Chapter 1. How Could I Not?
For hours doctors and nurses poked and prodded me. They ran tests and asked me strange questions as if I was stupid or didn’t know who I was.
“Look, I know why I’m here, okay? There is nothing wrong with me. I got hit by a car saving my—” I stopped and pursed my lips. She isn’t my daughter—I thought to myself. “My girlfriend’s daughter. I just want to see Stormy and Abigail. Stormy is okay, right?”
“Hayden, we don’t know anything about Stormy, but we had to direct Abigail to leave until we could finish up these tests. We’re nearly done,” the nurse said.
My head lolled back against the pillow, and I stared up at the ceiling. The last thing I could recall is the car hitting me. I threw Stormy. I panicked, and I didn’t know what else to do. I knew that the car was going to hit us. There wasn’t time for me to get us both out of the way. Throwing Stormy to the side was a knee-jerk reaction. I had no time to think about what I was doing, and I wasn’t even a hundred percent sure she was okay. What if she broke an arm or leg? I was faintly aware that Abigail was near the sidewalk, and I threw Stormy in that direction. I hoped that when I threw her, she didn’t get injured.
I spent hours, days, months around Abigail and Stormy. As the doctors continued to poke around at me, I thought back to when I first saw Stormy and Abigail in the coffee shop. When Abigail bumped into me and accidentally spilled the coffee, I thought for sure it was intentional. But Abigail looked panicked and apologized immediately, and then I saw the little girl with her who looked frightened. I remember that I didn’t want to scare the little girl. I was tired of being the bad guy, the guy that everyone in Jacksonville feared.
The two of them were at the park one day when I stopped and talked to Abigail, and again the same strange feeling washed over me. I never went out of my way to talk with anyone like I did Abigail. A lot of guys don’t like getting with a girl that already has a kid. They refer to it as baggage, but I loved Stormy. How could I not? She is exactly like her mother, and her mother is beautiful, sweet, and funny. . .
It wasn’t until I saw Stormy in the busy street on her tricycle that I realized how much I loved her. I spent time with Stormy. I taught her things she didn’t know. I grew protective of her. When I got scared of losing Abigail, I got scared of losing Stormy too, and that fear hadn’t vanished.
The doctors and nurses faded away, apart from one nurse. She smiled as she took down my vitals.
“My name is Tara, in case you forgot. Do you need anything?” she asked politely.
“I want Abigail,” I whispered. “I need to know that Stormy is okay.”
“I know Abigail, but Stormy is?”
I sighed. “Abigail’s little girl.”
“Oh, right. Your daughter. You’re a brave dad.”
“I’m—” I stopped myself. I wanted to say I’m not her dad. But somehow, I couldn’t seem to say the words. I’m not brave. I’m anything but that. “Please find them.”
“Last I knew, they called Abigail. Abigail has been here every night. I’m sure she’ll be here soon. She leaves from time to time to check on Stormy, I believe. She has a cute name, by the way,” Tara said. Tara turned and left the room.
I stared down at my hands as panic flooded me. It overtook me like a giant wave. I hated the feeling. I needed to see them. I had to know they were okay and that my attempt to save Stormy wasn’t wasted.
The impatience had me thinking of ways to get out of the hospital. I would leave to find them if I had to. I didn’t care that I was weak.
“Go, bug,” Abigail’s voice echoed in the small room.
My head snapped up in the direction of the voice. My eyes locked with Stormy’s. Her beautiful little brown eyes that were identical to her mother’s eyes captivated mine. Relief washed over me, and my body relaxed. Stormy looked to be in perfect health.
“Hey, baby girl,” I said and smiled at Stormy. My eyes flickered to Abigail’s. Her relief appeared to be as potent as mine. Tears rolled down Abigail’s cheeks. “You didn’t think you would get rid of me that easy, did you?” I teased.
Stormy dashed across the room to me. She jumped onto the chair beside my bed and climbed on top of me. Stormy wrapped her little arms around me and hugged me. Her little face rested on my chest, the same place her mother usually rested her head when we fell asleep at night. My lips pressed to the top of Stormy’s head, and I rubbed her little back gently with my hand.
