It was time to leave. She had an appointment set up with a specialist. She couldn’t afford to wait any longer.
Her brother would take her. Still, she hated being a burden on her family, an adult woman still living with her brother and his family in their perfect house with gingham curtains and cast iron cookie molds decorating the walls.
Hugging the pack tightly to her empty stomach, she forced her eyes to stay well off the old upright piano against the far wall.
The floor vibrated under her feet, signaling the approach of someone entering through the mudroom, and for a second her heart sped up with optimism. A heartbeat later, before even turning, she realized the steps were too heavy, the vibrations too strong for someone her sister’s size. She only knew one person with just that gait.
Pivoting slowly—she still battled problems with inner-ear problems affecting her balance—she found exactly who she expected. Flynn Everett. The older of the Everett twins. The single one.
The one who’d had a crush on her since the ninth grade, when the teacher made them lab partners.
Silently—duh, when was anything in her life anything but silent anymore?—Flynn filled the doorway from the mudroom, wearing jeans and a yellow cable-knit sweater, his parka hanging open. His hair was a darker shade of blond these days, but just as thick.
Her fingers fisted at her side with the memory of the coarse strands gliding over her frantic hands while they made out in his truck. Sometimes he’d climbed inside her lilac purple bedroom in the middle of the night and they would make out. A couple of times they’d come so close to having sex. God, she’d loved him back then, with all her heart and hopes.
Until he’d cheated on her at the end of their senior year, when they’d been days away from graduation. Days away from having a future of their own. What a dumb ass Flynn had been to think anyone could get away with screwing around in this tiny, gossipy community. It was almost as if he’d wanted to be busted.
As if he’d wanted out of the relationship with her.
An unhealed ache settled in her heart. God, couldn’t he have just asked for his promise ring back?
Only weeks later, she’d caught meningitis and foolish, foolish girl that she’d been, she hadn’t wanted to live. Her sister had blamed the local hospital, but Misty knew she’d wanted to die. She’d let her illness progress too far, too fast, before telling her parents, because she’d simply wanted to curl up and let go.
But she knew better now. Sure she’d been hurt over Flynn’s defection, but they’d just been kids and he’d just been another boy trying to get laid. She had a fighting spirit these days and nothing he said could make up for that betrayal.
If he’d even meant the apology he poured out when he visited her in the clinic hospital, an apology she’d barely been able to register as her fever soared. He’d likely just felt guilty more than sorry. And soon after, she hadn’t been able to hear his apologies any longer. The guilt in his eyes, however, increased tenfold.
The thought that he might pursue her out of remorse and pity made her shudder in disgust even now. She’d drawn her boundaries fast back then and stuck to them over the years as their paths inevitably crossed at the gym, the grocery store… pretty much every day and everywhere in such a small town.
She planted her hands on her hips and stood proud in her kitchen, more than a little happy she wore a body-hugging turtleneck sweater. He’d always liked her in green, said it reminded him of summer. Damn.
“What are you doing here so early?” She formed each word carefully, determined not to let him feel sorry for her, praying her voice didn’t sound too strange.
“Sunny isn’t going to make it back in time to escort you down the mountain.” He walked closer, careful to face her, always vigilant about making it easier for her to read his lips.
The first she’d kissed.
A mouth that had once explored every inch of her body, bringing her pleasure in every way possible without actually going all the way. Back then he’d had a mustache, not much of one, but enough to tickle her. She’d thought it was such a turn-on. But she’d been determined in those days to wait for marriage—only to have him screw her best friend. Former best friend. June had come crying to her, pretending she felt guilty, sobbing about how she just couldn’t stay silent and let Misty keep dating someone who would cheat on her.
He hadn’t just kissed her. He and June had impulsively had sex in his parents’ empty house.
Misty’s hand twisted around a strap on her backpack until her fingers numbed. She’d prayed so hard her friend was lying. Then she’d confronted Flynn and quickly read the guilt on his face. He hadn’t denied anything, only asked for forgiveness.
Four years had passed and looking at him still made her physically ill. And the irony of it all? She couldn’t turn away to hide her face while continuing the conversation.
“Flynn, are you trying to make me wait, too?” Part of her wondered if her sister had done this on purpose to delay her leaving town.
“You want to go? I’m here to help. I’ll lead you out. My truck can plow through faster. I can drive the whole way if the weather holds, and hike with you just as Sunny would have if the weather doesn’t cooperate. We’re talking two days together, max, until you get to civilization. Once I know that you’ve got boat or plane transportation the rest of the way, I’ll back off.” Warily, he stepped deeper into the kitchen, wiping his boots just like old times. “I’m the best, other than Sunny, and she’s so damn beyond normal, my brother swears the government implanted a compass in her brain.”
She fought the urge to laugh. She’d always enjoyed the way Flynn could poke fun at his younger brother’s obsession with conspiracy theories. But now wasn’t the time to get sentimental about the things she’d once liked about him. This was about carving out a future for herself, a hearing future with Brett. “Phoenix will take me.”
