I think it was the first time he ever truly smiled at me like he meant it.
“Hayden may not be my biological son, but he means the world to me. If you hadn’t stopped Theo, he would’ve shot my son. You saved Hayden’s life.”
Something awful shifted in my stomach. “But I killed someone. Again.”
“The first was an accident, Ember. And this? Well, it’s not something you will ever get used to. However, in time, you will come to accept what you have done. Get some rest, Ember.” He left without so much as a look back.
I thought he sounded like someone who knew what it felt like to kill. Then again, that could’ve been the pain meds. I couldn’t be sure.
Silence settled in around me and I shifted uncomfortably. That awful feeling kept worrying me. Yes, Theo had planned on putting a bullet in my head—Hayden’s, too—but I’d killed him. And I was pretty sure I’d smiled while doing it.
That couldn’t be good.
What would Olivia say if she knew? What would my mom say? I’d killed twice now, but this one—this kill was different. I’d wanted to do it. I squeezed my eyes shut. I already knew what Hayden would think. Maybe that’s why he hadn’t checked in on me yet. He had once said I was good inside, better than all of them. I doubted he thought that now.
I lay there for a little while, trying not to think about anything, and eventually slipped back into sleep. When I opened my eyes again, night had fallen.
My heart skipped a beat or two at the sound of his voice. The bed dipped. Fingers brushed my hair back, lingering as long as possible. Hayden.
“Hey there,” I whispered.
“How are you feeling?”
I tested sitting up. “Not so woozy. Better.”
“Good. I’ve checked on you several times, but you’ve been sleeping. I didn’t want to wake you.”
“I wish you had.” Hayden smiled. “Miss my face?”
My eyes fell over him, checking for wounds. “Are you okay?”
“I’m a hundred percent.”
I stared at him, wanting to memorize every inch of his face. “You’re really here, right? I’m not having a drug-induced dream, am I?”
His brows furrowed. “No. I’m here.”
“I… I didn’t think you’d want to see me after everything.”
“Em, sometimes you think the weirdest crap.”
My lips twitched, but I sobered up pretty quickly. “I’m sorry for everything. For the thing with the files and… and what I did. I never wanted to kill someone. And I’ve done it twice.” I wiped under my eyes, feeling on the verge of coming apart. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want him to hurt you. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Shh, don’t.” He pulled me to him, cradling me against his chest so gently. “I don’t care about the file thing anymore. Do you think that’s even important to me now? After all you’ve been through?”
“But… what I did to Theo.”
“You did what you had to do. It doesn’t change anything about you. How beautiful you are inside. How good you are. Or what I think of you.”
Heavy tears rolled down my cheeks. Hayden held on until the panic and fear slowly eased off. My grip on his sweater loosened and when I lifted my head, he swooped in and dropped a sweet kiss on my lips, silencing my worries and doubts. With that one simple touch, I knew I was going to be all right.
“Do you remember telling me what you loved most about winter?” he asked me.
“Yeah, I think so.”
His smile turned beautiful. “Let me help you stand.”
Hayden also helped me limp to the door. There, he grabbed a quilt and wrapped it around me. “Close your eyes.”
I raised my brows, but did as he asked. I heard the door open and cold air washed over me. Then, without any warning, I was swinging off my feet.
“Keep your eyes closed, Em.”
“Hayden, what are you doing?”
“Carrying you,” he said, laughter in his voice.
“Yeah, I gathered that.”
He held me close to his chest as he carried me out onto the balcony. I felt his lips brush my forehead. “All right, open your eyes.”
I did, and in that moment, I was blown away by the beauty of the place I had once found terrifying. Flakes of falling snow glistened in the moonlight like a thousand glittering stars. They came down fat and thick, placing a heavy blanket of white over the branches of elm trees, already softening the sharp peaks of Seneca Rocks.
“It’s… it’s beautiful.”
“I thought you’d like it.” His arms tightened. “I love it.” I tipped my head back. “Hayden.”
“Hmm?” He lowered his head, the edges of his hair brushing over my forehead.
It felt like silk on my skin—like his voice, his gaze. I felt close to tears again, but the happy kind, and even though I thought it would be hard to say these words, they came out easily. “I love you.”
Much like the look he got when he saw my sketches of him, wonder flickered across his face. “You have no idea how long I’ve waited to hear you say that.”
My smile spread. “Two years, give or take a week?”
Hayden grinned, his dark eyes like pools of the night sky. “Yeah, that sounds about right. Do you know what I want to do now?”
And we did. Our lips touched. The world simply faded away, and it was just Hayden and me. We parted only after we had to, at the very last second.
“I love you, Ember.”
Resting my head against his chest, I smiled and sighed a little. Beyond the edge of the balcony, through the snow-touched trees, and over the rising slope of the mountains, a star broke away from the sky and fell to the earth.