It was easy to see everyone’s ploy to keep Jess and I so busy we’d never have time to sneak away. I finished all of Reiko’s tasks, when more books arrived for me to read and review. When Mark wasn’t teaching, he was at the Inn with me. He dropped off more books at the table and I gave him a tired, weary look.
“There’s more where that came from,” Mark said off-handedly, pouring over a pile of papers to grade. He smirked a little and I sighed. Somewhere in the house, there were two backpacks Jess was filling with supplies. He hid them in different places, so they’d have a hard time finding them.
Mia clung to Jess’ pants leg as he whipped up food for Inn, alongside Liam. They worked in the kitchen, perfectly tuned to each other. They barely needed to give orders or plan. They just knew what to do to get the job done. Dominic came back to work and he’d serve tables, between texting Ryan and calling for check-ups. Finally, Ryan just joined us at the Inn. He got around with crutches. Mark placed him right beside me, so I was flanked on both sides.
“How are things with Dom?” Mark asked once Dominic disappeared into the dining room.
Ryan showed signs of discretion by only blushing with his cheeks. He said, “It’s been very nice.” He reached up and rubbed the safety pin necklace like a lucky relic.
“Just very nice?” Mark chuckled. He rested his chin his palm and asked, “Why can’t you and Dom just get it over with? I would pay so much money to just watch you lay one on him.”
“Speak for yourself,” Ryan talked back. “Forgive Cameron already and let him move back in.”
I cooed, like I just saw the best firework show. This made Mark roll his eyes as he dragged himself out of his chair. His red ears were a dead give-away. He nearly walked headfirst into Cameron’s chest. Cameron appeared on cue, looking back and forth and around the room. His blonde hair was mussed from the run over.
Some people had resting bitch face.
Cameron just looked perpetually confused.
“Did someone say my name?” He asked, slightly breathless.
“Don’t be so conceited,” Mark stated with his nose in the air as he stalked off through the dining room. Taken aback, Cameron could do nothing else but run after him.
Out of appreciation, I offered up a high five to Ryan.
Ryan smacked my hand but winced. “Was that too harsh?”
“No,” I assured him. “I loved that.”
Jess glanced up, meeting my eyes with a sly smile. It was the kind of smile that was asking to be kissed right off. It was a smile that begged me to crawl over that counter and cancel the rest of the breakfast rush.
The dining room doors flew open again, but this time Dominic rushed to the sink with his pile of dishes. He ran his hand through his curls, making them bounce back into place. Since the hospital, his jaw had gotten significantly scruffier. While his wardrobe transformed into more comfortable stuff. He made a pit-stop at Ryan’s side. “You okay?”
“Dom,” Ryan grinned, laughing exasperatedly. He hoisted himself on his good leg and reached for his crutches. “I’m fine. I could go out there right now and bust some tables- Whoa!” Ryan missed his crutches by just a hair and slipped as if the floor was covered in banana peels.
Dominic snatched Ryan with one arm and his face scrunched, madder than I had ever seen before. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You are trying to give me an aneurism.”
“It was an accident!” Ryan insisted, clutching Dominic’s shirt.
“I know! I have never met a more accident-prone person. If I look away, you’re going to trip and fall into a bed of knives! I leave you alone for a second and you’re going to stumble into a volcano-”
“You’re being ridiculous,” Ryan scoffed just as Dominic reached for his legs and swept him off the ground. Ryan yelped, throwing his arms around Dominic’s neck. “Dom, I’m telling you I’m fine. I always bounce back.”
“Yeah, you’ll bounce back,” Dominic grumbled right up to Ryan’s neck, making the human laugh. With a wicked grin, he carried Ryan like a paper doll through the door. “You’ll bounce up and down on the bed where I drop you.”
“What about the customers?” Mia whined and rushed into the dining room.
The door swung slowly back and forth.
I looked at Jess.
Jess already had his eyes on me. “We’re alone,” he said and threw his washcloth over his shoulder. He moved with the precision, aim and the purpose of someone holding a gun. “Let’s get the bags.” I struggled out of the booth, meeting Jess on the other side. My heart had suddenly started to pound. I looked around, searching for anyone. A horrible, betraying thought entered my head. Jess helped me out of the booth, ushering me to the stairs.
I wished for someone to walk in with all my heart.
That someone would stop us from leaving the Inn. And this place. And our friends.
I crouched in front of the sink, searching for the First-Aid kit. Underneath it looked like people threw whatever crap they wanted to get rid of inside with their eyes closed, creating an ant hill of unused bath products. I fished out the kit, holding it firm in my hands. For a moment, I was back at the start, looking for this very object.
