Molly looked sympathetic. "Yeah, I know." She paused. "They both lived without you for a long, long time."
I sighed. "I know. Where is she anyway?" My mom was usually an early riser.
"She left early with her friend Marla. I insisted she get out of this house and go to an antique fair that's a couple hours away, and Marla helped me convince her. I think it will be good for her. She's holed herself up in this house, too."
"Thanks for suggesting that to her, Molly." God, what would I do without Molly?
She smiled warmly at me and winked. "I do what I can. I figured having Calder alone in a quiet house wouldn't go unappreciated." She grinned and stood up. That was for sure. I looked up at her gratefully. "I've gotta get to class. Xander, nice seeing you."
Xander and I called our goodbyes to her as she left the room. Xander looked back at me. "How are you doing?"
I let out a big breath. "I want to tell you I'm great, because how could I not be great with you two back in my life." I paused. "On one hand I feel like I'm living a miracle, and on the other hand, I feel frustrated I'm not able to enjoy the gift I've been given. And I see Calder feeling those same things." I furrowed my brow. "Does that make sense at all?"
I nodded. "And then there's my mom. I love her and I want so badly to have a good relationship with her, and I keep reminding myself that she is not Hector." I grimaced. Comparing anyone to Hector, even saying his name, made my body tense. Xander looked at me, understanding on his face. "She loves me, I know that. But the way she treats Calder makes me want to scream. It's like he's back in the dogs' quarters at the main lodge." I paused, biting my lip, feeling heartbreak at the memory alone. "But I don't know if it would help or make matters worse if I gave her some kind of ultimatum. Shape up or we're moving in with Xander." I laughed softly.
Xander laughed. "Whoa. No Beds of Healing at my apartment. No peaches either." He raised his hands and grinned.
I laughed and it felt good. "You should rethink that."
He laughed. "Also, no pool and no police protection."
"Ugh. I'd forgo amenities for some freedom." But in truth, I knew safety wouldn't be guaranteed, and it would probably end up causing Calder even more anxiety. Worry moved through me. I wrapped my hands around the warm coffee mug in front of me.
“How's your girlfriend?" I raised my brows hopefully, changing the subject.
Xander looked slightly embarrassed and ran his hand through his hair. "She's good," he said, smiling at me.
I grinned back. "Yeah?" I prompted.
He chuckled. "Yeah. Her name's Nikki by the way."
"Nikki," I repeated, wondering at the girl that had stolen Xander's heart—such a beautiful heart. She was a lucky, lucky girl. I tilted my head. "When do we get to meet her?"
"Soon. I just want to introduce her to you two once some of this craziness blows over, you know?"
Yeah, I knew, and I didn't blame him.
Xander studied me for a minute. "I'm so damn happy to have you back, Eden." He looked slightly uncomfortable, but went on. "It's been hard, you know? I'd do anything for Calder, and I know he'd do anything for me, but . . . all this time, I didn't want to burden him with so many things." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I was more capable of moving forward in the last few years than he was. But now . . . we've got our team back and things just feel . . . right. Like we're all going to be stronger because of it."
Tears sprung to my eyes. I grasped his hand across the table. I felt stronger, too. I had the two people back who I could be completely myself with. I had a home now because of my mom, but my true home—my heart—that had always belonged to Calder, obviously, but certainly Xander as well.
He smiled. "As far as the hard stuff . . . we've been through worse than this, right?"
I gave him a small laugh. "I guess that'd be the understatement of the decade."
He laughed, too, and we looked up as Calder came into the room, looking tired, but as beautiful as ever.
"Hey, brother," Xander said gently.
"Morning," Calder croaked, sitting down at the table with us. He looked over at me, the expression on his face full of regret. "Sorry," he said quietly.
I figured he was apologizing for not coming to my room, but I didn't say anything, just nodded. I stood up and poured him a cup of coffee and set it in front of him. I kissed his cheek, and sat back down.
"I actually have to be going," Xander said, glancing at the clock on my mom's wall and standing up. "I just wanted to check in on you and Eden real quick," he said, looking over at Calder.
"I appreciate that. I'll text you later?"
"Yeah," Xander smiled and winked at me, looking less worried than he had just twenty minutes before. "By the way, 'Throw Back Thursday' was a big success." He grinned. "I got about a thousand likes."
Calder laughed softly. "It was an incredible painting." He smiled smugly.
"It's the subject that makes that painting great. God, I was even good-looking at ten."
Calder walked Xander to the door as I laughed after them and then he came back and sat down. He took my hand across the table. "I'm sorry. I went to bed while you were watching that movie with your mom last night and I didn't wake up until this morning. I promised we'd never sleep apart one single night again." He looked down, shaking his head. "I just . . . I felt like I was going to melt down . . . so many things swirling through my brain. Sleep seemed like the best option."
I sighed. "I know this is hard, but I want to be able to help."
He sat back in his chair, letting go of my hand. "I know you do. I know that. And that means everything to me. Truthfully, I don't know if there's anything either one of us can do right now."
I got up from the table and went over to him and sat down on his lap and pulled his head in to my chest, stroking his hair. I kissed his forehead. "It'll all be okay."
"When?” he asked.
I sighed. "That's the part I don't know."
We sat in silence for a few minutes.
"Madison called me yesterday," he said.
I froze. "Oh?"
"Yeah, she called to let us both know it was her assistant that leaked the news about you, and about us. She confided in him and . . . anyway, it doesn't even really matter. Like Molly said, it was bound to get out sooner or later. I just wish it had been on our terms, on our timeline. Madison feels badly. She wanted me to apologize to you."
I nodded, continuing stroking his hair. "You're right, what's done is done. I don't blame Madison." Although inside, just thinking about Madison still brought a sharp pang of jealousy. But I needed to move past that.
