The Not-Outcast

Page 69

“You look younger than you did back then.”

“Oh.” Her eyes widened and her hand went to her chest. She’d been holding a small clutch in front of her, then she nodded to my office. “May I come in?”

“Yes.” I indicated one of the chairs. “Please.”

She gave me a small smile, one that seemed genuine, and I was having flashbacks to my mom’s funeral. That’d been the last time I saw Natalie, and she’d been so nice to me on that day.

“Thank you, and thank you for the compliment. That’s very kind of you.” She shut the door behind her, then sat into the chair with grace.

I almost laughed because no one sat down in those chairs with grace.

They plopped. They collapsed. They sank into them, but no one sat down as if they were easing into a tub of boiling or freezing water. And clutching a clutch in their lap as they did so, but this was a reminder of the world that I’d never been a part of, and a world that was coming here tonight.

“You must be wondering why I came to talk to you?”

“Kinda, but to be honest, I’ve already run through twenty different scenarios, and I’m noticing the different textures of your sweater. I could tell you how many steps you took to sit down, and how many steps it probably took you from the door and through the cafeteria room to here. Not to mention, all the smells and all the different voices I heard when the door opened for you.”

“I see.” A soft laugh. “So the same Cheyenne?”

“Hardly.” Because I was able to mute those thoughts and push them to the back, so they weren’t front and center. That’s not how I had been back then. “Is Hunter okay?”

She’d been tucking a strand of hair behind her ear at my question and she froze, her eyes latching onto mine. “Of course. Why wouldn’t he be?”

“Because he’s the only connection between you and me, and I figured I should ask to rule out that he’s fine so I’m not worrying about him until you do tell me why you came here early to talk to me.”

“Oh.” Another soft smile as she stared at her lap where she was resting the clutch. “I wanted to talk to you because my husband and I are coming tonight. I thought I might run into you, and I didn’t want any social awkwardness at all.”

“Right.” The thoughts were pushing at me, pushing to come forward. I knew that was because of Natalie’s presence. “Well, it was lovely to see you. I promise not to be awkward tonight at the event.”

“I—” Another frown appeared, this one creasing her forehead. “No. That’s not— I’m sorry. I’m not explaining myself at all, and I should just say it, right? Yes. I should.” Determination fared over her features, smoothing out the frown, making her eyes shine bright. “I came to apologize for how I treated you.”

She was struggling, closing her eyes and she let out a breath of air.

“I…” She choked off and had to cough. “Jon’s a good guy. He’s my new husband. I’m saying this to explain that being with him has made me a good woman, or a better woman. A better person. I—I wasn’t when I was with Deek. I’m sorry, but I’m imagining that if something happened to me, and Hunter had to go into someone else’s house and if he was treated how you were treated, I’d be heartbroken. Because of how I treated you.” She paused, her throat moving to swallow. “The person I am now looks back at the person I was then, at the mom I was then and I’m sorry.”

“That would never happen. About Hunter.” I didn’t want to talk about me, or Jon, or Deek. I didn’t care about any of that.

“I know. I’m just saying—”

I waved that off. “No, I mean that would never happen. Hunter’s adorable. And he’d be coming from a rich household. He’s an athlete. He’s good-looking. He has great social skills.”

She frowned. “Have you seen Hunter recently?”

“Social media. He hasn’t blocked me yet. Please don’t block me.”

She lowered her head, looking to the side before raising it back up. “You saw him at the hockey game.”

My breath hitched. “He told you?”

“He did, and I know that you two email each other. He let me know a long time ago, and that’s another thing I am apologizing for. I should’ve orchestrated more communication between you and your brother, and I didn’t. I did nothing. My husband,” She had to stop again, looking down at her clutch before sniffing and raising her gaze to mine. She wasn’t hiding the regret. It was bright and shining right on the edge. “He was worried for me. He wanted to reassure me, so he did it the way his world does these things. I didn’t realize the magnitude of my silence about you until he handed me a file the other day. He knew that Hunter saw you at the hockey game. Hunter talked about it at great lengths with both of us because he was upset with how Chad and Deek both acted toward you. He went so far as to say that if attitudes didn’t change, he’d not be seeing his half-brother or his father ever again. It was then that I realized that I was partially responsible for this.”

My throat was swelling up again. “He told Chad and Deek this, too?”

She nodded. “Not at the time, but he talked about it more with my husband and me, and he seemed as if he were coming to a decision. I know he has reached out to both and told them this decision, but that’s not why I’m here. I had been planning on reaching out before Hunter made that declaration, but also before we got the invitation for the event tonight. I—well, the mother in me is ashamed when I think about it. My husband has a heart condition, and we didn’t get good news the other week. I think that, more than anything else, hastened this meeting. Life is short, and we don’t know when we may lose people we love.”

My damn throat. It was still swelling, and I was someone who mostly lived in my head.

Her words were making me feel things.

“You mentioned a file?”

“Yes.” Her cheeks reddened. “That was the moment I realized how my nonaction was coming across. My husband grew alarmed when he noticed that I was never encouraging Hunter to reach out to his sister, so he hired a private investigator.”

A P.I.?

I knew these people used to think I was a criminal, but to actually hire an investigator?

Natalie kept on, “I was stunned, not what I read inside, but that he had hired someone to look into you. You have deserved nothing for how you have been treated. Your mother was very sick, and had been for a long time, but I didn’t look at you as a child needing love. I was scared. I didn’t think I could handle what you might be bringing into my home, and my instincts kicked in to protect Chad and Hunter. In all that time, I never thought that I was hurting a child needing help, that perhaps you had been brought to us for a reason. I turned my back on you, and I’m very sorry for that.”

This was a lot.

I was feeling itchy all over, and restless, and my thoughts were almost breaking my barrier. If that happened, I’d be flooded with so much stimulus and information that I’d have to call for a ride home. I wouldn’t be able to endure coming back for the evening.

I didn’t do my run this morning, or yoga.

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