The sound of soft piano woke me up a few days after Willow’s arrival. It was Saturday, and the whole week I saw very little of Willow. Her sister was about to arrive tomorrow, and Willow needed to some stuff and so I barely saw here – which worked fine for me and Jez, who seemed to get closer even better now that we had a “mutual enemy”.
Whoever played the piano, I knew it wasn’t Gunner or Jez, the other pianists who lived at the mansion nowadays. Jez was the one who played when I first came here, and had her own significance in her playing, just like Gunner did – and I played with him, so I would know. Whoever played now, I didn’t recognize him or her.
But I recognized the song. It was the same one I played not so long ago - “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan. Only this person played the song without singing, the piano version. It was beautiful and sad and very emotional.
Curious, I got out of bed and put on my slippers. I wore my regular pjs – black sweatpants and oversized boys’ shirt – and took off to the attic. The music got louder and clearer as I got closer and when I reached the attic and opened its door, I stood there, stupefied, and watched as a woman with the silkiest hair of strawberry-blond played.
I watched her playing with wide eyes, so her own bright hazel ones closed as her fingers looked like they were dancing on the keys. I couldn’t take my eyes off her and listened as the melody became softer, as the song came to an end, but she didn’t end it because she sensed someone was watching her. Stopping abruptly, she turned around and looked right at me.
I expected her to scold me for interrupting her or something but instead she smiled the kindest of smiles, the Winter sun from outside the glassed wall making her look as angelic and ethereal as ever. “Rae,” she greeted in that musical voice of hers. “I... didn’t know you’re here.”
I tried to smile back at her – and failed. Her natural beauty made me feel like I was worthless. Disposable. Like there were thousands of girls who looked as boring as I did, and there was only one Willow who needed to be cherished.
Maybe it was pitiful and stupid, but that’s how I felt as I watched her smiling at me as if were old friends.
“I wanted to know who played,” I found myself saying.
She chuckled. “I see.” She said. “Do you play?”
Before I could answer, Gunner entered the attic, looking fresh and I could scent he’d just had a shower. “What’s... going on?” he asked, looking from Willow to me than back at Willow.
“Oh, I just played a little bit,” Willow smiled at Gunner and I felt my heart sinking at that. “Rae was just curious.”
Gunner arched a brow. “You’re still playing?” He asked, and I could hear the bit of nostalgia in his voice.
“Yes,” Willow said with a more powerful longing. “You?”
Gunner nodded and then smiled a little bit, making me feel like I was interrupting a private moment. And maybe I was interrupting. It made my heart clench in a way it didn’t clench since New Year’s Eve.
Willow smiled back. “Care to join me?” She asked, her eyes twinkling in a way I didn’t like.
“Sure,” Gunner slid into the seat next to Willow, sitting really close to her – not that he had a choice with the not-so-wide chair but sill – and the two of them started playing after a knowing exchange of glances. I just stood there, feeling like a Peeping Tom or something, and when the two started playing some classical piece, I felt my heart breaking a little bit.
The two of them sounded brilliant together. They also looked fit, not only musically but on the outside, too. Both of them looking like a god and a goddess. Both of them are the most beautiful people I’d ever seen. They looked so good together, and from the shocking softness in Gunner’s eyes, I knew she had a calming effect on him.
I could almost see how they’d once been, as a couple. Willow and her angelic nature and Gunner with his brooding one. She could’ve made him feel so much better, taking him out of his stubborn shell, making him a happy person.
Their dynamic was way calmer and smoother than Gunner’s and mine. We were wild with electricity and ferociousness, like two wild animals. I didn’t know which was better; the calm nature of Willow or my own wild one.
For some reason, I had a bad feeling that the calm one was way fitter to Gunner than mine.
Looking at them playing together hurt. Really hurt. But I forced myself to see, to process that Gunner had had a love before me, that he had a past. I forced myself to realize that I wasn’t the first one to interest Gunner. It made it all too painful but I needed this reality check. I needed it for my own sake.