Calder leaned his forehead on mine just as the doorbell rang.
We both went to answer it, Calder standing a little bit behind me, and when I swung the door open, Detective Lowe was standing there with two other officers. "Eden, hi," he said, his eyes sweeping down my body. I was still only dressed in a small, short bathrobe. I pulled it more tightly around me. Detective Lowe seemed to catch himself and cleared his throat.
"Uh, come in," I said. He did and I looked over at Calder who was staring daggers at the detective.
"Sorry to bother you two days in a row, but we just have a couple questions for Eden about Clive."
"Oh," I said, "okay. Let me just go pull on some clothes and I'll be right back."
Calder followed me upstairs. "I'm gonna get in the shower," he said, his face still tense.
"Hey, you okay?" I asked.
Calder spun around, talking in a loud whisper. "I hate the way that guy looks at you," he said. "God, maybe he should just move in here, too. He's here enough."
I relaxed my shoulders and tilted my head. I opened my mouth to speak, but the detective's laugh floated up the stairs, the officers chatting loudly. My eyes moved toward the stairs and then back to Calder.
"Go answer their questions," he said more gently, turning toward the bathroom. I sighed and turned toward my room. I'd answer their questions and get them out of here.
An hour later, when the detective and officers left, I heard splashing sounds coming from the pool outside and looked out the back window to see Calder doing laps in the pool.
I went upstairs and changed into my swimsuit. When I walked out the side door onto the patio, Calder was out of the pool and sitting on one of the deck chairs next to the stone bar. Water was cascading down his bare, smooth, muscled chest in little rivulets and his hair was pushed back away from his face in wet spikes. God he was ridiculously gorgeous. And there was something especially beautiful about him when he was wet. I'd thought it before and I thought it now—it was as if water was his own personal element and he wore it better than anyone else on the face of the earth. "Hey, handsome. I thought you were getting in the shower."
His eyes swept up and down my bikini-clad body and I blushed despite myself. This man had seen me as na**d as the day I was born a hundred times over, and from every angle imaginable, and yet I still felt that same modesty I'd been taught to feel when I was showing an "indecent" amount of skin.
"I changed my mind."
I sat down on his lap and ran my thumbs over his chiseled cheekbones and down his strong, masculine jaw, rough with a day's worth of dark stubble. I leaned forward and kissed his lips. He tasted sweet. "Hmm, what have you been drinking?"
"Just Coke," he said, looking embarrassed as if that was some sort of crime. I smiled at him.
"What'd the detective want?" he asked, his jaw tensing.
I studied him. I ran one fingertip over his dark eyebrows, one by one. "Just more questions about Clive's role in the council—what I experienced of him in the main lodge," I said in answer to his question. "You don't have to dislike Detective Lowe. He's actually very nice."
Calder's jaw ticked once, but he didn't deny disliking the detective. He took a deep breath and studied my face. I met his eyes. "I just worry," he started. "Sometimes I think maybe you wonder . . . or maybe you will wonder—"
"Then ask me," I said softly. "All you ever have to do is ask me."
Vulnerability skated over his expression. "Do you ever wonder what it'd be like to be with another man? A man you could start fresh with? A man who could give you more than me? A man who's better than me?"
"No. No man can give me more than you. No man is better than you," I said without hesitation.
He smiled a baffled, crooked smile full of hope and my heart lurched in my chest. A flash of him as a little boy looking up at me after I'd put a butterscotch candy in his hand raced through my mind, and all the love and tenderness I felt for him filled my chest so full I ached with it.
His face went serious. "I don't even have a name, Eden. No one's even come forward to claim me. No one ever even reported me missing."
"Oh, Calder," I said. "Is that why?" He'd seemed so quiet lately, lost in his own head, and he'd leave the room each time the police came by, and now I knew why. The news they were bringing was never about him. "There must be an explanation," I said.
"The police said they'd help you and Xander get the necessary paperwork to get IDs."
"Yeah, but it won't really be me. It will be who Hector made me. If I'm Calder Raynes, I'll always be a slave, a water bearer." He said the last two words with disgust lacing his voice.
I wasn't sure what to think about that. I had loved him then, and I loved him now. His name—any title someone else gave him—would never, ever change that. It didn't alter who he was under his skin. And we didn't even know for sure that he had been abducted anyway. "Calder," I started hesitantly, "is it possible that Hector was just talking jibberish? At the end you have to admit, he was crazy," I finished quietly.
He shook his head. "Mother Willa—"
"We can't put a whole lot of stock in what she said, either."
Calder pulled that full bottom lip between his teeth and sucked on it for a minute. "Maybe. But my family, Eden, you have to admit, I didn't look anything like any of them, not in coloring, not in features."
I looked behind him, trying to picture his mom and dad. I couldn't create a clear picture of their faces in my mind. But I remembered making note of the fact that he didn't look like his family many times in Temple as I watched him interacting with them. "That's not definitive proof of anything either though," I finally said.
He let out a frustrated breath and it was then I realized he didn't want to believe they were his real parents. He didn't want to believe his own mom and dad could have ever done what they did to him at the end. He was looking for hope. He was picturing someone else out there who loved him and would fight to the death for him. I smoothed my thumbs over his cheekbones again, looking in his hurt-filled eyes. "I love you, Butterscotch," I said, feeling the emotion of the statement well up in my throat.
His eyes met mine and filled with warmth. "I love you, too."
He looked away. "This whole situation, it's making me someone I don't like. I feel like we're trapped, caged again for the second time in our lives." Frustration washed over his expression. "I can't work, I can't take care of you. I haven't painted. I can't even wake up in the same bed as you. And now I don't even have a home to bring you back to once all this clears."