Damp hair curled around his forehead and flushed cheeks. He was shirtless. Absolutely naked from the low-hanging jogging pants up. A music player was attached to one of his biceps, and a low hum came from the earbuds.
Hayden pulled the earbuds out, smiling. “Hey. You’re up early.”
My throat felt dry. “Yeah.”
“Were you going outside?”
Instead of answering, my eyes dropped. He was an obvious runner. Skin stretched over taut muscles, slender hips, and a very hard-looking chest—and wow, it was a nice chest. My cheeks suddenly felt hot.
I forced my eyes up. He was smiling that lopsided grin. “What?”
“Were you going outside?” He slid the music player off his arm and started to wrap the earbuds around it. “This early?”
“Yes. I thought…” I inhaled. Huge mistake. Autumn leaves and something wild teased my senses. He smelled wonderful. The sudden urge to touch him hit me hard.
“You thought what?”
What was I thinking? I couldn’t touch him. And I didn’t want to. “You’re not supposed to be talking to me.”
He frowned. “What?”
“I overheard you guys last night. You’re not supposed to be talking to me or whatever.”
Hayden folded his arms across his chest. “You’re not really good at eavesdropping. I was never told not to talk to you.”
“You were told to stay away from me.”
“That can be construed in many ways. Anyway, you’re not planning on running away?”
“No.” I stepped to the side. “I just wanted to go outside. I’m not allowed to go outside?”
He shadowed my movements, blocking the door. “You are allowed to do whatever you want.”
“Except that, but it’s for your benefit,” he said. “You’d get lost out there. You saw it yourself yesterday. We’re surrounded by woods, and there’s about fifteen miles between here and town.”
Irritation spiked. I tipped my chin as I met his eyes. “I’m not as stupid as you must think I am.”
“I don’t think you’re stupid at all.” Hayden stepped forward. He was close, way too close. The tips of his sneakers brushed mine. “Never once did I think you were stupid. You wouldn’t have lasted as long as you did caring for a five-year-old if you were.”
“How would—” I stopped myself. Of course, he had been watching us—me.
Impossibly, he seemed to have moved closer. My back hit the doorframe. “When you returned to school after the accident, the kids were assholes about you wearing gloves. You always wore long sleeves, even during the summer. But I’m not sure if your friends abandoned you, or if you pushed them away.”
I nearly choked. “They abandoned me.”
Hayden tipped his head down and locks of damp hair fell over his forehead. “Within weeks you stopped everything. You were a cheerleader before. You wanted to go to college—Penn State? To become a doctor like your father,” His voice dropped to a whisper. “All of that stopped. Olivia became everything to you. Instead of going to the coffee shop before school like all the other kids did, you were dropping her off at a babysitter.”
My hands fell away from my body, hanging limply at my sides. His words were oddly compassionate, tender almost—and very creepy.
“I saw you once, outside of a bank in town. You were upset. It was the first time I could remember seeing you cry. I wanted to…” He trailed off, lips forming a hard, tight line.
I knew what day he was talking about. It’d been only a month or two ago. The money from the life insurance had been running low for weeks. I knew there was some in the savings, but the bank had told me they needed my mom’s signature to transfer the money over. Mom hadn’t held a pen since the accident.
“Why were you guys watching so much?” I asked, genuinely curious. “Why didn’t you talk to me before the day in the library? Then this wouldn’t be so… messed up.”
His dark gaze settled on my face. “I couldn’t, Ember. I… wasn’t supposed to keep going back, but…”
A door opened somewhere in the house, followed by the sound of footsteps.
Hayden reached out and brushed a curl off my cheek. My heart stopped. His hand hovered there. “Don’t roam off too far.” Then he walked off, leaving me standing in the open door.
In a daze, I stepped outside. The air smelled strongly of pine and maple. The sun was still warm for a late September morning. Tiny beads of sweat dotted my forehead as I made my way around the sprawling house.
It was ridiculously huge. The main part of the house stood three stories high. Single-story wings spread out from the middle, flanking each side like a cloverleaf. Only the long, winding driveway and small patch of front lawn remained clear. Everything else was nothing but shadows and thick, imposing trees.
Did Cromwell pick this house because of its location? I could scream and no one would hear me. I shuddered and forced myself to keep walking. A large garage sat at the edge of the woods, kitty-corner from the house. Inside were two Porsches—both black and shiny coupes. Behind them towered a really nice SUV and two more absurdly expensive cars.
Sitting beside the cars, my poor Jeep looked like a sad, unfortunate creature. For the first time since I woke up, a smile broke out across my face. I didn’t care if it looked ugly. It was mine—my way out.
I started toward it, but the sound of tires crunching over gravel drew my attention. Curiosity propelled me back to the front of the house. Was it the cowboy man? The boy who wanted to toss me around the kitchen? My steps slowed considering the options.
