Would it be gay if we attempted a four-way hug? Julian asked.
Yes, Caleb answered. How about a mental slap on the back, instead?
Another laugh, this one so weak Aden had to strain to hear it. Yep, even when you’re a pain.
“Just…if you see her, tell Eve we said hi.”
I bet she’s a babe, Caleb said, his amusement gone. Like everyone else, he was fighting with his emotions.
Julian snorted. I can’t believe this is goodbye for us. Can’t believe I’ll never see you again. Never hear Caleb being perverted, or Elijah bringing down the party or you Aden, the most honorable, loving person I’ve ever met, finding his way into the light. I’m no psychic, but great things are in store for you, my friend. I know it.
The burning migrated to his cheeks, a wet tide, unstoppable. “We’ll see each other again.” Believing otherwise would kill him.
I love you so much, Julian said again, and then, just like that, he was gone. Aden felt the absence of him all the way to his bones.
Another goodbye he hadn’t been prepared for.
He remained just as he was and let the tears flow. Victoria wound her arm around him and cried with him. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed.
When they both quieted, she whispered, “Let’s find Riley and Mary Ann and go home, Aden.”
“WHAT DID YOU DO to yourself?”
They were the first words Mary Ann had heard her father say in weeks—or what felt like an eternity—and she knew they were a precursor to all kinds of trouble.
She sat in the passenger seat of his sedan. He’d bailed her out of jail, or whatever. She wasn’t really sure what had happened, only that she’d been cuffed, driven to the Tulsa P.D. headquarters downtown, stashed and questioned in a room for hours—not that she’d answered anything—and then uncuffed and ushered to her dad. Who hadn’t spoken a word to her until now.
Since she hadn’t given the cops his name and number, she could only assume Riley had. A reunion she’d wanted to both thank and slap him for.
The moment she’d seen her dad, she’d nearly run to him and thrown her arms around him. Anything to comfort him. As Penny had told her, he looked like hell. Bruises under his eyes, lines of tension branching from his mouth. His clothes, wrinkled and stained with coffee. But she hadn’t let herself hug him, too afraid the strength of her riotous emotions would cause her new wards to fail and she’d start draining him, human though he was.
Rationally she knew that wouldn’t happen, but fear…well, fear was illogical and all-consuming.
“Mary Ann! I’m talking to you. You take off without any warning, without calling, and I’m left worrying to death about you. Searching for you, begging the police for help, putting out flyers, and you’re out there with that…that…” Fury crackled from him, so much fury his fingers nearly bent the steering wheel in half.
Guilt filled her, but she said, “We can’t leave Riley there. We have to go back.” She’d said it a thousand times before, but he’d ignored her each time. Riley could take care of himself, she knew that. Still. Leaving him behind felt wrong. Even though he’d purposely gotten them arrested.
She knew that now, too. What she didn’t know was why. And there was a reason. With Riley, there was always a reason. The next time she saw him, she would find out. Because right now, all she could think was that he’d wanted to get out of a painful, we’re-breaking-up talk. Except that wasn’t his style.
At least he didn’t ignore her this time. “We can leave him, and we will leave him. I don’t give a flying fig about your delinquent boyfriend. That boy is an outlaw who lives by no rules but his own, and who knows if he follows those even half the time. He stole a car, Mary Ann. While you were with him! And you should start praying those are wash-off tattoos on your arms.”
“Sorry? You’re sorry? That’s all you have to say to me?”
“No. Be quiet. Are you doing drugs?”
What did he want? For her to be quiet or to answer? “No. I’m not doing drugs.”
“Do you expect me to believe you?”
“Well, I don’t. I don’t know who you are anymore. So, guess what? We’re going to find out together. Unquestionably.”
Silence. Silence that cut her up and left her raw. He faced straight ahead.
Fine. She would ignore him, too. She turned her attention to the window, to the trees whizzing past. To the storm clouds hovering overhead. To the sign—for a town that wasn’t on the way home.
Mary Ann flattened herself against her seat. Looked back at the sign, then at her father. Forget ignoring him. “Where are we going?”