When the two of them finished playing, Willow and Gunner looked at each other with such intense eyes I died a little inside. I could almost taste the connection they had, but then Willow broke it as she turned to me. “Can you play something for me, Rae?” She asked me with a kind smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes this time. She still thought about Gunner. About my boyfriend, my lover. The one who continued looking at Willow like she was a puzzle he wanted to solve.
It made me feel ten times worse.
“I don’t mind,” I said, trying to smile but failing miserably. Willow stood up and Gunner was snapped out of his haze and stood up too. The two of them watched me as I sat on the chair and planted my hands on the keys.
My heart was filled with uncertainty, with worry, with helplessness. I’d always known Gunner and I didn’t really look good together. Willow coming here only intensified the feeling, making me self-conscious once again. Even after what we’d done in Gunner’s office... I still felt like I didn’t deserve him.
He was too good for me, really. Out of my league, as I always said.
Feeling like I could cry any minute, I sucked in a breath and started playing a piece I loved. It’s called “Lost Skies” and even if it wasn’t a complicated piece, it resembled my own emotions at the moment.
I closed my eyes and played, letting the sounds to take away my thoughts from Willow, Gunner, Chase, Isobel, Echo... I almost forgot there were people in the attic with me. I was that lost in my own world.
But it was better than seeing Willow and Gunner looking intimately at each other, their past together shining in their beautiful eyes. I couldn’t handle it. Gunner broke my heart enough times. I didn’t want it to break anymore. But here was Willow, making him do this again, and it wasn’t even his fault. I should’ve just sucked it up and acted like a normal jealous girlfriend, not like the weak willed person I grew up to be.
Where was my wisdom? Sagacity? Where did it all disappear? It felt like I was being a moron time after time, with trusting Gunner with my heart, my mind, my body, my soul. It weakened me, made me incapable of taking care myself. Made me want Gunner to take care of me.
How stupid was that?
I had no idea how long I played. I just did, and then when I finished and looked around, I didn’t see Willow and Gunner. They’d left, probably together, and left me here alone. Lonely and aching.
I started playing another variation of the piece and a tear slipped out of my eyes. The melody got more emotional with every minute that passed. Then, my agony changed and I felt angry instead. Angry at the whole world. At everyone. At my life. And as the anger filled me, the melody became harsher, stronger, angrier, more furious even.
I played, pouring my heart into the notes. Pouring all my insecurities, all the bad things I felt into the melody. And as I played, angry tears streamed out of my eyes, making me rethink everything I’d done lately. Fighting with Isobel. Kissing with Chase. Falling even harder for Gunner. Letting him play with Willow.
I didn’t even realize I changed the melody entirely that now it was a piece of Rachmaninoff. It was one of his more hard pieces, one that I’d worked twice as hard to make it sound good, and now I played with harsh fingers, with furiousness and fierceness that I hadn’t had before.
Then the melody changed again, and now I played the same song Willow played. “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan. A fitting song for Willow, since she was really an angel. But if she was an angel, I was the devil. And so I changed the song to another one that was called “Bad”. As my mood changed into agony again, I switched to another song, than when I was desperately furious I switched it again, and so on.
I wasn’t hungry, wasn’t thirsty. The emotions filled me, making me crave nothing but peace. The hours passed, and I played and played, and only when it started darkening outside had I realized I played the whole day without a pause. My fingers were almost numb with overuse, but I felt a mild satisfaction. I’d been left alone to my brooding and sulking, and it paid off. Now I was calmer.
Even if the anguish was still planted inside of me. Because no matter how I prayed, I could never, ever look like Willow, act like Willow, or just be Willow. I was Rae Marie O’Reilly. I was a redhead with brown eyes and darker-than-usual skin tone. I was slim and short and not very pretty. I was lame-looking and I wasn’t as sexy as Gunner claimed me to be. I could never look like Willow no matter how much I wanted. Just like no guy could’ve ever looked like Gunner. It was a moot point, so sulking about it made no sense.