What I hadn’t expected to see was Mrs. Lewis’ Toyota creeping up the driveway. The Camry rolled to a stop; the car door swung open before he killed the engine.
I broke out in a dead run. “Adam? What are you doing here? How did you—what are you doing?”
Adam stepped out of the car, his glasses crooked, shirt wrinkled. He gave me a goofy smile. “Google Maps, Ember. It wasn’t hard to find Petersburg. Apparently, it’s well known for those rocks.” He pointed to the monster in the sky. “I’ve been driving all night. Had two energy drinks and a coffee, probably grounded for life, but I’m here. Alive.”
I stared at him, and then burst into laughter. “Adam, you’re in so much trouble. When your mom finds out, she’s gonna kill you.”
He shrugged. “Look, I needed to make sure you were okay. I tried calling you, but you turned your damn phone off. I thought you’d been kidnapped and stuck in a one-room shack in the mountains of West Virginia. Apparently, I was wrong.” His eyes squinted at the house behind me. “You’re stuck in an eighty-room shack.”
God, I wanted to hug him. I also wanted to strangle him. “Adam, how did you find this house?”
“You told me the guy’s name. I Googled Jonathan Cromwell, and found out he’s the mayor. So I asked for directions at the gas station over on some hick road named Patterson,” he explained, clearly proud of his investigative skills. “Anyway, this is what friends do. They watch out for each other. Mom will just have to suck it. She can’t ground me forever.”
“Oh, Adam,” I whispered, and then inhaled deeply. The scent of detergent and familiarity washed over me. Sandbox love—nothing was stronger.
“Em, something is wrong with all of this. You can tell me you’re okay all you want. I know you’re not.”
I wasn’t okay. “It’s complicated.”
His brows went up and his glasses slipped further down his noise. “Try me. Some say I’m smart. I just may understand.”
“Adam, I just don’t know how to explain this. I’m not even—”
“Ember, step back now.”
The authority alone in Cromwell’s voice forced me away from Adam. Except Adam didn’t recognize the tone, or he just didn’t care. Because he knew I didn’t like to be touched, when Adam stopped me, he grabbed my sweater-covered arm.
“Who is that?” His eyes were glued above my head.
“Uh, that’s Mr. Cromwell. Adam, you should probably—”
Adam frowned. “The mayor is that young?”
“Huh?” I turned around and froze. I hadn’t mistaken the voice. Cromwell stood on the porch, but it was Hayden whom Adam was staring at. “No… that isn’t the mayor.”
“Ember, what’s going on?” Cromwell came striding down the steps.
Adam dropped my arm and stepped in front of me. “My name is Adam Lewis. I’m Ember’s friend.”
I should’ve been paying attention. Instead, I stared at Hayden. Gone was the strangely compassionate boy who had stood next to me in the doorway. In his place was someone who was as hard and cold as one of those statues inside.
“Adam,” I whispered. “You should probably leave.”
He snorted. “I’m not leaving. Shouldn’t he invite me in? He is the mayor. Shouldn’t he be friendly and inviting?”
“Adam, that isn’t—” I stopped. The cowboy was here—Kurt. Like a tumbleweed, he had come out of nowhere.
Cromwell smiled. “How did you find your way here, Adam?”
“The internet,” he responded dryly. “So you’re a friend of Ember’s family? That’s kind of funny since I’ve known her forever, and she’s never once mentioned you.”
Kurt propped himself against the hood of Mrs. Lewis’ car. “She obviously told him where she was, Jonathan.”
“Get off my mom’s car, man. I get a dent in the hood, I’m dead.”
“Does your mother know where you are, young man?” Cromwell asked.
“Who wants to know?” Adam was frowning at Kurt.
“He knows too much, Jonathan.” Kurt pushed off the car.
“What?” My heart thrummed. “He doesn’t know anything.”
“I know enough,” Adam cut in. “Enough to know you’re all a bunch of freaks living in the middle of nowhere.”
“Adam, shut up!” I yelled.
His gaze flickered at me as he started digging in his pocket. He pulled out his cell. “Em, is Olivia really here? I’m calling the police.”
Several things happened at once.
“Wipe him,” Cromwell ordered with an almost sad shake of his head.
A second later, Kurt had Adam by the front of his shirt. Adam didn’t even get the phone open.
“No!” I rushed forward, only to be stopped. Arms like bands of steel captured me around the waist, holding me back.
“Don’t,” Hayden whispered in my ear. He started pulling me back, away from Adam. “You need to go inside, Ember. Now.”
“No. She needs to see this. To understand I will not have our kind threatened.” Cromwell’s eyes met mine. “I take no pleasure in this, Ember. I asked you not to let me down. You’ve left me with no other choice.”