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The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 20

ONE OF A KIND (OPHELIA)

I am the absolute worst human being.

I wake up feeling like I just got beaten to death by a bag of bricks.

Crying up a storm in one day will do that, though I barely remember falling asleep.

I just know I grabbed a few of my things that crept into Grant’s bedroom during our brief fling, relocated them to the guest room, then curled up and passed out. It was all I could manage after letting go of the one thing that brings comfort when everything sucks.

Never mind the special anguish of hurting this wonderful man in the process.

He hid his wounds pretty well, but I could tell my words cut him to the bone.

I’m just surprised he didn’t pull a Grant on me. It feels worse that he didn’t.

If he’d gone cold and stonewalled me the way he used to when we were kids, whenever anything happened that might force him to have an emotion, that I could’ve handled.

But the fact that he was so kind?

So gentle.

So understanding.

Like all he cared about was making me happy.

For a confused second, I almost took my need for space back right then and there…

Only, I can’t.

I’m too much of a messed-up wreck right now to have my heart in the right place for anyone.

I’m not stable enough for a relationship or even a job.

I’m living my life balanced on a freaking tightrope between order and chaos, love and loss, life and death.

I shouldn’t even keep staying here, probably, but I don’t think I could stand to crawl back home to the old house, either. I can’t go there and rattle around alone with the ghost of my dead brother and the shades of two women who aren’t dead yet, but who’ve already left me behind.

I think I’m the luckiest heartbreaking bitch alive because Grant let me stay after I pushed his soul through a cheese grater.

And I wake up to another wrenching reminder of what I’m walking away from, snuggled against my side and sleeping blissfully.

Nell.

She’s an adorable pile in a cute pinafore dress with her curls pinned up in a prim, ladylike cascade. Somehow, she managed to wedge herself into the curve of my body without falling off the edge of the bed.

She sleeps like a kitten, and that ratty old stuffed unicorn is right there with her, clutched in her arms and pressed up between us.

Grant must’ve told her I had a rough day.

I don’t know why she’s so attached to me, close as a kitten, but the feeling’s mutual.

Painfully so.

Maybe that’s what’s got me extra screwed up right now.

The fact that this return to Redhaven feels like skipping right past all the normal stages of a relationship and going straight to a settled life with a husband, a daughter, a family, a home.

I’d be lying if I said a deep, restless part of me hadn’t craved that like a slice of caramel-drenched cheesecake.

I love this little girl.

About as much as I love her uncle-slash-cousin-slash-dad.

About as much as I love my own family, and that’s when it punches me right in the feelies.

How much I miss Ros.

I’ve been so caught up trying to sleuth out the mystery of her weird behavior that I haven’t seen her as my sister ever since I came home. More like another problem to be solved.

But I miss my sister, the little girl who’d follow me around just like Nell follows me now.

A bittersweet smile pulls at my lips.

I can’t count the number of times I’d wake up in the middle of the night to a shaking figure tucked against my back, hissing at me not to look because that brat would never admit she was afraid of the dark.

Of course, she couldn’t make it through the night without her big sister.

I still remember the first time she wanted to talk to me about a boy, too. The first time she got rejected. Her first date, an awkward night out with a boy in her class band that went exactly nowhere.

Braiding flower crowns in the garden behind our house and plotting our dream weddings.

Chasing each other through the woods with glowsticks in the fall, weaving through endless trees like fireflies.

How we always knew she’d be taking over the shop one day because she idolized Mom like a goddess and adored sticking her hands in fresh-warmed beeswax more than anything. She’d spend hours playing around with it, completely fascinated by everything our mother made.

No, I don’t just want to save my sister.

I want to be her best friend again.

I want to stay here and remember what it’s like having roots that run so deep with people I care about, and who still care about me for reasons that are increasingly hard to fathom.

I’m careful not to disturb Nell as I reach over and pull my phone from the nightstand. Scrolling through my texts, I stare at the history of unanswered messages I’ve sent Ros and sigh.

No matter how much it sucks, I have to try again.

I slowly type out a message.

Mom flatlined today. They brought her back, but I want to go see her in the morning. The treatment took a harsh turn and I talked to the doctors. I hope you’ll come with me?

My thumb hovers over the small paper airplane icon, then stops so I can add something else.

I miss you. I hope you’re okay.

Then I hit Send and curl myself around Nell with my phone clutched against my chest. All that’s left to do is hold that sweet little girl tight and pray I’ll feel my phone buzzing against my fingers soon.

But there’s nothing.

Nothing but Nell’s quiet, sleepy breaths and the soft little mewling sounds she makes as she starts to wake up.

