Pink light streamed through the window, casting the kitchen in a peaceful, hazy glow. The scent of warm pine settled around me, joining the soft smell of cinnamon and nutmeg. A well-loved copy of Tennyson’s Poetical Works lay open on the counter as I scanned the rhythmic prose of The Talking Oak.
And when my marriage morn may fall,
She, Dryad-like, shall wear
Alternate leaf and acorn-ball
In wreath about her hair...
My gaze fell to the round table in the corner of the room, and a familiar emblem etched in the center caught my eye. The Hawthorne insignia. My heart sputtered.
There’s no reason to be upset, I told myself. This is only a dream. It has to be. Why on earth would I be back in The Valley? Allie and Gabe rescued me, right? So, if it is a dream — or nightmare — why can’t I wake up? Why am I wearing the Dryad’s clothes? Why am I baking things in the kitchen of my house?
My nails drummed against the wood as I thought about what was happening. I sighed and looked down. My breath caught in a gasp, and the motion stilled. A translucent gold band hugged the third finger on my left hand. It greatly resembled the wedding ring I’d found in Charlie’s lake house. Turning my palm over, the distinct mark of two vines winding toward my wrist appeared, etched in my skin just like the Hawthorne’s mother, Ilana.
Distant footsteps pattered from the hall as two dark-haired children made their way into the kitchen.
“Hi, Mama!” they called together, both wearing perfect smiles and gray eyes. To my surprise, I pulled them in without hesitation.
A sullied cap, like the one Gabe wore the day we met, followed close behind. I paused an arm’s length away and stood on my tiptoes to greet him with a kiss.
“Beautiful as ever, Mrs. Hawthorne,” Kyle whispered against my lips, the brim of his hat lifting as he backed away…
My breath caught as I jerked upright in a cold sweat.
“Ashton?” A whisper broke the darkness.
The pink warmth of the kitchen suddenly turned to a soft red glow in a fireplace. Where was I?
“Kyle?” I spoke unthinkingly through the haze.
The snap of teeth coming together sounded near me followed by a tense sigh.
“Not so much,” Gabe grumbled.
“No, I-I didn’t mean to … I just had a bad dream.” I dropped my head in my hand and rubbed my eyes. “Sorry.”
“Sounded like it,” he said dryly before taking a deep breath. “Look, it’s okay, love.”
I suspected he was trying to convince himself of that more than me. I glanced around, realizing we were on the sofa in our hideaway cabin, and eased toward him. Taking Gabe’s hand, I nudged his shoulder. He hesitated but lifted his arm, allowing me to curl against his side. It’d been almost six months since he and Allie staged my rescue from The Valley. Six months that’d we’d been hiding from the Dryads in the middle of nowhere. Six months since I’d abandoned my best friend, Kyle. Six months since learning my grandparents had passed away, and I was next in line to become vasílissa — the Naiad equivalent of a queen from what I understood. Six months since Gabe had told me he loved me for the first, and subsequently only, time.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t bring myself to purposely speak the words aloud. Putting it out there made it too real for me, like I was just asking for an earth-shattering betrayal — one I knew I couldn’t handle twice.
Now Gabe and I just waltzed around the idea of a relationship, only we didn’t seem to hear the same music. It was more of an awkward tempo that kept us circling the overcrowded ballroom, waiting for the other to ask for the first dance. I drew a deep breath. Gabe was trying to do his best by me, I knew that, but things between us were still … uncomfortable. Kyle haunting my dreams most nights left me guilt-ridden and exhausted more often than not. It didn’t help that Gabe saw him as a threat to my dance card.
I sighed again, trying to shut out any thoughts that didn’t consist of Gabe’s arms around me. After so long fighting his memory, opening up to him again had been a challenge. While the rest of me hummed and tingled when he so much as met my gaze, my head constantly reminded me of just how much pain I could survive.
“Are you still awake?” Gabe whispered, bringing me to my senses.
