on’t you know me at all by now?” Asher said.
Joy and surprise rioted within me, and he didn’t need to touch me to hear my thoughts. Asher unclipped his seat belt and shoved the armrests up. With nothing between us, he slid across the seats and pulled me close. The soft cotton of his shirt rubbed against my nose when I hugged him.
I tilted my head back to see his expression. “What are you doing here, Asher? I’m so glad you’re here, but I don’t understand.”
He dropped a lazy kiss on my forehead. “It’s simple. I’m coming with you.”
Asher’s face tightened into a fierce expression when I started to speak. He pulled away, leaving a few inches of space between us, and I immediately missed his warmth.
“Don’t argue,” he continued. “You made the decision to go without me, and I’m trying to make the best of it. But don’t you dare tell me to stay behind while you risk your life for all of us.”
A flight attendant stopped in the narrow aisle beside us, and Asher calmly ordered a water for himself and a coffee with extra cream and sugar for me. The man moved on, and Asher spoke again as if he hadn’t been interrupted.
“You’re pissed. I get that. I can live with you being mad at me, Remy, but I won’t live without you.”
He faked being relaxed as he faced the front of the plane, but his body betrayed him. His fisted hands rested on his legs. Someday his jaw would snap from the way he ground his teeth when upset. For once, I wished that I could read his thoughts so I could understand what was going on inside him. But in this way, I was like any other human.
Green eyes met mine and flashed in defiance.
“I don’t want to do this alone.” I pulled one of his fists into my lap and smoothed the tension away, until his palm flattened on my thigh. “As soon as I boarded the plane, I wished you were here. I should have talked to you, and I’m sorry.”
He turned his hand over and wound his fingers through mine. “You act like you’re not afraid of anything. That terrifies me, Remy.”
I’m sure my smile looked sheepish. “If I were any more afraid, I’d be curled up in a ball and rocking in a corner. I don’t think you fully get what those years with my mother did to me.”
I focused on our hands to avoid his gaze. Anna and the time before I arrived in Blackwell Falls were two of my least favorite topics. Asher knew a lot of what happened—how could he not with all the time he spent in my head?—but that was different from me talking about my feelings.
“I spent years healing her injuries. Every time Dean hurt her, I cleaned up his mess.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “She begged me to keep it a secret. I told myself that asking for help wouldn’t make a difference. No matter what I did, she would just go back to Dean. But I should have told, Asher. I should have told someone. Maybe she would be alive now if I had.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Don’t I? You know what the sick part was? I felt like I helped Dean. Maybe if someone had seen her injuries they would have stepped in. But I always covered up the evidence. It’s like I was his accomplice. All the while, I kept hoping for a miracle. Wishing someone would save us.”
Asher didn’t jump in to disagree, even though I sensed how much he wanted to. I didn’t need him to argue with me. I needed him to understand.
I continued. “You said they would come for me. Gabe and Lottie said it. I believe you. No more sitting back and waiting for a miracle. I won’t risk my family or you. Can you understand that?”
The flight attendant chose that moment to return with our drinks, and Asher and I had to separate to put our tray tables down. I waited impatiently for the man to go. He left and still Asher remained mute. I didn’t know what else I could say and turned to gaze out the window. The cloud-filled view didn’t offer any answers. And the coffee tasted like crap. This day kept getting better.
Asher seemed to have reached a decision.
“Okay?” I asked hopefully.
“Okay, we do this. We meet your grandfather and get our answers. No more waiting. But at the first sign of danger, we’re out of there. No arguments. I’ll pick you up and carry you out if I have to.”
I threw my arms around his neck and tugged his head down so I could kiss his cheek. “You won’t have to. I don’t want to die. Or have to explain to Gabe why his brother has a broken back from carrying me across the country.”
Asher laughed, and I knew we would be okay. We could do this. Together.
The rest of the flight passed quickly as we planned.
My mother had wanted me to keep my Protector blood a secret. No way could I show up at my grandfather’s with my Protector boyfriend. As it turned out, Asher hadn’t ignored me the past few days to torture me. He’d been busy finding a place to live in San Francisco so he could be near me.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“You would have tried to talk me out of coming.”
I thought about that for a moment and nodded. “You’re right. I’m glad you didn’t call.”
When I reached for my coffee, he beat me to it, swapping his cup of water for mine. He grimaced. “Please don’t drink that. It’s awful.”
I realized he’d been “tasting” my coffee since we’d been touching while I drank. Another side effect of my powers. Heads turned when I laughed.
“You actually thought about how bad it tasted and then took another sip.”
He shook his head at me, mystified, and I giggled again. He didn’t love coffee the way I did, even when it tasted good.
“I need the caffeine boost. I didn’t sleep much last night.”
“I’ll keep you awake,” he said.
I raised my brows at him, and he flushed, his cheeks turning pink.
“I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
“Damn,” I muttered, to tease him.
He got that look in his eyes, the one that said I’d thrown down a challenge he would accept all too willingly. For two seconds I thought about the sparks that might fly where people could see them, and then my mind shut down because Asher’s lips touched mine.
I love you
, and he smiled.
We didn’t speak for a long time after that.
I took the escalator alone with Asher trailing a good twenty feet behind me. My grandfather would meet me at baggage claim, and Asher and I had decided that he and my grandfather shouldn’t meet until we knew more. We’d kissed good-bye at the gate, and it had been difficult to let him go.