And sure, Gunner and Willow did look good together. Better than I could’ve ever hoped to look next to Gunner. Even though Gunner picked me, he still looked better with Willow. His chemistry with her was great, too. Unlike the furious electricity between the two of us.
And it hurt to realize that Willow was such a better match for him. Sure, she had hurt him and all, but, from how I looked at it, she was the purest of all souls. I don’t know how she’d been before, when she’d dated Gunner, Maddox and Danger at the same time. But I knew that now, she was one of the greatest women out there. With a little effort she could have Gunner for herself.
Red-hot jealousy took over my mind and I winced. I took off my hands of the piano and covered my face with them just as angry and jealous tears started falling. I sobbed and my whole body shook. Even I could hear how pitiful my heartbroken weeping was. But I couldn’t stop it.
But then... Then a hand landed on my shoulder. A big, warm hand I knew all too well. I ignored it, though, and kept on crying. I heard him sliding into the seat next to me, and then pulled me into his arms, burying me in his chest. I sobbed pitifully and didn’t relax in his arms like always, didn’t let him give me comfort, didn’t let him help me.
I was kidding myself if I thought we could take on any hurdle. This hurdle? The Willow Hurdle? It could not be taken on. It was too large, too, big, too wide for me to even try. The place Willow had in Gunner’s memories? It was more than I could’ve ever hoped to have.
He didn’t say a thing. He just held me there, pressing me tightly against his chest, making me sob even harder. We sat there for a long time, until it was already night outside. I stopped crying eventually, and my body also stopped shaking. He felt the change and leaned away from me. I uncovered my face and he cupped it with his warm hands, forcing me to look straight into his endless of sea-eyes.
“I knew it,” Gunner said in a quiet, low voice. “I knew you would feel like that sooner or later.”
I said nothing.
“I don’t want to be with Willow, Rae,” his hands clenched on my cheeks. “I don’t want to be with anyone but you. I care about you, not her. I can never forgive what she did to me, and even if I could, I wouldn’t come back to her.”
His gaze turned intense. “When we left you here to play, she asked me if we were together. I told her that yes, we are. She asked me to think about her and me, and I told her it was out of the question. I told her I don’t love her. I told her my mind is set on you, and none other. She understood and wished us both a happy life together. She knows I’m not interested in her.”
I wanted to believe it so much. I really wanted to.
“Don’t you dare feel an inferior to her,” his voice turned hard. “I know what you think. You think she’s better than you. More beautiful. More easy-going. But you’re wrong, Rae. Even someone as beautiful as her – and yes, I know she’s beautiful, I’m not going to deny it – has faults, Rae. No one is perfect. Neither does her. And you’re so unique in your own way, so beautiful in thousands of other ways that you can’t even begin to understand. Do you know that Danger thought about dating you at first? Before I was even in the picture? The only thing that made him reject the idea was the fact he’s exactly ten years older than you and he’d feel like a cradle-robber. And do you think that Montgomery likes you for no reason? He saw that hidden beauty in you, Rae. You’re not as dull as you think yourself to be. You’re certainly not boring. You’re burning with life and passion and love. And that’s why I feel so much about you.”
I felt myself cracking, felt my heart softening again for him. “Really?” I found myself whispering dumbly.
He leaned his forehead on mine. “Don’t you ever thing otherwise,” he said softly. “I’m yours just like you’re mine, Rae. It goes both ways. Don’t you dare to think you feel more about me than I feel about you. And whenever you have relapses of insecurity about us like this one, I want you to talk to me and not taking it all out on the poor piano.” He grinned slightly with a sly edge. “Okay?”
I hesitated only for a second – because how could I deny him when he was so handsome, so strong like now? How could I, when he held me with fierceness and fought for me – for us? I couldn’t. And so I only nodded and whispered, “Okay.”
Then he kissed me, sealing our promise in a way that went beyond words. He kissed me passionately, deeply, in such a caring way I felt I was being taken care of, being saved in more ways than I could explain.
