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Authors: T. L. Haddix

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Chapter Thirteen

T
he sight of Amelia seated in the rocking chair by the fireplace holding the baby, her hair and skin gilded by the glow of the fire, knocked the breath out of Logan. She looked so natural with Molly, so at home. Seeing her like that set off a longing—both physical and emotional—deep inside him. He was grateful for the distraction of the kids as they came running down the stairs.

Logan didn’t want kids. He never had. He knew part of that was because of the way his mother had died. And he knew without asking that Amelia did want kids. So it would be safer for both of them if he didn’t go down that road at all. He could keep her at a distance and that would be fine.

He’d done a lot of thinking since his talk with Archer at the party. Regardless of what Amelia had said and what Archer believed, Logan knew he had to try to make amends. He couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t. At the very least, he hoped they could be friends.

All he had to do was convince his traitorous body that friendship would be enough.

John, predictably, went straight to his daughter. “How’s my girl?”

“She’s fine, and she’s my girl for right now. So go away. You can’t have her,” Amelia teased. Despite her words, she handed the baby over to him with a sigh.

“That child is going to be so spoiled,” Owen said. He stood next to John and ran a hand over the baby’s hair. “Yes, she is.”

Archer laughed. “And her grandpa’s going to spoil her most of all.” He picked Sydney up and hugged her. “How is
my
girl?”

Logan was getting used to the idea of his brother as a father, but it still struck him in the chest from time to time when he heard Sydney call Archer “Daddy.” For so long it had just been the two of them in the world. He was glad his brother had someone else now to call his own.

“I’m fine, Daddy. When do we get to open presents?”

“After we eat.”

Amelia stood, letting John take the rocking chair, and came to stand in the doorway with them. “Do you know which present you’re going to open tonight, Sydney?”

“Yes! The big one.”

Amelia laughed, though her breath caught a little and she coughed. “I figured you would say that. I’ll go check on the food, see how long until it’s ready.”

“She okay?” Logan asked as she disappeared down the hall.

“She’s a lot better than she was,” Owen remarked as he straightened the stockings that were hung on a bookshelf by the mantel. “She coughed so hard for the first two days I’m surprised she didn’t break a rib. We were pretty concerned, but she seems to be over the worst of it.”

“How did she get so run-down that she got that sick in the first place is what I want to know,” Archer said as they sat down on the love seat. “Emma and I feel so guilty. We should have noticed she was exhausted.”

Owen held up a hand. “That’s not what did it. She swears it isn’t. She said she’s had a lot on her mind lately besides the wedding, and that’s been keeping her from sleeping. The wedding was fun for her. Don’t blame yourselves.”

Logan felt his cheeks heat. He was afraid he knew what she’d had on her mind. A glance at Archer told him the other man was thinking the same thing. Neither of them said anything, however. Archer had told Emma what had happened, and she’d been furious. She’d driven to his apartment to chew him out in person, starting in on him as soon as he opened the door.

“‘A pale imitation? Little girl playing dress-up?’ What the hell were you thinking, you idiot? At least tell me you don’t still believe all that about her.” She stood in his living room, cheeks flushed with anger, hands on her hips. Logan sighed and sat down.

“No, I don’t believe it.”

“Good. Because let me tell you about my baby sister. This is a girl who has worked since she was sixteen years old. She started volunteering with Mom at the library for the literacy program. When she was seventeen, she got her first job writing a column for the newspaper. She uses a pseudonym—Alex Collins.” When he looked up, surprised, she nodded. “You’ve read her work, then.”

“I have.” Logan was stunned. Alex Collins was one of his favorite commentators, both in the local weekly paper and in the weekend paper he got from Lexington. “That’s Amelia?”

“She writes for four papers. Four. Every week. Do you know how much work goes into that? And in her ‘spare time’ she’s been writing books.” She didn’t let him answer, just continued. “She didn’t want to go to school but Daddy made her do it. So she stayed close to home, went to the community college for a couple of years. She wasn’t going for a degree, just took general classes and some specialties that appealed to her. When she was nineteen, she moved into that trailer where she lives now. She rents it from John and Zanny. They don’t let her live there for free. She wouldn’t take that.”

“Emma—” he tried.

“Hush. I’m going to speak my piece, and then you can talk. She drives the same beat-up car that Daddy bought her when she got her license when she was seventeen. Do you know why? Because she’s frugal. She had to do a lot of work to it last spring, right at the same time she had to have her wisdom teeth removed. It nearly emptied her savings account to pay for both of those things, but she did it. But do you know what else she did? She never missed a rent payment or fell behind on her bills. And she never stopped taking Lori groceries. The only week she missed was the week she had the surgery.”

