The final installment of The Evergreen Series, BLOOM by Cassia Leo, is finally Live! Get it now on all platforms before it goes into Kindle Unlimited May 5th! Scroll down to the bottom to read the first chapter now!
Author: Cassia Leo
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release: May 4th
The heart-pounding, emotional conclusion to the Evergreen Series from New York Times bestselling author Cassia Leo.
Where flowers bloom, love grows.
With Jack determined to correct his past mistakes, and to help me cope with the news about Junior’s murderer, I find myself hardly able to function, my soul weighed down by renewed grief and crippling guilt.
When I confess my sins to Jack, watching the light in his blue eyes go dim with every word I speak, I know I will not soon be forgiven. Maybe I don’t deserve forgiveness.
When I confess my new predicament to Isaac, I’m met with words of comfort and an apology that leaves me reeling with regret.
I am truly my own worst enemy.
But I refuse to give up. With a renewed sense of purpose, I am determined to weed out my destructive habits and bloom into the person and the mother I was meant to be.
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About Cassia Leo
New York Times bestselling author Cassia Leo loves her coffee, chocolate, and margaritas with salt. When she’s not writing, she spends way too much time re-watching Game of Thrones and Sex and the City. When she’s not binge watching, she’s usually enjoying the Oregon rain with a hot cup of coffee and a book.
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Twenty-four years ago
The sun made all the flowers in Mommy’s garden look like they were glowing. I sat down on the grass and dug my fingers into the warm dirt at the bottom of the rose bush. Mommy loves roses. I should pick some for her.
Daddy said Mommy would be coming home today. She’s been gone forever! It feels like she’s been gone for years. Daddy said she’s only been gone a few weeks. But when I asked him how many weeks is a few, he said it was more than I could count and I would learn that later. I can’t wait to start first grade so I can know how many weeks Mommy was gone.
Daddy said she was visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Iowa, but we couldn’t go with her because she’s too busy. She’s taking care of Grandpa. He’s sick.
Mommy takes care of me when I’m sick, too. She makes me chicken soup and gives me yucky medicine and takes my temperature.
I miss my mommy.
But when I reach for the rose to pick one for Mommy, something bites my hand. I scream loudly and start to cry when I see a giant monster tooth stuck in my thumb. Daddy calls my name as he runs outside and picks me up.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” He grabbed my hand and I tried to pull it away, so he just grabbed my arm. “Oh, no. Let me take it out.”
“No! It hurts!”
Daddy put me down on the grass and kissed my hand as he pushed my hair out of my eyes. “I know, pumpkin. That’s why I have to take it out. Can you hold still? I promise I’ll do it really fast. Okay?”
As the taxi pulled up in front of the house, my stomach went rigid at the sight of my coral-pink roses in full bloom behind the garden fence. I trimmed the blooms shortly before I left Portland. In a moment of desperation, I asked Mark if he could trim the roses after the next re-bloom. He was still so angry, he couldn’t even acknowledge I’d asked a question.
I expected to come home to dead roses, which would be a depressing parallel to the state of my marriage. Yet somehow, while I was at a friend’s house, serving my sentence for betraying Mark, he had found it in his heart to care for my garden the way I knew he would take care of Laurel in my absence. I didn’t know if this made me feel more relieved or ashamed.
I reached into my maroon leather handbag and handed the taxi driver a couple of twenty-dollar bills. “I don’t need any change. Thank you.”
He took the money and quickly shifted the car into PARK. “Oh, thank you very much. Let me get your bags.”
As the driver and I exited the car, Mark seemed to pop up out of the garden as if he’d been hiding behind the fence. Our eyes met for a split second, before he bent over and scooped up Laurel. The delicate skin on her cheeks and eyelids were flushed pink, as if she’d been crying, and just the sight of it brought tears to my eyes. Mark whispered something in her ear and she spun her head around, her blonde hair whipping his face.
Mark set her down gently and opened the garden gate so she could run to me. I dropped my handbag on the sidewalk and fell to my knees as I pulled my baby girl into my arms.
“Oh, sweetie. I missed you so much. Did you miss me?”
