We were packing up and readying to ship out when Piper came down the steps.
“Hey, kiddo.” Ryan smiled brightly at her.
She completely ignored me, grabbed her shoes and sat next to Ryan on the couch.
Ryan had become a permanent fixture in our home over the past few months. He had even been here on the first day of school and took pictures with us. Now he was even making it to a few of Piper’s appointments with me.
The man was a rock with this kid stuff. It shocked me, but he was always here and he was so supportive, while knowing when to step back and let me take the reigns. I couldn’t believe how easily he just fit with us.
It was three weeks before Christmas and traffic would be insane, but I had put off getting our Christmas tree. We still had to get gifts for each other too, and Ryan had volunteered to come. While I was grateful for his constant presence, I was also jealous that he was getting all of Piper’s affection.
“Do you ever work.” I glared at him playfully and he laughed, giving Piper a squeeze as she giggled.
“I’m able to work when you do, we make our own hours.” He grinned widely and gave me a kiss.
“Piper, I have your backpack ready.” I grabbed it and held it out for her as I watched Elle run out the door.
“You’re coming, right Ryan?” She asked him.
“Of course. It’ll be fun. We can get lunch afterword. I’ve been researching the restaurants around the outlets and there is one where we can get burger salads.”
“I like those.” She smiled at him and turned to me, “Mommy, I don’t need it today.”
I froze and gaped at her. So did Ryan. I was speechless. I couldn’t say anything and began to shake. Ryan was watching me gape at my daughter and got down to Piper’s level to speak to her.
“Are you sure, Piper? This is a big step, sweetie.” He spoke softly, “It’s going to be really busy out there today.”
“If your my grown up partner I don’t need it.” She shrugged and he rubbed her arms.
“I’ll hold your hand the whole time. I won’t let it go for a second and if you get nervous just tell me and I’ll carry you.” He cleared his throat, “Why don’t you head out to the car with your sister and your mom and I will lock up.”
“Okay.” She smiled brightly and went out to the car.
As soon as I heard the door click shut I fell to my knees and began to sob. Ryan was quick to wrap me in his arms.
“Shht...” He crooned, “It’s okay. This is a huge step for her. This is what you were hoping for.”
“She-she feels safe with you...” I cried.
“She does and I won’t let her down. I won’t let any of you down.” He grabbed my chin, pulling it up to look him in the eyes. He had pools in his hazel irises, “Please, remember that.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Later that night, we put the kids to bed and headed down the stairs. We had planned on watching a movie with Arlee, but I needed to tell them something first.
“I have to talk to you guys.” I took a heavy sigh, with my arm around Meg’s shoulders, “It’s not a big deal, but I might have to go to Cali for a week or so. We finished our album, we just need to go over final edits and take some pictures and stuff for the magazines.”
Arlee was seated in the lounge chair and just stared at me, but I turned to her, I knew that they had trust issues and this would be hard, especially on Piper, who I hadn’t told yet. “I will be back. I promise. I’ll call every day I’m gone and video chat with all of you.”
“Hey, don’t worry about me.” Arlee shrugged, “I’m looking forward to having more space around the house. You know, you take up a crapload of it.”
“Okay.” Meg nodded and smiled up at me. I could tell that her wheels were turning.
I wanted to take them with me so bad, but how would Meg and the kids take it, finding out exactly who I was.
How had I become so attached to this woman and these kids in so little time? I know she was thinking that it was like her ex all over again, but I didn’t ask for money and I was a part of this team, with her and the girls.
“Who’s going to tell Piper?” Arlee whispered tearfully.
“I will.” I told her.
“When do you leave?” Meg asked.
“In three days.” I whispered. She was taking this breezily, but I knew she was being guarded, for her kids. It was Arlee who shocked me.
“Don’t you get it?!” She snapped, “This is just like my Dad all over again! He even said the same thing!”
“Arlee, please.” Meg said tearfully.
“No, we can fight it with sarcasm and ignore it! Admit it, Mom! Your thinking the same thing! And do you even know WHAT Piper carries in that backpack?! I do! And if you looked in it, you’d know why!” She cried, “She’s afraid that Dad will come and take her away from you! The only thing that’s saving her now is Ryan! Today was proof! She feels like he’s going to protect her and now he’s leaving us too!”
She stomped off up the stairs and I called after her, “Arlee, please? I’m coming back! I swear! It’s only a few days! I didn’t know that he had said that!”
“He said that too!” She slammed her bedroom door without another word.
I turned to Megan, “Meg, I’m so fucking sorry. I didn’t mean to say what-”
“I know. I just... You’re here all the time. We got used to you. It’ll be a little different for a few days,” She swallowed hard, “But, when you come back, everything will be good again.”
“I’ll be back.”
Two nights later, I was at our band meeting, discussing the trip in two days, when my phone chimed with a message.
I looked at the screen and it was Arlee. Meg had programmed her number into my phone on a shopping expedition and I was shocked she’d reached out to me. She hadn’t said a word, since I’d told her about me leaving.
I checked the message and felt the blood drain from my face.
A Can you pick me up? I’m stuck on the highway.
I looked at the time, it was almost midnight. Fuck texting, I was calling her.
“Yeah?” She answered on the first ring.
“Somewhere between exit 77 and 78.” She was crying, “Ryan, I can’t afford for my car to break down.”
“That’s near downtown, Arlee.” I sighed, “It’s dangerous.”
“I know, okay.” She whined, “I didn’t plan for this to happen. I was leaving the orchestra house.”
“I’m coming. Don’t unlock your doors, even if they look like a cop.” I told her. Who the hell knew if the cops were safe, nowadays.
“I’ll be there shortly,” I stood and began grabbing my shit, “Gotta go, Arlee’s got car problems.”
“At midnight?” I head Noah ask, “Isn’t she a kid?”
“She’s only a year younger than you.” Bree pointed at him.
“Stay on the line,” I told her, “Okay, kid?”
“Yeah.” She sniffled.
When I arrived, she was crouched down and out of site, thank God. Maine was safe, but not that safe. Not for a teenage girl. This was a nightmare.
“Ryan.” She threw her arms around me, “Thank god!”
“I’m glad you’re okay, kid.” I hugged her back, “Let’s get your shit and I’ll have the car towed tomorrow. I thought you were taking it to a mechanic months ago.”
“I did.” She pulled away and looked at her car, “They fixed what was wrong.”
“And what’s wrong with it now?” I looked at it under the moonlight, she hadn’t crashed it.
“It wasn’t getting up to speed, then cruise control wouldn’t work, then it just stopped going altogether.” She shrugged.
“And you called me?” I cocked a brow at her, “Does this mean that you aren’t mad at me anymore?”
She moved to the car, pulling out her violin case, two backpacks and a music sheet briefcase, when I helped her with her load, I asked again and she examined me, before asking, "Do you love her, Ryan? Like, truly love my mom?"
"You need to tell her."