Selfishness tempted me not to answer. I figured I knew what was on his mind — the same thing that was on mine.
“Yeah,” I managed after a moment.
His breathing hitched like he wanted to speak, but he kept quiet. I wondered if he was as uncomfortable broaching the subject of Kyle as I was.
“Were you just wondering?” I snuggled deeper under his arm, wanting to talk but dreading the conversation at the same time.
“No,” he murmured. “You should rest. It’s been weeks since you slept through the night. You shouldn’t worry about—”
“Gabe, don’t,” I interrupted. “Just … say it. I know you want to.”
“Do you miss him?” he strained.
And there it was, the million dollar question.
“Not like you’re thinking,” I answered honestly.
Gabe lifted his arm and stood, making his way to the hearth. He raised an iron poker and stoked the ebbing fire. A surge of light from the blaze flickered over his face, illuminating the hurt and confusion.
My feet met the cool wood floor as I closed the distance between us. I stood at Gabe’s side, my gaze on his white-knuckle grip around the poker. Sliding my palm down his arm, I encouraged him to loosen his hold.
“Gabe, I do miss Kyle,” I began, and he immediately tensed. “But I don’t miss him that way.”
“Don’t you?” Doubt seeped through his voice.
“How could you even ask that?” The moment I spoke the words I regretted them. Telling Gabe I loved the very friend who’d kissed me shortly before he and Allie’s reappearance wasn’t one of my shining moments.
“Sorry.” I shoved my hair from my forehead. “What I mean is, I don’t feel that way about Kyle. He’s my friend — nothing more. Like Allie.”
“You don’t dream about Allie, love,” he said, his tone falling.
“No, but I also didn’t run out on her. I don’t feel right having bailed on Kyle after he risked so much to save me. It just seems wrong. I’d be just as guilty for abandoning her that way.”
Gabe’s eyes sparked with something I didn’t understand. “Allie isn’t in love with you.”
“I can’t help the way he … thinks.” I bit down on the word feels.
“So, that’s what these nightmares are about? You leaving him?”
“Of course.” I turned away, biting my lip as I picked at the flecking paint of the mantle. How was I supposed to tell Gabe that Kyle was far from being left behind in my dream?
Gabe let out a low growl.
“There’s no reason to be upset by this, Gabe,” I said, knowing he had every reason to wonder. “I can’t control what I dream anymore than you can.”
“I have no right to be jealous,” he whispered. “I know that. I left you in the worst situation imaginable. The plan was to keep you safe and happy, but I wasn’t the one to protect you. You formed a bond with Kyle that runs deeper than attraction or compulsion. Any part of your heart is infinitely more than I’ve earned, but the thought of you wanting something else, someone else…”
“Kyle’s feelings don’t influence mine. I know I didn’t paint our friendship in the best light when I was in The Valley, but I was lost. You’re upset with me, and I get it, but I’m not—”
“Don’t ever think that, Ash. I’m not upset … with you.”
“Nothing’s changed, Gabe. I’m here where I belong.” My palm rested over his heart. “With you.”
Warmth sparked in his eyes, but I knew he was still holding back his emotion, his hope … his heart.
“Do you regret having feelings for me after everything that’s happened?” I asked.
“Not for a moment,” he answered without hesitancy.
“I never meant to hurt you. Things have been different between us, but you’ve been great these past few weeks. I just want you to know I appreciate all you’re doing.”
He offered a weak smile. I pulled him forward and wrapped my arms around his waist. Floorboards creaked as a mop of messy blond curls appeared in the hallway.
“Could you please keep the lovers’ quarrel down until sunrise?” Allie interrupted, her voice thick. “Some of us are actually trying to sleep before the big meeting tomorrow.”
“Sorry,” I whispered dramatically. “We’ll try to keep it down.”
Allie rolled her eyes and stalked back to our room.