“Mommy, you’re squeezing me too tight,” she complained in that silvery voice that reminded me of wind chimes.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” I said, loosening my hold on her so I could reach up and brush a glistening tear track from her pink cheek. “Mommy is just really happy to see you. Were you crying?”
She held up her hand, sticking her thumb out to show me a prick of blood. “The roses bit me.”
I chuckled softly, keeping my gaze focused on her hand as Mark stepped past me to grab the suitcases the taxi driver had left on the curb. “Roses don’t bite, Laurel. Roses don’t have teeth. They have thorns. You were pricked by a thorn. It hurts, doesn’t it?”
She nodded her head. “Why did it hurt me?”
My heart raced as Mark stopped just inside the gate, presumably awaiting my answer. “Because, sweetie, roses have thorns to make it harder for other animals and people to hurt them. It’s a defense mechanism.”
She scrunched her wispy blonde eyebrows together. “The rose hurts me so I can’t hurt the rose?”
Mark let out a deep sigh and continued carrying the suitcases up the path toward the front porch.
I laid a soft kiss on the pad of Laurel’s tender thumb. “Exactly.”
As I recalled the months my mother spent in “Iowa” with my father’s parents, when I was five years old, Jack’s words echoed in my consciousness.
Beth put the baby boy up for adoption… She stayed with a friend during the last few months of her pregnancy… The baby was born on June 16th, and Beth declined to have a sample of his blood drawn for a paternity test… Brandon was adopted by Byron and Dottie Huxley, who moved to Boise shortly after his birth… Brandon had behavioral problems, which were only made worse when Dottie was murdered.
“Laurel, are you okay?”
Jack’s voice sounded distant as I stared at the rustic iron chandelier hanging above the dining table. The sparkling lights ricocheted off the crystal pendants, twinkling in my vision, lulling me into a trance as images of destruction and horror flared in my mind. All the physical and emotional wreckage I’d been running from; all the visceral, paralyzing agony that had rendered me incapable of performing even the most basic tasks; all the destructive coping mechanisms that led to the sickening moment I betrayed Jack; it all stemmed from one repulsive act of evil committed by my own flesh and blood.
I needed to get those morning-after pills. I couldn’t bring a child into a world where that kind of cruelty existed.
Earlier today, as I drove my Tesla SUV back to our home in Hood River from my mother’s house in Southeast Portland, I had thought of taking any of the dozens of freeway exits to stop at a drugstore. But Jack was so worried about my hangover, he drove right behind me the whole way home. He’d taken the time to buy me a couple bottles of water and watched me swallow an anti-emetic tablet for the nausea before we left.
I wiped tears from my face as I stood from the dining chair, trying to ignore the weakness in my limbs brought on by the hangover and only exacerbated by the Dramamine and the news Jack had just delivered. There was no time to sit down and digest this new information properly, not while there was even the slimmest possibility that I could be pregnant with Isaac’s child.
“Laurel, are you okay?” Jack asked again as he followed me toward the laundry room. “Where are you going?”
“I just need to go to Walgreen’s for some tampons. I forgot them in Portland.”
He grabbed my hand to stop me from entering the laundry room. “You’re not on your period. And you’re not even feeling well. If you need some, I’m sure there’s still some left in the bathroom. It’s not like I cleared the place out while you were gone.”
I stood at the threshold, my hand gripping the cold steel door handle. “But I’m…” I couldn’t think of a single believable lie. I was either too dehydrated or emotionally overwhelmed for my synapses to fire properly. Or maybe I was just a terrible liar. Probably all of the above. “I’m tired,” I replied, looking up at Jack, my stomach clenching at the skepticism in his narrowed eyes. “And thirsty. I think I’m a little delirious. I should lie down.”
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
As Jack’s eyes softened and he took my hand in his to lead me toward the bedroom, I felt the small reserve of stamina at the core of my being spill out and drain from my limbs. I didn’t have the energy to lie. How could I muster the strength to tell the truth?
I could barely hold my eyelids open as Jack turned down the covers and the sheets for me to climb in bed. As he helped me out of my Burberry rain boots, leaving my wool socks in place, I reached for his face. His scruff scraped the pads of my fingers, a familiar sensation that sent a chill over my skin. I took his face in my hands, closing my eyes to savor the warmth of his skin against my palms.