He opened his mouth but her glare told him to not even try to speak, so he kept quiet.

“Amelia ate rice, beans, and ramen noodles for months until she had those bills paid for, but Lori got groceries every week. You don’t even want to know how far through the roof Mom and Daddy went over that. Mom started doubling recipes at Sunday dinner and sending the leftovers home with Pip. She couldn’t argue with that. And John and Zanny or Rachel or I would make sure she came to one of our houses at least once a week. Archer took her out so much people thought they were dating.”

She had to stop and Logan saw that she was fighting back tears. “Any time someone in this family needs
anything
, Amelia is the first one to offer help. Whether it’s a babysitter or a meal cooked or filling in for maternity leave, she steps up. She sacrifices so that the people she cares about don’t have to, and we can’t get her to stop. We’ve tried to get her to put herself first, but she won’t. If she sees someone who needs help, even if they’re a stranger, she helps. She’s one of the best people I know.
That
is who you disparaged in the barn that day. Not some flighty, spoiled baby who lets people hand her everything. And believe me, Mom and Daddy and the rest of us would be more than happy to make life easier for her. She won’t let us.”

She wasn’t finished. Logan didn’t try to interrupt again, though he was close to begging her to stop.

“My sister is risking her life to try to rescue her friend from an evil son of a bitch who’d like nothing more than to literally wring her neck for her interference, and you called her a little girl, accused her of chasing after you? You’re a fucking idiot, Logan Gibson. Do you have any idea what you’ve done to her? How badly she’s hurt?”

“You talked to her?” He could barely get the words out around the tightness in his throat.

“Archer did. She wouldn’t say much, just that it was in the past and that’s where it needed to stay. And for him to not be mad at you. Even as big a dick as you were to her, she’s concerned about the impact this will have on your relationship with your brother. I could slap you, I’m so angry.”

Logan could see that. He knew her anger was justified. But at the same time, he wasn’t going to let her lecture him all evening. “I remember a time not too long ago that you said some pretty harsh things to Archer. You didn’t mean what you said but you were scared, so you struck out. I’m not saying you don’t have a right to ream me over this, but I want you to know that I don’t take what happened lightly. I promise you that.”

She sank down into the chair beside the couch, staring at him for some time. “I know that,” she finally conceded. “But you hurt my baby sister, Logan. I don’t know how to forgive you for that.”

“That makes two of us.”

So as he sat in Owen and Sarah Campbell’s living room, getting ready to celebrate Christmas Eve with their family, he felt lower than pond scum. He had no doubt that her parents were unaware of what had gone on between the two of them. If they had known, Archer’s brother or not, he would have been out in the cold. Guilt was eating him alive.

Archer glanced at him. “You okay?” he asked in a low voice.

“No. I need some air. Excuse me.”

He didn’t quite run out the door, but it was close. He didn’t stop until he was in the barn. His heart felt like it was pounding out of his chest, his stomach was churning, and nausea was rising into his throat. The doctors at the VA had counseled him about panic attacks. It wasn’t uncommon for soldiers in Logan’s situation to have them, was the norm as a matter of fact. But until now, he hadn’t had one. As he held on to the top of one of the stall doors, his head bent down as he tried to catch his breath, he figured that the law of percentages had caught up to him.

When the door slid open and admitted a slight figure, he shook his head and choked back a tortured laugh. “You shouldn’t be out here in the cold.”

“I’m bundled head to toe,” Amelia argued. “Why are you out here?”

He couldn’t look at her. “I needed some air.”

“Okay. You’ve had some air. Now suck it up, soldier boy. Supper is ready and the kids are waiting to open presents.”

This time, his laugh was more natural. “Excuse me?”

“You’re wallowing. Stop. What happened, happened. If I can move past it, sure as hell you can. If you think I’m going to let you ruin Christmas for those kids because of this whole mess,” she said as she gestured around the barn, “you’re a bigger idiot than I thought you were. Now come on. Let’s go.”

Though her tone was firm, the anger that had been present for months was absent. “How can you be so calm? Don’t you think you deserve to lash out at me?”

She blew out a long breath, looking back toward the house. “Why should I bother when you’re doing such a fine job of it yourself?”

