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The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 16

ONLY ONE REGRET (OPHELIA)

Coming home to Redhaven felt like traveling back in time to a frozen past that hasn’t changed much in the decade I’ve been gone.

But nothing highlights the differences more than the fact that I’m standing behind the counter at Nobody’s Bees-Ness, minding the shop, totally isolated with the scent of beeswax, honey, and loneliness.

I didn’t know Ros hasn’t opened the shop in days until one of the locals called the home line saying she’d been by to pick up her order for a baby shower and found the shop closed every time.

Ugh.

I’ve tended the family business before, but it was different then.

Minding the register while Mom took a lunch break or ran cash over to the bank.

Keeping an eye on the register while she was in her cluttered workshop in the back, her delicate fingers working over a special personalized custom order.

Making Ros sit in the break room and do her homework while Mom was out talking to suppliers, and my brat of a sister doing everything she could to test my patience.

God.

Even when this shop was empty, I never felt alone here.

I always knew Mom or Ros would be back soon.

We were together, even when we were apart.

Now, that feeling is gone.

It’s the same homey scent, the same oasis of cute wax goods, but the vibe has shifted.

There’s just me, basking in the silence of the golden lights and willing myself to believe it’ll all be okay in the end. Somehow.

The hole in my chest feels big enough to fall into.

Sighing, I slip away from the empty storefront into the back.

It’s both a storeroom and a workshop, the shelves lined with rows of bottled honey, jars with bits of honeycomb, plus larger wedges and sheets delicately wrapped up and kept in temperature-controlled coolers.

A long, weathered oak table runs the entire length of the back wall, still covered with my mother’s tools. It’s like she was only here yesterday, lovingly hunched over her creations.

There’s a massive industrial stove kitty-corner to it.

My mother’s worktable is half sculptor’s workbench and the rest mad scientist’s lab. The shelf perched over the table is filled with dried herbs in mason jars, along with more drying flowers hanging in bunches from strings overhead.

Their faded scent adds to that honey-beeswax aroma like a wish I can’t quite capture.

This was Mom’s home as much as our little place in town.

She did everything here.

New ways of distilling beeswax and essential oils, always playing with crafting little beeswax sculptures carved with needle-fine details. Crafting small hand-rolled sticks of lip balm littered with vibrantly colored petals that turn them into masterpieces.

There’s still a half-finished project sitting there—a beeswax candle rolled from an entire sheet of solid honeycomb, carefully formed to keep the hexagon sheets from warping.

She was delicately building tiny people inside each open block of the honeycomb, using bits of flower petals and glue with tiny tweezers to craft a scene.

Everything from a little flower person mowing the lawn to another watering their garden, another knitting. As the candle burned down, it would slowly expose the little scenes before burning these precious things away forever.

Just like Mom’s time on Earth, melting away as quickly as wax.

She’s burning away right now.

An incomplete masterpiece just like this.

A life left unfinished.

Not again.

I’m not going to cry over my mother’s worktable.

Absolutely not.

I’ve done enough crying in the last few weeks for several lifetimes.

Sucking in several deep breaths, I focus on tidying up, always keeping an ear out for the jingling bell over the shop door.

No one’s dusted back here since Mom went into the hospital. So I wipe down the shelves and organize, telling myself I’m getting it ready so it’ll be in perfect condition when she gets better and comes home.

There’s not much else to do.

Though we have a good glut of tourists at the moment, they tend to get their shopping done in the early days of their long visits so they can spend the rest of their time exploring the outdoors or trying out local restaurants.

It’ll pick up again around Christmas when people want rustic gift baskets to give away.

The big-city folks love that, proudly announcing that they found some handmade kitsch in a cute little shop in backwoods North Carolina. I just wonder who’ll be running the store for the holidays.

If Ros doesn’t get better…

Oh, here we go.

The hoarse sob braying out of me hits me like a baseball bat to the face.

I drop my rag and clap both hands over my mouth.

I can’t think of still being here at Christmas.

I can’t think of what it’ll be like with just me alone in that house and Ros swept off to God knows where with Aleksander Dickhead like nothing else matters.

Mom gone.

What do I have to keep me here if she passes?

Grant?

Yes.

But also, no, it’s too soon.

He has a life here I can’t just intrude on permanently with my heart torn and bleeding.

…and am I honestly thinking of staying in this little red-gabled hellmouth just because my childhood crush suddenly likes me back?

It’s not like gravity-defying wonder-sex means there’s a future.

Not even real feelings mean that, no matter how complicated they might be.

He doesn’t owe me anything.

His life is complicated enough, and the thought of dumping my drama, my mess, on Grant and that sweet little girl…

The lump in my throat feels like a cactus.

We haven’t talked about it, of course.

It just happened.

We tumbled into this together.

And I’m in such free fall that adding another layer of uncertainty doesn’t help anything.

But I still think of Redhaven as home.

Some childish part of me thinks that if I just hope hard enough, everything will turn out fine.