Her eyes drift open and she blinks at me drowsily before smiling.

“Miss Philia?” She snuggles closer to me, still half-asleep.

“Hey, munchkin.” I smooth back the loose spray of curls lining her brow. “Decided to take a nap before dinner?”

“Mm-hmm.” Closing her eyes, she noses into my shoulder with a slow yawn. “You looked sad. Mr. Pickle said I should keep you company.”

“Did I? Well, that was very nice of Mr. Pickle. Your unicorn’s a sensitive guy.” I certainly feel sad, weighting my smile as I try to force it for her sake. “I’m okay, kiddo. But you can hang around any time.”

She hesitates, then peeks one eye open. “…what about when I’m sad?”

“Of course when you’re sad, too!” I wrap my arms around her. “Are you sad right now, Nell? It’s okay if you are.”

Her mouth quivers as she lowers her eyes.

“I… I miss Miss Ros. You look so much like her, just a little older,” she whispers. “She doesn’t play with me anymore. You’re her sister, huh?”

“I am.” My heart feels like it’s splitting in two. I kiss the top of Nell’s head. “I miss her, too, hon. She doesn’t play with me much anymore, either. She’s been going through a lot. Did you two hang out a lot?”

“Uh-huh.” Nell nods, burrowing into me. “She cleaned up Mr. Pickle for me. He used to smell like smoke. Really bad. Like all the bad burning things. Oh, plus she’d let me come play in the store. She showed me how to make honey candy.”

All the bad burning things.

It takes a minute for it to sink in.

Then I remember Grant telling me how Nell’s parents died, and how Mr. Pickle was practically the only thing that survived the fire…

“Oh. Oh, sweetie.” I feel like I’m going to crush her with how tight I’m holding her. She squeaks, but clutches back just as tightly. “Don’t you worry. Ros is just going through some things, sweetheart. She’s still your friend and still my sister. She’s just having a hard time, but I know she’ll pull herself together soon. She’ll have time for you again.”

Nell goes quiet against me before she asks, “…is it because of your mom, Miss Philia?”

Holy hell.

She’s too good at strumming all my heartstrings.

My breath catches.

“You… you know about that, huh?”

“I—yeah. Sorry. I heard when you and Uncle Grant were talking.”

“It’s okay, sweetie.” I stroke a hand over her hair. “Yeah, it’s true. Our mom’s really sick, but I hope she’ll get better. I’m going to go see her tomorrow morning.”

“Can I come with?”

I don’t answer at first, biting my lip.

The medical center seems like such a dreary place for a little girl.

Especially when my mother’s in the shape she’s in. No innocent kid her age should have to see anyone busted up like that, barely kept alive by machines and drugs that feel like a final Hail Mary.

God, it’s hard for me to see it.

But there’s something sparking in her eyes when I look down at her.

That’s when it hits me.

She never got to see her parents before they died, did she?

For little Nell, death had no gentle introductions.

It never kept its distance.

It was just her waking up in the middle of the night with fire everywhere, nothing but Grant yelling her name and digging her out of the burning rubble.

I’m guessing it would’ve been a closed casket funeral if her parents burned to death so horribly. And I wonder, does Nell want to come with me because she knows what it’s like?

To have to say goodbye without anything to say goodbye to?

My heart feels so wrung out.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, although she’s the smartest little girl I’ve ever met. She’s obviously got a crazy high emotional IQ.

But there’s something in her eyes when she looks at me.

Something that says she needs to come with me.

She needs to be there.

She needs to comfort me.

“Okay,” I say, and I tell myself I’ll march her right out if she can’t handle it for even half a second. “Okay, kiddo. We’ll talk to your uncle. If he says it’s fine, you can come. I bet my mom would love to meet you. Now, let’s go see what Grant made for dinner.”


To say things are a little tense around the house would be a mammoth understatement.

Yes, it’s my fault.

Grant’s quiet as always, yet gentle and warm, and if I catch him starting to reach for me now and then before he drops his hands with a firm glance, it only stings for an instant.

Mostly, it’s a painful reflection of what I feel.

I want to reach for him so bad, to hold him tight and never let go.

But I can’t ask him to carry the disembodied mess I am right now.

A walking piece of crap who told him to his face I can’t commit.

Jesus.

I only hope he’ll wait for me, knowing full well I don’t deserve it.

Also, I know ten years should be long enough for anyone to make up their mind.

I’ve been love starved and so has he, but my heart doesn’t care. It’s fallen into a vacuum where time doesn’t matter among all the feelings.

I need to get myself together first, to find my footing again, and then I can make it right.

Then I’ll hopefully be someone worthy of a hero.

