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This book is everything..just..wow.
22 August 2020 (19:07)
Overall, I would give this book a 3.5/5. My main issue with the book is not the word choice or even the character really. Kaleb's character seemed not well executed, but I can see what the author was trying to portray. However, the morality of his character towards Tiernan was not shown effectively in my opinion. I also did not understand their connection and why they felt such a strong connection, but not much meaningful conversation to suggest it until the very end. I still really enjoyed the book considering I read it in two days. I would recommend this books to other readers.
22 December 2020 (02:30)
Super spicy! Finished it in 3 days!
14 January 2021 (10:03)
Your books are the best
28 January 2021 (18:37)
I love your books and encourage you to write more like these.
16 April 2021 (17:49)
The book is okay, I finished it in just a day, the ending is kinda 'meh' but this book l would totally recommend to readers who don't mind step siblings love,I would give it a 4/5.
16 May 2021 (18:44)
i just download but why i can't open the file? most of reviewed i heard that this book is awesome. saddly i can't read it until today. someone please help me! I can't wait to read this books.
07 June 2021 (09:55)
unfortunately I can't view the file
07 June 2021 (13:38)
Spicy incest? Is this who we are now?
08 June 2021 (12:14)
Why you can't read because it's in epub format for this you have to convert
Go to google and type epub into PDF select the format covert after enjoy reading
Go to google and type epub into PDF select the format covert after enjoy reading
10 June 2021 (12:48)
I lowkey on the DL kinda loved it
24 June 2021 (15:55)
The plot was really bad and the spicy scenes kinda disturbing but very well written. If you don't mind reading about an incest with a huge age gap, go for it
27 June 2021 (15:27)
I love it. The build up to the scenes was good. I can tell you I didn’t expect her to love him but hey the heart wants what it wants
28 June 2021 (06:51)
I read in about 3 days. It was worth it. I can’t express how much I loved it. I shall now be look for a similar book lmao
29 June 2021 (13:42)
I’m pretty sure it’s not incest. Twice in the book it stated there not related by blood. The main girl dad was the son of the guy who married Jakes mum. The Step Brother not related by blood.
29 June 2021 (13:45)
I heard good things about this book but sadly I can't open the file I don't know why
14 July 2021 (05:04)
download epub reader from google store , you can read it then...;)
19 July 2021 (20:30)
I came from a tiktok about a girl describing this book and just thought, damn. :0 I gotta read this lol.
21 July 2021 (20:12)
came from a tik tok, need to read it
23 July 2021 (20:07)
OMG THIS IS SO GOOD!! MISS PENELOPE DOUGLAS DOESN'T DISAPPOINTS!!
31 July 2021 (06:29)
2/5. Around 5 chapters in the author fantasizes rape and sexual assault. The main character is almost r*ped by her cousin but it’s written off as “you’re just too beautiful and delicious I couldn’t help myself can you blame me?” The book also should have had trigger warnings. The main character not of age when this happens and her cousin is in his mid twenties. That also gets written off as “she’ll be of age in a couple months” I wouldn’t recommend this book to audiences who are sensitive to certain topics as it may be unsettling. Romanticizing a young girl living in a house with 3 adult men seems weird and I’m pretty disappointed… also there’s a lack of inclusivity, the character is built as purely white with blondish hair and non-brown eyes. If you are a BIPOC looking for a good book to self-insert this isn’t one of them.
31 July 2021 (14:52)
This one is errrrrrr.... it’s a bit unconventional and it would definitely be considered a guilty pleasure. Um, yeah, I liked it but also hated it. Super conflicted. I’d say if you’re into dark romance books and aren’t a prude definitely give it a read. If you put aside the relatives aspect it’s pretty hot and spicey, but then again it’s also super disturbing. SHIT IDK HOW TO FEEL ABOUT THIS ONE ARG! Also, chapter 16.... ?
06 August 2021 (01:53)
Overall it was a challenging experience to complete this book. If not for the grey area that lay in the "we're family but we're actually not so it's ok to have sex with you," it was the over possessive nature and near abuse of this 17 (18 later on) old girl whom they had only just met. While in writing the explicit scenes were good, I often found myself disturbed with not only the happenings occurring but with the "interesting" dialogue with which was paired along with said scene/scenes (this is specifically regarding the Jake/Tiernan thing.) It's safe to say that the themes explored weren't for me and that is probably why it wasn't as an enjoyable experience as I would have hoped. 2/5
13 August 2021 (04:29)
I'm still trying to process this book!
Might read it again ??
Might read it again ??
18 August 2021 (21:51)
Definitely a morally grey book, but it is just a book. Considering it was all fiction, I thought it was good.
23 August 2021 (21:51)
This book is so good didn't expect any less fom Penelope
28 August 2021 (23:05)
It’s the misogyny & normalising of SA for me.
Save yourself the time & don’t bother with this book!
Save yourself the time & don’t bother with this book!
01 September 2021 (13:04)
I personally think that this book was overhype on Tiktok. The sudden strong bond among the characters weren't executed properly as well as the 'sudden' love sparks between Tiernan and Kaleb. I understand that they have their personal issues and this is only fictional but the sexual attraction to a 17 year old despite a few months turning 18 (legal age) by three men is disgusting . Romanticising of rape and sexual assault was clearly visible on the story. It was good and I still recommend this but please be very careful when I you decided to read this book.
02 September 2021 (14:02)
Y’all this book is spicy yes :/ but it condone relatives and cousin Fucking So Yeah
02 September 2021 (19:49)
Super spicy, kept me up until dawn.I just can't stop reading.
03 September 2021 (05:26)
Can't get enough of Kaleb. Need more of Kaleb pov. Btw make sure u guys check out the bonus scene on Penelope Douglas website. Got some more spiciness there and it's Kaleb POV. ?
03 September 2021 (18:19)
I haven’t read it and I came from tiktok but by the look of these comments idk if I want to?
07 September 2021 (07:31)
Ummm, came here from tiktok but the comments are really.......and the blurb is kinda........?
08 September 2021 (15:38)
Was good 4.5/5, but like weird she fucked all of them but them loved the one with the least scenes and treated her like shit? Like he’s quiet and brooding with a tortured past but he like has the actions of a 4 year old pulling her pigtails. Dad scene was hit but underdeveloped. Honestly pretty hot ?
09 September 2021 (13:49)
Nope, nope, nope. Y'all just read anything thing. Terrible
28 September 2021 (01:46)
i read this a while ago and i can’t help but read it again ! my only issue with this book is that i feel as if the ending was rushed. I love Pene but if she just took a little more time on the ending it would have been a 5/5 book!
04 October 2021 (04:30)
Judging by these comments… I Don’t think I wanna read this book anymore…. YOLO IMA DO IT. IM COME BACK WITH AN UPDATE!!
04 October 2021 (11:39)
If you're okay with taboo Romance I highly recommend reading this also you gotta have like a very open mind when reading and try as much as possible to separate real life with this book. its very spicy 5/5
04 October 2021 (17:23)
YALL IM BACK!! FORGET WHAT EVERYONE IS SAYING AND READ THAT BOOK!! ITS AMAZING. I PERSONALLY LOVED IT 11/10 Penelope has done it once again!!
11 October 2021 (07:33)
I saw this recommended on booktok and I liked it until like the half of it. I don't get what is the such a strong connection between Kaleb and Tiernan. Makes no since, especially the ending. But over it was OK, spicy
27 October 2021 (01:58)
This is an extremely spicy book but err I am just not comfortable with the plot like she literally fuck her uncle and both his sons . It sounds so wrong in so many ways. the spicy scenes are 10/10 for sure if u forget the context. I like the ending tho, seems like there was a good character development for Kaleb. Overall, 6/10
27 October 2021 (11:01)
this book was... certainly... something. every relationship between tiernan and each character was poorly executed. also the double fking scene between tiernan and the brothers????? it made me uncomfy that two brothers were being intimate at the same time with the same person. fina gouge my eyes out now brb
30 October 2021 (19:13)
The book was ehm okay, The smut were spicy asf, but the plot is just not i that I was expecting
05 November 2021 (09:24)
had to bleach my fucking eyes after reading this and had to pray to Christ and I'm not even religious
23 November 2021 (03:08)
Family dynamics were not so bad. A woman shared with brothers isn’t so rare, and one who sleeps with a father and then the sons is only slightly twisted. It happens. Forcing it to be accepted as taboo is close minded and judgmental. Over all the story was interesting enough. 6/10
24 November 2021 (03:10)
The book was SPICY. However it’s the story line that is weird. I understand the overall picture of how Tiernan is connecting to someone quiet bc she’s used to it but it’s also more reason for her to run from him. Solid 8/10
26 November 2021 (14:08)
Penelope Douglas Copyright © 2020 Penelope Douglas Cover Design © 2018 Pink Ink Designs All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Proofreading & Interior Formatting by Elaine York, Allusion Publishing & Book Formatting Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Epilogue Birthday Girl Acknowledgements About the Author The Fall Away Series Bully Until You Rival Falling Away Aflame Next to Never The Devil’s Night Series Corrupt Hideaway Kill Switch Conclave Nightfall (coming 2020) Standalones Misconduct Punk 57 Birthday Girl Credence “Blue Blood” by LAUREL “break up with your girlfriend, I’m bored” by Ariana Grande “Dancing Barefoot” by U2 “Devil In a Bottle” by Genitorturers “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)” by Joan Jett “Fire It Up” by Thousand Foot Krutch “Give You Hell” by The All-American Rejects “I Found” by Amber Run “Kryptonite” by 3 Doors Down “Look Back at It” by A Boogie wit da Hoodie “Nobody Rides for Free” by Ratt “The Hand That Feeds” by Nine Inch Nails “Way Down We Go” by KALEO “Wow.” By Post Malone “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We nee; d the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” -Frederick Douglass Tiernan It’s strange. The tire swing in the yard is the only thing that makes it look like a kid lives here. There were never any drawings in the house. None on the fridge or walls. No children’s books on the shelves. No shoes by the front door or floaties in the pool. It’s a couple’s home. Not a family’s. I stare out the window, watching the tire sway back and forth in the breeze as it hangs from the oak, and absently rub the red ribbon in my hair between my fingers, feeling the comfort of the smooth surface. He always had time to push her on the swing, didn’t he? He had time for her. And she for him. Walkie talkies shoot off beeps and white noise somewhere behind me while footfalls hit the stairs and doors slam above me. The police and paramedics are busy upstairs, but they’ll want to talk to me soon, I’m sure. I swallow, but I don’t blink. I’d thought the tire swing was for me when he installed it ten years ago. I was allowed to play on it, but my mother was the one who really loved it. I used to watch them out my bedroom window late at night, my father pushing her and the magic of their play and laughter making me want to be in the middle of it. But I knew as soon as they saw me the magic would change. It would disappear. So, I stayed at my window and only ever watched. Like I still do. I bite the corner of my mouth, watching a green leaf flutter past the swing and land inside the tire where my mother sat countless times. The image of her white nightgown and light hair flowing through the night as she swung on it is still so vivid, because the last time was only yesterday. A throat clears behind me, and I finally blink, dropping my eyes. “Did they say anything to you?” Mirai asks me with tears in her voice. I don’t turn around, but after a moment, I give a slow shake of my head. “When did you last speak to them?” I can’t answer that. I’m not sure. Behind me, I feel her approach, but she stops several feet back as the clank of the first ambulance gurney jostles and creaks down the stairs and is carried from the house. I tip my chin up, steeling myself at the distant commotion outside as the paramedics open the front door. The calls and questions, the horns honking as more people arrive, beyond the gates, where the media can no doubt see the body being wheeled out. When did I last speak to my parents? “The police found some medications in your parents’ bathroom,” Mirai broaches in her soft voice. “They have your father’s name on them, so they called the doctor and learned that he had cancer, Tiernan.” I don’t move. “They never said anything to me,” she tells me. “Did you know your father was sick?” I shake my head again, still watching the tire sway. I hear her swallow. “Apparently, he tried treatments, but the disease was aggressive,” she says. “The doctor said he… he wasn’t going to last the year, honey.” A gust of wind picks up outside, churning the swing, and I watch the rope spin the tire as it twists. “It