Sighing, I grabbed an extra roll of bandage just in case and shoved it into my jacket pocket. I pulled my hand out when I heard something light hit the floor with the most delicate sound. By my foot, I found a folded-up piece of paper. I opened it up, fold by fold and revealed a little drawing of me and Drew with everyone there, all named in scribbly bubbled handwriting. Mia’s little doodle sat in my arms.
The note said, “Please don’t forget me. I love you, Mia.”
Every word took a chunk out of my resolve. Mia’s little hands made this just for me and it made my heart melt into a puddle of goo and nothing.
“Did you find it?” Drew asked and I jumped, hiding the note back into my pocket.
Glancing over my shoulder, I spotted Drew adjusting his backpack strap. Not surprisingly, his shoulders didn’t match Liam’s girth. This time was different. We were different. I burned this Drew into my mind, this one with clean skin and full cheeks. No mud or dirt clinging to his clothes. His dark hair was short too. I liked his hair short.
“Got it,” I forced a smile, the uneasiness bubbling up in my stomach. I could taste the nerves rotting in the back of my throat. Every noise in the Inn made me jump a little as I expected someone to jump around the corner and catch us in the act. I felt like an idiot, worried about Grace catching me doing something bad just like my mom. My stomach curled. My mom. Drew and I never did get to call his grandmother again, never got to hear an update on their lives under Jacob’s rule.
“We should go.” I stood up, putting my arm around his shoulders. I pulled him closer, planting a kiss on the side of his head as we walked back through the kitchen. I opened the back door, holding it out for Drew to slip past. I followed him, my feet crunching the blankets of snow and I made it to the edge of the woods, staring into the white abyss and endless gray trees. It looked like a portal into another world.
“Jess?” Drew said my name, his breath billowing around his lips. “What’s wrong?”
I hadn’t realized he was already ten steps ahead. He cocked his head, measuring the look in my eyes and my stomach churned. “Sorry,” I muttered, hiking my pack back up.
We started walking towards the Flores Apple Orchards just across the woodsy hills. The orchards stayed deserted until Apple season arrived, so it was the perfect place to disappear. My feet dragged through the snow. A heavy dumbbell of nerves rolled around the bottom of my stomach. We loomed closer to the rows upon rows of apple trees, thick gray creatures with curling limbs and skinny branches like talons, but the white snow softened the edges. The spaces between were wide enough for people to run around. As a kid, I would’ve climbed up one tree and tried to jump to the next one.
We missed apple season. We’d never find out what made this place magical, why people came in troves during the summer and the fall.
I looked over my shoulder. The Inn disappeared. Grace popped in to my headfirst. I imagined her searching the Inn and calling our names. I thought about Mia, being forced to swallow the fact I didn’t say goodbye. She might never forgive me for that. Then, there was Cameron. Cameron who just lost another friend.
My fingers found Mia’s little note in my pocket. I rubbed the soft paper in vain. The lump in my throat only swelled, keeping air out and my worries inside. Turning back and forth, I searched every angle. Being outside made me feel vulnerable, like something could come at us from nowhere and from anywhere. This wasn’t what I remembered from the last time we ran away at all, a night and day difference. This time, I was pretty sure we weren’t walking towards the sun.
I bumped into Drew and fumbled to the side to keep from running him over. He snatched my arm to steady me. His brow scrunched together, measuring me up and I had nowhere to hide. He said, “Jess, stop torturing yourself. Talk to me. Let me in.”
Before, when we left the first time, these woods were my home. The whole world called out to me... but now, one little Inn’s voice stole my attention. One little place nagged the back of my mind. My stomach wouldn’t settle.
A snowflake tickled the tip of my nose. It was the first of dozens trickling from the gray speckled sky. Even my arm hair shivered.
“Do you regret leaving?” Drew asked, reading my mind. His brows pinched in the middle. He gripped his backpack straps tighter and took a deep strengthening breath. The snow landed softly against his clothes, his hair and pinkening cheeks. Every fleck melted away. He admitted, “Because I don’t think we should leave either.”
“You do?” My brows hiked up my forehead. I held his arms. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He smiled a little, holding my arms back. “Jess, I would follow you anywhere and I still will. No matter what you want to do, just say the word and I’ll go with you as long as we can stay together but...” I could hear it, his heart thrumming as fast as a hummingbird. “But I do want to stay here.”
With a groan, I walked ahead and scratched my head, ruffling my hair. If I didn’t talk, if I didn’t let these feelings out, they were just going to fester inside me until I was rotten. I whipped around with my arms out and told Drew, without realizing it, “Jacob could be on his way. He could come any day.”
