometimes! How many times had Paul said that? It was all she could to not to cover her ears to block the phantom voice.
Isadora and Cade both tried to comfort her at the same time. “You’re not stupid!” “You were overwrought!” She ignored them, forcing herself to butter a biscuit and eat it. Her stomach lurched when she tried to swallow. “I’m sorry, I’m not hungry right now,” she said quietly, setting the biscuit down and staring at the table.
“You haven’t eaten in days,” her mother protested, but Rory wasn’t listening. The memory of Richard’s voice left no room for Isadora’s words.
I love you.
No, you don’t.
You’re just saying that because you liked it last night! I love you, Rory! I love you!
NO! That’s not love! That was force! That was… He grabbed her then and slapped her. Just once. So hard that her head snapped sideways and she stumbled. He grabbed her then, shaking her, his fingers digging into her shoulders.
You can’t say that! I love you! I’d never hurt you like that! I love you! Then she screamed. Loudly. And he let her go, shoving her away. Get out, he growled. Get out of here!
And she’d run.
“Rory?” Cade touched her shoulder, trying to get her attention. She jerked back, startled, her expression guarded.
“You have to eat something,” Isadora said again.
“Your mother’s right, Roar. You need to get something in you,” Cade echoed, nudging her plate toward her.
“No, I don’t.” Rory snapped as the tears that she’d yet to shed finally appeared, welling up in her eyes. “I don’t need another keeper. Not you, not anyone. I can take care of myself, Cayden.”
“I never said I was your keeper.”
“You certainly act like it!”
“Caring about you is not acting like your keeper.”
She fled then, appalled by her own behavior. Isadora – pausing only long enough to flash a curious, censorious glance at Cade – followed.
Leave me alone! I wish they’d all just leave me alone! Oh, God, help me through this! Rory threw herself across the bed in the spare room and tried to cry, but found that she couldn’t.
I can’t pretend anymore, she wanted to scream again.
Sitting in the kitchen, hearing silence when he expected sobbing, Cade found himself studying the blinds on the kitchen door. They looked as if they’d been stomped on and re-hung.
She doesn’t need another keeper?
She wasn’t devastated by Paul’s death, he knew. No, something else was going on in her mind, he was sure, something beyond her grief.
When Isadora returned ten minutes later, she took one look at him and shook her head. “She’s not shedding a single tear, Cayden. She’s just staring at the ceiling.” She sat down heavily and shook her head; her anger was obvious. “She always was a willful child. Good God, she actually told me to get away from her up there. She told me to go home! How incredibly ungrateful.”
Cade nodded and watched her prepare to leave, surprised that Isadora gave in so easily. His mother had never left until issues were resolved to her satisfaction and not a moment sooner. Rory’s tenacity had always reminded him of her a bit, and the thought warmed him now as he watched Isadora adjust her hat.
“I’m going to give that girl what she wants. She’ll come around eventually. It was nice to meet you, Cayden.”
His whisper cut through the darkness. “Go away.” The words sounded thick to her, and they were difficult to form. At least she had herself together and wasn’t crying. The last thing she needed was Cade’s sympathy.
“Your mother left.”
“Good. You can do the same.” She rolled onto her side, her back to him.
“I’ll come over tomorrow.”
She heard his footsteps then on the hardwood floor. Crossing the room and stopping at the bed. He was next to her now, standing there looking at her. She closed her eyes.
“Go home, Cade.”
Cade grinned despite himself, then gave in to temptation and kissed her forehead lightly. “Rest now, and don’t worry. I’ll be here to help you.”
The fact that she didn’t start yelling at him was, in his opinion, a good sign.