looks like… It looks like they…” Mirai trails off, unable to finish her thought. I know what it looks like. I knew when I found them this morning. Toulouse, my mother’s Scottish terrier, was clawing at the door and begging to get into their bedroom, so I cracked it open. The thought occurred to me that it was weird they weren’t up yet, but I let the dog in anyway. Just before I closed it again though, my eyes shot up, and I saw them. On the bed. In each other’s arms. Fully dressed. He wore his favorite Givenchy suit and she was in the Oscar de la Renta gown she wore to the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. He had cancer. He was dying. They knew, and my mother had decided not to let him leave without her. She decided that there was nothing else without him. Nothing else. A sting hits the backs of my eyes, but it’s gone almost immediately. “The police haven’t found a note,” Mirai says. “Did you find—” But I turn my head, meeting her eyes, and she instantly falls silent. What a stupid question. I lock my jaw, swallowing the needles in my throat. Over all the years of nannies and boarding schools and summer camps where I was kept busy and raised by anyone but them, I’d found little pain in anything my parents did anymore. But it seems there are still parts of me to hurt. They didn’t leave me a note. Even now, there was nothing they wanted to say to me. I blink away the tears and turn back around, trying to stare hard at the swing again as it twists and glides back and forth in the wind. I hear Mirai sniffle and sob quietly behind me, because she knows. She knows what I’m feeling, because she’s been here since the beginning. After another minute I see her outside the window, walking past me, and I hadn’t even realized she’d left the room. She carries shears in her hand and charges right up to the tire swing, and as she raises the scissors to the rope, I clench my fists under my arms and watch her press the handles together, working through the rope until the tire hangs by twine and eventually falls to the ground. A single tear finally falls, and for the first time since I’ve been home all summer, I feel something like love. Hours later, the sun has set, the house is quiet again, and I’m alone. Almost alone. Reporters are still lingering beyond the gates. Mirai wanted me to come home with her to the small, one bedroom she was certainly paid more than enough not to have to live in. But since she had always been here night and day and traveling wherever my mother went, it made more sense not to keep an apartment at all, much less rent a bigger one. I politely declined. She took Toulouse, since that dog gets along with me about as well as he would a wet cat, and said she’d be back first thing in the morning. I should’ve been nicer to her. When she offered to stay here instead, I just wanted everyone gone. The noise and attention made me nervous, and I don’t want to hear all the phone calls Mirai has to make tonight, which will just be a reminder of how all hell is breaking loose out in the world and on social media. They’re saying things about my parents. They’re speculating about me, no doubt. The pity. The predictions of when I’ll follow my mom and dad, either by overdose or my own suicide. Everyone has an opinion and thinks they know everything. If I thought I lived in a fish bowl before… I walk back to the stove, letting out a breath. My parents left me to deal with this shit. Steam rises from the pot, and I turn off the burner and pour the ramen into a bowl. I rub my dry lips together and stare at the yellow broth as my stomach growls. I haven’t eaten or drank anything all day, but I’m not sure I had any intention of eating this when I finally wandered into the kitchen tonight to make it. I just always liked the process of cooking things. The recipe, the procedure… I know what to do. It’s meditative. I wrap my hands around the bowl, savoring the heat coursing through the ceramic and up my arms. Chills break out over my body, and I almost swallow, but then I realize it’ll take more energy than I have. They’re dead, and I haven’t cried. I’m just more worried about tomorrow and handling everything. I don’t know what to do, and the idea of forcing small talk with studio executives or old friends of my parents over the weeks to come as I bury my mother and father and deal with everything I’ve inherited makes the bile rise in my throat. I feel sick. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. They knew I didn’t have the skills to deal with situations like this. I can’t smile or fake things I’m not feeling. Digging chopsticks out of the drawer, I stick them in the bowl and pick it up, carrying it upstairs. I reach the top and don’t pause as I turn away from their bedroom door and head left, toward my own room. Carrying the bowl to my desk, I pause, the smell of the ramen making my stomach roll. I set it down and move to the wall, sliding down until I’m sitting on the floor. The cool hardwood eases my nerves, and I’m tempted to lie down and rest my face on it. Is it weird I stayed in the house tonight when they died just down the hall this morning? The coroner estimated the time of death about two a.m. I didn’t wake up until six. My mind races, caught between wanting to let it go and wanting to process how everything happened. Mirai is here every day. If I didn’t find them, she would’ve. Why didn’t they wait until I’d gone back to school next week? Did they even remember I was in the house? I let my head fall back against the wall and lay my arms over my bent knees, closing my burning eyes. They didn’t leave me a note. They dressed up. They put the dog out. They scheduled Mirai to come late this morning, instead of early. They didn’t write me a note. Their closed door looms ahead of me, and I open my eyes, staring across my bedroom, through my open door, down the long hallway, and to their room at the other end of the hall. The house sounds the same. Nothing has changed. But just then, a small buzz whirs from somewhere, and I blink at the faint sound, dread bringing me back to reality. What is that? I thought I turned off my phone. Reporters know to field requests for comment through my parents’ representatives, but that doesn’t stop the greedy ones—of which most are—from digging up my personal cell number. I reach up, pawing for my phone on my desk, but when I press the Power button I see that it’s still off. The buzzing continues, and just as realization dawns, my heart skips a beat. My private cell. The one buried in my drawer. Only my parents and Mirai had that number. It was a phone for them to reach me if anything was urgent, since they knew I turned off my other one a lot. They never used that number though, so I never kept it on me anymore. Pushing up on my knees, I reach into my desk drawer and pull the old iPhone off its charger and fall back to the floor, looking at the screen. Colorado. I don’t know anyone in Colorado. This phone never gets calls though. It could be a reporter who somehow tracked down the phone, but then it’s not registered under my name, so I doubt it. I answer it. “Hello?” “Tiernan?” The man’s voice is deep, but there’s a lilt of surprise in it like he didn’t expect me to answer. Or he’s nervous. “It’s Jake Ver der Berg,” he says. Jake Van der Berg… “Your Uncle Jake Van der Berg.” And then I remember. “My father’s…?” “Brother,” he finishes for me. “Step-brother, actually, yes.” I completely forgot. Jake Van der Berg had rarely been mentioned in this house. I didn’t grow up with any relatives, so I’d completely blanked on the fact that I had one. My mother grew up in foster care, never knew her father, and had no siblings. My dad only had an estranged, younger step-brother I’d never met. I had no aunts, uncles, or cousins growing up, and my father’s parents were dead, so I didn’t have grandparents, either. There’s only one reason he’s calling me after seventeen years. “Um,” I mumble, searching for words. “My mother’s assistant will be handling the funeral arrangements. If you need the details, I don’t have them. I’ll give you her number.” “I’m not coming to the funeral.” I still for a moment. His voice is on edge. And he hasn’t offered condolences for “my loss,” which is unusual. Not that I need them, but why is he calling, then? Does he think my father wrote him into his will? Honestly, he might have. I have no idea. But before I can ask him what he wants, he clears his throat. “Your father’s attorney called me earlier, Tiernan,” he tells me. “Since I’m your only living relative, and you’re still underage, your parents apparently left you in my care.” In his care? Apparently. Sounds like this is news to him, too. I don’t need anyone’s care. He continues, “You’ll be eighteen in a couple months, though. I’m not going to force you to do anything, so don’t worry.” Okay. I hesitate for a moment, not sure if I feel relieved or not. I didn’t have time to process the reminder that I wasn’t a legal adult, and what that meant now that my parents were gone, before he assured me that it wouldn’t mean anything. My life won’t change. Fine. “I’m sure, growing up in that life,” he says, “you’re a hell of a lot more world-wise than we are and can take pretty good care of yourself by now anyway.” “We?” I murmur. “My sons and I,” he says. “Noah and Kaleb. They’re not much older than you, actually. Maybe a few years.” So, I have cousins. Or… step-cousins. Whatever. It’s basically nothing. I play with the light blue thread on my sleep shorts. “I just wanted to reach out to tell you that,” he finally says. “If you want to emancipate yourself, you’ll get no argument from me. I have no interest in making anything harder for you by uprooting you from your life.” I stare at the thread, pinching it between my nails as I pull it tight. Okay, then. “Well… thank you for calling.” And I start to pull the phone away from my ear, but then I hear his voice again. “Do you want to come here?” I bring the phone back to my ear. “I didn’t mean to sound like you weren’t welcome,” he says. “You are. I just thought…” He trails off, and I listen. He chuckles. “It’s just that we live a pretty secluded life here, Tiernan,” he explains. “It’s not much fun for a young woman, especially one who has no idea who the hell I am, you know?” His tone turns solemn. “Your dad and I, we just…we never saw eye to eye.” I sit there, saying nothing. I know it would be polite to talk to him. Or maybe he expects me to ask questions. Like what happened between him and my father? Did he know my mother? But I don’t want to talk. I don’t care. “Did he tell you we lived in Colorado?” Jake asks softly. “Close to Telluride but up in the mountains.” I draw in a breath and release it, winding the thread around my finger. “It’s not a far ride to town in nice weather, but we get snowed in for months at a time during the winter,” he goes on. “Very different from your life.” I raise my eyes, letting them slowly drift around the barren room I’ve barely ever slept in. Shelves filled with books I never finished reading. A desk piled with pretty journals I liked buying but hardly wrote in. I thought about decorating in here during breaks at home, but as with everything else, the wallpaper was never purchased, because I could never decide. I have no imagination. Yeah, my life… The weight of my parents’ door looms ahead of me, down the hall. Snowed in, he said. For months at a time. “No cable. No noise. No WiFi sometimes,” he says. “Just the sounds of the wind and the falls and the thunder. My heart aches a little, and I don’t know if it’s his words or his voice. Just the sounds of the wind and the falls and the thunder. Sounds amazing, actually. All of it sounds kind of nice. No one can get to you. “My boys are used to the seclusion,” he tells me. “But you…” I pick up the thread again and twist it around my finger. But me…? “I came out here when I wasn’t much older than you,” he muses, and I can hear the smile in his voice. “I had soft hands and a head full of shit I didn’t know what to do with. I was barely alive.” Needles prick my throat, and I close my eyes. “There’s something to be said for sweat and sun.” He sighs. “Hard work, solace, and keeping busy. We’ve built everything we have here. It’s a good life.” Maybe that’s what I need. To run away like he did at my age. Dive into anything different, because the only thing I feel anymore is tired. “Have you had a good life?” he nearly whispers. I keep my eyes closed, but I feel like I have a truck sitting on my lungs. I’ve had a great life. I have a closet full of all the designer clothes and bags everyone expects a famous star’s daughter to own. I’ve been to two dozen countries, and I can buy anything I want. My home is huge. My fridge is stocked. How many people would happily trade places with me? How lucky am I? “Do you want to come here, Tiernan?” he asks again. Tiernan I pull off my wireless headphones and let them rest around my neck as I take a look around the room. Their baggage claim area only has two carousels. It’s like a bathroom at LAX. Is he here? I spin around, trying to recognize someone I’ve never met, but he’ll probably know me before I know him anyway. Our family’s pictures are hard to avoid online right now. Following the crowd, I head to the second conveyor belt and wait for the luggage to be dropped. I probably brought way too much, especially since there’s a good chance I won’t stay long, but honestly, I wasn’t thinking. He emailed a ticket—told me I could use it or not—and I just grabbed my suitcases and started loading. I was too relieved to have something to do. I check my phone to make sure I didn’t miss a call from him saying where to meet, and I see a text from