Life can flip upside down in a fraction of a second.
Eleven years ago, everything I knew crashed and burned into a thousand shreds.
That nightmare shaped my life, and now, once again, I find myself in a similar situation that I have no control over.
Once again, it’s silence.
But this time, it’s different and more potent.
Like remnants of destruction, all I can do is watch as life is pulled from beneath my feet and shoved down my throat.
My temperature rises and tears haven’t stopped streaming down my cheeks since I witnessed the bloody scene.
Mrs. Pratt shot Landon.
After eleven years, she actually did what she promised all those times and hurt someone close to me because I failed to keep my mouth shut.
It’s all my fault.
If I’d just told Mom and Dad, I’m sure they would’ve found her and eliminated her and her husband.
But when I was younger, I wasn’t emotionally or mentally strong enough and allowed her to get into my head. I believed her when she said that if she could get to me, she could get to Mom and Dad and slice their throats in their sleep.
I believed her more when she used her wooden ruler to shut me up when I started to scream. She slapped and threw me against the nearest wall the moment I started to be a nuisance.
So no, there was no reason why I wouldn’t believe she was capable of much more with Mom and Dad. She managed to infiltrate our airtight security, so why wouldn’t she do more to the two people I loved the most?
And worse, what if she also targeted Maya and Niko as well?
A part of me was ready to remain silent forever if it meant I would protect them. I was prepared to sacrifice my voice for good in order to make sure everything remained as it was.
But it wasn’t until I saw her pointing a gun at Landon that all hell broke loose.
I didn’t only scream his name, but I was also ready to take the bullet for him if I could.
I couldn’t, though, because it was already too late.
Landon was shot. Blood exploded everywhere. I screamed and screamed as he was falling down.
But, in reality, he only hit the ground after he fired his own shot and Mrs. Pratt’s head exploded all over me and Maya.
I couldn’t care less about the pieces of goo and brain that covered my clothes at the time. All I could do was drop to the asphalt and hold Landon in my arms and cry.
I haven’t stopped crying since.
“Say my name again.” He grinned as he wiped my tears away.
That’s the last thing he muttered before he lost consciousness.
Due to the sound of the shots, Mom, Dad, and an army of their guards found us then.
Now, everyone is in the waiting room at the hospital. The nurse assured us it was just a shoulder graze and should be okay, but if that was the case, why did he lose consciousness?
“It’s going to be okay, baby girl.” Dad places a hand on my shoulder to stop me from pacing the length of the sterile waiting area.
A few guards are scattered in front of the two entryways, led by Mom’s senior guards, Katya and Ruslan. They often played with us and made us feel safe growing up. But right now, nothing seems safe.
The walls are closing in on me and bile gathers at the back of my throat, threatening to make me vomit the contents of my stomach.
“How do you know, Dad?”
He stands in front of me, his face creasing with awe and searing happiness.
“What?” I ask.
“You called me Dad after such a long time. I…” An unnatural shine glints in his eyes. “I thought I would never hear you say that or talk again.”
“I guess I just needed another shock.” More tears stream down my face. “I’ll never forgive myself if anything happens to him.”
“Don’t say that, Mia.”
“He put himself in that position because of me. What if…what if…”
My father wraps me in a hug and I cry in his chest, my fingers digging in his jacket, but even his scent and warmth don’t offer me the usual calm.
I can’t stay calm.
Not when the life of the man I love is in danger because of me.
When we break apart, I’m greeted by Mom’s frowning face.
She looks anxious, stressed, and far from being the badass woman who’s not rattled by anything. In fact, her face is similar to the day they found me in that basement and she hugged me and cried.
A teary-eyed Maya trudges close behind her, fingers interlinked and expression lost, as if she’s back to being a child.
“What are you doing here?” I scream at her. “I told you I don’t want to see her face, Mom!”
“Honey,” she speaks in a soft voice and strokes my arm. “She told me everything and I understand why you’re mad at her. I’m disappointed in her, too, but it’s best we talk about it.”
“I have nothing to say to a backstabbing, lying bitch. She ruined our family, Mom!”
“I didn’t mean to.” Maya takes my hands in hers. “Please, Mia. Please don’t stop talking to me. I’m ready to do anything…”
“Give me back my voice for the last eleven years of my life.”