Then a terrible thought flashed in my mind: What happened with Isaac would never have happened if Jack had set aside the hunt for Brandon and come back to me sooner.
I crossed my arms over my belly and curled inward on myself as I tried not to let the idea take root. It was a poisonous thought, which would only lead to more resentment and more anger and more fighting. All those things were the old way. The old way didn’t work. That much we had established.
Jack cupped my face in his hands and tilted it up to look in my eyes. “Baby, are you okay? You’re scaring the fuck out of me. Do you need to go to the hospital?”
Maybe that was the answer. Maybe I could tell Jack I needed to go to the emergency room. Then I could tell the ER staff that I was severely hungover and possibly dehydrated. And as soon as Jack left my side to use the restroom or get a coffee, I would ask someone for emergency contraceptives. They were required to keep that information confidential, weren’t they?
Oh, God. I didn’t know.
I had to accept that I had two options and two options only. I had to tell the truth or wait. In a few days, I’d be able to take an at-home pregnancy test. Until then, I’d just have to live with this secret and know that I deserved to let it slowly eat away at my insides.
“I’m fine,” I whispered. “I’m just so tired of all the bad news.”
“But it’s good news that they got him,” he replied.
Part of me wanted to argue with him. How could learning that my biological brother murdered my son and my mother — then killed himself — be good news? But to Jack, it was good news because justice had been served. For Jack, it was always about justice. Justice came before everything. Even me.
I forced a smile to stop the seeds of doubt from growing tendrils. “I’m a little nauseous. I just need to sleep. I’ll be fine tomorrow.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” he replied, laying a tender kiss on my temple.
I lay back as he pulled the covers over me. “Thank you.”
He brushed my hair away from my face as I curled up on my side. “I’m going to take a quick shower. Do you need anything?”
I shook my head and pulled the covers tightly under my chin. But as he walked away toward the master bathroom, a nearly slapped myself when I was hit with a sudden idea. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it sooner. I could call Drea and ask her to bring me the emergency contraceptives.
As soon as I heard the sound of the shower turning on, I quietly slipped out of bed and retrieved my phone from where I’d left it on the dining room table. I called Drea and sighed with relief when she answered after just one ring.
“Drea! Oh, my God. I need your help.”
“Laurel? What—what’s going on? Are you okay, love?” she replied.
I could hear one of her boys chattering in the background, probably Thom considering the high-pitched tone of his voice. Thom was an adorable four years old and Drea’s eldest, Colin, was eight years old, and growing so fast it made my chest ache just thinking about it.
“I’m fine. I just—” I cut myself off as Drea shushed Thom. “Actually, I’m not fine. I need you to do me a huge favor.”
“Anything, darling. What do you need?” she replied.
“I need you to go to Walgreen’s or CVS and get me a pack of Plan-B morning-after pills.”
She was silent for a moment before she responded. “Why? Please don’t tell me you slept with Isaac.” When I didn’t reply immediately, her voice became tinged with panic. “Laurel?”
“I didn’t mean to,” I whispered, attempting to keep half of my attention on the distant sound of the running shower. “I was drunk after you left last night. I think I might have fallen outside or something because I woke up in my bed thinking that Jack was lying next to me. I initiated sex and… Well, I realized too late that it was Isaac. Then—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. You had sex with Isaac? You cheated on Jack?”
I opened my mouth a few times, but I was unable to speak, having been stunned into silence by the word “cheated.”
“Laurel, did you cheat on Jack?” she whispered urgently.
“No! I mean… Oh, God.” I clutched my hair as I wracked my brain for a better explanation for what I’d done, but it didn’t take long for my reaction to flip from panic to anger. “Are you judging me?”
She let out a soft chuckle. “Are you admitting you cheated on him? Laurel, you can’t possibly be angry at me.”