Mirai, instead. Just giving you a heads up… The coroner will confirm the cause of death by the end of the week. It will make the news. If you need to talk, I’m here. Always. I inhale a deep breath, but I forget to let it go as I slip my phone in my back pocket. Cause of death. We know how they died. All the religious nutcases on Twitter are presently condemning my parents as sinners for taking their own lives, and I couldn’t look at it. While I could say whatever I wanted about my problems with Hannes and Amelia de Haas, I didn’t want to hear bullshit from strangers who didn’t know them. I should turn off my phone. I should... I pinch my eyebrows together. I should go home. I don’t know this guy, and I don’t like the people I do know. But last night, nothing sounded better than getting out of there. The carousel starts to spin, snapping me out of my head, and I watch as the bags start appearing. One of my black suitcases moves toward me, and I reach down to grab it, but another hand suddenly appears, lifting it for me, instead. I shoot up, coming face to face with a man. Well, not face to face exactly. He stares down at me, and I open my mouth to speak, but I can’t remember…anything. His eyes are almost frozen, and he doesn’t blink as we stand there, locked. Is this him? I know my father’s step-brother is of Dutch descent, same as my dad, and this guy’s certainly got the whole six-foot-two, athletic look with short-cropped, dark blond hair and blue eyes whose slight amusement betrays his stern set jaw and intimidating presence. “You’re Jake?” I ask. “Hi.” Hi? His gaze doesn’t leave me, and for a moment I can’t pull away, either. I knew he and my father weren’t blood, but for some reason, I thought they’d look similar. I don’t know why. My expectation was completely off, though, and it didn’t occur to me that there was an age difference between them. Jake has to be at least ten years younger than Hannes. Late thirties, maybe early forties? Perhaps that had something to do with them not getting along. In two totally differently places, so not much in common growing up? We stand there for a moment, and I feel like this is the point where most people would hug or something, but I take a step back—and away from him—just in case. He doesn’t come in for an embrace, though. Instead, his eyes flash to the side, and he gestures. “This one, too?” His voice is deep but soft, like he’s a little bit scared of me but not scared of anything else. My heart speeds up. What did he ask me? Oh, the luggage. I look over my shoulder, seeing my other black case trailing this way. I nod once, waiting for it to come down the line to us. “How did you know it was me?” I asked him, remembering how he just grabbed my suitcase without a word to confirm my identity. But he laughs to himself. I close my eyes for a moment, remembering he’s probably seen pictures of me somewhere, so it wasn’t hard to figure out. “Right,” I murmur. “Excuse me,” he says, reaching past me to grab the second case. I stumble back a step, his body brushing into mine. He pulls it off the belt and adds, “And you’re the only one here with Louis Vuitton luggage, so...” I shoot him a look, noticing the jeans with dirt-stained knees and the seven-dollar gray T-shirt he wears. “You know Louis?” I ask. “More than I care to,” he replies and then fixes me with a look. “I grew up in that life, too, remember?” That life. He says it as if labels and luxury negate any substance. People may live different realities, but the truth is always the same. I clear my throat, reaching out for one of the cases. “I can take something.” “It’s okay.” He shakes his head. “We’re good.” I carry my pack on my back and hold the handle of my carry-on, while he grips my two rolling suitcases. I’m ready to move, but he’s looking down at me, something timid but also amazed in his eyes. “What?” I ask. “No, sorry,” he says, shaking his head. “You just look like your mother.” I drop my eyes. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that, and it’s a compliment, to be sure. My mother was beautiful. Charismatic, statuesque… It just never makes me feel good, though. As if everyone sees her first. Gray eyes, blonde hair, although mine is the natural sandy shade while hers was colored to look more golden. My darker eyebrows are my own, though. A small source of pride. I like how they make my eyes pop. He inhales a deep breath. “Any more?” he asks, and I assume he’s talking about my luggage. I shake my head. “Okay, let’s hit the road.” He leads the way toward the exit, and I follow closely behind, as we maneuver our way through the sparse crowd and outside. As soon as we step into the sun, I inhale the thick late-August air, smelling the blacktop and the trees lining the parking lot beyond. The breeze tickles the hair on my arms, and even though the sky is cloudless and everything is green, I feel tempted to unwrap the jacket tied around my waist and put it on. We cross the walkway, barely needing to look for cars, because traffic is worse in line for the valet at my parents’ country club on a Sunday afternoon. I like it. No horns or woofers shaking the pavement. He stops behind a black truck, but instead of popping down the tailgate, he just hauls my suitcase over the side and into the bed. Reaching back, he takes my other case and does the same. I pick up my carry-on to help, but he quickly grabs that one, too, the tight cords in his arm flexing and shining in the sun. “I should’ve traveled lighter,” I think out loud. He turns. “It’s not just a visit.” Yeah, maybe. I’m still not sure, but I thought it was best to bring enough for the long haul if I decided to stay. We climb into the truck, and I put my seatbelt on as he starts the engine. On reflex, I reach for my headphones around my neck. But I stop. It would be rude to tune him out, having just met him. My parents never took issue, but they asked me not to wear them around others. I release the headphones and stare at the radio instead. Please let music be playing. And as soon as the truck rumbles to life, the radio lights up, playing “Kryptonite” loudly, and for a second, I’m relieved. Small talk hurts. He pulls out of the parking lot, and I clasp my hands on my lap, turning my head out the window. “So, I checked into it,” he says over the radio. “We have an online high school that can take care of you.” I turn my eyes on him. He explains, “We have a lot of kids here who are needed on the ranches and such, so it’s pretty common to homeschool or complete classes online.” Oh. I relax a little. For a moment, I thought he expected me to attend school. I had prepared myself for living in a new place, but not getting accustomed to new teachers and classmates. I barely knew the ones I’d been with for the past three years. Either way, he needn’t have bothered. I took care of it. “I can stay at Brynmor,” I tell him, turning my eyes back out the window. “My school in Connecticut was happy to work with my…absence. My teachers have already emailed my syllabi, and I’ll be able to complete everything online.” The highway starts to give way to the sporadic homes along the side of the road, some 80’s-style ranches with rusty chain-link fences, bungalows, and even a Craftsman, all hugged by the dark needles of the tall evergreens around their yards. “Good,” Jake says. “That’s good. Let them know, though, that you can be offline for spells as the WiFi at my place is spotty and completely goes out during storms. They might want to send your assignments in bulk, so you don’t get behind during that downtime.” I look over at him, seeing him glance away from the road to meet my eyes. I nod. “But who knows…” he muses. “You might just be running for the hills after a week up at the cabin.” Because…? He cocks his head, joking, “No malls or caramel macchiatos close by.” I turn my eyes back out my window, mumbling. “I don’t drink caramel macchiatos.” It’s reasonable for him to anticipate that maybe I won’t feel comfortable with them or that I’ll miss my “life” back home, but suggesting I’m a prima donna who can’t live without a Starbucks is kind of dicky. I guess we can thank TV for the rest of the world thinking California girls are all valley twits in tube tops, but with droughts, wildfires, earthquakes, mudslides, and one-fifth of the nation’s serial killings happening on our turf, we’re tough, too. We drive for a while, and thankfully, he doesn’t talk more. The town appears ahead, and I can make out carved wooden statues and a main street of square buildings all attached to each other on both sides. People loiter on the sidewalks, talking to each other, while potted flowers hang from the light posts, giving the place a quaint, cared-for vibe. Teenagers sit on their tailgates where they’re parked on the curb, and I take in the businesses—everything mom and pop and nothing chain. I look up, seeing the large hanging banner right before we drive under it. Chapel Peak Smokin’ Summerfest! August 26-29 Chapel Peak… “This isn’t Telluride,” I say, turning my eyes on him. “I said it was outside of Telluride,” he corrects. “Wayyyy outside of Telluride.” Even better, actually. Telluride was a famous ski destination—lots of shops and high-end fare. This will be different. I want different. I watch the shops pass by. Grind House Café. Porter’s Post Office. The Cheery Cherry Ice Cream Shop. The… I turn my head to take in the cute red and white pin-striped awning as we pass a small shop and almost smile. “A candy store…” I used to love candy stores. I haven’t been inside one in years. Rebel’s Pebbles, I read the sign. It sounds so wild west. “Do you have your license?” he asks. I turn my head back facing front and nod. “Good.” He pauses, and I can feel him looking over at me. “Feel free to use any of the vehicles, just make sure I know where you’re going, okay?” Any of the vehicles. Does he mean his and his sons’? Where are they, by the way? Not that I expected them to be at the airport, too, but it kind of makes me nervous that they might not be excited about me coming if they weren’t there to greet me. Something else I’d failed to consider. They had a comfy, testosterone-infused man-cave, and here comes the girl they think they’ll have to guard their dirty jokes around now. Of course, it’s Thursday. Maybe they’re just at work. Which reminds me… “What do you do?” I ask him. He glances over at me. “My sons and I customize dirt bikes,” he tells me. “ATVs, dune buggies…” “You have a shop here?” “Huh?” I clear my throat. “You have a… a shop here?” I say again, louder. “No. We take orders, build them from our garage at home, and then ship off the finished product,” he explains, and I can’t help but take another look over at him. He fills up the driver’s seat, the sun-kissed muscles in his forearm tight as he holds the wheel. So different from my father, who hated being outside and never went without a long-sleeved shirt, unless he was going to bed. Jake meets my eyes. “We’ll be getting a lot of orders in soon,” he says. “It keeps us pretty busy throughout the winter, and then we send them off in the spring, just in time for the season to start.” So they worked from home. The three of them. They’ll be around all the time. I absently rub my palms together as I stare ahead, hearing my pulse quicken in my ears. Even at Brynmor my parents had arranged for me to have a single room with no roommate. I prefer being alone. I wasn’t a hermit. I could talk to my teachers and have discussions, and I love seeing the world and doing things, but I need space to breathe. A quiet place of my own to decompress, and men are noisy. Especially young ones. We’ll all be on top of each other all the time if they work from home. I close my eyes for a moment, suddenly regretting doing this. Why did I do this? My classmates hated me, because they took my silence for snobbishness. But it’s not that. I just need time. That’s all. Unfortunately, not many are patient enough to give me a chance. These guys are going to see me as rude, just like the girls at school do. Why would I purposely put myself in a situation to be forced to get to know new people? I clench my jaw and swallow, seeing him out of the corner of my eye. He’s staring at me. How long has he been watching me? I instantly force my face to relax and my breathing to slow, but before I can bury my face in my phone to cover up my near panic attack, he’s swerving the truck to the left and coming full circle, heading back in the direction we just came. Great. He’s taking me back to the airport. I freaked him out already. But as he speeds back down the main street, and I grip the seatbelt strap across my chest to steady myself, I watch as he passes back through two lights and jerks the wheel to the left, sliding into a parking spot on the side of the street. My body lurches forward as he stops short, and before I have a chance to consider what’s going on, he kills the engine and hops out of the truck. Huh… “Come on,” he tells me, casting me a look before he slams the door closed. I look out the front windshield and see Rebel’s Pebbles etched in gold on the black Victorian-style sign. He brought us back to the candy shop. Keeping my small travel purse hooked across my chest, I climb out of the truck and follow him up onto the sidewalk. He opens the door, the tinkle of a little bell ringing, and ushers me inside before he follows me. The heady scent of chocolate and caramel hits me, and I immediately start salivating. I haven’t eaten since the handful of blueberries I forced down this morning before my flight. “Yo, Spencer!” Jake shouts. I hear the clutter of a pan from somewhere in the back, and something—like an oven door—falls closed. “Jake Van der Bong!” a man strolls out from behind