We don’t talk much over dinner.

It’s paella tonight, and he followed the trend I set, making half of it spicy enough to kill us ten times over and the other half mild.

I’m a little surprised when he gives permission to let Nell tag along after some grave consideration. It’s a hard silent moment, dense thoughts clashing behind his eyes, that make me realize that no matter what happened between us, he trusts me with his little girl.

Ouch.

It’s beautifully painful.

Things feel a little more normal when I start the usual routine of wrangling Nell into settling down for bed, making sure she brushes her teeth, then sending her off with another story.

It’s The Velveteen Rabbit tonight.

Once she’s out, I kiss her forehead, slip out, and find Grant waiting in the hall.

He leans around the doorframe, peering in at the sleeping little heap of mischief with that slow, fond smile he only ever has for the ones he cherishes.

“She falls asleep faster for you,” he says with mock irritation. “Think she wants you to like her so much that she’s on her best behavior. Enjoy it while it lasts. When her little mask finally slips, you’ll meet the real four-foot monster.”

I laugh.

I can’t bear to think that I might not be here by the time Nell gets tired of suppressing her inner brat. But Grant seems to realize what he said.

He backs away a few steps, giving me an uncertain look in the dark hall.

My heart sputters.

It’s so hard to look at that powerful body gleaming faintly in the moonlight spilling in from a window. He’s extra mountainous when he’s tense, bare shoulders and the brute strength in his corded arms and massive hands.

Not so long ago I was pressed hot against that body, writhing in his bed, in his arms.

Now, we’re only a couple of feet away, but it might as well be a nautical mile. Close enough to catch the faint spicy scent of the oil he grooms his beard with.

But it feels like we’re looking at each other over a gulf.

The longing in those mocha eyes might kill me before anything else.

Grant looks away first, ducking his head and rubbing a hand over the back of his neck.

“’Night, Ophelia,” he mutters gruffly.

“Yeah,” I answer, my voice hurt and hollow. “Good night, Grant.”

We stand there for another awkward second before he turns away with one last lingering look and slips into his room.

I linger alone in the pale moonlight, wondering if tonight was just a bad dream.

Wishful thinking.

God, this sucks.

Nell’s mask might be holding up, but mine’s falling apart like cheap plaster.

The tears come hot, heavy, and brimming with so much guilt.

For a few chilling seconds, I can’t breathe, can’t move, can’t think.

There’s nothing more I’d love than to slip into his bed and feel those massive arms around me, except I can’t, and it’s my own dumb fault.

Eventually, I trudge down the hall to the guest room and throw back a few sleep aid pills from my purse just to knock myself out.

I will myself into a dreamless sleep, hoping I’ll wake up with my heart intact.


Grant is gone by the time I wake up early the next morning.

Nell’s already up, parked in front of her cartoons with a bowl of cereal and bouncing on the couch as she yells along with the Ben 10 theme song.

There’s a note on the fridge, too. I rip it off and read.

Had to go in early for an all-hands meeting about the local crime scene. Raleigh PD’s coming in to have a look at the bones. Will keep you posted. Nell’s already eaten, so raid the fridge for anything you want.

I can’t help smiling.

It’s his little way of reminding me I’m still welcome to make myself at home. That I wasn’t just buying my place in his bed.

I kinda love him even more for that and forget how disgustingly complicated it’s gotten.

I’m in no mood to cook, so I end up joining Nell on the sofa with some honey-tasting cereal of my own.

What is she watching?

I have no clue, it’s just bright flashing colors and crazy smears of green.

Nell’s enthusiastic explanations go right over my head. She doesn’t need me to understand, just listen, and I’m happy to let her chatter away.

But when I check my phone, my stomach sinks.

Ros left me on read without even bothering to reply. She saw the message last night.

Awesome.

Jesus, Ros. Do you even care that Mom almost died?

If I didn’t have a bouncy little girl next to me, I’d punch the fluffy accent pillow.

Nell’s quiet, almost like she senses my heartache, but she doesn’t seem upset.

I wash the dishes after breakfast and then bundle her up in her jacket. We share a few laughs over the fact that I’m still slumming it in sweaters to keep the chill away.

Someday, I will get that stupid coat.

On the drive to the medical center, she reaches across the front console and quietly rests her hand on my wrist—holding Mr. Pickle tight with her other hand.

How pathetic am I for being comforted by a little girl?

In the parking lot, though, I stop, looking at her worriedly.

“Nell, I need you to know my mom’s very sick. They’re using a lot of experimental stuff to get her better, but it’s pretty rough on her body.”

“Ohhh, like sci-fi drugs? Will your mom get superpowers?”