“She’s right,” Gabe said on a sigh, backing away. “You should rest before we leave in the morning. It’s already a risk, going to speak with Charlie’s partners about the companies and assets. We need to be sharp and focused.”
“You’re probably right,” I said, my voice sounding sadder than I meant for it to. I paused in the hall, my hand against the jamb. “Gabe?”
He lifted his head and met my eyes. “Yes?”
“Thanks for everything,” I whispered with every ounce of my being.
His expression warmed as a genuine smile touched his lips. “Anything for you, Ash. Goodnight.”
Allie watched me cautiously, like I was balancing on a tightrope as I tiptoed into the bedroom and closed the door. I pulled the duvet aside and slipped beneath the cover. Sapphire blue bored into the side of my head, silently assaulting me with questions.
“Don’t start,” I said, staring at the ceiling.
A lone owl hooted outside the window. Shadows scratched noiselessly across the floor, reaching like boney fingers in search of something they couldn’t find. I sighed as my frustration mounted.
Allie climbed out of bed and switched on the rattling box fan before settling back onto the mattress. I rolled my eyes, recognizing the noisy action was meant to drown out anything Gabe might overhear.
“Dreaming again?” she whispered.
I flopped to my back. “Why does this crap keep happening? I don’t get it.”
“Maybe you have something in your life you need to address.”
I propped my hand under my chin. “Like what?”
Allie gave a look that said, You know exactly what I’m talking about.
“You think it actually has something to do with Kyle?” I huffed.
“There are a lot of areas where you need closure.” Allie shrugged. “Kyle’s one of them. Your feelings toward Gabe are another. Not to mention your parents, your past, and a slightly more threatening thing called your future.”
I sat up and chewed my lip, guilt daggering my conscience. “You believe me though, right? Even though Gabe and I are in a weird place, you know I don’t have feelings for Kyle.”
Allie scooted closer and wound her arm through mine. “Look, you need some time to sort through the chaos in your life. You’ve changed a lot over the past few months, and so much stuff has happened. Let’s just deal with everything one day at a time, starting with this meeting tomorrow.”
“Fine,” I said on a yawn. “As much as I hate to admit it, you’re right.”
“Look at you, all growing and stuff,” Allie teased. “I’m proud of you, chick.”
Lacing my fingers through hers, I rested my head against the wall and closed my eyes. A wave of exhaustion plowed over me, and I found myself eager for sleep. “I guess I have changed in some ways, huh? A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able handle all this.”
Allie laughed quietly. “Maybe. But some things never change,” she whispered so quietly I wasn’t sure she’d even spoken.
The parking garage fell quiet as the engine of our blacked-out sedan shut off. This was the moment we’d been dreading for months — settling things with Charlie’s companies and his last wishes. Tension hummed through the car as my fingers tapped a restless beat. Gabe’s hand came to rest on my thigh, and I drew a tense breath.
“Everything is going to be all right, Ashton. This should be a simple trip in and out to handle Charlie’s affairs. Having the attorney’s meet us here on such short notice means less chance anyone else will trace our presence here. I’ve swept this building twice since yesterday, and nothing’s indicated a problem.” His smile turned tentative. “But if anything happens, if you suspect anything is wrong or I give you the signal, you know what to do. Right?”
I nodded. We’d been over building plans and alternate routes of escape a dozen times. Gabe was nothing if not prepared. Somehow it didn’t make the situation less stressful. If anything, it made it worse.
Gabe toyed with the leather cord around his neck. It once held a willow charm: the key it turned out, to a trunk we’d found in the attic at Charlie’s lake house. Now the necklace held a small bronze pendant. The same pendant Kyle said Gabe had supposedly traded me for, in fact.
I stared at it through narrow eyes. Even knowing Gabe hadn’t really turned me over in part to get some lousy necklace, it didn’t keep the bad taste out of my mouth every time I saw it.