a glass wall, wiping his hands as he heads toward us. “How the hell are you?” Van Der Bong? I dart my eyes up to Jake. He grins down at me. “Ignore him,” he says. “I never smoked. I mean, I don’t smoke anymore. That’s old shit.” He smiles at the other guy. “The old me. The evil me.” They both laugh and shake hands, and I gaze at the man who just came out. Looks about the same age as Jake, although a few inches shorter, and dressed in a red and blue flannel shirt with unkept brown hair. “Spence, this is my niece, Tiernan,” Jake tells him. Mr. Spencer turns his eyes on me, finishes wiping off his hand, and holds it out to me. “Niece, huh?” His gaze is curious. “Tiernan. That’s a pretty name. How are you?” I nod once, taking his hand. “Let her have whatever she wants,” Jake tells him. “No, that’s okay.” I shake my head. But Jake cocks an eyebrow, warning me, “If you don’t fill up a bag, he’ll fill it up for you, and it’ll be black licorice and peppermint sticks.” I scrunch up my nose on reflex. The other man snorts. Black licorice can go to hell. Jake walks off, grabbing a plastic bag, and proceeds to start filling it with taffy as I stand there, my pride keeping me planted in place. It’s always the heaviest chip on my shoulder. I don’t like giving people what they want. But then I smell the sugar and the salt, and the warm chocolate scent from the stoves hits the back of my throat and goes straight to my head. I’d love a taste. “Whatchya waitin’ for, de Haas?” I hear my uncle call out. I blink. He caps the taffy jar and moves to the gummy worms as he tosses a look over at me. I stare back. Calling me by my last name seems like it should feel playful. With him, it’s…brusque. I let out a breath and move toward the bags, taking one for myself. “I’ll pay for it,” I inform him. He doesn’t look at me. “Whatever you want.” Opening the bag, I instinctively pass the chocolates and veer toward the less caloric gummy candies, loading in some peach rings, watermelon wedges, and blue sharks. I toss in some jelly beans and Sour Patch Kids, knowing I won’t eat any of this. Absently drifting to the next cannister, I dig in the scoop and pull out a little pile of red. Swedish Fish are filled with corn syrup, food dyes, and additives, my mother once said. I look down at the candy, once loving the way they felt between my teeth but hadn’t tasted since I was thirteen. Back when I started being willing to give up anything to make her value me. Maybe if I ate like her, wore my make-up like her, bought Prada and Chanel purses like her, and wore any garish monstrosity Versace designed, she’d… But I shake my head, not finishing the thought. I load in two heaping scoops of the candy into my bag. Jake appears next to me, digging his hand right into the jar. “These are my favorite, too,” he says and pops two into his mouth. “Yo, dirtbag!” I hear Spencer shout. But Jake just laughs. I look back down, recapping the jar and twisting my bag shut. “The bag is seven-ninety-five no matter what, so fill it up,” Jake tells me and moves around me, down the line of candy containers. Seven ninety-five. Almost as expensive as the bottles of Swiss water my mother bathed in. How did he end up so different than them? I trailed down the two aisles, passing the chocolate confection case and my mouth watering a little at how good I knew everything tasted. “Ready?” Jake walks past me. I follow him to the register, and I toss my bag on the counter, afraid he’ll try to go first and pay for me. I immediately take out my money, and the man, Spencer, seems to understand, because he rings me up with no more than a moment’s hesitation. I pay and back away, making room for Jake. He rings Jake up but looks at me. “Staying up… on the peak long?” he asks, sounding hesitant all of a sudden. The peak? But Jake answers for me. “Yeah, possibly until next summer.” The man’s eyes instantly flash to Jake, a look of apprehension crossing his face. “Don’t worry.” Jake laughs, handing the guy cash. “We’ll protect her from the big, bad elements.” “When have you ever been able to control Kaleb?” Spence shoots back, snatching the money from Jake. Kaleb. One of his sons. I look at Jake, but he just meets my eyes and shakes his head, brushing it off. Jake takes his change and his candy, and we start to leave. “Thank you,” I tell Spencer. He just nods and watches us as we leave, making me feel more unnerved than when I came in. We climb back into the truck, and my uncle pulls out, heading back in the direction we were originally going. The petals of the pink petunias flutter in the wind against the blue sky as they hang in their pots, and young men in sleeveless tees haul sacks of something off the loading dock of the feed store and into their pickup. I’ll bet everyone knows each other’s names here. “It’s not Telluride,” Jake offers, “but it’s as big of a town as I ever want to see again.” I agree. At least for a while. We head past the last of the businesses, over some tracks, and start to wind up a paved road dense with evergreen trees, slowly climbing in elevation. The highway narrows, and I look through the windshield, seeing the trees getting taller and cutting off more and more of the late afternoon light as we travel deeper, leaving the town behind. A few gravel and dirt roads sprout off the main lane, and I try to peer down the dark paths, but I can’t see anything. Do they lead to other properties? Homes? We climb for a while, the engine whirring as Jake weaves and curves around every bend and I can no longer see anything of the town below. Rays of sun glimmer through the branches, and I blink my eyes against it, feeling the truck pull off the paved highway and onto a dirt road as I sway in my seat with the bumps. I hold the dash with one hand, watching the lane ahead lined with firs. We climb for another twenty minutes. “It’s quite a drive,” he tells me as the sky grows more dim, “so if you want to go to town, make sure me or one of my sons are with you, okay?” I nod. “I don’t want you to get caught on this road after dark by yourself,” he adds. Yeah, me neither. He wasn’t kidding when he said ‘secluded’. You better have what you need, because it’s not a quick trip to the store if you need milk, sugar, or cough syrup. He turns right and pulls up a steep gravel driveway, the rocks crunching under the tires as I start to see structures coming into view again. Lights shine through the trees, easy to see, since it’s just about dark. “All of that road we just traveled gets buried in winter,” he informs me, and I see him looking over at me, “and with some terrain steep and icy, it makes it impossible to make it to town for months with the roads closed. We’ll take you to the candy store to load up before the snow starts.” I ignore the joke and peer out the window, trying to see the buildings we’re approaching through the last remnants of sunlight, but with the trees everywhere, I can’t see much. Something that looks like a stable, a couple of sheds, a few other smaller structures buried in the thick, and then… He pulls the truck up onto even land finally and parks right in front of a house with massive windows and a few lights on inside. I shoot my eyes left, right, up, and down, taking in the huge place, and even though I can’t make out any details in the dark, it’s big, and there’s three floors, as well as upper and lower sprawling decks. A twinge of relief hits me. When he said cabin, I immediately registered “doomsday prepper with the barest essentials to survive,” thinking more of the solitude and space away from L.A., than the potential hovel I might’ve just agreed to live in. It wasn’t until I got here that I started worrying about my rash decision and what I had actually signed up for. I didn’t need the Internet, but I was hoping for at minimum, indoor plumbing. And—I gaze at the house, still sitting as he climbs out of the truck—I think we’re in luck. I only hesitate another moment before I open my door and slide out of the truck, taking my backpack with me. Maybe I overreacted. Maybe there wasn’t much to be nervous about. It’s quiet like I hoped, and I inhale the air, the fresh scent of water and rock sending chills down my arms. I love that smell. It reminds me of hiking Vernal Fall at Yosemite with my summer camp years ago. He carries my two suitcases, and even though it’s a little chilly, I keep my pullover tied around my waist and follow him up the wooden steps. The front of the house is almost all windows on the bottom floor, so I can kind of see inside. The downstairs looks like one large great room with high ceilings, and even though there’s a lot of one color—brown wood, brown leather, brown antlers, and brown rugs—I make out some stone features, as well. “Hello!” Jake calls out, entering the house and setting my suitcases down. “Noah!” I follow him, gently shutting the door behind me. Two dogs rush up, a brown lab and another one, scrawny with gray and black hair and glassy black eyes. Jake leans over, giving them both a good petting as he looks around the house. “Anyone here?” he yells again. I immediately look up, seeing a couple levels of rafters, although the ceiling drops to the left and also where the kitchen is to the right. There’s not a lot of walls down here as the living room, dining room, sitting room, and kitchen just all melt together, not leaving much privacy. It’s spacious, though. “Yeah, I’m here!” a man’s voice calls out. A young guy walks out of the kitchen fisting two beer bottles and shakes his head at Jake. “Jesus Christ. Fuckin’ Shawnee got out again,” he says. He strolls up to us, looking like he’s about to hand Jake one of the beers, but then he looks at me and stops. His dark blond hair is slicked back under a backward baseball cap, and he doesn’t look much older than me, maybe twenty or twenty-one. His body, though… His strong arms are tanned dark under his green T-shirt, and he’s broad. His crystal clear blue eyes widen, and his mouth hooks in a half-smile. “This is Noah,” Jake introduces us. “My youngest.” It takes me a moment, but I raise my hand to shake his. Instead of taking it, though, he just puts one of the bottles in it and says, “Learn to like it. We drink a lot here.” The sweat from the bottle coats my palm, and I shoot Jake a look. He takes it from me and looks to his son. “Your brother?” “Still in,” Noah replies, but he doesn’t take his eyes off me. “Right.” In? I start to wonder what that means but shake it off, wiping my wet hand on my jeans, still feeling his eyes on me. Why is he staring? I meet his eyes again, and he quirks a real smile. Should I say something? Or should he say something? I guess this is weird. We’re essentially cousins. Am I supposed to hug him or something? Is it rude not to? Whatever. “How long did you look for the horse before you gave up?” Jake asks him, a sigh that he won’t let out thickening his voice. Noah smiles brightly and shrugs. “My logic is that if we don’t find her then she won’t ever run away again.” Jake cocks an eyebrow as he glances down at me and explains, “We have a young mare who always seems to find some way out of her stall.” And then he eyes his son again as if this is a tired subject. “But horses are expensive, so she needs to be found.” The kid holds up his beer and backs away. “Just came back for fuel.” And then he locks eyes with me as he walks toward the back of the house. “If you shower, save me some hot water,” he tells me. I watch him walk past the large stone fireplace, down a long hallway, and eventually I hear a screen door slam shut somewhere at the back of the house. He’s going to find a horse tonight? “It’s dark so I’ll show you around the property in the morning,” Jake says, walking off to the right, “but here’s the kitchen.” He trails around the island in the large space, but I stay back. “Of course, help yourself to anything,” he explains, meeting my eyes. “We’ll be making plenty of runs to town before the weather starts in the next couple of months, so we can stock the pantry with any food you like. We’ll be doing some canning, too.” He closes the fridge door I’m guessing his son left open and informs me, “We try to grow, catch, and kill as much of our own food as possible.” It makes sense why I thought I saw a barn and a greenhouse among the other structures. With getting snowed in for such long periods of time, it’s smart to rely on grocery stores and the town as little as possible. He gestures for me to follow him, and I join him as he opens a door off the side of the kitchen. “If you need the washer and dryer, it’s out here in the shop,” he tells me, flipping on a light. He descends the few stairs, and I see another truck parked in the bright garage, this one red. Jake picks up a wicker laundry basket off the cement floor and tosses it back onto the top of the dryer, but as I take a step, something catches my eye, and I stop at the top of the stairs. A buck hangs by its hind legs off to the right, a small pool of blood gathered around the drain the dead deer hangs over. His antlers hover a foot off the floor, swaying just slightly. What the fu…? I hang my mouth open, gaping at it. All of a sudden, Jake is standing next to me on the stairs. “Like I said… grow, catch, and kill.” He sounds amused by whatever he sees on my face. “You’re not a vegetarian, are you?” He’s gone before I have a chance to answer, and I back away from the garage, step into the house again, and close the door. I’m not a vegetarian, but it occurs to me I’ve never met my meat before it was meat. I swallow a couple times to wet my dry mouth. “Living room, bathroom, TV,” he points out as I follow him. “We don’t have cable, but we have lots of movies, and you can stream as long as the Internet holds