“We all know he won’t want to risk exposure,” he said, and they both knew he didn’t mean exposure to the cold. “Especially not now that he has a kid.”
She didn’t like to think about her brother going to jail—or rather to a brig. She also didn’t like to think about why he’d made the choices he had in the first place that led him to hide out here. The present, their lives, had been formed by decisions made too long ago to regret and rethink now.
“I can manage without you. I don’t have to go far. Someone is meeting me on the other side.” She threw that last part out on purpose to hurt him.
And she struck pay dirt.
His big round shoulders braced, his chest expanded—and a flash of hurt spiked through his ice blue eyes. Unmistakable. She was an expert at reading people’s expressions these days, her other senses intensifying once her hearing was taken. He grabbed for the edge of the piano to steady himself—her old piano.
Okay, she’d wanted to hurt him and had succeeded. The victory vibrated hollowly inside her.
Flynn glided his thick gentle fingers along the piano’s keyboard, pushing ivory soundlessly as he walked closer, his mouth forming, “Who?”
“What?” she asked. Even knowing she’d read his lips correctly, she needed a second to think. Her reactions were jumbled. She forced her mind to center on that picture of Brett holding his niece so tenderly.
“Who. Is. Meeting. You?”
He not only spoke but his hands spelled out each letter. She’d almost forgotten how in the early days after she’d gone deaf he’d taught himself to alphabet sign as well as some general ASL from the Internet. He’d even shaved his mustache to help her read his lips better, a mustache he’d been so proud of growing, laughing over how finally people could tell him apart from his twin brother, Ryker.
Thoughtful though the gestures had been, it wasn’t enough to make up for what he’d done with June.
“A man.” She met him face-to-face, the scent of his morning workout still clinging lightly to the air. “I’ve moved on.”
Still he didn’t touch her. “Which one of the men who left?”
She realized he thought she’d hooked up with a former resident, perhaps through their Internet contact. Perhaps it was best he continued to think that. Explaining to him how she’d fallen for someone she’d never met in person suddenly sounded silly, and she couldn’t bear it if he laughed at her.
“You threw away the right to know anything about my personal life.” Her nails bit into her palms so deeply, she realized that in her anger she’d forgotten to gauge the hum of her vocal chords as her mouth worked, neglecting to manage the awkwardness of a voice she could no longer hear.
Flynn nodded once. “That’s true, but it doesn’t stop me from worrying about you.” He backed a step, continuing to speak as he faced her while making his way to the door. “I will be out front waiting in the truck, and you can be damn sure I will be with you every step of the way until I’m sure you’re safe.”
At the last word, he turned away, cutting off any chance she had to argue as his departing footsteps vibrated through the floor, clear up into her angry heart.
Brett thumbed the earbud in more securely as he slid from the driver’s side of his SUV, outside the power plant. “It’s your family causing the problems. You take care of it.”
“Misty insists on leaving,” his contact answered through the satellite phone line.
“And you know what will happen to her if you allow that.” Did he have to spell out everything to these idiots? “If you want to keep her alive, make her stay. You need my help to carry out your mission. I can only provide that if your community stays airtight. I’m not interested in risking jail time. Now decide how important this operation is to you.”
“I’ll stop her.” The answer came fast, breathlessly, the sound of music and an exercise instructor echoing in the background. “She won’t get off the mountain. We can proceed as planned.”
Extremists could always be counted on to do anything for their cause. It was almost too easy to play off their fanatical leanings, too easy to mislead and use, to let them think this was only about blowing up a power plant.
“That’s better,” he said, nodding to two employees taking a smoke break outdoors, making the most of the fickle April weather bringing a warmer day. “We work well together because I can depend on you.”
“What about Sunny?”
He weighed his words carefully while waiting for a moose to clomp lazily across the parking lot and disappear into the trees.
“I’m sorry. I truly am, but you know the rules,” he continued, tucking into the back entrance, bypassing the front desk and his busybody secretary, Donna, on his way to his office. “Her leaving the community is unfortunate, but our success depends on protecting the anonymity of your group. She can’t be allowed to go back and forth. She’s made connections outside. She’ll want to stay in touch—she could talk.”
She would tell people in the community what happened to Ted and Madison. His whole operation depended on keeping the others calm, having them believe they could actually leave anytime they wanted.
“There has to be something you can do.”
Damn it, he didn’t have time for this crap. He entered his office and closed the door tightly behind him. “If you truly feel that way, then I’ll find someone else to—”
“No, I understand.” The fanatical fire for a cause would make a person sell out their own family.
“Good. We’re on the same page then.” And as long as he perpetuated that feeling, the mission would move along smoothly. He angled past the only chair in his cramped office and sat behind the desk. “You’ll make your mark. You’ll make a difference.”