Logan straightened slowly, his heart calming as the tightness in his chest eased. “Why indeed? Lead the way.”

Archer was pacing the hall when they came in, and he looked between the two of them anxiously.

“See, he’s fine. I’m fine. We’re all fine,” Amelia said as she unwrapped herself. “I’m toasty warm, no one is angry. We’re ready to have dinner. Aren’t we, Logan?”

He hung his coat up, then her wrap. “Yes, ma’am.”

Archer held him back as she preceded them into the dining room. “You okay?”

“I’m fine. Really.” And he was, for the most part. At least long enough to get through dinner and the rest of the evening. When he got home and could fall apart, it might be a different story but for now, he was fine.

Chapter Fourteen

A
melia finally made it to Lori’s the Tuesday after Christmas. Though her friend looked as though she’d lost a little weight, she seemed to be doing better than she had the last time Amelia had seen her, back before Emma and Archer’s wedding. Her hair brushed her shoulders in a warm, glossy-brown bob, and she had good color in her cheeks.

“I brought you some extra goodies. Some fudge and cookies.” She handed Lori the bags she’d brought. “How was Christmas?”

“It was good. We went to Mom and Dad’s. You?”

“The usual. It was good.” Amelia’s bland answer got her a raised brow. “What?”

“Pip, I’ve known you since we were in sixth grade. A person can usually get a Christmas buzz off of you for weeks after, you’re so full of holiday cheer. What’s wrong?”

Amelia let out a long sigh as she stood in the kitchen. She looked out the window over the sink and shrugged. “I heard something I wish I hadn’t a few months back and everything came to a head at Christmas.” She told Lori what Logan had said. Her cheeks grew hot just thinking about that day. “I was so embarrassed, I swear to you I could have sunk through the floor. Stupid, huh? It was a catharsis of sorts, but I’m still trying to catch my footing.” She blotted her eyes with her fingers.

Lori was quiet as she folded the empty bags. “You know he’s wrong about you, right? About all of it. I don’t know who he thinks he’s met, but that’s not you.”

“I know that logically. And there’s a part of me that isn’t sure he even believes it anymore. But the bigger part of me thinks he does, and I wonder if there isn’t a little truth to it somewhere.”

“And it’s hard convincing your heart otherwise. I know. I’m sorry.” Lori held her hand out and Amelia clasped it. Compared to what her friend had gone through, Logan’s offense had been minor. But the heartache it left behind was still real.

“So shoving the too-attractive, not-very-nice Logan aside, how was your holiday?”

Amelia smiled. “It was very nice.”

She stayed for lunch, a rare treat, as Lori assured her Roger was working in Manchester this week and wouldn’t be home until late that evening. The time flew by, and before she was ready to go, it was time to head to the library for the literacy program.

“Call if you need me, and let me know if you want anything special next week. I’m more than happy to bring it to you,” she told Lori as they hugged.

“And I’m going to tell you again that you don’t have to do this. I know you don’t have money to just throw away.”

Amelia pushed Lori’s hair back from her face, much the way she would a young child’s. “And I’m telling you that you would do the same thing for me if our situations were reversed. Besides, I’m not throwing the money away. Do you think I could enjoy spending it on myself if I knew you needed something and didn’t have it?”

Guilt and a look that seemed perilously close to shame crossed Lori’s face. “You’re too good to me, Pip. I don’t deserve that.”

“I think you do. I’ll see you soon. Take care.” Resisting the urge to grab Lori’s hands and drag her away from Roger and the house they shared, she forced herself to walk briskly to her car. She’d done what she could for now.

At the library, things went well. Amelia had two women she was tutoring. One was making excellent progress and the other was doing well enough. She’d learned through the years that sometimes well enough was as good as she could hope for. Not everyone was like Archer, hungry for knowledge and driven to push beyond what she could teach them.

After the two sessions were over she headed to her car, which she’d had to park down the street from the library in the pay lot. The route to the parking lot was well lit, but at nearly eight o’clock in the evening on a weeknight, the town itself was almost deserted. The weight of the handgun she carried in her purse was comforting, and when her nerves started crawling over her shoulders and neck, she slid her hand inside the special compartment and touched the weapon. She had her keys out and ready to use in her left hand, the sharp points sticking out to form a weapon just the way she’d been taught. She stopped at the top of the hill to look around, but things were quiet. Nothing seemed out of place.