out.” I follow him around the great room, seeing rustic-looking leather sofas, a coffee table, and chairs. The fireplace is big enough to sit in, and the chimney stretches up through the rafters. Wood and leather everywhere. It smells like Home Depot in here with a tinge of burnt bacon. “Do you want the WiFi?” Jake asks me. The reminder that I can stay connected here makes me pause for a moment. But if I refuse it, he’ll wonder why. “Sure,” I answer. “It’s under Cobra Kai.” I shoot a look up at him. Cute. Searching the available networks, I find Cobra Kai is the only one that pops up. “Password?” He’s quiet for a moment and then says, “A man confronts you, he is the enemy. An enemy deserves…” I stop myself before I can shake my head and type in “No Mercy.” It connects within seconds. Jake comes to my side and glances down. When he sees I got the password correct, he nods, impressed. “You can stay.” He stands close, and I draw in a breath and take a step away, looking around the room for what’s next. But he stays rooted in place, watching me, and something crosses his eyes that he doesn’t say. Like me, he’s probably wondering what the hell I’m doing here and what he’s going to do with me for a week, or a year, until I leave. “Are you hungry?” he asks. “Tired.” He nods to himself as if just remembering my parents died two days ago, and I’d traveled across four states today. “Of course.” But I’m not thinking that at all. I just need to be alone now. He picks up my suitcases, and I follow him upstairs, the bannister wrapping around the square landing at the top. I stop for a moment and turn in a circle, taking in the seven or eight doors around all sides, getting turned around easily in this new place. “My room.” Jake points directly ahead of us to a deep brown wooden door and then in quick succession around the landing as we pass other rooms. “Bathroom, Noah’s room, and here’s yours.” He drops my luggage at a door in the corner of the landing, the dim light from the wrought iron chandelier above barely making it possible to get the lay of the land up here, but I don’t care right now. But then it occurs to me he only pointed out his, Noah’s, and my rooms. “You have another…son,” I say to him. “Did I take his bedroom?” There are more doors. I wasn’t infringing on their space, right? But he just turns his head and jerks his chin off to the right. To the only door on the back wall. The only door between me and the bathroom. “Kaleb’s room is on the third floor,” he explains. “It’s the only room up there, so no need for a tour. It’s got a great view, though. Lots of air and space. He likes space.” He sighs, his words weighted with frustration as he opens my bedroom door, both dogs rushing inside ahead of us. “Keep that in mind when you meet him and don’t take anything personally.” I pause a moment, curious what he means, but people say the same thing about me. I glance at his door again, guessing there were stairs behind it, since Jake said his room is on the third floor. Is Kaleb up there? His brother said he was “in.” Jake opens my door and carries my cases in, and I follow, hearing the click of a lamp and see the glow of the bulb suddenly filling the room. My chest instantly warms, and I almost smile. It’s nice. Not that I expected much, but it’s cozy and uncluttered, and I even have my own fireplace. There are double doors across the room, a bed, a dresser, and a cushioned chair, everything done in woodsy colors leaving plenty of room to pace and spread out on the floor if I want to sit like I often do. A yawn pulls at my mouth, and my eyes water a little. “Towels are here,” Jake tells me from the hallway. “Let me know if you need anything.” He steps back into the room, filling up the doorway, and I stand in the middle of the space. “Is it okay?” he asks me. I nod, murmuring, “It’s nice.” I feel him watch me, and my muscles tighten. “You don’t talk much, do you?” I glance up at him. He quirks a smile. “We’ll change that.” Good luck. Jake grabs the door handle and starts to pull it closed. “You hated my father.” I turn my eyes on him, stopping him. “Didn’t you?” He straightens and stares at me. “Won’t it be uncomfortable for you to have me here… Uncle Jake?” If he hated my dad, won’t I remind him of him? But his eyes on me turn piercing, and he says in an even tone, “I don’t see your father when I look at you, Tiernan.” I still, not sure what that means or if it should make me feel better. You look like your mother. He’d said at the airport that I looked like my mother. Did he see her when he looked at me, then? Was that what he meant? His eyes darken, and I watch as he rubs his thumb across the inside of his hand before he balls it into a fist. I’m rooted, my stomach falling a little. “And you don’t have to call me uncle,” he says. “I’m not really anyway, right?” But before I can answer, he clicks his tongue to call the dogs, they follow him out, and he pulls the door closed, leaving me alone. I stand there, still, but the nerves under my skin fire. One phone call, a coach seat, and four states later, it finally occurs to me... I don’t know these people. Tiernan I yawn, the warm smell of fresh coffee drifting through my nostrils as I arch my back on the bed and stretch my body awake. Damn. I slept like shit. I reach over on the nightstand for my phone to see what time it is, but my hand doesn’t land on anything, just falls through the empty space. What? And that’s when I notice it. The roughness of the new sheets. The whine of the bed under my body. The pillow that’s not the feather one my neck is used to. I blink my eyes awake, seeing the faint, morning light stream across the ceiling from where it spills in through the glass double doors in my room. Not my room, actually. I push up on my elbows, my head swimming and my eyelids barely able to stay open as I yawn again. And it all hits me at once. What had happened. Where I am. How I ran away, because I was rash and I wasn’t thinking. The uncertainty that twisted my stomach a little, because nothing is familiar. The way I don’t like this and how I’d forgotten I don’t like change. The way he looked at me last night. I train my ears, hearing the creak of tree branches bending with the breeze outside and how that breeze is getting caught in the chimney as it blows. No distant chatter coming from my father’s office and the six flat screens he plays as he gets ready for his day. No entourage of stylists and assistants running up and down the stairs, getting my mother ready for hers, because she never leaves the house unless she’s in full hair and make-up. No phones going off or landscapers with their mowers. For a moment, I’m homesick. Unbidden images drift through my head. Them lying on cold, metal slabs right now. Being slid into cold lockers. My father’s skin blue, and my mother’s hair wet and make-up gone. Everything they were—everything the world would recognize—now gone. I hold there, frozen and waiting for the burn in my eyes to come. The sting of tears. The pain in my throat. Wanting the tears to come. Wishing they would come. But they don’t. And that worries me more than my parents’ death. There’s a name for people who lack remorse. People who can’t empathize. People who demonstrate strong anti-social attitudes. I’m not a sociopath. I mean, I cried during the Battle of Winterfell on Game of Thrones. But I don’t cry—not once—when both of my parents die? At least no one in this town will care about me or how I’m coping with their deaths. The only person back home who’d understand is Mirai. And then I blink, realization hitting. “Mirai…” Shit. I throw back the covers and climb out of bed, heading for the chest of drawers where my phone is charging. I grab it, turn it on, and see a list of missed notifications—mostly calls from my mother’s assistant. Ignoring the voicemails, I dial Mirai, noticing it’s before six on the west coast as I hold the phone to my ear. She answers almost immediately. “Mirai,” I say before she says anything. “Tiernan, thank goodness.” She breathes hard, like she either ran to the phone or just woke up. “Sorry, my ringer was off,” I explain. “You’re okay?” “I’m fine.” Chills spread up my arms, so I flip open the top of my suitcase and pull out my black sweatshirt, juggling the phone as I try to slip it over my head. “So…are you going to stay?” she asks after a pause. “You know you don’t have to. If the house isn’t comfortable or you feel weird—” “I’m okay,” I tell her. “The house is nice, and he’s…” I trail off, searching for my next word. What is he? “Hospitable.” “Hospitable,” she repeats, clearly suspicious. I clear my throat. “So how is the world?” I ask, changing the subject. “Anything that needs me?” “Just take care of yourself,” she says, and I don’t miss the way she cuts me off. “I won’t bug you again. Call me if you want—I want you to—but I’ll stick to texts to check in from time to time. I just want you to forget about everything here for a while, okay? I got it handled.” I look around the bedroom I slept in, thankful I have it to myself, because at least I have one place here that’s mine where I can go to be alone. But the thought of walking out of this room and confronting new people makes my stomach roll, and I… Just book me a flight back home, Mirai. I want to tell her that. But I don’t. Jake seems to be amenable to letting me be and not pushing too hard, but Noah is friendly. Too friendly. And I’ve yet to meet Kaleb, so that’s another new person coming. I walk for the double doors, needing some air. The least of my worries should be what people are thinking or saying about my absence back home—and what they’re thinking and saying about my parents—but I can’t help it. I feel like far away and out of the loop is suddenly the last place I should be right now. Especially when I’ve foolishly hung my hat in the middle of nowhere, with some guy my father hated, and on land that smells like horse shit and dead, rotting deer carcasses. I pin the phone between my ear and shoulder as I throw open the doors. “I should be there for…” But I trail off, the doors spreading wide and the view looming in front of me. My mouth drops open. Suddenly, I’m an inch tall. “You should do what you need to do,” Mirai replies. But I barely register what she says. I stare ahead, absently stepping onto my large wooden deck as I take in the expanse before me that I didn’t notice in the dark the night before. My heart thumps against my chest. So that’s “the peak.” It didn’t cross my mind that the town was named so for a reason. In the distance, in perfect view between the trees beyond my balcony, stands a mountain, its granite peak gray and foreboding, skirted with green pines and topped with white clouds that make the scene so beautiful I stop breathing for a moment. Holy shit. It’s just there. A cathedral, sitting in front of a blue sky, and before I can stop myself, I raise my hand, reaching out for it like I want to take it in my fist, but all I can feel is the morning air breeze through my fingers. I inhale, the smell of the earth and stone drifting through my nose even from here, the memory of the dead animal smell from last night forgotten. The scent of water hangs in the air, fresh but musty where it soaks into the soil and rock, and I inhale again, closing my eyes. The hairs on my arms rise. I need to leave now. I don’t want to get used to that smell, because it’ll stop being special before long. “If you want to be here for the funeral, then be here,” Mirai goes on as if I still care about anything we were discussing. “If you don’t, I don’t think anyone will question the only daughter of Hannes and Amelia de Haas if she’s too distraught by the sudden death of both parents to attend the funeral.” I open my eyes, part of me wanting to smile and part of me disappointed in myself, because I know I won’t leave. Not today, anyway. I raise my eyes and look at the peak, not wanting to stop looking at that view yet. I swallow, remembering Mirai. “Thanks,” I tell her. “I’ll take a few days and think about what I’ll do.” The funeral wasn’t for four or five more days, at least. People from around the world would need time to get to California, as well as all the arrangements that had to be made. I had time. “I love you, Tiernan,” she says. I pause. She’s the only one who says that to me. All the memories come flooding back, except now I catch things I didn’t catch before. All the times she—not my mother or father—called me at school to see if I needed anything. All the presents under the tree I know she—not them—bought for me and the birthday cards she signed for them. All the R-rated movies she got me into that I couldn’t otherwise, and all the travel books she’d leave in my bag, because she knew they were my favorite things to read. The first pair of dangling earrings I ever owned were a gift from her. And I fucking nod through the phone, because that’s all I do. “Breathe, okay?” she adds. “Bye.” I hang up, needles pricking my throat, and continue to stare at the beautiful view, my hair blowing in the soft breeze and the wild smell of the air so much like a drug. Heady. A woodpecker hollows out a tree in the distance, and the wind sweeps through the aspens and pines, the forest floor growing darker the deeper the woods go until I can’t see anything anymore. Do they hike? Jake, Noah, and Kaleb? Do they ever venture farther into the forest? Take time to explore? A chainsaw cuts through the silence, loud and buzzing, and I blink, the spell broken. Turning around, I drop my phone on the bed and walk for one of my suitcases, digging out my toiletry bag. Walking for the door, I squeeze the handle, slowly twisting it. It squeaks, and I flinch. My parents didn’t like noise in the