“What?” He faced me. “We have to tell him. Someone cut up a rabbit and shoved it in your locker. He needs to know about this.”
“No.” I hugged my elbows, shivering. “Please promise me you won’t. He’ll think I said or did something. Then he’d… he’d send me off. Make me go away.”
“Ember, he’s not going to—”
I pushed off the car. “Please. Hayden, please don’t tell him. I’m all Olivia really has. Please.” My voice cracked, and I looked away, embarrassed. “She’s all I have.”
Hayden made a soft noise deep in his throat. Then he clasped my elbows and pulled me right up against him. His arms carefully snaked around my waist, trapping me in a hug.
It could have been the bunny. Hell, it could’ve been the last two years that suddenly made me want to stay in Hayden’s embrace. Surely—surely not the way his heat thawed the ice encasing my entire body. Or how hard his chest felt under the sweater… or how perfectly I fit against him. And he was a chivalrous type of guy. Right? He wanted to help me control my gift, as ridiculous as that sounded. Comfort—he offered comfort, and I needed to remember that. His arms around my waist made it hard, really hard to keep that in mind, though.
“Okay.” Hayden’s breath stirred the hair around my ear. “Even though I think I should tell him, I won’t. But I will figure out who did this.”
* * *
“Emmie, I made this for you!”
I pulled my gaze from the television as Olivia shoved a sheet of construction paper at me. She’d done a drawing of what I assumed was her and me… and Ms. Liz. “Oh… this is really nice.”
“This is you.” She pointed at the stick figure with enormous red curly marks and blue eyes. “And this is Ms. Liz.”
Did my hair really look like that? I ran a hand over my head, feeling a bit like Little Orphan Annie.
“See how we’re holding hands?” she pointed out.
“I see the three of us holding hands.”
That was as likely as—I looked up, my fingers tightening around the paper. “What do you mean you see that, Olivia?”
Olivia pointed at the side of her head. “I see it all the time.”
Any other kid saying that would have been chalked up to an overactive imagination, but coming from Olivia could mean just about anything.
She patted my knee, looking very mature. “I had fun today. Did you?”
I swallowed. Dead bunnies usually didn’t equal fun—neither did the awkward dinner that every member of the Cromwell household attended that night.
During dinner, I’d wondered which one of them killed bunnies in their spare time.
“Yeah.” I forced a smile. “Did you?”
Olivia crawled up on the couch and sat beside me. She launched into a list of all her new friends. She loved her new teacher—a Ms. Tinsley. They got naptime. I was so jealous of that. Then they’d watched a movie about manners.
I missed kindergarten. Things had been so much easier then.
Several hours later, Olivia drifted off to sleep with her head on my lap, and I found myself stuck to the couch—literally. I’d left my gloves in the bedroom, like an idiot. Absently, I flipped through the channels, totally screwed. And I was tired, ready to go crawl into bed after such a bizarre day. There appeared no way I could get her off me.
Another hour passed, and I worked out strategic plans in my head.
A blanket to pick her up would help, but none were close. Topple her off the couch, but that wouldn’t be very nice. I glanced down at her. Thick curls identical to mine covered half of her face. She looked like a little cherub with her bow-shaped lips and hands folded under her cheek.
“What are you still doing up?”
I twisted around, spotting Hayden in the doorway. “Watching the… uh,” I turned back, frowning at the screen, “the… way tigers mate.” I sighed. Damn you, Discovery Channel.
He chuckled deep in his throat. “Didn’t know that kind of thing interested you.”
“Oh. Yeah, always wanted to know how they picked their boyfriends.”
He sat on the arm of the couch and glanced down at Olivia. Understanding flashed across his face. “I see,” was all he said. A minute went by. “I wanted to work on, you know, but after today…”
My features pinched as I focused on the screen, where one tiger chased another. “There’s always tomorrow, I guess.”
Nodding, Hayden stood and hovered there for a few moments. He raised his arms above his head and stretched like a cat would in the warm, baking sun. The pale-blue shirt he wore rode up his stomach, exposing a row of taut muscles.
I stared at him so long I felt my face flush. It seemed like such a natural reaction. My brain also chose that moment to remember how he’d looked shirtless. I turned back to the screen, wondering how I could ever look at him when I thought these kinds of things.
“Come on, let’s go to bed,” He bent down, and with surprising gentleness, picked up Olivia.
Immediately, blood rushed back to my legs and feet. “Thank you. Really, I mean it. I thought I’d be here all night.”
“No problem.” He cradled her in his arms. Olivia turned her head, drooling on the front of his shirt. “Uh, is that supposed to happen?”
I laughed, but was still unable to look him in the eye. “It means she likes you.”