“Do you feel better, Hayden?” Stormy asked.
“Yeah, bug, of course. How could I not? You’re here.”
Stormy looked at me with tear-filled eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Shh, don’t apologize. You didn’t do anything wrong. We messed up. We should have been watching you more carefully.”
“I wasn’t supposed to be in the road. I thought I could pedal fast to get across.” A little pucker formed between her brown eyebrows. “It’s my fault you’re hurt.”
“No, Stormy. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you’re okay.”
“And you are okay.”
“I’m going to be fine.”
“Do you promise?”
“I pinky promise.” I stuck my pinky finger out to her. There was one thing Stormy knew for sure—I never broke a pinky promise.
She smiled and tightened her pinky around mine.
Funny, I don’t think she knows just how tightly wrapped I am around her little fingers. When my eyes locked with Abigail’s, I somehow knew that Abigail knew how tightly wound I was around Stormy’s fingers. Abigail knew it before I did.
“I love you,” I told her.
Abigail sniffled and lowered her face to mine. She pressed her lips lightly to mine as if afraid to hurt me. “I love you,” she mumbled against my lips.
“Lay by me,” I said and pulled on her arm.
“Are you kidding? You are wired head to toe. I don’t want to get tangled in something or hurt you.” Abigail stared at me as if I were crazy.
I pulled her down onto the bed beside me, and she had no choice but to curl into my side. Stormy stayed on my chest with her eyes closed.
We were silent for a long time. Neither of us knew what to say. Stormy’s breathing became shallow and slow as she drifted off to sleep. Her little cheek rested against my bare chest. Abigail kept her face on my chest, too, across from Stormy. I kept one arm tightly secured around both of them.
“Are you sleeping?” I murmured.
Abigail raised her head a fraction and her eyes locked with mine. “I can’t.”
“You look tired.”
“What if you’re not here when I open my eyes?” she whispered.
“Where am I going to go, bebé?” I challenged. “If I unplug things, I’m going to set off the alarms.”
“You know I don’t mean it that way.”
I knew what she meant. She was scared that she would wake up and find out it was all a dream. She was afraid of losing me. I lowered my lips to hers and kissed her softly. “Does that feel real?” I whispered.
She smiled and nodded. She kept her eyes closed.
“I’ll still be here when you wake up. Get some sleep.”
After several minutes, both of the girls were asleep. I grew tired, but I was just as afraid to close my eyes as Abigail was. I shouldn’t be tired. I slept for a few days—I thought with irritation. I stared at the girls’ faces for hours. I wasn’t even sure what time it was by the time I fell asleep, but I dreamt of them as I did every night since I first saw them.
“Hayden?” Stormy stirred awake. She peeked up at me through her curly messy brown hair. Her eyes were half-open, and her voice thick with sleep.
“Good morning, sunshine,” I teased and chuckled.
“Where’s Mommy?” Stormy gazed around the room, confused.
“She went to get you breakfast. She’ll be up soon,” I told her. Stormy and Abigail were both picky eaters. So, she went to the café in the hospital rather than ordering food. There was the cafeteria in the basement and some nicer cafés on the main floor. The cafeteria in the basement is the only one that did room service.
“Hayden, can you be my dad?” Stormy asked.
I gawked at her. “Um, w-what?”
“I had a dream that you were my new daddy,” she said. Her voice held so much certainty that all I could do was stare at her dumbfounded.
“It doesn’t really work that way, Storm. You had a dad.” I couldn’t think of the right way to answer her. My response didn’t sound like much of an argument.
“But now I have two.”
A throat cleared.
Stormy and I looked up simultaneously. Abigail had no doubt heard some of the conversation. Abigail told Stormy to sit at the small table and eat her food.
“Are you hungry?” Abigail asked me.
I shook my head. “No.” I watched the girls as they ate. Stormy and I had to talk soon about the accident. She needed to know it was my fault that it happened and not hers. How Abigail still wanted to be near me at this point was beyond me.
“Okay, what’s wrong?” Abigail broke my train of thought.
My eyes flickered to her, confused. She suddenly stood at the side of my bed. I peered around her to find Stormy. “Where is Stormy?”