“Clearly, I can’t help you. So I’m taking you somewhere with people who can. No matter how long it takes.”
Dread washed over her, leaving an icy glaze in its wake. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about a psych evaluation. I’m talking about group therapy. I’m talking about medication, if that’s required. I’m talking about figuring out the root of your problem, whatever it is, and getting my little girl back!”
“No! I don’t want to hear it. I wanted to hear from you for days, then weeks, and I got nothing but silence and worry. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t work. I thought you’d been kidnapped. Thought you were being…raped and tortured. What do I find instead? You were out having fun. That isn’t like you. Which means something’s happened to you. Something you can’t or won’t talk to me about, so I’m going to make you talk to others.”
The ice thickened, hardened. “Dad, don’t do this. Please, don’t do it.”
“It’s already done. It’s the only way I could get you released without having to go to court or serve any time.”
No. No, no, no. “I’m sorry I hurt you. I am.” She couldn’t tell him she’d done it for his own good! He wouldn’t understand, and he wouldn’t accept. More than that, she couldn’t promise him that it wouldn’t happen again. “But you have to trust me in this, okay? You have to—”
“Trust you? Oh, baby girl. You truly are delusional if you think that’s happening. Trust is earned, and you did nothing but stomp on mine.”
She had never seen her dad so angry, so hurt; she wouldn’t be able to reach him through her usual means. “I’m not a little girl anymore. You can’t just lock me away without my permission and think—”
“Legally, you’re not an adult, and yes, I can do anything I want. You’re about to fail the eleventh grade. Why? Because you’re hanging out with the wrong crowd. So, I’ll change your crowd by force.”
He wasn’t done. “Ever since you became friends with that Haden Stone, you’ve been different. Harsher. You dumped your boyfriend to date a criminal.”
If he only knew…Tucker, the boyfriend she’d dumped, had been more of a criminal than Riley ever had. And now Tucker was dead.
The thought kept hitting her at the oddest times, and tears would fill her eyes. Now was no different. “Riley is a good guy.” Or had been, until she’d ruined his life. “You can’t judge him because of this one instance.”
“You keep telling me what I can’t do, but you’ll learn. Oh, baby girl, will you learn.”
She gritted her teeth and tried to reach him from a yet another angle. “I’m not failing. I missed a couple weeks, and I can easily make them up.”
“Yes, you can, but you’ll make up the work in rehab.”
“Rehab?” She almost laughed. Almost. “I told you. I’m not doing drugs.”
Rain suddenly burst from the sky and splattered all over the windshield. The wipers kicked on, and her dad slowed his speed just a bit.
“And when you learn that I’m clean?” she asked, hopeful. “You’ll take me home?”
“No. You’re staying there. It’s not just a place for drug addicts. It’s a place for kids who have gotten themselves into trouble, but can’t find a way out. Not without help.”
An institution. He was talking about locking her away in an institution. Shock slammed through her, joining the dread and creating a whole lot of horror. “Dad, you can’t—”
Acid nearly burned a hole in her stomach. Did burn a hole in her throat. “For how long?” she croaked out, thinking, Riley will bust me out. Dating or not, he won’t leave me in there.
RILEY WALKED the darkened, rain-drenched streets of downtown Tulsa, his hands in his pockets, his skin practically coated with ice, his hair plastered to his scalp, and breath misting in front of his face. A few cars drove past, but for the most part, no one was out and about.
The good, smart people of this town had already sought the warmth and dryness of the indoors. Mary Ann was probably warm and dry and headed home. Just as he’d wanted.
He’d given her back to her dad.
He’d disobeyed his king, his friend, and done what he’d thought best. He had never done that before. He’d always been a good little soldier, doing what he was told, his loyalty unwavering. And already he regretted his actions this day. Not because of the loyalty thing, but because he missed Mary Ann. Her smile, her sense of humor, her honesty, her kind heart.
But she’d fallen for a wolf, and he was no longer that wolf. She might think he was the same despite that fact, might think she still cared about him, but eventually she’d realize the truth: he was weak, vulnerable and soon to be an outcast among his kind.