“What can I say?” He started out of the room. “Girls are always drooling over me.”
“It must do wonders for your ego when it’s a five-year-old.” I trailed behind him, thinking Hayden was kind of drool-worthy. Okay. Not kind of. Definitely drool-worthy.
“They just can’t help themselves.” He sent me a grin over his shoulder as he went up the stairs.
Liz had prepared Olivia’s bedroom with startling foresight. Olivia loved all things pink, and her entire room looked like someone had dumped Pepto all over. From the curtains and walls to the carpet and furniture, everything was pink.
It wasn’t my thing.
Hayden carefully placed her on the bed while I searched for one of her stuffed animals. I came across a rabbit first and quickly decided against that one. After finding a stuffed monkey under the bed, I tucked it in with her. She wrapped one chubby arm around it and rolled onto her side.
I smiled faintly and left the room. “Thanks again.”
He eased the door shut. “What did you do before?”
“Before what?” We started up the stairs, side by side.
“Before you had someone to get her off of you.”
“I’d sit there until she woke up. Sometimes it would be like that all night, but I hated waking her up.” My hand trailed along the banister, the wood cool and smooth.
“You have a lot more patience than me.”
I lingered outside my bedroom door, drained but oddly awake. “It’s been a weird day, huh?”
He shoved his hands into the pocket of his worn jeans. “Yeah, how are you hanging in?”
“I really haven’t thought about it.” That was a lie. I’d been thinking about it all night.
“Well, I have, and you know what I think? It could’ve been a prank.”
“Stabbing a rabbit to death is a prank?” My voiced notched up.
A door swung open down the hall, revealing a disheveled Gabriel. His eyes bounced between us.
“Go back to bed.” Hayden’s voice was hushed, but the message came across loud and clear.
Gabe rolled his eyes and went back inside, slamming the door shut.
“He could’ve done it,” I said. “Wouldn’t even have to touch the rabbit or the knife would he? Not with his gift.”
Hayden grabbed my arm and hauled me into the bedroom. “Gabe wouldn’t do anything like that, Ember.”
Even with my heavy sweater, I felt his hand burning through the cloth. Somewhat stunned by how easily he handled me, I stared up at him for a second. He really didn’t seem afraid of accidentally touching me—he was crazy. I pulled my arm free and stepped back. “How do you know?”
“Because I’ve known him for years, and he’s like a brother to me.”
“Just like Phoebe’s a sister to you?”
“Yeah, like that.” He crossed his arms, his legs widespread like a fighter. “And don’t say you think it’s her, either. Both of them were in class, Ember.”
“They wouldn’t have time to sneak out of class and do it?” I plopped down on the edge of the bed. “Just because you know someone doesn’t mean they aren’t psycho.”
He crouched down in front of me, meeting my eyes. “Ember, you have to trust me when I say it couldn’t be either of them.”
“Fine.” I rolled my eyes. “What about Kurt? He looks psycho, too.”
“Kurt does look psycho, but he’s not crazy.”
“Then who do you think it could be?”
“I don’t know.” He ran his hand through his hair. “There’s a chance it could be one of the kids at the school—an outsider.”
“Why? They don’t know anything about me.”
“They don’t have to. They could’ve done it just to mess with you. Some of the kids around here are really weird with new people.”
A dozen or so stereotypes about West Virginians popped into my head. I’d watched the movie Wrong Turn with Adam. Hayden could have a point, and it was better than thinking someone I lived with could have done it. “You really think so?”
His eyes softened to a warm brown. “Yeah, I do. I’m sure you won’t have any more problems. So don’t worry, and get some sleep, okay?”
Hayden quietly closed the door behind him. Alone, I flopped back on the bed and rolled on my side. I wanted to believe it’d been some stupid prank, but the nagging worry in the pit of my stomach told me differently. People just didn’t do things like that. Sighing, I wrapped my arms around the pillow and closed my eyes.
Visions of carved bunnies haunted my sleep.
Mr. Theo delivered a few days later. “Have you had any more problems?”
I glanced down at the slip of paper that held my new locker assignment. “No. Three days without a single thing.”
“I’m happy to hear that. I have to admit, seeing that rabbit even freaked me out a little bit. It made me question taking this job in West Virginia.” He pushed his glasses up his nose, grinning. The act reminded me so much of Adam my heart clenched.
“Yeah, I guess it was just some sick prank to welcome the new girl or something.”
“To be honest with you, I don’t believe that was some kind of harmless prank.” He met my eyes. “People just don’t do that kind of thing.”
It felt good to know someone else didn’t appear as easily fooled or hopeful as Hayden. He, by the way, still refused to even consider that one of his adopted family members could have had anything to do with it. “I know,” I finally said, “but nothing else has happened.”