“Yeah. She just might.” I smile. “I just mean it might be a bit jarring to see her. If you change your mind and want to leave, I won’t think you’re any less brave. I’m glad you’re here.”

Nell looks out the window, her gaze heavy with a strange maturity that makes her look like more than just a little girl.

“…can I tell you a secret, Miss Philia?” She peeks up at me, working at her lower lip.

“Sure, shoot.”

“I… I saw some dead people.” She gulps. “Please don’t tell Uncle Grant, he’ll get so mad, but when I was at work with him one day Mr. Henri left his screen unlocked when he went for coffee. I got on the computer and got in the police files. I looked up my parents and… and…” She sputters, her eyes glimmering, but she fights so hard not to cry. “I saw them. Everything the firemen took away. I saw Mom and Dad—what was left of them. Don’t worry about me. I’m so strong I didn’t even cry in front of Uncle Grant or the other cops.”

My blood thins.

“Nell… Nell, honey—” I don’t even question what I’m doing as I unlatch my seat belt, unbuckle hers, and pull her into my arms with the stuffed unicorn squished between us. “You don’t have to be strong like that. Nobody does.”

Holy shit.

I need to talk to Grant about this.

I know he’s trying his best—so am I—but I wonder if Nell’s a little too curious for her age. Maybe she needs a good counselor as much as she needs a family.

She clutches at me, though, her tiny body shaking.

“My point is, I saw, Miss Philia. If I saw that, I can see your mom no matter what she looks like,” she whispers against my chest. “I want to see Miss Angela because she’s still alive. Even if she looks sick or scary… she’s here with us. So I just wanna see her in case she—you know.”

She won’t say it.

Even at her age, she knows not to tempt death out loud.

But I know exactly what she means, what she isn’t saying with that precocious little mouth.

In case she isn’t alive anymore, soon.

I get it.

She couldn’t say goodbye to her folks.

And since she cares about Ros and my mom, about me…

It means something for Nell to be able to say goodbye to our mom before she’s gone, instead of waiting for the grim aftermath.

“Okay, Nelly. I gotcha.” I whisper into her hair and squeeze her tight. “But you hold on to my hand, okay? If you want to leave, just say it and we’ll go.”

With a sniffle, she nods, huddling against me before pulling away with the dignity of a tiny duchess and rubbing at her eyes. “O-okay.”

I offer her a brave smile of my own, then get out of the car and round the passenger side to let her out.

Her hand feels warm and small in mine as we head inside.

I still feel a little uncertain about this, but Nell seems steady enough.

I’m the one who’s unsteady—even more so when, on the way down the hall to my mother’s room, we pass Mason Law’s room.

I almost stop dead in my tracks.

I’m not expecting a familiar broad shape sitting in the chair at his bedside, hands steepled, brooding stare locked on Law’s sleeping face.

Grant.

He must feel my eyes drilling into him somehow because he breaks away from studying the unconscious man and glances up.

We lock eyes and he offers me a guarded smile.

The whisper of a smile I beam back feels just as unsteady and full of aching confusion. Then his gaze shifts as Nell leans around me and waves.

“Look who’s here! Hi, Uncle Grant!” she whispers loudly.

Behave, he mouths, raising a hand to her.

Pinky promise, she mouths back, holding up a hand with her little finger outstretched.

We linger a moment longer before we make the rest of the trek to my mother’s room.

I stall for a second before we come to the window that feels like gazing straight into hell. It’s little Nell I’m watching, not my mother, as she comes into view.

Thankfully, Nell doesn’t look bothered at all, though her eyes are a little wide as we stop in the doorway.

She just looks in at the wizened, shrunken shape my mom makes in the bed before she whispers, “Hi, Miss Angela.”

My mother doesn’t answer, of course.

But I’d like to think she can hear Nell, anyway.

The heart monitor and the respirator are the only sounds in the room.

They’re steady today, almost soothing.

Mom’s chest rises and falls smoothly without a big struggle.

I hope I’m not drunk on hope, but she actually looks a little better today.

There’s more color in her cheeks, a little more fullness, almost like her body’s finally doing something with the IV cocktail inserted in her veins. A late call with the doctor last night told me that’s what overloaded her heart.

The drugs are new and volatile, not yet widely used. It was a miracle Mom got the chance to try them as a last-ditch treatment just as they came out of trials at a prestigious institution.

I hate the thought that this unreliable savior might wind up killing her before the cancer does.

But we’re too far along to stop and give up now.

More importantly, her latest scans came back with shrinking masses. Smaller, lighter shadows around her pancreas.

Enough reason to keep holding out and crossing my fingers.