A group of people waited at the bottom of the escalator, a few holding up signs. Nerves had my hands shaking, and I rubbed my damp palms against my jeans. Would I know my grandfather? Would I recognize him, or somehow feel a pang of kinship because we had the same blood running in our veins?
I studied the crowd, but no one person stood out. Then, a man with a tuft of white hair shoved his way to the front. Larger than any man I’d ever seen, he was at least six and a half feet tall. The span of shoulders would easily force him to turn sideways to pass through doorways. I imagined if his skin were green, he could pass for an aging Hulk. He had the presence to go with his appearance, too. It wasn’t just his size that made people get out of his way. The man had a commanding air about him that demanded it.
Without a doubt, this scowling man was François Marche, my grandfather.
He took one look at me and his scowl melted into a huge grin that transformed his entire face from slightly menacing to mischievous overgrown child. My foot had scarcely left the escalator step when he took one ginormous step toward me and swooped me into his arms.
The air pushed out of me in a
and my grandfather immediately loosened his grip, allowing me to step back. I tossed a quick look over my shoulder in time to see Asher settling back into a casual stance. For a moment, he’d mistaken my grandfather’s aggressive greeting for an attack and gone into Protector mode.
“I hope you are Remy, or I’m going to be very embarrassed.”
My grandfather rested a hand on my back and steered me away from the escalator so other people could pass. His gravelly voice suited him, and the warmth in it helped me to relax a little.
I smiled. “I’m Remy.”
“Well, then,” he answered. He clicked his tongue and held out his arms, indicating I should spin. “Let me have a look at you.”
I spun about. “Will I do?”
He folded his arms, pretending to think about it, but I could see his eyes twinkling with hidden laughter.
“Too skinny by far. Sadly, that won’t change while you’re under my roof. I’m a lousy cook. But I guess you’ll do.”
I waited, tapping my foot impatiently. He cocked one eyebrow at me, and I made a spinning motion in the air with my finger.
“I do believe you take after your mother,” my grandfather muttered, but he spun about like I had a moment ago. “Will I do?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Aside from your appalling lack of skill in the kitchen? I suppose we can eat out.”
We stood there, grinning at each other like idiots.
And I realized that I liked my grandfather a great deal.
My grandfather had to be in his sixties but, except for the shocking cloud of white hair, you never could have guessed it. He refused to let me help with my bags, lifting them with ease. I hadn’t known a lot of old people, but when I thought of them, I guess I expected them to be crabby. François Marche laughed a lot, and he had a booming laugh that made me smile in response.
The short drive from the airport to the city passed quickly and with none of the awkward small talk I’d expected. He fired questions at me, as if he were filled with an insatiable curiosity to know me. He wanted to know about the “friends” I’d been living with in New York since my mother died. I had practiced my lies with Asher, so I was prepared with a story.
In between my made-up answers, he pointed out the sights we passed. The Bay Bridge that led to Oakland. The city hall that looked like it had escaped from postcards of Paris with its gold detailing. The red-orange Golden Gate Bridge that stood as the gateway to the ocean.
I’d seen pictures of San Francisco, but it surpassed my expectations. Gray-blue water peeked over the horizon between buildings, and my grandfather’s truck climbed hill after hill only to dip down the other sides. The city seemed made of extreme peaks and valleys with no flat surfaces anywhere to be found.
I’d lived in New York City most of my life, but where that city supported the steel and concrete industries, San Francisco had somehow managed to allow nature to keep a foothold amidst the buildings. When we passed through the “gate” into the Presidio, I eyed the cannon sitting at the entrance.
“It’s just for looks,” my grandfather said. “The Presidio used to be a military base before they decommissioned it and turned it into a national park. Now all the soldiers’ living quarters have been turned into private homes or offices.”
“You live in here?” I asked. Eucalyptus and pine trees covered the nearby hills, towering over neat rows of white clapboard homes.
“Yep. It’s like getting to live in a forest, but with all the perks of the city in screaming distance.”
We drove for a few minutes along twisting roads until we arrived at one of those two-story white clapboard homes with the redbrick-tiled roof.
My grandfather parked the truck at the curb. “Home sweet home. Come on.”
He hauled my bags out of the truck bed like they were feather-filled, and I followed him up the concrete steps and onto the porch. Light filled the house. That was my first impression when he opened the front door. Warm wood floors glowed around the edges of woven rugs. A brown leather couch, built for a giant, took up most of the living room. Few pictures hung on the wall, and the place fairly shouted that a man lived alone in it.
My grandfather disappeared up the stairs and reappeared moments later sans my luggage.
“I’m guessing you’ll be hungry, then?” he said.
I nodded solemnly. “I am a growing teenager, after all.”
“Ha! If you grow any taller, you’ll be looking down at me from the clouds.”
I made a face at him, surprised by how comfortable I felt with his sarcasm.
Takes one to know one,
“Whatever you say, Paul Bunyan.”
That comparison tickled him, and he grinned. In the kitchen, I sat at the table, watching him make us sandwiches stacked at least three inches high.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked. The kitchen, with its sparkling counters and serious lack of appliances, supported his claim that he couldn’t cook.
“Oh, a few years. I’ve moved around a bit over the years, but I really like it here.” Pulling out a block of cheese, he set to slicing it. “There are hiking trails all over the par—”