I gasped at the physical pain in my chest. “How could you? Of all the people, I thought at least you would understand. I didn’t have sex with Isaac because I wanted to. I did it because I was blitzed out of my fucking mind. I thought it was Jack!” I clapped my hand over my mouth as I realized I could no longer hear the shower running. “Forget it,” I whispered before I ended the call.
I got myself a glass of water and took my phone and the water back to the bedroom just in time to see Jack coming out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist.
“Thirsty,” I said, holding up my glass before he could comment.
I set the water and phone down on the nightstand and quickly slid between the sheets, pulling the covers over my head. It seemed I was back to “plan A” — waiting a few days to take a pregnancy test — since I didn’t have any way to get PlanB tonight. Tomorrow being Sunday, I highly doubted I’d be able to sneak away from Jack to get the pills.
I hated myself.
“Pixie, are you crying?”
Jack’s voice snapped me out of my self-flagellation. Surprisingly, I found myself sobbing and clenching my fists so tightly, I had to slowly pry my fingernails out of the palms of my hands. Raising the covers a bit to let in some light, I wasn’t surprised to see six screaming red nail marks, two of them with tiny droplets of blood bubbling up out of the broken skin.
I quickly threw off the covers and ran to the bathroom as sweat sprouted over my brow and upper lip and my mouth pooled with saliva. I vomited the water I’d drank over the last few hours. Sour liquid gushed from my mouth in hot streams as my eyes bulged with the strain. Jack held back my hair and murmured soothing words as I spewed my guts into the porcelain bowl, imagining each drop of liquid amounting to one sin. Soon, I would be clean.
When the retching stopped, I resisted the urge to stuff my fingers down my throat to make certain every last drop was squeezed out. Instead, I fell sideways for a split second before Jack caught me to keep my head from hitting the wall.
He reached up and laid his hand over my sweaty forehead. “You’re pretty cold, so I don’t think you have a fever. But maybe we should take you to the urgent care.”
“No,” I breathed, reaching for the toilet paper to wipe my mouth. “I just need to rest and drink some water. Can you help me up?”
He lifted me up easily, cradling me in his arms, which were still warm and moist from the shower. Setting me down on the bed, he kneeled next to me and brushed my hair from my damp brow.
“I’ll go get an empty cup and some mouthwash so you can rinse. I’ll get some crackers and some more Dramamine, too.”
I reached out with both hands and grabbed his neck before he could stand up. “I love you,” I whispered, pulling him toward me. Not to kiss him. Not even to feel him in my arms. I suddenly feared that if he left this room he’d never come back. “I love you so much.”
He chuckled as he wrapped his arms around me, seizing the opportunity to slide my body toward the center of the bed. “I’ll be right back, baby,” he assured me, as if he could read the fear in my desperate clutch, as if he could read me like an open book. “I promise I’ll be right back.”
Reluctantly, I released my hold on him and he slowly pulled away, looking down at me with suspicion in his eyes again. But neither of us spoke. And as the seconds ticked by with neither of us turning away, I swore I could see my sins reflected in the glimmer of his eyes. Then, he swallowed hard, the gulping sound echoing in my ears. And I was certain I’d just witnessed the moment when he consciously stifled his suspicions in favor of a peaceful reunion.
He smiled tentatively. “I’ll be right back.”
As he left, I couldn’t stop my mind from wandering back to the night of the murders. Replaying the events on a loop, I tried to think of things I’d missed that would make sense now that we almost certainly knew the identity of the murderer. My brain fast-forwarded past the moment I said goodbye to my mother, as Jack and I left her to care for Junior while we celebrated our anniversary. I slid past the memories of the meal and wine we shared at the restaurant, my mind skidding to a stop at the recollection of having sex with Jack on the waterfront.
My silk rose-patterned skirt fluttered in the soft evening breeze on the waterfront. Jack squeezed my hand as I tilted my head back and inhaled the earthy scent of the gorge. In previous years, when it got too hot during the summer, the decaying plant life in the river gave off a more musty scent. But it was the middle of August and a refreshing fifty-eight degrees tonight, as the weather began its downward descent toward autumn.
“Do you remember the first time I took you windsurfing at The Hook?” Jack asked as we stopped in the middle of the trail that curved around the semi-circular sandbar of Waterfront Park.