morning. Stepping softly into the dim hallway, the dark wood floors and paneling lit only by the glow of the two wall sconces and a rustic chandelier, I tiptoe past the room Jake told me was his last night and head for the next door, reaching for the handle. But before I can grasp it, the door swings open, light spills into the hallway, and a young woman stands there, damn near naked. Her mussed auburn hair hugs her face and hangs just above her bare breasts. Jesus… I turn my head away. What the hell? Is she my uncle’s wife? He didn’t mention being married, but he didn’t say he wasn’t, either. I cast another quick glance at her, seeing her smile and fold her arms over her chest. “Excuse me,” she says. Taut, flat stomach, smooth skin, no ring on her finger—she wasn’t his wife. And definitely not the boys’ mother. I have no idea how old Kaleb is, but Jake said Noah was his youngest, and she’s not old enough to have grown sons. She looks only a few years older than me, actually. One of the boys’ girlfriends, maybe? She stands there for a moment, and my shock starts to turn to ire. Like, move or something? I need to get in. “The difference between pizza and your opinion is that I asked for pizza,” she recites. I falter and turn my head to look at her, but she’s looking down at my sweatshirt. I drop my eyes, seeing the one I’d donned and the writing she was reading on the front of it. She chuckles at the words and then slips past me, out of the bathroom. I rush inside, and I’m about to close the door, but then I think better of it and dip my head back into the hallway. Unfortunately, though, I just hear a door close. She’s gone before I can see which room she disappeared into. Closing the door, I busy myself washing my face, brushing my teeth, and removing the ribbon I use to tie my hair out of my face every night. Years ago, my mother started doing that, because she was told it was healthier than rubber bands. So I started doing it, too, for some reason. After I brush out my hair, I open the door just as quietly as my bedroom one and peer cautiously into the hallway in case more naked strangers are around. I guess it’s good to know I’m not cramping their style. Seeing no one, I dart for my room again, smelling the coffee that woke me up drifting up from downstairs. I make my bed, dress in a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved top, and start to unpack my suitcases, but then I stop just as I’m pulling out a stack of shirts. I might not stay. I put the shirts back and close my suitcase, deciding to wait. I remain planted in the middle of the room for another eight seconds, but as much as I delay, I can’t think of anything else to do in here to put off making an appearance. Leaving the room, I blow out a breath and close the door behind me, not stopping before I dive in head first and descend the stairs to get this over with. But as I step into the living room and look around, my shoulders relax just a hair. There’s no one down here. A couple of lamps light the spacious room, and I turn my head left, seeing the kitchen, dimly lit by a few lights hanging over the center island, empty, as well. I spot the red light of the coffee machine, though, and pad over in my bare feet, keeping an eye out for one of the guys. Finding a cup in a dish rack, I pour myself a cup. “Morning.” I jump, the cup nearly slipping out of my hand as the coffee sloshes over the rim. Searing drops land on my thumb, and I hiss. I glance over my shoulder, seeing Jake stroll into the kitchen and open the refrigerator, “Morning,” I murmur, brushing the hot liquid off my skin. “How’d you sleep?” he asks. I cast another look, seeing him take out a drink, sweat already glistening all over his arms, neck, and back as his T-shirt hangs out of his back pocket. It’s only about seven. How early do they get up? “Fine,” I mumble, taking a paper towel and wiping up the coffee. I actually slept like shit, but that will only open me up to more questions, so it’s easier to lie. “Good,” he replies. But he just stands there, and I can feel his eyes on me. I take another paper towel and wipe the wooden countertop some more. “Warm enough?” he presses. Huh? I look at him questioningly. “Your bedroom last night?” he says, elaborating. “Was it warm enough?” His light hair, damp with sweat, sticks to his forehead and temples as he looks at me, and I nod, turning away again. But he doesn’t leave. He just stays there, and I feel myself wanting to sigh, because this is the part where people usually expect me to make an effort to carry on a conversation. The kitchen grows smaller, and the silence more deafening, except for a bird cawing in the distance. I search my brain for something to say, the awkward seconds stretching and making me want to bolt. But then he moves closer all of a sudden, and I straighten, on alert as his chest nearly touches my arm. I’m about to move away, but then he reaches in front of me, and I watch as he switches off the coffee maker. “I was just keeping it warm for you,” he says, his breath brushing the top of my head. My heart starts pumping harder. Keeping it warm…? Oh, the coffee. He left it on for me. “You have pretty hands,” he points out. I look down at them wrapped around the mug. “Your dad did, too,” he adds, and I can hear the taunt. I pinch my eyebrows together. Was that a dig? “My dad had pretty hands,” I muse, taking a sip without looking at him. “So real men use chainsaws and pick-up trucks instead of Mont Blancs and cell phones?” I ask. I turn my head, peering up at him, and he narrows his blue eyes on me. “Well, he’s dead now,” I tell Jake. “You win.” He lowers his chin, his stare locked on mine, and I see his jaw flex. I turn away and take another sip of my coffee. Regardless of whatever bad blood was between him and my father, the orphan is the last person he should be targeting with his insults. Manners are a thing everywhere. This guy’s a prick. Despite that, though, my stomach warms, and I sip my coffee to cover up my nerves. I feel it. The need to engage. After the sadness, anger was my constant companion as a kid. And then the anger went away, and there was nothing. I forgot how good it felt. The distraction of my emotions. I like that I don’t like him. “Alright,” someone calls, and I hear her footsteps enter the kitchen. “I’m out.” I glance over, still feeling Jake’s eyes on me, and watch the naked woman—now dressed—strolling up to Jake with a brown leather backpack slung over her shoulder as she wraps an arm around his neck. She leans in, and he hesitates a moment—still looking at me—before he finally turns to her and lets her kiss him. She’s his, then. I take in the smooth skin of her face, in shadow under her baseball cap, and her tight and toned body. She’s nowhere near his age. The guys aren’t as cut off from civilization as I thought. Until the weather starts, anyway. The tip of her tongue darts out and slips into his mouth for a split-second before she pulls away, and I turn back to my coffee, a strange irritation winding its way through me. Will there be lots of people coming and going? “See you tonight?” she asks him. “Maybe.” There’s a pause and then he repeats himself. “Maybe.” She must’ve been pouting. She plants another kiss on him and leaves, and I exhale, kind of glad he didn’t introduce me to another person. “Wanna give me a hand?” Jake asks. I look up at him but forget what I was going to ask. He looks a lot like his son. More than I realized last night. The full head of blond hair, freshly slept on. The lazy half-smile. The constant joke you can see playing behind their eyes. How old is Jake, anyway? My father was forty-nine, and Jake is younger. That’s all I know. With sons who are at least twenty, I’d say he’s probably in his early forties? Of course, he could be older. He seems to get a lot of sun, and he stays in shape. My father wasn’t overweight, but he didn’t look like this guy. I face forward again and take a sip my coffee. “Help with what?” “You’ll see,” he tells me. “Get some shoes on.” He walks away, calling for Danny and Johnny, and after a moment, the dogs follow him out to the shop. I almost roll my eyes. His dogs are named Danny and Johnny? Another Karate Kid reference. I take a couple more gulps of the cooled coffee, dump out the remainder, and spin on my heel, heading back up to my bedroom. After I slip on some shoes, I grab my phone to slide it in my back pocket but think better of it. I look down at it, hesitating for only a moment before I turn it off and plug it in to charge. Closing the door behind me, I leave the room and head for the stairs, briefly training my ear on the son’s door—the one I met, anyway—and wondering if he’s up yet. But I don’t hear anything. Heading out of the house, I slow as I hit the porch, taking in the full view in the light of day and turning my gaze right to see the tip of the peak through the trees from this low level. I breathe deep, my eyes falling closed for a moment and unable to get enough of the smell of wood and pine. The hairs on my arms stand up from the chill in the morning air, but it doesn’t bother me. Trees surround the house, and I take in the fat trunks and peer into the forest in the distance, the floor dark under the canopy. I have a sudden urge to walk. I bet you can walk for hours without seeing or hearing anyone. The front deck is huge, just as wide as the inside of the house with an overhang shading half of it and wooden rocking chairs and a swing adorning the space. A couple of trucks sit out front before the land spills downward to a vast forest with the town in the distance. At least I think it is. The gravel road into the property comes from that direction. I haven’t seen behind the house yet, but I assume it takes me deeper into the forest. Glancing right, I see Jake walking down the driveaway and stop in front of the stairs. He’s put his shirt back on. “You know how to ride?” he asks. Horses or…? I just nod, assuming he means horses. “Do you know how to shoot?” I shake my head. “Do you know how to answer in anything other than nods and one-word sentences?” I stare at him. I’m not unused to that question. When I don’t answer, he simply chuckles, shakes his head, and gestures for me to follow him. I step off the deck and traipse across a small, sparsely green yard with patches of mud and sporadic puddles. The dew from the overgrown grass soaks through the bottoms of my jeans and wets the tops of my feet, exposed in my turquoise Tieks, as I trail behind him toward the barn. The gray wood is cracked and decaying near the foundation, and I look up, seeing the hay door open near the roof of the barn, but the main doors on the bottom are still closed. Before we reach the entrance, he veers left and slides open the door of a lower, attached structure, and I follow him over the threshold and immediately smell the familiar scent of the animals. It’s a stable. He heads down to the third stall, and I hang back as he opens it, bringing out a brown mare with some paint markings down her snout and on her legs from the knees to the heels. She’s already saddled, and I look down at my flats, frosted with mud around the sole of the shoes. I have sneakers in my room, but if I stay, I’ll need to get some work boots in town. And soon. Taking the reins, he leads the horse out of the stable, and I follow, seeing Noah walk up to us and toss a couple of shovels into a pile next to the barn. “Oh, my God, are you okay?” he blurts out, looking at me worried. “Was there an animal attack I didn’t know about?” What? And then I see his bewildered stare drop, and I follow his gaze, seeing the purposeful tears and shreds of my designer skinny jeans that my family’s personal shopper put in my closet a few weeks ago. Slices of thigh peer out between shreds of dark-washed material, and Jake laughs under his breath as I look back up to see a lopsided smile on Noah’s cocky face. I lock my jaw and look away. He’s teasing. I’m just not in the mood. Of course, I haven’t been in the mood for years, so I guess this is who I am now. I tuck my hair behind my ear, and he eventually passes, his lips tight with the laugh he’s holding in. “Tiernan,” Jake calls. I walk over to where my uncle stands on the other side of the horse and follow his lead as he holds the stirrup toward me. Reaching up, I fist the reins in one hand and grab hold of the saddle in the other, slipping my left foot into the stirrup. Hoisting myself up, I swing my leg over and straddle the horse, fitting my other shoe into the right stirrup. It’s a perfect fit. I don’t need him to adjust anything. I haven’t asked what we’re doing or where we’re going, knowing it doesn’t really matter. I won’t argue. I look around for his horse, but then, all of a sudden, he’s pulling himself up and plopping down right behind me. What is he doing? “I said I know how to ride,” I tell him. But he reaches in front of me and takes the reins, forcing me to let them go. I grip the horn of the saddle with both hands, scooching up as far as I can, because he’s right there, and I’m practically in his lap. My heart starts beating a little harder as irritation crawls under my skin. “I don’t need help,” I tell him. He only clicks his tongue and nudges the horse, setting us off around the barn. We round the wooden fence and gallop into the forest as the horse climbs the steep hill, sending us under the shade of the trees, and I squeeze my fists around the horn to try to keep myself from sliding backward. But as much as I try, I still feel his body there. The day grows darker as the trees shield us from the sun, and the air cools, but something pleasant stirs at the feel of the animal under me. Her muscles working against my legs to get us