Gabe caught me eyeing his movement, and he quickly tucked the pendant beneath his shirt. He slid from behind the steering wheel then turned to the back. “Allie, you’re at the helm.”
“Right. I’ve got the garage covered.” She climbed over the backseat.
“Are you all right?” He watched me carefully.
Ignoring his question, I climbed out, wrapped a scarf around my hair, and slipped on a pair of sunglasses just in case. Gabe met me at the back of the car, his gaze on me as he turned up the collar on his trench coat then grabbed a black briefcase from the trunk. I shook off my nonsense and focused on our situation.
“You look very handsome as Mr. Garrett, but I think I prefer Gabe’s jeans and leather jacket,” I said, my voice shaking only a little. Because we didn’t know who was in cahoots with the Dryads, we’d agreed to hide his identity.
“That makes two of us.” He looked down at his three-piece suit and quirked an eyebrow. An errant curl fell across his forehead. I brushed it back into place, my fingers lingering at his smooth jaw line.
He lifted my hand and brushed a kiss across the top. “Here we go.”
My adrenaline pulsed as he led us toward the office building. Gabe scanned the garage as we hurried across the concrete floor, our footsteps echoing every step. I kept my eyes locked on the white lines that formed the parking spaces, knowing I’d make every tiny movement out as something dangerous and freak myself out even more if I let my imagination get the better of me. The chances of Kevin or anyone else finding us here versus Charlie’s offices in New York were less — we’d kept off the radar as much as possible — but few things were beyond the realm of impossible anymore.
Reaching the building adjacent to the lot, Gabe hit the up button on the cinderblock wall then we stepped into an elevator. He claimed the back corner to keep an eye out as I pressed the circle marked sixty-seven and held my breath as the box jarred to life.
People in suits climbed on every few stops, crowding together like too many crayons in one box. Sweat beaded across my upper lip, and I pulled off my jacket. The smell of day-old coffee and desperation soaked the air and turned my stomach. My heart pounded as I obsessively scanned one person to the next, searching out anyone familiar. Stereotypical music droned on in the background, and I shut my eyes. The space was too small, cramped. Anxiety pulsed into panic, threatening to push me overboard.
“Almost there, love.” Gabe’s breath suddenly brushed my shoulder as his hand came to rest at the base of my neck. “Only a few more floors.”
Just when I thought I’d lose it, a ding sounded. The elevator doors slid open to reveal a bustling office space, packed by cubicles and upper-middle management. Gabe’s arm wrapped around my waist as suit after suit filed from the confines of the suffocating space.
We followed the tiny portico toward the madness. A portly man in a too-tight dress shirt and no jacket waited by the receptionist’s desk. His eyes met mine, and he stepped toward me. “Miss Blake?”
I nodded once. He offered a chubby hand. A faint, hollow echo drummed through my head as our palms met. I released his hand and rubbed my ear, wondering if I were going to faint.
“I’m John Sherman, your father’s accountant,” the man said, recapturing my attention.
“Thank you for meeting us, Mr. Sherman. I’m sorry for the delay.”
“It’s no trouble at all. I’m happy to do it,” he said, offering me a stack of folders and a business card.
“This is Michael Garrett, my financial advisor.” I gestured to Gabe who lingered behind me, his palm still brushing the small of my back.
The men shook hands then Gabe gave a quick glance around the room.
“Right this way and we’ll get started,” Sherman directed. “Your father’s secretary passed along that you couldn’t travel to his primary office in the city, but she didn’t mention why,” he hinted, and I immediately grew suspicious.
“We had other business in the area,” Gabe answered firmly, shutting down Sherman. “We appreciate your willingness to accommodate us.”
“Of course.” Sherman held open a large door marked Conference Room and waved us through. An oversized desk sat in the center with a dozen or so chairs situated around it. We stepped further into the room to find we weren’t the only ones there.
A man wearing a dark suit and circles under his eyes stood, offering his hand. I fumbled with my purse and the papers Sherman had given me, trying to receive his friendly gesture. He quickly smiled and waved me off, shaking Gabe’s free hand instead.
