Taylor shot me a quick side glance and then sawed at his pork chop.
Abby rolled her eyes. “It wasn’t quite that bad.”
Travis stopped chewing and looked at her. “It was exactly that bad.”
Just as Abby reached out to touch her husband’s cheek, the front door opened. We waited to see who had arrived, listening to footsteps padding down the hall along with the sounds coming from paper and plastic.
Another Maddox brother appeared, holding a brown sack. Below him stood a tiny girl holding small plastic sacks in each hand. Her platinum hair cascaded in soft waves over her miniature-sized peacoat. Her enormous bright green eyes targeted each one of us, one at a time.
Bile rose in my throat, and my hands began to tremble. A thin sheen of sweat immediately formed on my skin. I felt like laughing and crying and cheering and collapsing all at once.
“It was good,” she said in a voice that matched her small stature. “Cami couldn’t come. Twent was ’posed to wash the dishes before we weft, but he fowgot. Cami will be mad, mad, mad.”
I breathed out a quiet laugh. She was so articulate, and her sweet little voice made tears sting my eyes.
Taylor noticed my reaction and reached for my hand. “Hey,” he whispered, “you okay?”
“She probably had to work, huh?” Travis asked, looking to Trenton.
“Always,” Trenton said, readjusting the sack in his arms.
All the air was pushed from my lungs, and salty tears fell down my cheeks. I’d fought to keep my emotions under control for years, but I hadn’t been prepared to see her in that moment. Her innocent voice rang in my ears. Of the hundreds of scenarios that had played in my head, Olive walking up behind me with Taylor’s brother hadn’t been one of them.
Whatever my expression was, Taylor seemed concerned, and he tightly held my hand.
Jim noticed, too, but he forced some small talk. “So, I guess you’re not hungry.”
“Hi, Olive,” Abby said. “What’s in the sacks?”
Olive’s little legs rushed over to Abby, and she fumbled to open one of the sacks.
“Oh!” Abby said, her eyes bright as she looked back up at Olive. “Yummy! Your mom is going to strangle Trent!”
Travis leaned over to see inside the sack, and he chuckled. “That’s a lot of candy, Olive.”
“It’s not all fow me,” she said simply.
Trenton reached for Olive, summoning her back to his side. “We just swung by the store to pick up a few things you were out of, Dad. Liza is home. I’m going to drop off Olive, and then I’m heading to The Red to see Cami.”
“Sounds good,” Jim said, his fork poking around on his plate. “You guys still liking the apartment?”
He set the sack down in the kitchen and unloaded a few items. Then he led Olive down the hall by the hand. They were discussing something. He was looking down at her, and she up at him.
I realized I was still turned around, gripping the top edge of the back of the chair.
She was walking away. I felt sick.
“Falyn, are you okay?” Taylor asked, genuine concern in his voice.
I reached for the glass of water and took a gulp. “I think I’m just so tired from not sleeping much last night and then traveling today.”
“Take the water with you,” Jim said. “Flying dehydrates you. I never sleep well the night before a trip either.”
I thanked Travis and Abby for dinner, and then I excused myself from the table, water glass in hand. Taking two stairs at a time, I rushed down the hall and pushed through the bedroom door, setting the glass on the dresser before crawling onto the mattress, curling into the fetal position.
No matter how much air I pulled into my lungs, it didn’t seem like enough. My heart was buzzing like a hummingbird in my chest, and my head was spinning. I begged myself to pull it together, but the harder I tried to fight the overwhelmed, panicked feeling, the worse it became.
“Falyn?” Taylor said, slowly opening the door. He was appalled at the sight of me, and he set the plate of leftovers on the dresser by the door. “Christ, you’re white as a sheet.” He sat next to me, taking my water and brushing my bangs from my face. “No wonder your parents didn’t want you coming here. Whatever you’re trying to do, you’re not ready for it.”
“Take a drink,” Taylor said, helping me up and then reaching for the glass on the dresser. He placed it in my hands.
“No, goddamn it, you’re not okay. This isn’t okay.”
I took another drink and then blew out a breath. “Really. This is stupid. I’m fine.”
Taylor frowned. “In the beginning, I knew that if I let myself get too close, I was going to get burned. I’ll be damned if you’re not the one trying to keep me at arm’s length.”
He shook his head. “Quit trying to push me away, Falyn. I’m not leaving. I’m going to stay here until I’m on fire.”
“Stop,” I said simply. “You need to stop.”
His expression softened. “I can’t. I’ve never needed anyone until I met you.”
Our eyes met, but I had no words to offer. Taylor made me feel safe, the same feeling I imagined that Kirby felt when walking down a dark alley with Gunnar. It was the kind of safety you might feel with a superhero.
“I know,” he said, looking down.
“No. I don’t mean, I need your help. I mean, you.”
He looked up at me with hope in his eyes.
His protection didn’t make me weak. It just reminded me that I was valued. I wasn’t the worthless girl who lived in the reflection of my parents’ eyes. Taylor was a hero, but that didn’t mean he saw me as a victim. Someone who made you feel safe and strong at the same time could only be a good thing. That wasn’t something a girl like me could ignore.
He nodded toward the door. “What was that about? Downstairs.”
Taylor shrugged. “He watches her sometimes for Shane and Liza.”
“Your twenty-something brother, covered in tattoos, watches Olive? How did that come about?”
“I’m … not really sure. Trenton’s a good guy. Shane and Trent get along. Since Olive’s brother died …”
“Austin. You can say his name.”
Taylor shifted, uncomfortable. “Since Austin died, Shane and Liza have been seeing a therapist. They needed help to get through it, and with Olive to take care of, they were worried about being good parents. They go to therapy together, and then they have a date night twice a month.”
“They couldn’t find a nice high school girl to watch her?” I asked, my voice growing shrill with each question.
“Trenton would kill anyone who tried to hurt Olive. He’d take a bullet for her. Shane and Liza know that. They won’t find a better sitter than Trent. It’s weird, I know. But Trent’s lost someone, too. Olive is his best friend.”