And later that night, after I showered and finally ate something, my appetite way bigger than it’d been the all day, Gunner and I slipped inside my room together and lay on the bed, both of us in sleeping clothes. I wore my sweatpants and a tank top, seeing as it was always too warm underneath the duvet, while Gunner wore only dark-gray sweatpants. Then we slipped under the warm blanket and Gunner cradled me in his arms, his arm my pillow and his other warm like another layer of blanket.
We stared a long time into each other’s eyes before we fell asleep, our breaths mingling together, and peace filling us both at the presence of each other. And I knew that I was safe with this person, with my love.
I loved Gunner. And I was now safe and sound in his arms.
Gunner and I were now at the entrance hall with everyone else, waiting for the arrival of Arabella Andela, Willow’s older and only sister. Willow seemed to be the most excited to see her sister; the others looked like they wanted to gag. Jez specifically looked slightly out of it today.
I stood next to Gunner, holding his hand, and just waited for that woman to arrive already. I wondered if she’s as beautiful as Willow was. If indeed, than I would definitely hate the Andela genes. It’s so not fair.
The entrance doors opened and inside walked Daisy, one of the servants, with two suitcases. Behind her entered a woman in her late thirties, with designer clothes and those big, fashionable sunglasses. Her hair was such a dark brown, it was on the verge of being black. Her skin was naturally tanned, darker than normal, and she looked really neat and nurtured.
Henry stepped forward. “Hello, Arabella,” he said with somewhat a grim voice.
Arabella smiled at him and it was not a really nice smile. “Henry. I forgot how handsome you look.” She took off her sunglasses and kissed Henry’s cheeks in a formal way. Then she averted her eyes to Danger and Jez, who stood next to each other. “Ah, how could I forget you two?” Her smile was too cunning for my taste.
After saying hello also to Ryder, Maddox and Evelyn – whom she seemed to really despise, as she barely touched her hand when they shook their hands, like she was diseased – she turned to Willow. The change was immediate; she suddenly seemed happier than anyone could’ve ever been. “Willie!” She jumped in happiness and squashed her sister.
Willow laughed in delight. “Hi, Bella.”
Arabella then realized there were more people in the room. She looked at Gunner and grinned, walking toward us. “You haven’t changed at all, Gun-Gun,” she winked and when she stood right in front of us, she seemed to realize there was a girl holding Gunner’s hand. Her eyes, which I now saw were dark brown, moved to me, and stayed.
Any trace on her pretty face disappeared. Anything cunning or sly just dissipated, giving place to a stun. She froze looking right into my eyes, and I froze too.
Those eyes were the same as my own. The exact same shade of dark brown. Muddy brown.
Silence filled the room as everyone looked at Arabella cautiously, waiting for her to snark at me like she did the others. But she didn’t.
Instead, her eyes filled with a sudden rage that made my own eyes widen. Her face turned into a scowl that destroyed anything pretty in her – if Willow was an angel, then her sister was a demon – and she looked like she wanted to shred me.
Another notable fact: She was the same height as me, both of us with the short, slim figure.
And when I looked at her more and more, a cold realization made me stagger back, removing my hand from Gunner’s.
That motion snapped Arabella from her haze. “Rae Marie O’Reilly.” She said in a sudden enraged, low voice, making everyone look shocked that she knew my name, Gunner included.
“No,” I whispered. “You can’t be...”
“Why is she here?” She snapped, looking at Henry with suck rage that made me want to whimper. “Why the fuck is she here?!”
“She’s under our custody, Arabella,” Henry said coolly, obviously suspicious of Arabella.
I walked back even more, shivering uncontrollably. “You can’t...” I whispered again. “You just can’t...”
Gunner seemed to realize the same thing as I did, and his question confirmed my thoughts. “Do you know Rae, Arabella?”
Arabella turned her venomous eyes to me again. “Oh, of course I know my bastard daughter, Gunner.”
And that was all that needed for everyone to understand that Arabella Andela was my mother.