He sat down facing the water on the low stone wall, which separated the concrete footpath from the sand and sea. In one direction, the trail curved back toward Portway Avenue, where we’d come from Solstice bar and restaurant. In the other direction, the trail followed the waterfront around various water basins and the fork, where Hood River flowed into the Columbia River Gorge. It was one of the most popular tourist destinations in Oregon for good reason.
The scenery was stunning, the moss and foliage an emerald green so deep and lush it was arresting, a color chosen by a violently imaginative god. The towering waterfalls gentle enough to bathe in, yet powerful enough you could feel the mist they expelled from hundreds of feet away. A guy in one of my classes at Oregon State called the gorge heartbreakingly beautiful because he knew he’d be heartbroken when he graduated and had to return to the Nevada desert.
I slid my pumps off and set them on the wall next to Jack, smiling as my toes sunk into the cool sand. “How could I forget my first windsurfing lesson and the abject humiliation of falling in the water and screaming like a banshee when something very alive and very slimy brushed against my leg?” I replied as Jack pulled me onto his lap so I was seated sideways with my legs dangling over his right thigh.
He chuckled as his hand slid under the hem of my skirt. “Well, you’re not supposed to try to carve on your first time out.”
I shook my head. “You told me there were no fish in the cove. You totally lied to me!”
He laughed in my ear as his hand crawled farther up, until his fingers bumped against the softness of my abdomen. “No panties?”
I tried not to feel self-conscious about how my skin had remained stretched after the pregnancy, but I couldn’t stop myself from trying to push Jack’s hand away from my belly.
He brushed his lips over my earlobe and whispered, “What’s wrong?”
My breathing quickened as the sensation of his breath in my ear raised goose bumps on my cool skin. “I don’t like my body right now. Can we do this without you touching my stomach?”
He let out a soft grunt and laid his hand over my abdomen, pressing the heel of his palm into the soft flesh. “You’re crazy if you think this doesn’t make you even more gorgeous than you were before. This is proof that you’ll always be mine. This,” he whispered, lightly brushing his fingertips over my skin, “is the sexiest fucking thing I’ve ever felt.”
The sound of footsteps stopped me from savoring his compliment. I immediately tightened my arms around his shoulders as if to convince any possible passerby we were just cuddling. Nothing naughty going on over here. Glancing toward the sound, I smiled at the elderly woman walking her yellow Labrador retriever at 11:30 p.m. She nodded at me and continued about her way, probably fully aware of what Jack and I were up to.
“She’s probably going to call the cops on us for indecent exposure,” I said, reaching down to undo Jack’s belt and unbutton his pants. “We have to hurry up before she comes back.”
“You dirty girl,” he said, sliding a finger inside me as I set his erection free. “You’re as wet as the river.”
“And you’re as engorged as this gorge,” I teased him.
Grabbing my waist, he lifted me off his lap so I could yank my skirt out from underneath my ass. Then, he slowly lowered me onto his cock.
I gasped at the shock of pain. “Don’t stop,” I begged as he began to lift me again.
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I know,” I said, clutching his face in my hands and planting a soft kiss on his lips. “I know. Don’t stop. Please.”
He lowered me farther down, his girth filling me, stretching me. I flinched slightly when he met the resistance of my cervix.
I whimpered as I held his face and pressed my forehead into his. “Oh, Jack,” I breathed.
“Does it hurt?”
“No,” I whispered, sliding my hands to the back of his neck to hold myself steady on his lap. “Fuck me, Jack. Fuck me harder.”
As he used his sheer strength to slide me up and down on his cock, I suddenly had the distinct feeling of being watched. I turned my head slightly to the left, glancing over Jack’s shoulder toward the restaurants on Portway Avenue, where we’d come from. Two men stood across the street in the shadowy parking lot between STOKED Coffeehouse and pFreim Brewery.
My body froze as I buried my face in Jack’s neck, which was now damp with sweat. “Stop. Someone’s watching us.”
Jack paused and I slowly slid farther down on his erection as he turned to look behind him. “Where? I don’t see anyone.”