up the hill. My pulse starts to race a little, but I don’t hate it. A little refreshing, actually. He’s solid behind me, and I feel secure. For the moment. “Are you uncomfortable?” he asks. His voice vibrates against my back. But I don’t answer. “Are you comfortable?” he presses instead. Still, I stay silent. What does it matter anyway? He imposed himself despite my protest. Will it matter if I’m comfortable with him on the horse or not? He doesn’t care. He just wants a response out of me. His sigh hits my ear. “Yeah, your father could piss me off without saying much, too.” But I can’t hear him. His legs rest against every inch of mine as I sit nestled between his thighs. Snug. Protected. Are you uncomfortable? I don’t know, but I’m aware that maybe I should be. This is weird. We shouldn’t be sitting like this. We continue up the hill, the rock and dirt kicking up under the horse as I look around, seeing the house behind us down below. The terrain evens out, and Jake pushes the horse a little faster as I relax into his hold around me, both of us bouncing up and down in the saddle. He blows a couple times, like something in his face, and then his fingers brush my neck. I tense, the touch making me shiver. “Do me a favor, okay?” he says as he swipes my hair over my right shoulder. “Keep your hair tied back as much as possible. We have lots of machines that can snag it.” I take over, smoothing my hair over my shoulder and out of his face. We stop at the top of the hill. “Water tower, barn, shop…” he calls out, pointing as we turn and look over the cliff to his property below. “There’s a greenhouse over that hill, too.” I follow his gaze down to where the house sits through the trees in the distance below us, getting a decent view of the entire ranch. The house is happily situated in the center, the back of it facing us, with the attached garage to the left—or shop, I assume he’s referring to—and then a barn on the other side of that. To the right is a water tower. The rocky hill we sit atop of sits behind the house, and I’d imagine there’s a propane tank and a generator somewhere on the property. The leaves dance with the morning breeze, and something flaps its wings to my right as a steady, soft noise pounds in the distance. Water, maybe? Jake pulls away from the edge, and we keep going, still farther away from the house and deeper into the forest, and I look down, seeing his fingers wrapped around each strap of the reins, nearly resting on my thighs. His arms lock me in, and despite the chill of the morning, I’m not cold. “You can’t take the truck up in here, but the horses and ATVs do well,” he tells me. “Have Noah show you the ropes with the four-wheelers before you use one, okay?” I nod. I did a camp for extreme sports one summer, but he’ll probably want his son to show me the ropes anyway. We keep going, and even though I’m a little hungry after not having eaten for so long and craving another coffee, because my eyelids are weighing heavy with the relaxing rocking of the ride, I stay quiet. I’m not thinking about anything out here, and it’s nice. I close my eyes. But after a few moments, the rush of water grows louder, and the horse stops. I open my eyes, seeing we’re at the edge of a cliff. I look into the distance. The peak. My heart thumps, and I stop breathing for a moment as I take in the now unobstructed view. My God. A narrow valley runs below us between two mountains, a long waterfall rushing over one of them and into the river. Between the two mountains, in the distance, stands the peak. Dark gray rock, skirted with greenery. It’s beautiful. “Like it?” Jake asks. I nod. “Do you like it?” he asks again in a stern voice, and I know he wants me to use my words. I just keep staring ahead, only able to whisper. “l love it.” “You can come back as much as you want, now that you know the way.” I feel him move behind me and the saddle shifts a little. “But you need to carry protection with you when you leave the house, you understand?” I nod again, barely listening as I gape at the view. But he takes my chin and turns my head to face him. “This is very important,” he insists. “Do you understand? This isn’t L.A. It’s not even Denver. We have black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, the occasional rattlesnake… You need to have your eyes open. You’re on their turf now.” I pull away from his grasp and face forward again, but then I see him bring something up from behind me, and I tear my gaze away from the peak again to see that he holds a gun. Or a rifle. Sliding the chamber open, he shows me the long, sharp golden bullets and then yanks the bolt back, chambering a bullet and making sure I’m watching as he does it. “Do you see the broken rope bridge hanging over there?” I look across the river, seeing the remnants of a wooden rope bridge hanging down the rock wall. Jesus. My heart skips a beat, taking in the drop below. Was that bridge actually a thing at one time? He puts the rifle in my hands. “Aim for it.” I grip the long firearm, the steel barrel tucked into a dark wood casing, and I’m kind of thankful. At least he’s not wanting to talk. Did he shoot that deer with this? I let out a breath. Not likely. The mountain man probably has a whole cabinet of these things. Hesitating a moment, I finally lift the rifle, positioning the butt against my shoulder and wrapping my hand around the guard with my finger on the trigger. I close my left eye and peer down the line of sight, toward the muzzle. “Okay,” he tells me. “Now calm your breathing. The bullet is already chambered, so just look down the sight, and line up—” I pull the trigger, the bullet firing out of the barrel, echoing into the air, and a pop hits the rock wall down the opposite side, kicking up rock dust and cutting the board in half. Both parts fall and dangle by their respective ropes against the cliff. A breeze kicks up my hair a little, and I lower the rifle, opening both of my eyes as the thunder of the shot disappears in the distance and the peaceful sound of the waterfall fills the air again. Jake sits behind me, still, and I hand the gun back to him and turn my attention back up to the peak, seeing some kind of a large bird breeze past my line of sight. He clears his throat. “Well…I was going to suggest the boys empty some beer bottles for you tonight, but…looks like you don’t need the practice. I thought you said you couldn’t shoot.” “I can’t shoot animals,” I tell him. “I thought that’s what you were asking.” The peak is massive. But so close. Such a strange feeling, something so big, reminding you that you’re small, but also reminding you that you’re part of a world full of magnificent things. What a great thing to be able to see—and relearn—every day. Jake dismounts the horse, and I ease back in the seat, which is still warm from his body. “I’m going to check some traps, so I’ll walk home,” he says. I look down, meeting his eyes as I take the reins now. “Start breakfast when you get back to the house,” he tells me. “After you unsaddle the horse, of course.” I narrow my eyes without thinking. Cook? I have no problem helping out, but why that? I look away. “I’ll pitch in, but I’m not staying in the kitchen.” I’m not sure if I have a problem with cooking or because that’s where he wants me. Put the girl at the stove, because of course she doesn’t know how to ride a horse or shoot, right? “Do you know how to tend crops instead?” he asks. I straighten my spine, already knowing what he’s getting at. “Weed, water, fertilize?” he goes on. “Aerate the land? Plant? Do you know how to prepare to store some of those crops to feed the horses and livestock over the winter months?” I still don’t look at him. “Milk cows?” he continues, enjoying himself. “Train horses? Operate a chainsaw? Skin a deer?” Yeah, okay. “Can fruits and vegetables? Drive a tractor? Build a motorcycle from scratch?” I lock my jaw, but I don’t answer. “So cooking breakfast, it is,” he chirps. “We all do our part, Tiernan. If you want to eat.” I’ll do my part and then some, but he could ask instead of give orders. I turn my head toward him again. “You’re not my father, you know? I came here of my own free will, and I can leave whenever I want.” But instead of walking away or ignoring me, a hint of mischief hits his eyes, and he smiles. “Maybe,” he taunts. “Or maybe I’ll decide that you’d benefit from some time here and that you can’t leave, after all.” My heart quickens. “At least until I see you laugh,” he adds. “Or yell or scream or cry or fight or joke, and all in more than nods and one-word answers.” I stare at him, and I feel my eyes burn with anger. He cocks an eyebrow. “Maybe I’ll decide to honor your parents’ wishes and keep you until you’re of age.” “I’ll be ‘of age’ in ten weeks.” “We’ll be snowed in in eight.” And he laughs, backing away from me. I feel the ghost of a snarl on my lips. “Burn the bacon, Tiernan,” he instructs as he walks away. “We like it that way.” Tiernan I sling the saddle over the bench in the barn, not caring if that’s where I’m supposed to put it or not. He won’t keep me here if I don’t want to stay, will he? Whether or not he intends to, actually scares me less than knowing he can. I came here thinking I was a guest and him having power it wouldn’t even occur to him to use. Well, it did, I guess. Maybe he thinks he can get rent out of me. Or maybe he thinks me being a woman makes me a good cook? I’m not. I exit the stable and head for the house, taking a shortcut through the attached shop and walking toward the door that will take me right into the kitchen. I shake my head at myself. I can’t go home. And I don’t want to go back to Brynmor. God, the idea of seeing anyone I know… I close my eyes. Or smelling that house. I can’t face it. The stark white walls. Sitting in classrooms crowded with people I don’t know how to talk to. My stomach turns, and I stop, leaning my forehead into something hanging from the ceiling in the shop. I wrap my arm around a punching bag and close my eyes. I can’t go home. I grip the leather, clenching it in my fist, and everything—my new reality—starts sinking in. It doesn’t matter where I go—how I change my surroundings or run from all the places and people I don’t want to see. I’m still me. Running, leaving, hiding… There’s no escape. As liquid heat spreads down my arm I fist my palm and hit the bag, my hand barely denting the leather. I do it again and again, my pathetic little punches growing harder, because I’m fucked up and tired and confused… I don’t know how to feel better. I suck in air through my teeth, finally rearing back and swinging my fist into the bag. The chains creak as it tries to swing, but I still have my other arm wrapped around it. Maybe I’ll decide to honor your parents’ wishes and keep you until you’re of age. I grit my teeth, a sudden burst of energy flooding me, and I release the bag, step back, and swing again, planting my right fist into the bag. At least until I see you laugh. The anger warms my body, and I throw another punch. Or yell or scream or cry or fight or joke, and all in more than nods and one-word answers. I slam my fist again. And again. I growl. “We’ll be snowed in in eight,” I mock his words to me in a whisper. I shove my fist into the bag two more times and then step back, swinging my back leg into the bag once. Then twice. And again. And then I just let him leave and didn’t say anything, even when he instructed me on how he likes his damn bacon cooked. I mean, if someone is doing something nice for you—you know, like cooking breakfast—you don’t balk at how it’s cooked. You eat it. God, I wish I had some vegan bacon to really make his day. Amusement pulls at my lips, but I force it back. I keep hitting and kicking the bag, a light sweat grazing my brow as I think of all the things I could’ve responded with. Why does it bug me so much I didn’t get the last word? Why do I let everything go and never say anything? I throw my fist into the bag and someone is suddenly there, holding it from the other side. “Hi,” Noah says, peering around the bag at me. He looks amused, and I halt, standing up straight. Was he watching me? Was I talking to myself? His eyes crinkle a little more, and I see a self-satisfied grin peek out. “Don’t stop,” he tells me. The dark blue T-shirt sets off the color of his eyes, and the same baseball cap holds his hair back where it sits backward on his head. He and his father look a lot alike. I drop my eyes and back off, breathing hard. The muscles in my stomach burn. But he keeps egging me on. “Come on.” He pats the bag where my last punch landed. “He can piss off a saint. Why do you think I hung this punching bag up in the first place?” I press my lips together, still not moving. He sighs and stands up straight. “Okay. Are you making breakfast, then?” I dig in my eyebrows, unable to stop myself, and twist my body, swinging my leg with full force into the punching bag. He shoves himself away from the bag just before my foot lands and stands back wide-eyed with his palms up. I watch the bag swing back and forth. I wasn’t trying to hit him. It would’ve just been a happy coincidence. But my legs still feel charged, and I almost wish my uncle would walk in right now, so I could ask him to hold the bag instead. I’m angry. I’m actually angry. And it feels good. I’m still here. Noah breaks into a chuckle and comes forward, hooking an arm around my neck. “You’ve got spunk.” I’m too spent to pull away and let him lead me around, walking us both into the house. “Come on. Help me make breakfast,” he says. I place the third plate on the table and drop a fork and butter knife next to it, moving to the cabinet to put that fourth plate away. “No, no,” Noah says, kicking