Her car was parked beneath a light close to the edge of the lot, and she told herself she was being ridiculous as she moved to unlock the door. When she glanced down into the driver’s seat and saw the long, white box, she froze. Time actually slowed and stretched around her as her adrenaline started flowing, and her fight–or-flight response kicked in.

She took three steps back from the car, looking around wildly. Barely visible at the bottom of the hill, parked on the main road in a shadow, a familiar, dark-colored truck sat idling. She could see the telltale wisp of exhaust fumes steaming in the night.

“Roger,” she whispered.

When two of the people who’d been in the library walked down the street and crossed to the lot, she almost cried with relief.

“Amelia, are you still here?” one of the ladies asked. “Are you having car trouble?”

She glanced to the street where the truck’s taillights had lit up. As she watched, it pulled away from the curb in a U-turn. He drove by slowly, making sure she got a good look at him as he went past. She followed him with her eyes until he was out of sight.

“Um, no. I just—”

“That man wasn’t bothering you, was he?” the woman, who worked as a volunteer in the library, asked.

Amelia shook her head. “No. I’m fine. Thank you.” She opened the door and lifted the box out carefully.

“Was he your beau, then? What did he leave you?”

“He isn’t. He’s trouble.” She was truly afraid to open the box, knowing it could contain anything from flowers to something hideous. But she had to know, so she carefully lifted the lid. The box was full of thorny roses, the leaves stripped off. The blossoms themselves were old, wilted, and faded.

“Oh, my. You weren’t kidding. Does your mother know about this?”

“No. But I guess I’m going to have to tell her.”

On top of the flowers was a note. With shaking hands, she opened it. He’d been smart and had typed the note up, presumably on a computer. He’d possibly even used one of the library computers, as Amelia knew he and Lori didn’t have regular access to one. The thought that he had been inside, so close to her without her knowledge, gave her chills.

Merry Christmas, bitch. Don’t think I don’t know about your little visits. The only reason you still have that special time is because I allow it. I control it. I can get to you whenever and wherever I want. You can’t stop me. I’m going to own you as much as I own her. You’ll beg me the same way she does.

Amelia’s stomach rose into her throat, and by the time she finished reading, she thought she was going to be sick.

“Sweetie, do we need to call someone?”

She shook her head. “No. He was careful. It’s my word against his. But I know who to go to. Thank you, though.” She folded the note and shoved it back in the box, then put the whole package back in her car. After reassuring the ladies that she was really fine, she got in and headed out.

As much as she hated to do it, she didn’t have a choice. She had to contact Rick. She pulled over at a fast-food restaurant a short distance from the library and used the pay phone to call his house. His wife, Ellen, answered on the second ring.

“Hey, it’s Amelia. I’m sorry to bother you so late but I need to talk to Rick about something. Is he there?”

“Sure. Are you okay?”

Her laugh held no humor. “I have a little problem that I need his help with, but yeah, I guess I’m okay.”

When he came to the phone, she explained the situation to him as succinctly as she could. “I’ve put off telling you, but I can’t ignore him anymore. What do I do?”

Rick cursed under his breath but she still heard him. “Where are you now?”

“At Micky D’s, getting ready to head home.”

“Stop here first. I’ll take a report and file it in the morning. Bring that box with you.”

“I hate to bother you with it.”

“Hush, Pip. See you in a few minutes.”

She let a few tears fall after she got back in her car. He hadn’t once suggested she was overreacting, and Amelia was grateful.

It was only a few miles up the road to their house, and once she was there, Ellen got her a big mug of hot coffee.

“I’ll leave the two of you alone while you discuss this,” she offered.

“I don’t mind if you stay,” Amelia told her.

For the next hour, they sat at the kitchen table as she went through all the pranks with Rick, referring to her day planner for the exact dates and what had been involved.

“I kept the rocks, though they looked like the same gravel that’s in my driveway. He’s been very careful until now. I’m frankly shocked he let himself be seen tonight.”

Rick was disturbed by what she was telling him, no doubt about it. “I wish you’d told me about this sooner, kiddo. I understand why you didn’t,” he said, holding his hand up. “And as to tonight, unless there are fingerprints on this box, it’s still a ‘he-said, she-said’ situation. The ladies from the library probably didn’t get a good enough look at him to give any details. The letter is pretty ambiguous. It could mean anything. I’m sorry, Pip.”

Amelia wrapped her hands around her mug and sat back, absorbing the warmth as much as she could. “I figured as much, to tell the truth. And I know there isn’t much you can do, but it was time to let someone know what’s going on.”

