Xander took a step back, letting out a very small laugh and gripping his hair right at his forehead. "Holy shit," he said, emotion washing over his face.
Eden walked over to him and looked around at the canvas he was staring at. It was a picture of him as a kid, ten years old or so, standing on top of this rock we used to play on a little ways from our cabins. He was laughing, probably at his own joke, knowing him. I smiled and joined them.
"It's . . ." he trailed off, seeming to be trying to collect himself.
"See, I have a very small Xander shrine, too. Now you don't have to be jealous."
He met my eyes. "Thank you, brother," he said.
I winked at him and grinned. We left my studio and after Eden put some clothes on, she met us in my kitchen where we ate, Eden and me groaning in happiness at the first bite of actual food in almost a week.
Xander left a little while later, seeming to feel better. Apparently he hadn't slept much the night before and so he went home to get some rest. I wondered if he'd get himself together enough to give the girl a chance. I hoped he would. If anyone deserved to be loved, it was Xander. He was one of the best people I knew. I hoped he'd figure that out, too. And I hoped to hell the girl knew it as well. But that was his story, and in the end, we were the only ones who could decide the part we were going to play in our own.
I showered and shaved the four-day growth off my face and then changed into fresh jeans and a dark gray, long-sleeved T-shirt.
When I emerged from the bathroom, I saw that Eden had stripped the sheets off the bed. If there were ever any sheets that needed to be changed, those were them. I chuckled softly to myself.
When I walked out, Eden was standing at the kitchen counter, her hair in a knot on top of her head, going through her phone. She smiled and tilted her head, her eyes moving over me. "You sure do clean up well, Calder Raynes," she said teasingly.
I reached her and bent down and kissed the side of her throat, feeling the steady pulse beating underneath my lips. "Mmm," I murmured, pulling back and smiling. "So do you. But I still prefer you dirty and sticky with peach syrup."
She laughed and turned back to her phone, pressing the send button.
"Your mom?" I asked, nodding my head toward the phone.
She frowned and nodded. "Yeah. I didn't mention this, but her messages have been increasingly frantic." She turned toward me. "She's overprotective. I guess I can't blame her, and I've tried to be understanding, but . . ." She sighed. "Anyway, I should get back and reassure her and spend some time with her. Do you have to work or anything? Your roofing?"
I shook my head, pursing my lips, feeling guilty about upsetting her mom. "No, I took some time off so I could focus on the show." I ran my hand through my semi-damp hair. "Now," I inclined my head toward the check still sitting on the side of the counter, "I guess I don't have to do that for at least a little while."
"Or ever," she said, turning more fully toward me and putting her hands on my h*ps as she tilted her head back to meet my eyes. "Calder, clearly your work is sought after. Set up another show if you want to. Madison left a business card under the check. And surely there are galleries all over the city who would want your work, Storm's work." Her eyes brightened, dancing with mischief. "I get the stripteases." I laughed and she grinned as if she couldn't help it. My heart skipped a beat at the sudden beauty of her happiness. "I'm so proud of you," she whispered.
I smiled back. "Remember when I used to draw in dirt with a stick?"
She laughed. "Yeah, I do." Then her face went serious. "If ever anyone was meant to do something, you were meant to create art. You make people feel things with your gift." She shrugged. "If that's not a true calling, I don't know what is."
I gazed at her for a second and nodded. "Okay, I'll call a couple galleries. But today . . . today, we go over to your mom's house and tell her our plans." I leaned down and kissed her lush, pink lips. "And then we go to the grocery store and stock up on food for our home—at least things that don't need to be refrigerated." I smiled and pushed a piece of her bangs to the side of her forehead. "And then we'll come back here and I'll work on the electric so we can live in the light and eat cold food." At the picture in my head of us doing such normal, everyday things, I felt . . . joy. And by the sweet smile on her face, I think she felt it, too. "Maybe tomorrow we can go to a furniture store and pick some stuff out. Do you think your mom would help us cash that check?"