I snuck a peak toward the parking lot and it was empty. “Oh. It must have been shadows. Never mind. Don’t stop. I’m almost there.”
Jack chuckled as I hooked my arm around his neck, leaning my forehead against his for extra stability as I slid my other hand down the front of my skirt. As we breathed into each other, he continued lifting me up and down on him, like a lonely buoy bobbing on a dark and stormy sea. I dug my fingernails into Jack’s neck as our bodies trembled. He held me still and let go inside me, burying his face in my hair as his hot breath roared in my ear.
As I slid my hand out of my skirt, Jack grabbed it gently and laid a soft trail of kisses from my palm to the tip of my middle finger. He draped my arm over his shoulder and leaned in to kiss me. It was a slow kiss that stole my breath and made the ache between my legs return. He was still inside me. His erection gone, but still twitching with signs of life every time I made the slightest movement.
He pulled away slowly and placed a tender kiss on the tip of my nose. “I love you, pixie.”
I smiled and tightened my arms around his neck as I gazed into his eyes. “That’s my favorite.”
“Your favorite nickname?”
I nodded enthusiastically, accidentally head-butting him in the process. “Ow!”
He laughed as he rubbed his forehead. “We’d better get home before we get arrested. Though, I have no doubt you’d look extremely hot in prison stripes.”
Jack entered the bedroom with the rustic wooden tray we used whenever we had breakfast in bed. I sat up and he set the tray down on my lap, revealing a pack of saltine crackers, a bottle of Dramamine, a glass of water, an empty coffee mug, and a bottle of mouthwash. I hastily rinsed my mouth out and spit out the minty liquid into the empty cup. Then I downed another Dramamine with the entire glass of water.
“You should eat some crackers,” he insisted, grabbing the pack of saltines and pulling it open.
“I remembered something,” I said, pushing the tray to the foot of the bed so I could hug my knees to my chest.
“What are you talking about?” he replied, holding out a couple of crackers for me to take.
I shook my head. “From that night. Do you remember when I thought someone was watching us?”
He scrunched his eyebrows together and shook his head. “Do you mean someone was watching us in the house? What are you talking about?”
I was silent for a beat as I tried to recall what I’d seen, but the memory was so fuzzy. “When we were at the waterfront. I thought I saw a couple of men watching us from the parking lot between the coffeehouse and pFreim.”
He set the crackers down on the tray and narrowed his eyes as he sat on the edge of the bed. “That sounds so vaguely familiar.”
“I know what I saw. I mean… I don’t remember it very clearly, but I don’t think it’s my mind playing tricks on me. Someone was watching us. Should we tell that Boise detective? Or—or that private investigator?”
He shook his head again, then fixed me with a fierce gaze. “What did they look like?”
“I—I don’t know. I… I barely got a glimpse of them before I looked away, and when I turned back they were gone. I figured it was probably just shadows. I thought nothing of it.”
“How could you forget something so important?”
My jaw dropped at the insinuation. “It didn’t seem important enough at the time. I thought it was a trick of the light. I didn’t know I needed to burn the memory into my mind. And I wasn’t exactly in the right state of mind after we got back that night to put two and two together.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that,” he said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his thighs. His hands were clasped together, his forehead propped up on his thumbs as he appeared to be concentrating on something. “I’m just… I’m really fucking blindsided by this. I need to think.”
I pinched my bottom lip hard between my thumb and index finger, savoring the feeling of the pain as it kept my mind off the sense of dread building in the pit of my belly, the first sign of an impending panic attack. “I messed up,” I whispered, squeezing my eyes shut against the gory images in my mind. “I totally screwed this up, didn’t I?”
Jack’s arm wrapped around my back as the other slid under my knees to pull me into his lap. “None of this is your fault. You did nothing wrong.”
I rested my forehead on his clavicle and tried to breathe normally. “Of course I did nothing wrong, but that’s only because I did nothing at all. Sometimes doing nothing is worse than doing the wrong thing.”
As the words came out of my mouth, I thought of how utterly guilty I was. I’d done nothing to save my mother and son from being killed. And last night, when presented with the opportunity to do nothing with Isaac, I chose to do the wrong thing instead.