the fridge closed and dumping the butter and jam on the table. “Put the fourth plate down. Kaleb can show up anytime.” I glance at the table and then turn back to the cabinet, slipping the extra plate back inside. “Kaleb has a plate on the table.” “You’re not eating?” “Yes, she is,” Jake suddenly says, walking into the kitchen. He heads for the fridge and pulls out a pitcher of juice and places it in the center of the table, pouring himself a cup of coffee before he sits. “I’m not hungry,” I tell him. Moving to the sink, I rinse off the knife and spatula Noah just finished with. “You didn’t have dinner,” Jake points outs. “Sit.” “I’m not hungry.” And before he says anything else, I stroll out of the kitchen and up the stairs. I feel his eyes on my back, and the farther I go away from them, the more I brace myself for a confrontation. But he doesn’t chase after me. He lets me go, and in a moment, I’m in my room, closing the door behind me. The truth is I’m starving. Pangs hit my stomach, and the scrambled eggs I made—while Noah was busy burning the bacon—looked amazing. Luckily Noah didn’t press for much conversation while we were cooking, but if I eat with them, I’ll have to talk to them. I’ll wait until they’re back outside and then scrounge up something. The green light on my phone flashes from where it lays on the bed, and I walk over and pick it up. Unlocking the phone, I see my home screen with my email and social media apps, all dog-eared with dozens of notifications. Twitter alone has ninety-nine plus alerts. A knot tightens in my stomach. I rarely even use Facebook, Twitter seemed an efficient way to follow the news, and I got Instagram due to peer pressure to keep up with bunk-mates from summer camps whom I no longer remember. My thumb hovers over Twitter, and I know I shouldn’t look. I’m not ready to face things. But I tap the app on my screen anyway, the notification feed updating. Condolences for your loss… says one person. I scroll through the notifications, some of them direct tweets of sympathies and some of them where I’m tagged in the conversation. Brave girl. Stay strong, writes RowdyRed. And another directly to me. How does a mother decide to abandon her child for her husband? I’m so sorry. You deserved better. Shut up! comes someone else’s response to that tweet. You have no idea what they were going through… I scan tweet after tweet, and it doesn’t take long for me to lose what little interest I had in checking my DMs. People yelling at me, because they can’t yell at my parents. People yelling at each other in conversation. Suicide is self-murder. Murder is the gravest of sins. Your body belongs to God. Taking your life away from him is stealing! At least your mother made her contribution to the world, writes one asshole, captioning a nearly nude picture of my mother from one of her earlier films. I close my eyes and don’t open them again until I’ve scrolled past. And it just gets uglier as they carry on their conversation, either oblivious or too callous to care that I’m being tagged in everything they say. She hasn’t even made a statement. I think she has like Asperger’s or something. Yeah, have you seen pictures of her? It’s like emotion doesn’t register. And then ‘Deep State’ Tom chimes in with his gem of wisdom: Asperger’s is the modern-day pussy’s excuse for what we called back in my day being a cold bitch. I’m not cold. And, of course, others are worried about my father’s unfinished projects: Who’s finishing the Sun Hunter trilogy with de Haas gone now? I feel like I should say something. One tweet or whatever, even though I don’t think it’s important for these people to hear me, but I feel compelled to remind them that a human is here, and I… I shake my head, closing my eyes again. I don’t want them to think I didn’t love my parents. Even though I’m not sure I did. I swallow and start typing out a tweet. Thank you for all the support, everyone, as I… As I what? Mourn their loss? I stop, my fingers hovering over the letters before I backspace and delete what I wrote. I try again. Thank you for the thoughts and prayers during this difficult… Nope. Delete. Everything I write feels insincere. I’m not emotional, especially publicly. I wish I could express myself. I wish this were easier. I wish I was different and… I wish… I type. But nothing comes. I hesitate a moment, the urge to speak there but not the courage, and I discard the draft, closing out the app. Pressing my thumb to the Twitter icon, I drag it to the trash and do the same with my Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and email. Going into the app store, I uninstall each one, cutting myself off. I want to speak, but I’m not ready to deal with the response to whatever I say, so I take away the torture. The accounts still exist, just not my immediate access to them. Plugging my phone back into the charger and far away from my person, I spend the next hour unpacking my suitcases and re-arranging the room, despite myself. I never actually decided I would stay, but I know I’m not leaving today, and I need something to do that keeps me away from them. Underthings in the top drawer, then night clothes, workout clothes, and T-shirts. I hang up everything else—jackets, blouses, shirts, pants, jeans… Left to right, dark to light. I arrange all of my shoes on the floor of the closet, knowing my heels won’t see the light of day here, but I expected as much. No one to dress for sounds fine to me. I stick the few magazines and books I’d brought on the empty built-in bookshelf and set my make-up cases, hair dryer, and irons neatly next to the desk and then walk my shampoo and conditioner into the bathroom. I set my soaps on the edge of the tub before pulling out my toothbrush and swiping some toothpaste across the bristles. Finishing my teeth, I secure my toothbrush back inside its travel tube and take that and my toothpaste back into my bedroom, setting them both on the bedside table. I always kept my toothbrush in my bathroom back home, but only because I was the only one to use the bathroom. But men are gross. They leave the toilet seat up, and according to a study I once read, fecal matter sprays into the air when toilets flush. The bacteria can get on everything. No, thank you. I brush out my hair, pull it up into a ponytail, and then look around the neat bedroom for something. Anything. I don’t want to leave the room, and I might be repacking tomorrow, but if nothing else, at least I didn’t think about my parents while I was unpacking. Or while I was mad at Jake earlier. Blowing out a breath, I walk out of the room, closing the door behind me, and head downstairs. A drill whirs from the shop, and I hear a pounding in the front of the house, so I head outside, knowing I don’t know shit about building motorcycles. Jake stands off to my left, planting his arm against the house and hammering a piece of siding. “Can I help?” I ask reluctantly. But I don’t look him in the eye. He stops hammering, and out of the corner of my eye I see him look over at me. “Come and hold this,” he instructs. I step down off the porch. Treading through the grass, I approach his side and fit my hands next to his, taking over holding the board for him. He points a nail at the board and pounds that one in before adding two more. He reaches down to pick up another piece of wood, and I follow his lead, helping him, but then I catch sight of something on his waist. His T-shirt is tucked back into his back pocket again, and I try to make out the tattoo. My Mexico. It’s in dark blue script, an arch over his left hip, on the side of his torso, just above his jeans line. I hold the next board for him as he puts a nail into the center, and then I spot another hammer in the nearby toolbox and take it out with a nail from the coffee can. I place the point on the wood and Jake taps the space about an inch over from where I have it. “Right there,” he instructs and swipes his hand up, showing the line of nails on all the previous boards. “Follow the pattern.” I nod, moving the nail. I tap, tap, tap, aware of his eyes on me. “Here, like this,” he says and reaches toward me. But I pull the hammer and nail away, seeing him immediately back off. Putting it back in place, I hammer the nail into the house, accidently hitting the edge and bending the piece of metal. I clench my teeth and dig out the nail, replacing it with another and trying again. He’s still staring at me. “I won’t learn anything if you don’t give me a chance,” I tell him. He moves, a hint of humor in his voice. “I didn’t say anything.” We continue working in silence, both of us lifting board after board, pounding nail after nail. My pace quickens, and he watches me less and less, probably because I’m not slowing him down anymore, although this is a two-person job. Why wasn’t Noah helping him? He’s in the garage, but this would’ve moved a lot faster than trying to do it alone. Noah’s words from this morning come back to me, and the meaning behind them finally hits me now, hours later. They don’t get along, do they? And I almost smile a little. I suddenly feel a slight measure of camaraderie with Noah. Jake picks up a board, and I take my end, both of us fitting it right underneath the previous piece of siding, but as I slide my hand down its length for a better hold, something sharp digs into my skin, and I hiss. I drop my end of the board and bring my hand up, seeing a long, thick piece of wood imbedded into my palm. Wincing, I gently tug at the half still sticking out, increasing the force when it doesn’t budge. A sting shoots through my hand, and I need more light. But before I can turn around to head into the house, Jake takes my hand and inspects the splinter. I try to pull away. “I got it.” But he ignores me. Focusing on my hand, he presses down on my skin where the sliver is embedded, holding it in place before he snaps it in half, breaking off the slack. I jerk, sucking in air between my teeth. “Who taught you to shoot?” he asks, poking at the rest of the splinter. “I can’t imagine Hannes taking up any outdoor activity that didn’t include a yacht or a golf cart.” I shoot my eyes up to his face. That’s two digs today. Jake’s eyes flash to me for a moment like he’s waiting for me to say something. “You’re not sad at the mention of him.” It’s an observation, not a question. My shoulders tense, a little self-conscious, because I know what he expects. I’m not acting right, and he’s noticed. I look away, hearing the faint, high-pitched sounds of motorcycle engines growing closer. “I don’t want to talk about my father.” “Yeah, me neither.” He digs his thumb under the splinter, trying to push it up and out, and I try to yank my hand away. “Stop that.” But he tightens his hold and pulls my hand back to him. “Stop moving.” While he keeps working the splinter, trying to push it out, I hear the buzz of engines grow louder and spot a team of dirt bikes speeding up the gravel driveway. About five guys crowd the area behind my uncle’s truck and pull to a stop, pulling off helmets and chuckling to each other. They’re all dressed in colorful attire, looking very Motocross. Or Supercross or whatever it is they do here. Noah trots out of the shop and approaches one of the guys. “Hey, man.” They shake hands, and he continues wiping the grease off his fingers as he walks around the bikes, taking a look at what the guys are driving. “Hey, how’s it going?” he greets another. “Did you run today?” They talk, and Jake tightens his hold on my hand before spinning around and pulling me after him into the shop. Heading over to a workbench, he flips on a lamp and holds my palm under it to get a better view. “I’m sorry,” he says. “What?” I turn my eyes on him. “The taunt about your dad,” he explains, still inspecting my splinter. “I’m a prick. I’m sure I screwed up my own kids ten different ways to Sunday, so I have no room to talk.” I turn my head, seeing Noah make the rounds to his friends, one of them still straddling his bike and lighting a cigarette. He peers over at me. “You’re different than I thought you’d be,” Jake says softly. I look back to him. “Complicated,” he explains. “Tough to read. And even if I could read you, I’m not sure I can be a comfort to you.” He gives a weak smirk. “I’m not upset by their deaths, Tiernan, but I am sorry you are.” I turn my eyes away again, toward the guys outside. “I’m not upset.” The guy in Noah’s group of friends with the frat boy haircut and crystal eyes is still staring at me, a mischievous smile playing on his lips as he smokes. Is that Kaleb? I feel Jake’s eyes on me, too. “I don’t want to talk about my father,” I state again before he has the chance to keep going. But pain slices though my hand like a spider bite, and I hiss, meeting his eyes again. What the hell? That hurt! But as I glare up at him, the splinter is forgotten, and I stop breathing for a moment. Warmth spreads up my neck as his gaze hovers down on mine, hard and angry, but… kind of puzzled, too. Like he’s trying to figure me out. His eyes aren’t blue. I thought they were. Like Noah’s. They’re green. Like summer grass. A breeze blows through the open doors of the shop, the chatter and laughter outside miles away as a wisp of my hair, loose from the ponytail, blows across my lips. His eyes drop to my mouth, and I stop breathing, everything getting warm. A trickle of sweat glides down his neck, and the hair on my arms stands on end, aware of his naked chest. We’re too close. I… I swallow, my mouth sandy and dry. He finally blinks a few times, and then he brings the palm of my hand up to his lips, the warmth of his mouth trying to suck the wood from my hand. My mouth falls open a little as his teeth gnaw and tease the splin