“She went to the bathroom,” Abigail said slowly. Her eyes searched mine, the way they always did when she wanted answers that I wouldn’t give her outright. “Are you okay? Maybe they woke you up too soon.”
I sighed and shrugged. “I wanted to see the two of you. I had to know you were both okay, but I’m a little surprised that you’re here. You should be angry at me.”
“I should what?” Her voice filled with shock. Her tone of voice reminded me of the way my mom spoke when she was giving me a chance to take back what I said.
“That accident was my fault. I nearly got your daughter killed. How many more red flags do you want?” I snapped.
Abigail scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Only you would find some way to blame yourself because you’re so used to taking the blame for everything. Well, I’m not letting you do that this time. I should have been watching her. What happened was my fault.”
“If the Kings hadn’t come over to start shit with me, it never would have happened,” I argued.
Abigail narrowed her eyes at me and hovered over me. “Let’s get one thing straight. Stormy is alive because of you. Period. Don’t argue with me about this. You. Will. Lose.”
My body heated up from the closeness. It felt like the sun was beating down between us. Her perfume hit me hard the way it always did. I never decided anything. It wasn’t a choice. She made me fall in love with her. Loving her wasn’t ever a choice. I tried to do the right thing and walk away from it. I tried, but I couldn’t. My fingers tangled into her hair. She gasped when I forced her lips to mine. Any time she got bossy, I liked it, probably more than I should. It wasn’t like I knew I liked bossy women until I wound up with one because she was the only girl I had been with.
Well, she’s right about one thing, I always lose in arguments against her. I broke the kiss and stared at her for a moment. “Fine. You win.”
Abigail’s expression became thoughtful. “She’s going to see you how she wants to.”
“What do you mean?”
“Stormy loves you. You treat her like she is yours, and she picks up on that. That’s why she sees you like a dad. There is something else we have to talk about too. . .” she trailed off and pursed her lips. She looked worried, almost as if she didn’t want to tell me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, puzzled by her expression. I shifted my weight to lean back and get a better look at her as if I would find the answer on her face. Sometimes it seemed like I could read her expressions.
“I saw your mom yesterday and today. She woke up, Hayden,” Abigail murmured. She sat down on the bed beside me as she took in my expression.
“What? Abby, why would you go to her? You could have upset her and got me into trouble. I’m not allowed to see her. I told you that,” I snapped.
“Are you fighting?” Stormy asked as she walked into the room.
I sighed. I hated arguing with Abigail in front of Stormy. “No, bug. We’re not.” I looked back at Abigail.
“There is so much to it that you don’t understand—” Abigail cut off when the door opened.
I leaned around Abigail to see who interrupted us. A nurse pulled the curtain back. Stormy climbed onto the bed beside me. Abigail moved off the bed.
A familiar blond woman sat in a wheelchair. The nurse pushed her forward slowly, looking uncomfortable. I stared in shock. I hadn’t seen my adoptive mother in almost seven years. Tears built in my eyes.
How could she possibly want to see me when none of my other relatives could stand to be near me? After what I did. . . Maybe she came to freak out at me. I deserve that. I cleared my throat and sat forward.
“I think we should go downstairs for a bit, bug,” Abigail said. Abigail reached for Stormy, but I kept Stormy out of reach and shook my head.
“D-don’t,” I said. My eyes pleaded with hers. Stormy and Abigail kept me calm in most situations, and this would be one of them.
Iris smiled warmly at me and waved the nurse away.
Why the hell is she smiling at me like that? How could Abby allow this? My eyes flickered to Abby, and she looked unperturbed. I always knew she was crazy.
The nurse walked away hesitantly.
“Mom,” I croaked.
Abigail stepped around to the other side of the bed beside Stormy.
“Hi,” Stormy said to Iris. “I’m Stormy.”
Iris giggled. “A beautiful little thing. Did anyone tell you that you look like your Mom?”
Stormy smiled and pointed at me. “He tells me all the time.”
“God, look at you,” Iris said to me and smiled. “You’re so grown up.”