Jack tilted my chin up to look me in the eye. “I hate to be the one to remind you of this, but the coroner’s report specified that Beth and Junior were most likely killed very shortly after we left at seven p.m. Your mom hadn’t even set the alarm yet. We went to the waterfront at 11:30. If what you saw was the perpetrator or perpetrators, it would have been too late to save them.”
I covered my face with my hands. “This is like a nightmare that never ends. It never ends.”
Jack held me close, crushing me against his solid chest and stroking my hair.
“Please make it end,” I begged as each breath grew more shallow than the last. “Please. I don’t want to feel this way anymore. Please make it end.”
He kissed the top of my head. “I wish I could, pixie. I’d rip the sky in half if it would make the pain go away.”
We sat like this for a while, I curled up in his lap, head tucked into the warm crook of Jack’s neck. His hold on me slowly loosened as my breathing returned to normal. I didn’t know how much time passed, but when I woke in Jack’s arms, both of us lying in the bed, the tray resting safely on the rug, I knew I couldn’t tell him about Isaac yet.
I needed to give him time to get his bearings before I dropped yet another bombshell on him. Part of me knew this was selfish. I should confess now instead of waiting until the earth had solidified beneath him. But another part of me knew if I told him now, after everything he’d learned in Boise and after what I just told him, that would without a doubt be the end of us.
I knew now, after everything we’d survived, that Jack and I would never be as good apart as we were together. I needed to give us a chance. We deserved another chance to get this right.
Four days later
“I’m going to the yoga studio. Do you need me to pick anything up on the way back?” I asked Jack as I pulled my plum-colored GORE-TEX jacket off the hanger in the coat closet.
I was going to yoga, but not with Drea. My best friend and I still hadn’t made up after her refusal to help me lie to Jack. I understood why she refused, but that didn’t dull the sting of being rejected and possibly judged by her, even if I did deserve her judgment.
I was also going to make a stop at the drugstore on the way home from yoga, to pick up an at-home pregnancy test. Using an online calculator, I learned that yesterday would be the first day I could expect to get an accurate result. To err on the safe side and prevent any misunderstandings, I decided I would wait one more day.
My day of reckoning was here.
Jack sat on the edge of the soft gray sofa in the living room, leaning forward as he hunched over his laptop, which was perched on the industrial style coffee table. “I’m good, baby. Thanks for asking.”
I grabbed my yoga bag off the hook in the coat closet and slung it across my chest. But as I made my way toward the front door, that nagging sense of dread returned. I slid the bag off and dropped it on the floor. Jack looked up just in time to see me walking toward him. He opened his mouth to say something, but I quickly grabbed his face and silenced him with a deep kiss as I climbed onto his lap.
He chuckled as he leaned back on the sofa. “Is this your idea of yoga with Drea?”
I smiled as I look down at him, not correcting his assumption that I was meeting Drea. If I was pregnant, was Jack the type of man who would stick by me even if the baby wasn’t his? Or was Jack more like my father? Would he force me to choose between him and the baby? And if I chose Jack, was I perpetuating the cycle of abandonment issues and violence that eventually took Junior’s life?
“What are you thinking?” Jack murmured as he slid his warm hands under the back of my athletic tank top.
I planted a lingering kiss on his forehead, breathing in the scent of the lavender-mint shampoo we shared, which he claimed made him smell “like a girl,” but he didn’t care because it also made his hair “shinier than a masochist’s ass.”
“Gee, your hair smells terrific,” I replied.
It was a reference to an old shampoo commercial from the 80s my mom had told us about, one of her many colorful stories about “the good ol’ days.” Knowing the origin of the phrase, Jack didn’t laugh. Nor did he say a word. He laid a soft kiss on my chest and tightened his arms around my waist.
I lay my head on his shoulder and we sat like this for a while. No words between us. No anger between us. No pain, just love.
I sat up slowly and planted a kiss on his scruff. “I should get going. I’ll be back in a couple hours.”