She nodded. "Yeah, I think so." Her brow furrowed slightly. "Calder?" She bit her lip and paused.
"What, Morning Glory?"
Her eyes returned to mine and a small glimmer of a smile came to her lips before it disappeared. "We're going to need to go to the police." She blinked at me, looking worried.
I let out a breath. "I know you do, Eden. To get your name back, I know you do." I shook my head. "But not me. Not Xander. We don't have to."
She looked up at me and widened her eyes. "Don't you think your name is important, too?" she asked. "Don't you want your own name back? You deserve to have an identity, Calder. I mean, Madison understood about you not having any ID–she was willing to do whatever she did to bypass that because you two—" She took a deep breath, apparently deciding not to voice the rest of that thought. "Anyway," she continued after a few seconds, "not everyone is going to. What if you got pulled over driving without a license? You'd be forced to tell your story. Let's do this on our own terms. Let's do this together."
Worry moved through my body. I knew she was right. I knew that most of the reason we hadn't been reunited sooner was because none of us had been willing to go to the police. But still, the thought of it sent anxiety racing through my veins. "What if they try to separate us somehow?" I asked. "What if we did something wrong by not going to them immediately? I don't know all the laws. They could put us in jail or something."
Eden shook her head. "No. I don't think so. And my mom has a good relationship with the Cincinnati police department after all these years. There are people she trusts there. There are people I think we can trust."
"Clive Richter—" I started.
"I know. But all these years . . . all these years and he's gotten away with what he did that day. He's always claimed he lived there, in Acadia, but that he was working the day of the flood and didn't have any part in any of it. He says he wasn't even there. We know that's not true."
I let out another loud whoosh of air and grabbed my hair in my hands, turning away from her. Apart from Hector, Clive Richter was one of the first men I learned to despise. I hadn't known distrust and animosity prior to that first time he put his spineless hands on me. And him using his badge to terrify, belittle, and humiliate Xander, Eden and me, had done little to encourage my trust in the police. My hand went unconsciously to the scar on my thigh, ugly and raised under my jeans. I needed so badly to be able to protect Eden this time. The thought of putting ourselves in the hands of the police filled me with a crazed fear I wasn't sure how to control. In my mind, I understood people trusted the police in general, that the police were there to help, but my heart screamed something different. "Can we just talk about how we're going to do this?" I asked Eden softly, turning around and dropping my hands. "Can we figure it out?"
"Of course," she said. "There's no rush. We'll talk about it with my mom, and then with each other and with Xander. We'll come to a decision together, all right?"
I nodded, feeling better. "Yeah."
Eden smiled a small smile at me. "All right." She tilted her head and smiled. "We're going to be okay, you know that, right?"
I couldn't help the small smile that came to my lips. Because she was in front of me, real and whole and here, and she was so damn beautiful she made my gut clench. "Yeah, I know," I said, mostly believing it. I took her in my arms and kissed her deeply, losing myself in the sweet taste of her.
"My woman," I growled, coming up for air and putting my lips against her neck as I smiled and pretended to growl a little more. She laughed and writhed against me, trying to pull back.
"Careful or we're going to end up back in The Bed of Healing." She laughed.
"That was kind of my point," I said.
We kissed and laughed for a few more minutes bringing calm to my system.
"We better go." Eden sighed.
"I know," I said, trailing kisses down her neck and then nuzzling against her. We'd had so much sex over the past four days, but I would have happily returned to that bed and sunk back into her for a few more.
We finally managed to pull away from each other. Eden went and freshened up while I quickly put the other set of sheets I'd bought on our bed. Our bed. Those two words made happiness spike through me so intensely I almost felt dizzy from it.
I grabbed two small canvases of Eden as a pre-teen out of my studio room and wrapped them in brown construction paper and taped them closed. Eden met me in the hallway as I was closing the door. I smiled at her and took her hand.