“I know.” Drew nodded.
“And there’d be a fight. Last time we fought I almost didn’t make it.”
“You didn’t have Grace last time or Cameron or anyone else.” Drew spoke up, his eyes shining bright. This was what he wanted and I was an idiot for not noticing it sooner. He closed the space between us, grabbing both sides of my jacket to pull me closer. “This time, we’d be prepared and ready for it. It wouldn’t be a surprise.”
“You might have to face him again,” I whispered.
“I understand...” He looked down and closed his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he walked into my chest. His arms wrapped around me and I dramatically huffed with he squeezed. Peaking up, his chin resting against my chest. He trembled, the crisp winter air closing in around us. Drew grinned. “But what if we win this time?”
My smile had a mind of its own, toothy and dimpled. “Then we might be able save our pack too.” Just the sound of it, sparked a flurry of joy through my body. This feeling, this hope could singlehandedly bring back the summer.
“We’d get to see our family again.”
This time, I teared up and not Drew, forced to look up at the crumbling sky. I released a shaky breath, struggling like I usually did when I had to think about my mom. Drew grabbed my face, pulling me down to his soft lips. Our cold noses slid against each other and a chill trickled down my back. He chuckled and suggested, “Let’s go back home.”
We hiked back through the lines of naked apple trees and back over the hill. Not surprisingly, Grace stood with her arms crossed, staring out the back window. She spotted us at the same time and straightened up like we just caught her in the act.
“You go first,” I said, nudging him.
Drew rolled his eyes. “Scaredy-cat.”
Still, he grabbed the handle and I pressed a kiss to his head as a silent little thank you. “Mmm hmm,” he hummed, waltzing into the kitchen first. The warmth of the Inn wrapped around me and I let out a relieved sigh. The coffee maker bubbled in the corner, taking over the house with its heart earthy smell.
As soon as the door closed, Grace asked, “Where we you two?”
She sat perched in front the island with her arms crossed. Her shoes were strapped. Her heavy winter coat sat on the table, ready to be thrown on. She would’ve chased us. It was humbling to be worth chasing after.
“Was that them?” Cameron asked, bursting into the kitchen. Tuffs of his blonde hair stuck up in odd places like he’d been pulling at the strands. He was dressed to brace the cold too.
“What?” I snorted, acting completely innocent. I took off my backpack, dropping it at my feet and shrugged off my jacket too. “Did you think we left? No way.”
“Oh, really?” Cameron crossed his arms.
“We were just taking a walk,” Drew smiled, coyly.
“Was it a nice walk?” Grace asked, still stiff.
“Not really...” Drew shrugged, approaching Grace with caution.
She sighed, letting her shoulders drop. As Drew laid his head on her shoulder, she brought him into a hug. She caressed the back of his head, but when her eyes landed on me, she glared and pointed a warning finger. “No more walks.”
I just chuckled but stopped when I spotted Mia peaking around the door. She clung to the threshold, looking down at her feet. “Hey, Boss...” I spoke softly, walking over and bending down to meet her eyes. Presenting her drawing, I smiled and that finally made her look at me again. “This is an excellent drawing. Thank you for this.”
“You’re welcome,” she whispered.
I scooped her up in my arms and held her tight. If I needed to find strength from somewhere, Mia had that in thousands. “Cameron,” I spoke up, drawing his attention. Taking a deep breath, I smothered down the fear and just asked, “Did you mean it? When you said we were a part of this pack? That you would help us?”
Cameron straightened his shoulder. “I mean it, Jess. I don’t just want you guys to stay, I need you to stay. Be a part of my council. Be one of my Beta’s.”
I shook my head. “But why?”
“You said before that Ezra believed you missed your destiny,” Cameron said with that smug smirk. “But I think you’ve landed in the place you were meant to be, right here in Dearest. We can protect this place together, Jess with your strength and your heart. Are you with me?” He asked, offering his hand out to me. I stared at it like a contract with a dotted line and all I had to do was sign my name. An opportunity for the taking.
Behind me, Drew nudged my arm and I met his eyes, matching his smile. I would do anything for this man. Starting today, I planned to make a perfect life for him.
“Alright,” I said and slapped my hand into Cameron’s palm, giving him a sturdy shake. “We’ll do this together.” Cameron tightened his grip and at a least of sliver of worry tumbled off my shoulders. Something inside my chest clicked into place, a feeling of relief that I hadn’t felt in a long time. This feeling was what I searched for in the woods. Funny how it was right in front of me the whole time. Home.