“I’m worried about what he’s going to do next,” Ellen said. She was seated beside Rick, who was rubbing her shoulders. Though Amelia hadn’t put them together as a couple, their energies hummed along very harmoniously. She was glad, as Rick was one of her favorite cousins, and he’d gone through a rough time romantically a few years ago.

“So am I. You’re going to have to tell your folks,” Rick said. “You know that.”

“I do. Daddy’s going to lose his mind when he hears about this.” Just the thought of having to admit what all had been going on broke her heart. “I know I’m not the one responsible for this, but I still feel guilty.”

“That’s his goal. That’s what he wants you to feel. Guilt, fear, suspicion. He’s counting on you not doing anything. No offense to Lori, but she’s let him get away with all kinds of shit for years. He probably sees you as a challenge and as a threat. He’s killing two birds with one stone. He thinks he can get you to give up and go away, and he gets to feed his ego at the same time. I don’t think I need to remind you just how dangerous and out of hand these things can get, and how quickly, do I?” he asked.

Amelia thought about their Aunt Kathy. Sarah and Jack’s older sister had been in an abusive marriage. No one had realized just how bad it was until she’d tried to leave him and he’d turned lethal. Kathy had survived the attack, but her children had not.

“No, you don’t need to remind me. Why do you think I’ve been so desperate to get Lori out of there?”

Rick leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. “Have you mentioned any of this to her?”

She laughed. “No. That would be as useless as teats on a boar hog, as Uncle Eli would say. I can push her so far but no further, and telling her Roger is stalking me would cross the line. She’d never believe it was him. She’d find some reasoning to explain it away, and I’d lose all the progress I’ve made.”

Once Rick was satisfied they’d discussed all there was to discuss about the stalking, he let her go. He walked her to her car.

“If you need me, call me. I don’t care what time of day it is or where it is. This is a bad situation, Pip, and I wish to God you weren’t involved in it.”

“Honestly, so do I. But I am involved. I don’t really know of any way to get myself out easily, do you? Even if I back off from Lori, he’s still going to keep coming. He’ll see that as a victory. It’s a game to him now.”

Rick crossed his arms over his chest against the cold. “I’m afraid you’re right. As much as I’m sworn to uphold the law, I’ll tell you that there isn’t a lot that can be done about this. Not unless he tries something and there’s evidence or he gets caught. This may be something that calls for an old-fashioned talking to. Matter of fact, once Owen gets wind of this? We’ll have the devil’s own time holding him back.”

“I know. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t said anything to him.”

He looked out over the valley and she could practically see the debate raging in his head. “Maybe we shouldn’t hold him back.”

“Rick…”

“Someday there will be laws against what he’s doing. But until there are, until the legislation sees the need to protect innocent people from someone like Roger, law enforcement’s hands are tied. It’s frustrating, particularly when it happens to someone you care about.”

“I know.”

“Don’t tell your folks just yet. Let me see what I can do. If I can’t figure something out by the weekend, though, you’ll have to tell them. Do you want me to be there when you do?”

She ducked her head. “If you don’t mind. I don’t know if I can do it on my own. I’m going to owe you big for this, Rick.”

He gave her a hug. “Hush. You won’t owe me a damned thing and you know it. Are you going straight home?”

“Yes. I’m exhausted.”

“Call me when you get home and let me know you made it okay.”

She promised she would. The whole time she was driving, she kept checking her rearview mirror for Roger’s headlights. She never saw his truck, but she was on edge the whole time. Once home and after she’d called Rick, she poured herself a glass of wine and drew a hot bath. She tossed a handful of lavender into the water for its soothing scent. With her hair pinned up, she climbed in and sank into the water up to her shoulders, where she let herself cry.

She hated the fact that she was considering giving up on Lori. Hated herself for even thinking about it. But she was tired of fighting. Tired of not getting anywhere. The stress of worrying about Lori and what Roger might do, combined with the humiliation and hurt she felt from her dealings with Logan, was too much. It reminded her an awful lot of how her relationship with Lori’s brother Jimmy had ended.

Amelia, Lori, and Jimmy had formed a trifecta of friendship from the time they were young. Jimmy was a couple of years older than them, but he and Lori had always been close and he’d never minded when she and Amelia would tag along. By the time they were teenagers, Amelia had started to develop a crush on Jimmy, and it had appeared he felt the same way about her. The fall of her eighteenth year they started dating, after he’d come back from a two-year stint in the Army.

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