"Ready?" I asked.
"Yup," she said, grabbing her purse off the counter.
I locked the door behind us and we took the elevator down to the lobby. I'd never like elevators; I'd never like small spaces in general. Not after Acadia. But I was also eager to get Eden back home and pack up her stuff so we could start our life together.
We opened the door to the street, a small smile on Eden's face as she looked up at me.
Suddenly all hell broke loose.
I swiveled my head as a large crowd surged forward and I grabbed Eden and pulled her to me, stumbling backward and dropping the paintings I held in my hand.
"There they are!" I heard yelled. "Eden Everson!" someone called. "Why haven't you told police you're back? Were you really at Acadia during the mass suicide?"
"Get back!" I yelled, my voice bursting out of me before I could even form a coherent thought. Two men pushed forward, smashing the canvases under their feet. I swung my fists, the world turning red around me, pulsing with blood and panic.
"Calder Raynes! Storm!" someone else called. "Is it true that you're from Acadia, too? How'd you both make it out? Is it Eden in all your paintings?"
I pushed my way through the throngs of people, hardly able to make sense of their shouted words, holding Eden tightly around her shoulders, both of our heads bent. I swung one arm in front of me, pushing anyone out of the way who didn't move on their own. The voices kept shouting all around us. My heart was pounding what felt like a million miles a minute and adrenaline was pumping through my blood.
"Get the f**k away from her!" I yelled when a man tried to yank on Eden's arm. When he refused to unhand her, I let go of Eden briefly and moved toward him, swinging at him and connecting with his face, blood flying into the air around us. I let out a loud yell, kicking at him as he hit the ground. I heard Eden scream and the world around me seemed to grow blurry, the sounds coming from underwater.
I felt something inside me snap, and suddenly, my fists were flying and I distantly felt pain exploding across my knuckles, but I didn't care. Eden screaming. Blood on her clothes. Men pulling her away from me. Eden screaming. I can't get to her. I can't protect her. Eden screaming. Blood on her clothes. Men pulling her away from me. Eden screaming. I can't get to her. I can't protect her.
When I came back to myself, the crowd had moved back and I was hunched over Eden on the sidewalk, heavy breaths of exertion rasping from my chest. I looked around wildly to assess any more threat and saw several men with blood on their faces and two still sprawled on the ground. I sprang to my feet, bringing her with me and pulling her in tightly to my chest as my head whipped around in every direction. There were words coming from my mouth and as I tried to calm my raging blood. I realized they were, "Never again, never again, never again."
"Calder? Calder?" Eden's voice. Her soft, angelic voice. I gasped out and looked down, my vision completely clearing. Eden was crying softly against me. I pulled her back against a car parked on the street and ran my hands up and down her body, tilting her head up so I could rake my eyes over all her features, assessing whether she was hurt.
"I'm okay, Calder," she choked out. "I'm fine. I'm okay. I promise." She nodded her head at me, reaching out her hand tentatively as if trying to calm a wild animal. "I'm okay. You protected me. I'm okay."
My heart rate seemed to slow a little as I listened to her words and saw she was okay. I pulled her against me again, soothing myself with the feel of her body in my arms, in my possession. I became aware that the crowd of people I now recognized as journalists, and several others who had gathered on the street, were all silently watching me, some with cameras turned in our direction. I probably looked feral, out of control.
I let out another haggard breath as I heard a car come to a stop behind me. "Calder. Eden. Get in the car," I heard called and I turned around and saw the girl who had been with Eden at the gallery the week before. Her cousin, Molly.
I pulled Eden around the car we were leaned against and moved in front of it, darting my head back to the crowd who stood, still unmoving, behind us now.
I opened the door and practically shoved Eden inside before getting in behind her. The car lurched into drive and sped away. Outside the car windows, the day grew dark, storm clouds moving quickly across the sky.