“Why did you come here?” I asked. My eyebrows knitted together. “Why the hell would you want anything to do with me, after what I—” I stopped and grimaced. Shame and regret weren’t a strong enough word for what I felt.
“Stop it, Hayden. You didn’t do anything wrong. How could you even believe that you did such a thing? Harold did it,” Iris said sternly.
My head snapped up, and I stared at her in shock. I shook my head. “N-no, Mom. He didn’t. That’s not what they told me.”
“How many times have I told you not to believe everything you hear, Hayden? I’ve thought about it, and I have a pretty good idea as to why you don’t recall what happened. You must have suffered a concussion. Harold slammed your head against the wall, and you passed out.”
Stormy’s eyes widened.
“Abigail, take Stormy,” I said stiffly. Stormy can’t hear this conversation.
“But I want to stay, Daddy,” Stormy insisted and clung to me.
“No. Go with your mom. She’ll bring you back in soon,” I said. I handed Stormy to Abigail.
Abigail gave me a reassuring look before she left the room.
“Mom, what the hell are you talking about?” I swallowed hard.
“Is she your daughter?” Iris tilted her head.
“No, but I’ve been with Abigail for a while, and I’ve spent a lot of time with Stormy. I teach her things and take care of her a lot,” I said and shrugged.
Mom sighed. “You came downstairs, probably because you heard us fighting. You saw Harold grab a knife. You grabbed the handgun off the desk and pointed it at him. You told him to drop the knife. He told you to go back to bed and that you wouldn’t do anything—that you didn’t have the balls to pull the trigger or something like that.
“He stabbed me, and you shot him in the back. He grabbed you and slammed your head against the wall. You passed out. By the time you woke up, everyone was dead. He shot them. I tried to stop him, but after he killed Tyler, he shot me, and I just couldn’t get up.” Mom shook violently as she sobbed. She placed a hand over her mouth.
“Why were you fighting?” I asked, confused, trying to recall what she was talking about.
Mom wiped the tears away with shaky hands. “Um, I told him I wanted to give you back to the state. Your father did something. . . something horrible,” she whispered the last part.
“What do you mean?”
“He spent years hurting you. I tried to make it stop, and every time I did, he just hurt me too. I tried to leave. I begged his sister to help me, but she didn’t care. She wasn’t any better than him,” Mom said. She stared out the window as if she was living in a different time—a time that I couldn’t see because I was too young to wrap my head around it.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I said softly.
“No. No, Hayden, it’s not. I didn’t know. I swear to you that I had no part in it. But I found out, and I threatened to turn him over to the police for what he did.”
“Mom, you lost me. What the hell are you talking about?” I asked.
“They kidnapped you,” she whispered. “Harold and your aunt Hattie. They wanted revenge against the people that killed their father and grandfather. You were taken from your parents after you were born. I have no clue how Hattie got away with it, but she managed to put you into an adoption agency, and then your father and I adopted you to make it legal.”
“I don’t understand,” I said and shook my head. “So, what? My parents killed Harold and Hattie’s father and grandfather?”
“According to Harold, yes. I found some old documents and letters. I confronted Harold, and at first, he denied it, but I pressed the issue. He told me the truth. He framed you for killing the other kids and me. He left me for dead. I don’t know who your real parents are, but there are two people who do. Hattie and Harold. They know the truth,” she said softly. “I’m going to the police. Harold won’t get away with what he has done to you. I won’t let that happen.”
“No, Mom. You have to wait. Let me find Hattie first. I’ll take you with me. I can keep you safe, but if Harold finds out you’re awake, he’ll come for you to keep you silent,” I said. “Why didn’t he take you off life support?”
“The doctors told him I had too much brain activity to take me off of it,” she said and shrugged. “They insisted I would come out of it. After he pulled out that life insurance policy on all of us, I just had this bad feeling. . .” she trailed off.
“So, he tried to kill all of you for the money and to keep you quiet,” I said. “I didn’t kill them. . .” I trailed off and stared at her in disbelief.
“No,” she said. “You’re not the type. You wouldn’t hurt anyone unless it were to protect yourself or something that matters to you.”
I nodded as I slowly let what she said sink in. “I have to get out of here. You’re coming with me.”