“I need to talk to you.”
“Oh?” Of course, he did. He hadn’t come to my room once since I moved in. Of course, he’s only here because he would need to talk about something.
“It can’t wait?”
He seemed to hesitate but gave his head a slight shake. “It can’t.”
I nodded to him, grabbing a sweater I had on the bed. I indicated that I’d follow him, pulling that wrap on. It was now my shield as I fell in step behind him.
It was time
He had struck.
I felt it in my gut.
I was more surprised it’d taken him this long.
The house was mostly dark. I knew he kept a light on in the kitchen at all times, but he was leading me to the porch area, and there were a few soft lights on the table. We stepped in, and I felt the heat. I was glad it was a four-season porch.
Nate moved to sit in one of the chairs, and I took the other. I moved my feet, resettling on the chair. I pulled my knees up to my chest and rested my hand against one, looking at Nate.
“He set a motion against me, didn’t he?”
Nate jerked from the question, the ends of his mouth turning down. “How do you—how’d you know that?”
I gave him a wane smile, but I was really just trying to mask how I should’ve felt gutted but didn’t. “I told you he would go through me. What’s he trying to do? Say I’m incompetent to be Nova’s guardian?”
“He’s saying you weren’t in the right frame of mind to sign her over to me. If he takes that out, he can come straight at me then.”
I sucked in a breath because that couldn’t happen.
I’d never let Nova live with him, and horror quickly settled in after because holy shit, I’d been about to do just that.
“It’s like I finally escaped from an abusive relationship or something.”
I was such a fool.
“He took everything from me.” I was speaking to Nate, but I also wasn’t at the same time. I was realizing it as I was saying it. “I have a mother, and he made me feel like she wasn’t worthy. He got in my head and turned me against everyone.”
He did all of that.
“He made everyone bad. He made everyone evil. I couldn’t trust anyone, but I couldn’t trust him either.”
I’d lost so much.
“Valerie should be sitting here, not me.” But she wasn’t. She went to Nico. I focused on Nate. “Why didn’t you guys have more of a relationship? You didn’t claim her.”
He sat back in his seat, blinking a few times. “I didn’t love Valerie.” His words came out low but calm. He’d considered this before. He already knew.
“You were stupid. She was an amazing person.” She was everything I wasn’t. I looked away and hugged my knees harder to my chest. “She was so pretty, and her laugh. When she thought something was funny, everyone did. Calihan’s like me. She has an edge to her, but she’s softer, too. I was always so rigid. No one liked me. I didn’t even like me, but not Valerie. Everyone loved her. They adored her. Calihan,” I had to laugh. “Calihan was popular, like Graham. She was nice, but she could also be one of the mean girls. But not against me. I could fillet her with a look, and she always ran.”
Not anymore, though.
I didn’t have that in me.
I moved my head, pressing my forehead more fully into the side of my knee. “I feel so weak now. All my defenses are down. You did that to me.”
I nodded. “Because you’re kind, and letting me stay here, and protecting me. You’re fighting for me, and yes, I know a part of it is because you’re really trying to go after my father, but you’re standing on the line, and I’m behind you. You are shielding me from the evils that await me.”
It felt weird. Vulnerable.
I felt raw.
“Don’t you see, I was going to fight you and raise her in that house…with him.” I could taste my own terror. It was condemning. “How could I have done that? That would’ve been… He’s emotionally abusive. He’s not ever overt with anything. He doesn’t do anything out in the open, but it’s all in the head. The mental abuse. That’s the worst. You question yourself, but he’s in there. He’s controlling you. And you can’t break free, but then at moments, you get clarity, and you’re horrified at what you used to be living in. If I hadn’t signed that paper, you would’ve been right in doing anything in your power to take Nova away from me. She cannot go with him. Ever.”
What I would do to protect her… I should’ve had shivers thinking how far I’d go. I didn’t.
“Thank you,” I added, softly.
Nate still seemed torn, not knowing what to say to me.
He raked a hand over his face. “I have to admit, this is not how I thought this talk was going to go down.” His hands went to his armrests. He pushed up. “Want a drink? I’ve been tense, thinking about how to tell you this, and now I need a drink.”
I tipped my head back. “I’m good.”
He looked down at me, smiling back. “Water?”
“No, thank you. I’m good. I’ll keep you company, though.”
He went inside, and I remained, knowing this felt good.
This. Being here.
I felt like I finally had a home, and I now realized I never had one before.
And yeah. I was tired.
I rested my head down, a yawn leaving me. I was going to close my eyes, just for a bit.
Just until Nate came back…
I was being carried through the house.
It was the best feeling ever.
That was new to me, too.
The next few months went by fast.
And not a good fast. A grinding tension-filled type of fast. The bad kind of fast.
I let Logan know that Quincey was up to speed on everything, and there were meetings. There were lots and lots of meetings.
Every member of her family was interviewed.
Quincey herself underwent a voluntary psychological assessment, and Logan wasn’t fucking around. He got the top officials to come in for this, and just in case one opinion wasn’t enough, he had two to back it up. As he explained one time that they needed to walk into that meeting with so much against Duke Royas that everything would get tossed out in the first attempt.