“You’ve been good then? No tricks?” I hear his smile through the phone.
“Ahh…” Is all I can muster and my dad bursts into laughter. Hearing him laugh makes me chuckle too.
Dad tuts, “Never could lie well, Lily girl.” He never calls me Lily.
An awkward moment of silence passes. I ask, “How’s mom? And Terah? Where are you guys?”
A voice behind me makes me jump. “Time’s up.” Spinning around, I feel myself begin to hyperventilate again. I beg, “Nox, please, just a few more minutes. Please.” I’m about to throw myself to my knees to show him just how much I need this.
Searching my face, he quickly checks his watch. “Two minutes. That’s all.”
Placing the phone back to my ear, my father says dejectedly, “Time’s up? Already?”
Talking quick as I can, I almost bark, “We have two minutes. Go, go, go!”
Dad chuckles but speaks quickly, “Mom is okay; ye know how she is. Always a glass half full with her. She misses ye terribly. And Terah…well, love, I don’t know where she is. She was taken when ye were. I know she’s safe, but that’s all. I don’t know where either of ye are, but I get daily updates from Nox and Mitch. And as long as ye’re both protected, I’ll deal with the lack of communication.”
My dad has a way of making you feel like there’s hope in the darkest of situations. I love him so much. I blurt out unexpectedly, “I love you so much, Dad. Tell Mom I love her, too.”
His voice catches, “Love ye more, girlie. I’d do anything to keep you safe.”
A presence approaches from behind and the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Knowing my time is up, I choke on a sob, “So, this Nox dude is the real deal. You hired him and he’s meant to protect me?”
Dad replies firmly, “Whatever ye do, listen to Nox. He’s only got yer best interests at heart. I swear it.”
My head hangs, tears fall to the floor and I whisper, “I wanna come home, Daddy.”
Before he can answer, the phone is tugged out of my palm and I’m officially disconnected again. From my family. My life. From everything I love.
My brain tells me to appreciate the few minutes I spent talking with my father, but my heart is bitter and wins out. Anger seeps through me and I spin back to Nox. He meets me glare for glare. “Don’t even think about it, Lily.”
“Not blind, babe. You’re about a second away from losing it, at me.”
“Damn right. You couldn’t even give us a few more minutes?”
Nox opens his mouth, but shuts it just as quick. His icy-blue eyes flash and his jaw steels as he bites his tongue. Without a word, he walks away from me, leaving me feeling twice as bitter and lonely as hell. He mutters under his breath, “Can’t fuckin’ win.”
I’m an immature selfish brat.
The anger dissipates and remorse fills me. As he reaches the door frame, I call out, “I’m sorry.”
His body jerks as he stops suddenly. He doesn’t turn to me. Just stays in the door frame allowing me to go on.
I confess quietly, “This is hard for me, Nox. You can’t possibly know how hard this is for me. Finding out someone wants to kill me for no reason at all. I-” Sitting on the bed, I breathe deeply and try again. “My life consists of two things right now. Being depressed and being paranoid. That’s it.” I bark a laugh, “What kind of life is that?”
With his back to me, he raises his strong arms and holds the top of the doorframe. And I almost gasp. The move has made him look like a fallen angel. The dark room graced with the bright silhouette of a solid male body. Beautifully dark and mysterious.
Strong. Safe. Secure.
Those are the words that flood my mind.
What the mothertruck?
My heart beats faster and a flush rises up my neck. I shouldn’t be thinking the things I’m thinking. Needing to break the spell, I utter, “So I’m pretty much freaking myself out with images of my impending death and I was hoping that you’d- I don’t know- you’d reassure me or some shit.”
Not hesitating for a second, Nox turns and strides over to the bed, right in front of me. I crane my head to look up into his face.
Sheer determination. “You are not going to die.”
I reply breathily, “What makes you so sure?”
His lip tilts at the corner as he says, “There’s a reason I’m cocky, princess.” Then he smiles. Not a smirk or a grin. A gleaming teeth, megawatt smile.
And it’s nice.