Mom will pull off a miraculous recovery.

Ros will come to her senses, or somehow, I’ll find out that Aleksander’s a pretty decent, misunderstood guy underneath his creeper façade.

Grant and I, we’ll—I don’t even know.

Settle down and live happily ever after?

Maybe little Nell wouldn’t mind that when she’s already got me wrapped around her little finger.

Then I won’t have to sell the family house because Mom will be there, growing old, clucking her tongue at me because I haven’t brought my man and kid around for dinner in a few weekends and… and…

Sweet Jesus.

I’m deluding myself, aren’t I?

Weaving a ridiculous fairy tale so I don’t have to face the hard truth that everything I love is falling apart and the only thing stable right now is Grant.

I wonder if he’d mind if I called him.

Just to hear that slow, drawling voice, that gruffness that’s so gentle when you learn his language.

The thought makes me feel better, like he’s reaching out to comfort me.

I wish I could be home with Grant right now, curled up on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn and a goofy movie and Nell snuggled between us, demanding our attention.

Then the bell over the shop door jingles.

It hits like a gunshot, but it’s what I need—a reminder to get out of my own head, keep it together, and take on life one minute at a time.

And right now, I have a customer, so I splash my face with water from the little sink in my mother’s work area, take a deep breath, and put on my best smile before I walk to the register.

“Welcome to Nobody’s Bees—”

I freeze.

This time it’s not a gunshot to my chest.

It’s a cannonball.

The door swings shut with a rattling jingle before my vision stabilizes.

My stalker takes several reeling steps into the shop with blood dripping past his stained lips and running down his chin.

I stare at him, my mouth trembling, my body rooted in place.

“Oh my God,” I whisper. Concern and fear rip through me. “A-are you…?”

He clutches at his stomach—and I notice his hands are filthy, grimed with mud.

He stops like he’s just realizing he isn’t alone.

His head lifts sluggishly and muddled eyes look at me from beneath the disarrayed mess of his silver hair, his gaze set deep in rough hollows.

He lets out a guttural sound, gurgling pain.

Then he turns and nearly flings himself out the door, making it bang violently with his weight as he stumbles back onto the sidewalk.

“Hey—wait!” I yell, stretching out a hand.

But he’s gone, disappearing into the street.

I only hesitate a second before I find my strength, my head.

Some wild urge hurls me out after him.

Yes, I know it’s risky, but I have to know.

What does he want with me?

I burst out into the frosty afternoon, sucking in cold, searing breaths, looking left and right.

No sign of him, but there’s something else.

Blood.

Right on the sidewalk.

Small gory droplets leading left in an uneven line.

I follow the faint trail until it vanishes between Mom’s shop and the pâtisserie next door.

Then I duck into the alley between the buildings, just in time to see the flash of his tailcoat behind him.

I don’t know how he moves so fast in his condition, but he’s a whole two blocks down, struggling past the buildings on the opposite street toward the thick clumps of trees leading into the hills.

“Hey!” I call, racing after him.

I go careening off the side of a building as I rush down the pavement, pumping my short legs as fast as they can go, desperate to catch up.

Stalker Guy has a visible limp.

As injured as he is, he shouldn’t be able to keep so far ahead of me, but he’s as tall and leggy as an ostrich, so his unstable steps cover two of mine. There’s a stitch in my side and my ribs hurt by the time I break past the buildings, just as he vanishes into the trees.

Panting, I bend over for a second, hands on my thighs, sucking in a few harsh breaths.

“Not again,” I gasp.

Then I decide I’ve had enough.

I’m not letting go this easy.

Gathering my last strength, I plunge into the woods after him, ignoring the burn knifing through my whole body.

It’s like chasing a ghost.

Just glimpses of him up ahead, always too far away.

I’m stumbling through underbrush, tripping over fallen branches, flailing and just barely catching myself before forging on.

This time, it’s different.

If I don’t catch him, I never will.

It’s like I’m electrified, something unnatural pushing me on, forcing me after him, because there’s something here, some answer, some secret I have to know.

And even if there isn’t—

He’s hurt. Bleeding from the mouth, limping, obviously dazed and confused.

If I don’t do something, he could die out here.

But I’m worried I’ve lost him.

I can’t hear anything but my own crashing footsteps and raging heartbeat.

No more of those glimpses, no snapping twigs up ahead, no sign of him at all, but I keep moving.

And I nearly smack right into him as I break through a gap in the trees into a clearing thick with stacks of orange and brown leaves.

He sways in front of me.

Only for a second while I stop in my tracks, staring.

Then he collapses like a falling tree, wheezing as his lanky frame falls down in a pale tangle of limbs at my feet.

At first I don’t see it, not when I’m on my knees, searching for a pulse.

But once I see he’s still alive, the churned-up patch of dirt next to him catches my eye.

There, the bones protrude from the ground, sharp off-white fingers of human ribs stabbing up at the sky.


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