Jack grabbed my waist before I could stand up. “I’m supposed to get a call from Detective Robinson today. She said they recovered Brandon’s cell phone from his trailer and they were going to check his cell phone records to see if he had the phone with him the night of the murders. If he did, and his phone was turned on, it may have pinged some local cell towers. They’ll also be able to see if he called anyone around the time of the murders.”
I nodded and stood up. “I hope I’m wrong this time,” I said, zipping up my athletic jacket.
“You’d think you’d be used to that by now,” he teased me.
I rolled my eyes and waved at him. “Bye, jerk.”
He flashed me a sexy smile. “Love you, pixie.”
I blew him a kiss. “I love you more.”
As I left the yoga studio, I reached into my bag to retrieve my cell phone, then tossed the bag onto the passenger seat. Sliding into the driver’s seat, I closed the door and glanced at the screen. There was a text from Jack, which had come in about ten minutes ago.
Going to the gym. I’ll be back in an hour or so.
I narrowed my eyes as I stared at the message. Jack went to the gym at least five days a week and almost always went before six a.m. Sometimes, he got his workout in before I even woke. But I couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone to the gym in the afternoon.
Dread crept up from the pit of my belly as I realized I was having suspicious thoughts of Jack because I was projecting my own guilt onto him. Shaking my head, I gripped the steering wheel and took deep breaths as I repeated the mantra I’d been reciting in my mind for the last four days: It’s almost over. Everything will be okay. It’s almost over. Everything will be okay. It’s almost over. Everything will be okay.
I exhaled slowly then turned on the car and headed for the drugstore. I chose a store I’d never been to before, because it was two miles farther away from our house than the one I normally went to. Despite the November gloom and pouring rain, I wore sunglasses into the store. I also kept the hood of my jacket up as I picked out four different tests, and found myself glancing down every aisle and over my shoulder like a paranoid lunatic.
Jack and I were very recognizable to the peaceful citizens of Hood River. Our faces had been plastered on local and national media. The story of the murders had even been picked up by some tech reporters in other countries who called Jack’s office requesting interviews.
The first year was a media frenzy. But after I refused to go to the candlelight vigil on the one-year anniversary, and Jack stayed home with me in a rare moment of solidarity, the media madness quickly died down. People assumed our absence meant we no longer cared. The truth was quite the opposite. We cared so much it was shredding us apart from the inside out.
Jack’s truck was gone when I pulled into the garage and closed it behind me. With hands trembling, I left my yoga bag in the SUV and grabbed the plastic bag containing the pregnancy tests. As I pushed the car door open, I realized my entire body was shaking. Sweat sprouted on my brow, my chest tightened, and I closed my eyes to take several shallow breaths. I couldn’t have a panic attack now.
I coughed a few times, to clear the tightness in my chest, and took a couple of rapid, deep breaths to flood my lungs with much-needed oxygen. Within seconds, the tightness slowly began to dissipate. Opening my eyes, I quickly exited the SUV and headed straight inside and directly to the master bathroom. Jack would be back from the gym in about thirty minutes — if that was indeed where he’d gone. I had to do this fast.
My hands still trembled as I locked the bathroom door behind me. The shaking made opening the packaging and reading the instructions almost impossible. I splashed water in my face in an attempt to wash away the anxiety. But I could hardly hold myself up.
I shook my head and lined up the tests on top of the plastic bag I’d laid out on the counter next to the toilet. As quickly as I could, I urinated on each test stick for a couple of seconds, holding in my urine as I changed tests. When all four tests were lined up on top of the plastic bag, I wiped and flushed, then set the five-minute timer on my phone.
I waited with my head resting in my trembling hands. I tried to focus on my breathing as my fingers and toes began to tingle, a sure sign that my body was being flooded with adrenaline and stress hormones. The blood was rushing away from my limbs toward my racing heart. I really hoped those pregnancy tests were negative. If they weren’t, I was fairly certain I would pass out.
Massaging my temples and taking shallow breaths, the tingling in my fingers slowly went away just seconds before the timer went off. The sharp beeping sound sent my heart galloping. I clenched and unclenched my fists, wiggling my fingers to encourage the blood flow. The sound of the garage door opening came to me like a distant sound at the far end of a tunnel as I peeked at the tests.
Four tests. All four positive.