Slightly crooked, it softens his normally hard face. I could get used to this Nox.
He utters, “Don’t worry, you’ll live to annoy me at least another day.” I almost swoon when he winks. “I’m the best.”
And then he’s gone.
My body jolts as I wake.
Opening my eyes, I stretch in the rocking chair and something soft falls to the ground. My brows draw into a frown as I look to the floor.
Not just any blanket. The blanket from Lily’s bed.
My gaze shoots over to find her bed empty.
What the hell? Where is she? More importantly, how did she get out with me blocking the doorway?
My blood runs cold as I shoot up and run down the hall. A million possibilities shoot through my brain but only one sticks.
Lily going AWOL.
Taking three steps at a time, I screech to a halt at the bottom of the stairs when I see Lily and Boo dancing in the kitchen as they cook. They sing along with the CD player.
“If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my friends!” This is Lily.
“Make it last forever, friendship never eeeennddss!” This is Boo.
They fuse together with, “If you wannabe my lover, you have got to give. Takin’ is too easy but that’s the way it is!” Boo takes her spatula and booms into it, “Slam! Slam! Slam! Slam!”
I’m stunned speechless. I don’t know whether to laugh or pull up a chair to catch the rest of the show. Lily looks…happy.
I don’t believe it.
Her cheeks are flushed a peachy pink as she sings, laughs, and dances around like a loon. Wearing a pair of almost too short shorts, a white tank, and sport socks, she looks like a college girl. Then I remember, she should be a college girl. She’s twenty-two years old. She’s at the point in her life where she should be acting irresponsibly, making stupid choices and being irrational.
A sharp pain pierces my chest. I quickly quash it. She’s going to have that life. And I’m going to get it back for her. Mark my words.
Lily yells into a wooden spoon, “Slam your body down and wind it all around!” Then she and Boo make circles by their sides with their hands, making them look like human choo-choo trains.
And I can’t stop it. Leaning my head back, I roar with laughter.
Lily yelps, placing a hand on her now heaving chest. Boo remains cool as a cucumber, still showing off her spaztastic dance moves. Boo turns to Lily and teases, “Don’t worry, Deedee. He’s just jealous he can’t move like we can.”
Lily scowls at me, “You didn’t have to sneak up on us. I almost had a heart attack.” Waving a hand in front of me, her eyes widen comically as sarcasm takes over. “Hello? Remember? Impending death and all that?”
Chuckling, I roll my eyes at her over dramatics. Suddenly remember this morning’s rude awakening, I crook my finger and her eyes widen. Her feet shuffle slowly towards me. Once she’s a few feet away, I bend at the waist until we’re almost nose to nose. I half whisper, “Where were you this morning?”
Her face softens. She whispers back, “You were tired. And it was my fault. I thought I’d let you sleep.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Our quiet conversation has drawn the attention of Boo, who stands over at the breakfast bar leaning towards us, straining to hear what she can. When she catches my glare, she makes a ‘pffft’ sound and goes back to cooking.
By the expression on Lily’s face, I can see she doesn’t get what the big deal is. I explain softly, “I’m responsible for you. Not Boo. Not Rock. Me. Me alone. I get that you weren’t far, but I need to know where you are. Every second of every day. I know you’re pissed-”
Cutting me off, she says quietly, “That’s just it. I’m not pissed. Not anymore. You were right. I’ve moved on. I-” Avoiding my eyes, she admits, “I want to start fresh, too.”
Lily avoids my gaze a few seconds longer before our eyes meet. Her green eyes wide and doe-like. My gut tells me to watch my back. Closely. Narrowing my eyes, I assure, “I don’t know what you’re up to, Delilah. But I’m onto you.”
Shock momentarily forms on her face; just as quickly, it transforms to anger. She hisses, “You’re out of your mind! I’m calling a truce here, Nox. I’m only offering this once, so take it or leave it.”
Against my better judgment, I take her small, outstretched hand and pump it twice. As soon as I let go, she smiles, “See? Not so hard, was it?”