She pales, her words coming out shaking. “You…know I can’t do that.”
“There you have it, then.” I slap her hands away.
Maya sinks her nails into my skin. “Mia, please. We’re not only twins, but we’re best friends. I can wait for you to forgive me as long as it takes, but please don’t throw me aside.”
“Best friends don’t do this to each other.” I unscrew her fingers. “I trusted you most in the world, Maya. I was stupid enough to think you were protecting me, but all this time, you’ve been stabbing me in the back.”
“Mia…” She tries to hold on to me again, but Mom pulls her back.
“That’s enough, Maya. You both need time off. You’re on a high of emotions and this clearly can’t be resolved right now.”
“But…” Maya protests. “I can’t lose Mia.”
I look the other way, refusing to give her the time of the day. I still can’t properly process what she did. All those years she offered me comfort and made sure I was never alone in the darkness wasn’t because she loved me. It was because she felt guilty.
The reason she stopped her jealousy fits after the kidnapping wasn’t because of a screwed-up sense of sisterhood, it was because of guilt.
The way she insisted I tell her first if I remembered anything wasn’t because she wanted to be there for me. It was because she needed to warn Mrs. Pratt or shut me up if I ever decided to come forward.
The reason she was so jealous and disapproving of Landon wasn’t because she wanted to protect me like Nikolai does, it was because she was worried I was slipping between her fingers and confiding in someone else other than her.
Everything was lie after damn lie.
I don’t even think I know her anymore.
But I can’t focus on that when someone a lot more important is fighting for his life on the other side of the wall.
I always thought Maya was the closest to me, but she didn’t care for me unconditionally, Landon did.
He’s the one who told me for the first time in my life that I should kill the monster in my life instead of dying trying. He’s the one who encouraged me to talk again, even unknowingly.
Maya starts crying and calling for me, but Dad physically removes her and says he’ll take her home.
I don’t care. I just need her out of my sight for the foreseeable future.
Hell. Maybe it would be a good idea to never see her again.
Mom rubs my arm. Her face is ashen, her eyes a bit molten, as if she finds it as hard to process the situation as I do. Good. That way she understands how disoriented I feel about the entire thing and won’t force me to ‘talk it out’ with Maya.
“I’m so sorry, honey.”
“Forget it, Mom. I don’t want you apologizing on her behalf.” I’m talking and signing at the same time, I realize. I did the same earlier as well. Subconsciously. Until Maya grabbed my hands.
“I’m not apologizing for Maya. I’m apologizing for disappointing you as a mother. I should’ve seen the signs of Mrs. Pratt’s authoritarian nanny style. I should’ve paid more attention to Maya’s small bursts of jealousy and her overindulgence in asking for attention. I chalked it up to coming-of-age symptoms and I’m so, so sorry, Mia.”
It’s my turn to rub her arm. “It’s not your fault, Mom. You…couldn’t have guessed it was Mrs. Pratt when she quit a whole year beforehand. As for Maya…that’s all on her. I’ll be seriously mad if you offer excuses for her.”
“I won’t. I believe we all need time to process this before we take any further steps.” She strokes my hair and cheek as if trying to remove some of the blood stains.
I washed up and changed into Katya’s spare bodyguard suit as soon as we got here, but I must still have some of Mrs. Pratt’s remains on me.
Mom’s eyes fill with tears. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if she’d gotten you this time.”
“I’m here, Mom. It’s okay.”
“Oh, honey.” She pulls me in for a hug and I can feel her sniffling in my neck. “I’m so happy to finally hear your voice again.”
“Me, too, Mom. Me, too.”
I disengage from my mom to look at the doctor, who just entered the waiting area. My steps are awkward and uncoordinated as I run toward him.
My heartbeat roars in my ears as I ask, “How’s Landon? Is he okay?”
“Perfectly fine, miss. Luckily, the bullet only hit some fat and tissue, and we were able to remove it successfully. The patient has been moved to his room and has regained consciousness if you wish to see him.”
A long breath heaves out of me. “Thank you! Thank you!”
Mom squeezes my shoulder. “I’ll be right here, honey.”
I nod and head to the recovery room. I pause for a second before I slip inside.
My heart beats in a frightening rhythm when I see him sitting in bed, half naked. Some blood forms a transparent sheen on his chest and a thick bandage is wrapped around his shoulder, hiding some of the snake tattoos underneath.
