I stepped outside for the first time since the day I woke up and went searching for Jess. The cool air greeted me with goosebumps and a violent shiver. I adjusted Emily’s hat lower down her head to make sure her ears were covered. The sky was covered by sickly gray clouds, but it was still crisp and bright. The white snow was nearly blinding.
“Let’s hurry,” Jess stated, an edge to his voice. “But-” He made clear, “Not too fast. We can’t draw any attention on ourselves. Remember, Grace is keeping us a secret from the town.”
“Right,” I nodded. It was like someone reached inside my chest and squeezed my heart. We were just people. That was all. Just a couple of guys taking a walk.
“Mia,” Jess asked her, “What does the doctor’s office look like? Do you remember?”
“It...” She whispered, nuzzling Jess shoulders. “It has red windows.”
“Okay, red windows. That’s great, Boss. Good job.”
Jess took the lead, but I stayed close, practically running my nose right into his back. I wanted to hold hands. I needed the support to join the world again. I didn’t think I was ready to be with people. People who might be good, but could be bad, could want to see a couple of Rogues gone with any means necessary.
We walked down the gravel path. It was strange to think I’ve already been down this road. The winters here were harsh. Bits of ice and snow road every breeze and its icy bite gnawed every bit of my bare skin, leaving me numb and shivering.
Jess found the Inn at night, didn’t he? It would have been colder. I imagined Jess. Lone Jess, carrying me on his back in the dark, in the snow and probably scared out of his mind. This was the first time I had taken a moment to appreciate what he did for me. My heart swelled as I watched bits of snow cling to his dark hair.
On its own, my free hand grabbed the back of his jacket. He was busy holding Mia close, wrapping his arms around her and I didn’t want to bother that. I just wanted to reach for him. He glanced back, a bit surprised. It wasn’t even what I really wanted to do. I wanted to kiss him.
Jess said something close to a promise. “It’ll be okay.”
I could only nod. If I opened my mouth, he’d be bound to hear my heart rattling. We walked until the gravel path led to a road. A car crept by and even though the driver didn’t even glance at us, my stomach squirmed and I held Emily closer. My breathing hitched at the driver’s face. At the wheel, I saw Jacob Coldwell. I did a double take and the image switched. The driver was a stranger. There was no Jacob. I was going nuts. Why couldn’t I spend one day without him haunting me?
We walked along the side of the road, passing a few random scattered houses in the woods. Civilization started small and grew until we found town and it’s square. Dearest was exactly how I imagined, quaint and full of charm as if it was ripped from the pages of a story book with cobble stone streets and cottage styled buildings, among brick ones covered in ivy. Lights were wrapped around the naked trees and some people still had their decorations from New Year’s Still up. We passed a small park too.
A few places had their outside seating still out, but abandoned. There were carts, wrapped up for the winter. This place seemed to be in hibernation. Even the Dearest Inn seemed bare. Liam mostly served the people of town breakfast.
There was a clock in the middle of the square that held a sign that said:
229 days until Apple Season.
Despite the cold, there were people on the streets. What were they doing? Don’t they know they should be home by a cozy fire with tea and freshly baked cookies? They were doing winter wrong. My eyes were distracted a moment. I had a talent for finding bookstores and this one was hard to miss. It had two store front windows, constructed to look like bookshelves and my mouth watered. The store windows were covered in one of my all-time favorite Jane Austen quotes:
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
It was called, the Bookmiser and I found myself another soulmate.
“Focus, nerd,” Jess snickered, grabbing my arm before I walked right into a bench. I jumped, stumbling to keep from tumbling and probably crushing Emily. Tripping over an uneven cobblestone, I nearly stumbled into a man and woman. We locked eyes and my entire face went red. They blinked at me and then at us when Jess arrived at my side.
“S-sorry,” I managed, surprised by how quiet and tortured my voice was. I opened my mouth to explain myself, but my throat dried up. This stranger was like facing a wild animal as if I peeked underneath my bed and saw something. Fear strangled the words from escaping my throat.
The woman’s eyes flickered from me to Emily. A huge question mark was slapped across her face. She looked at Jess and Mia and her face went pale. She recognized the girls, but not us. “That’s...” she started to point, when Jess backed away.
He smiled. Good move, but Jess smiled as genuinely as a man selling ice in the winter. It came off awkward and obviously forced. “Excuse us,” he said and grabbed my arm. He pulled me from my spot and we darted down the sidewalk. “We have to find that damn office,” Jess whispered close to my ear, the urgency in his voice prickled my neck.
My eyes scanned every building, searching for red windows. There were windows with flower boxes and even a few were painted emerald green, but most were a dusty brown. I glanced behind my shoulder. I locked eyes at a woman looking at me, speaking quickly into her cellphone. The bottom of my stomach fell out.
“This is bad,” I said. “This went bad so quickly.”
“I know,” Jess grumbled. He grabbed my arm, yanking me back a little towards a small walkway, down some stone steps. Through the narrow alley, I saw the red shutters and even a red door. We bolted down the stairs, practically flying to the door. There was a golden plate that read:
The Offices of Dr. Singh and Dr. Singh.
From the outside, it looked like any other building. If it wasn’t for the sign, I would have mistaken it for a house. Jess banged his fist again and I snapped a glare at him. “Quit it. We already look suspicious. Do you really want to look like we’re shaking down the nicest doctors in the world?”
“Shaking them down?” Jess’ brow narrowed. “We’re holding children. Cute kids. You can’t make that look intimidating.”
“Right. How could I forget? We’ve kidnapped Liam and Grace’s kids and now we’re shaking down the doctors-”
On that, the door swung open to reveal Dr. Singh, the wife with a surprised face that only stretched wider when she saw us. Today, her square spectacles were pushed up onto her head and plaid pants. “Oh my god, what are you two doing here?” She stretched her neck over our heads and pulled me towards the inside. “Get in here, quickly. Did anyone see you?”
“Oh, yeah, we’re boned,” Jess grumbled. “We’re dropping these kids off and bolting. How does that sound, Drew?”
I hesitated. I wanted to stay. I wanted to stay so badly, but we were compromised. This didn’t just affect us. Grace and Liam were going to have to answer to their Alpha, some guy that everyone has warned us about already. He sounded like the type to turn us in. Unable to swallow my dread, I just nodded.
“That’s a shame,” Dr. Singh sighed. She cocked her head at Mia, still curled up in Jess’ arms. “Mia? You’re awfully quiet.”
“It’s why we’re here,” Jess explained. He walked to the nearest chair and plopped down. He opened his arms, revealing a sleeping Mia. “We noticed she was acting a big strange. She has a fever.”
Dr. Singh lowered her glasses. She bent down and started her examination. “Mia? Sweetie, do you mind waking up? It’s me, Dr. Singh.” She stood, leaving for only a moment and bringing out her doctor’s kit. Mia groaned, snuggling closer to Jess. Dr. Singh shared my smile. “I’m going to check your temperature, okay? Ready?”
Mia nodded and Dr. Signh took out a thermometer from her pocket, sliding it carefully past Mia’s curls. We all waited through the long seconds for the little machine to buzz, when something tickled the back of my neck. I watched Jess’ shoulders hunch. A dark cloud covered his eyes and I knew something was wrong. Very wrong.
My voice came out in a squeak. “Jess?”