Without answering, I walk over to the breakfast bar, take an apple, and bite into it. From behind me, I hear, “So I was wondering if I could speak to my sister?”
Turning, I make a show of slowly chewing. Sliding her eyes down to my mouth, her lips part, she swallows hard and quickly looks away.
What was that?
A dark smirk forms on my face, “I see. Truce, huh? So you’ll only cooperate if I do what you want? Nice try, Lily. Not how it works.” Turning my back, I start to walk away when I’m held back.
Lily grips my hand tightly, her eyes plead. “No! That’s not what I meant.” Placing a hand on her chest, she breathes deeply. Swallowing hard, her eyes flutter and she lets go of my hand, placing it on her chest.
I’ve seen this before.
Stepping forward, I take hold of her waist and guide her to a chair at the dining table. Sitting her down, she wipes the sweat off her forehead with an unsteady hand and heaves, “Sorry…” Pant. “I don’t know what’s…” Pant, “happening to me.”
Feeling like an asshole, I clear my throat and begin, “I think you’re developing panic attacks.”
Still heaving in deeply, she squawks, “What? No way!”
“Yeah. So you need to tell me what’s bothering you so we can fix it.”
Lily looks up in thought, her breathing slows slightly and she replies, “My family. Not being able to talk with them. It makes me…thinky…and…itchy.”
Should’ve seen this coming.
Opening my mouth to answer, Lily cuts me off with, “How about if you let me talk to my dad and sister once a week? You name the day and time and what I can and can’t talk about.” Hope flares in her Granny-apple-green eyes. “I’ll listen. I swear. I’ll do whatever you say. Just knowing I’m not cut off from them helps. I’m feeling better already. Look!” She pats her forehead and shows me her dry fingers.
Doesn’t matter what I do, I’m always gonna be the bad guy to Lily. I know it shouldn’t bother me, but fuck me, it does. Knowing I can’t give her what she needs to feel safe and happy while she’s in my care…it blows. Okay, so she’s the first young woman I’ve had to watch, but there’s something about this girl. I can’t put my finger on it. She’s…different.
“Lily, I-” Her face falls and I explain slowly but firmly why this is complicated. “Listen, there are things you don’t know.” Lip quivering, her eyes shine bright as I continue. “Firstly, your dad and mom aren’t on a secure line so we have to keep calls to them under five minutes. That’s all you get if I allow it. Secondly, Mitch is keeping Terah somewhere safe. Somewhere like this. There’s a reason for separating you. I can’t tell you about it right now, but what I can tell you is that not even I know where she is. I can talk to Mitch and try to pry a phone number out of him, but I can’t promise it’s gonna happen.”
“Who’s Mitch?” she asks quietly.
“Mitch is the guy who recruited me.”
“So, he’s your boss.”
Making a face, I think about how I can put it. Clarifying this may be harder than I thought. “Sorta. He’s higher up on the food chain, but he doesn’t call himself our boss. We’re a team. We work together.” She doesn’t look convinced. “If anyone was looking out for Terah and I wasn’t available, you’d want Mitch. He won’t let anything happen to her.”
“I thought the threat was targeting me.” She shrugs a little as if she still doesn’t get it.
Sitting, I lean my forearms on the table. “Think about it, Lily. Your mom and dad are dealing with an active threat. Who knows just how serious it is? We get you out and you’re safe. What happens if the people who want you can’t find you? What do they do then? They’re serious enough to mess with one daughter.”
I see the light switch on inside her head. “They take Terah instead.”
Silence forms a thick fog around us. I’m not sure what else to say. Truthfully, I’ve told her too much already. Standing, I tap the frame of the chair with my fingertips. Our eyes meet, a mutual acknowledgement. Turning, I walk only a step before I hear her ask, “But you’ll try, right? Like, really try?”
Walking further away from her, I turn my head back and promise, “I’ll try, Lily.”
And I mean it.
It’s funny how much I’ve grown accustomed to eating dinner at a dining table with other people. At home, our schedules are so randomly set that we always miss each other. Terah at college, Dad and me at the warehouse, Mom volunteering for some underfunded organization.