The longer I see him, the stronger the need to cry hits me.
He’s fiddling with the IV tube as if he wants to remove it. I jog to his side and place a hand on his. “What are you doing?”
He looks up at me, his face a bit drowsy and his eyes unfocused. “Mia, is that you?”
“Yeah. What are you trying to do?”
“Coming to see you.”
“But you’ve been shot!”
“Why should that stop me?” He strokes my hair behind my ear. “Fuck. I knew I’d love your voice since the first time I heard you whisper.”
I frown. “But I never spoke to you before.”
“You did while you were dreaming.”
“Yeah. I’ve loved it since and did everything in my power to make sure I’d hear it again.”
My gaze falls to his shoulder and pain explodes behind my rib cage. It hurts to see him in this state. Probably worse than if I were the one who’d been shot.
“But you got hurt because of me.”
“Worth it. Would do it again in a heartbeat.”
“Including killing Mrs. Pratt?”
“Especially that. She signed her death certificate when she hurt you.”
I cover his hand with mine. “Thank you.”
“For being there for me. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without you.”
“I will always be here.”
The butterflies from earlier tonight explode again and I taste their sweetness on my tongue. I grip his hand tighter and my voice shakes as I whisper, “Why?”
“Why would you do that for me?”
“In case it’s not clear yet, I care about you, and when it’s someone I care about, which is decidedly few and far between, I protect them.”
“I still don’t understand. Are we in a relationship or are you just having your fun with me? Why would you care about me if…if you’re unable to feel love toward me?”
“Who says I’m unable to love you?”
“You couldn’t say it earlier.”
“Because I don’t like to label what I feel for you as love. This”—he points between us—“is much more potent and twisted than mere love. If loving someone means letting them go and wishing them happiness with someone else, then I don’t subscribe to that definition. But if love means protecting and wanting to take care of you till my dying day, then I love you more than anyone has ever loved another human being.”
My lips tremble. “You…do?”
“Depending on your definition of the word.” He takes my hands in his bigger ones, leans his forehead against mine, and closes his eyes.
I study his sharp jawline and the fluttering of his lashes over his skin. I’ve never seen someone so brutally beautiful as he is. And yet, at this moment, he feels like a different man.
No, not different. Changed.
I used to only see a monster in him, but I’ve found out he’s so much more than that.
No, he’ll probably never be normal, but I’m irrevocably in love with him, faults and all. He was born different and always will be, so why should he comply with social standards?
“Listen to me carefully, Mia. My whole life, I’ve been a desolate, empty entity of anarchy and violence. My black soul couldn’t survive without inflicting some form of chaos or producing a decadent burst of creativity, but even that has dwindled and started to drift from the center of my being. Without art, I’m nothing but a serial killer in the making. Ever since you came along, not only have you pushed my creativity to heights I never imagined would be possible, but you also filled up the emptiness with your stubborn submissiveness and stupid flowers with names. While I can’t possibly be your Prince Charming—and rightly so, since he’s an overrated idiot—and I can never be neurotypical, whether genetically or mentally, I promise you this, Mia. I’ll always see your perspective before mine, not because I have to, but because I want to. I’m in for the long haul.”
I stroke his cheek, careful not to press where his fading bruises are. “What if you get tired of me down the road?”
“Complete and utter nonsense. I’d get tired of myself before I’d ever get tired of you, and we both know that I believe myself to be God’s gift to humans.”
I chuckle and he opens his eyes, a sly grin lifting the corner of his lips. “Say it again.”
“That you love me. I want to hear you say it.”
I release a sigh. I have no qualms about how different and absolutely thrilling being in a relationship with Landon is. I know if maybe down the line, I find someone else or end things between us, he’ll revert to his toxic ways faster than I can blink.
But that’s the thing.
I’m definitely as crazy as Landon is, because I do believe that we are the forever type of couple. For us, breaking up is impossible.
If he doesn’t make sure of it, I will.
There’s no way I’d let another woman have him. Not in this lifetime.
I grab his face with both hands and whisper against his mouth, “I love you, Lan.”
He inches closer until his lips nearly brush against mine. “And I love you, Mia. Forever.”
His lips meet mine and he seals the confession with a searing kiss.