“Miss Blake, I’m Sam Morris, the company attorney. We requested Harry Waterford be here,” he continued, and my stomach dropped, “but I received an email stating that he was taking a sabbatical until further notice. I’m sure you know more about that than we do.”
I swallowed hard and nodded. “Charlie’s death has been hard on all of us.”
They each gave sympathetic nods as I tried to settle my things onto the desk.
A familiar woman with strawberry-blonde hair and a pleasant smile moved to my side. She pulled me into an unexpected hug, pinning my arms at my sides. Her citrusy perfume tickled my nose as I tried to return the gesture.
“I’m so sorry about your dad, Ashton. We were shocked when we heard what happened. I still can’t believe Charlie’s gone.” She wiped an errant tear as she backed away, and I found myself at a loss for words. “Listen to me, babbling away. You probably don’t even remember me. You weren’t more than seven the last time we met. I’m Caroline Voss, Charlie’s secretary.”
The name struck a chord in my memory. I met her deep-blue eyes and nodded. “I used to hide under your desk and draw when I came to the office. You taught me to make paperclip—”
“Bracelets,” she said at the same time I did.
“It’s nice to see you again, Ms. Caroline.” I smiled, welcoming her familiar face. I vaguely recalled seeing her at the funeral as well.
Gabe touched my waist, reminding me that we needed to stay on task. Everyone took a seat and began shuffling papers back and forth. Sherman passed me a folder containing financial documents and explained what we’d need to do with them.
Mr. Morris opened a manila envelope and turned the sheets to face me. “Now for my part,” he said on a sigh. I bit my lip and tried to not to think about the things I was about to read. “This is everything your father, owned.” He gestured to the list of various possessions, everything from his favorite book to his beach house in the Solomon Islands. “If you’ll just initial and date the places I’ve marked.”
I spent the next half hour signing documents and taking note of his instructions.
Finally, Mr. Morris pulled out a small sealed envelope with the words Confidential stamped on both sides. Red tape secured all corners, and each strip held Charlie’s signature.
“There is one other matter,” he said. “In Mr. Blake’s personal vault is a safety deposit box.” He flipped the package over and tapped the front. “Harry drafted the original documents, but for whatever reason, Mr. Blake had me redo everything just days before he passed. This envelope was added to the mix with his strict order it be given to you and only you.”
Gabe and I exchanged glances. My eyes narrowed as I pulled the envelope toward me. Something solid lay inside. I assumed by Morris’ words it must’ve been the key to Charlie’s box. I lowered the package to my lap, my fingers locked around its mysterious contents. “Is his vault in this building?”
They each looked at each other before Sherman spoke up almost apologetically, “We don’t actually know where his personal vault is located.”
“How am I supposed to find it then?” I looked at them.
“I’m certain Charlie left you directions in one capacity or another,” Caroline spoke up. “You know how he loved riddles.”
No, actually I didn’t. A touch of bitterness tried to surface, but I beat it down behind a forced smile. “You’re probably right.”
Gabe and I stood, shakings hands with Sherman and Morris. Caroline walked around the desk. She took my wrists, and her indigo eyes fixed on mine.
“Ashton, sweetheart, if you need anything at all, you call me,” she insisted. “I know we haven’t seen each other in a long while, but Charlie was like family and so are you. You’ll keep in touch, won’t you?”
She took my hand between hers, and a familiar hollow drone filled my ears. It felt like my head was in a barrel, drowning out everything around me. I held my breath, straining to listen though no one spoke. Muted laughter and water splashing echoed from somewhere in the distance, but it was distorted, like one of those old record players in the movies. Borderline panic set in as the noise continued, but no one else seemed to hear it.
I’ll see you soon, a familiar voice broke through tenderly.
I snatched my hand away and stumbled back in blind panic.“Harry?” I gasped