Last night, I gave my blessing to continue—a decision Ros should’ve been part of. As long as she keeps her mind and her organs don’t slip into DNR territory.

After all, it’s either this, or absolutely nothing.

I pull out two chairs, but when I settle into mine, Nell ignores the seat I got for her and just leans against it instead.

I’m cool with that.

And I settle into a familiar vigil with Nell cuddled close, one arm wrapped around my shoulder.

With the other, I reach for my mother’s frail hand.

I can feel it today.

The faint blood pulsing through her, a subtle ticking rhythm between our clasped palms.

A sign that her body’s still working, anchoring her to this world.

A promise that there’s still some fight left in her, that she’s still in there, trying to find her way back to us.

Please.

Please hang in there.

I never thought I would be answered.

Not until there’s a sudden shrill spike in the heart monitor’s soft beeps.

Not the abrupt squeal of cardiac failure or another panic-worthy event this time, but just this strengthening, quickening, before my mom’s lips move.

The oxygen tube in her nose fogs up slightly.

Her head rolls, and I suck in a sharp breath.

Holy crap.

Should I call the nurse? Should I—

Then Mom lets out a low, tired moan.

Her eyes flutter open, dim slits of faded color rolling around aimlessly before they land on me.

She’s aware.

She’s awake.

The soft gleam of recognition in her eyes nearly sends me spiraling into tears. Behind the mask, the shadow of a smile flits across her lips, her voice coming in a thready whisper.

“O-Ophelia,” she whispers. “Hi, baby girl.” Then she turns her head. “Nell Faircross? Hi, Nell.”

Nell lights up, the prettiest picture of all the bright, hopeful feelings flapping around inside me.

“Hi, Miss Angela!” She holds up her unicorn. “Mr. Pickle came to see you too!”

Mom lets out a shaky laugh, weak but there, even if it trembles her body in ways that look painful.

I’m flipping speechless.

I choke out a tearful laugh, too, pressing a hand over my mouth so it doesn’t sound like a scream.

Jesus, please.

Please let this mean she’s coming out of it.

Please let this mean she’ll be okay.

“Mom?” I venture. “How… how do you feel?”

Her weary eyes slide over and stop on me. Even that small movement looks like it takes a terrible toll on her.

“Tired,” she admits. “H-how long have I been…?”

“Out of it? Not too long,” I answer, and her smile fades. “You slipped away the day I got back. Around the time they started the next phase of your meds.”

“Oh, my,” she says. Her hand tightens in mine. “It’s bad then?”

My lips press together.

How do I answer that?

Realistically, her odds are somewhere between surviving a shark attack and winning the lottery even with the new drugs, but dammit, I don’t care.

She’s still in this.

She’s still here, alive and conscious and fighting for me.

“It’s progress, Mom. The doctors are doing everything they can. Your last MRI came back with less than before. They brought back the specialist from Minnesota to help monitor the next phase. It’s all so experimental, but very promising.”

Yeah, supposedly.

I hate being so vague with her, passing off this keep-calm-and-blindly-keep-hoping speech a nurse would give, but I don’t want to scare my mother into losing her fight.

It’s like she knows, though.

She just gives me that knowing Mom look.

“Ros…?”

“Not here,” I answer reluctantly. “I texted asking her to come, but…”

Ugh.

Where do I even start?

I pin on a strained smile.

“But?” My mother’s brows wrinkle.

What else can I give her but the truth?

“I don’t know, Mom.” I shake my head. “I’ve seen her like twice since I came home and we just fight a lot. She ignores my texts. Honestly, I don’t—I don’t know what’s going on with her, but I’m worried I’m going to lose you both.” I swallow the massive lump lodged in my throat. “It’s her new boy, I think. He’s just eating up her time, always pulling her away.”

“New boy? Who?” Mom stares at me.

This time, I frown.

Surely, she had some hint of what my sister was up to before the coma pulled her under?

“You-know-who,” I offer, but she doesn’t say anything. I clear my throat. “So, Mom, how long has Ros been dating Aleksander, anyway?”

I’m not expecting what’s next.

Honestly, I don’t know how my mother could get any paler, but she does.

Her hand seizes mine, her grip so fierce it digs into my palm with bony fingers.

Her eyes widen and she stares in abject disbelief.

Total horror etched in her face.

“Aleksander? Aleksander Arrendell?” she croaks, her voice breaking.

I nod slowly.

“Well, yeah. The one and only.”

“No! N-not him. Not that boy. He’s not the right one, Ophelia. God, he’s—you can’t—she can’t—you can’t let them!”

“Mom, calm down,” I urge, leaning toward her, hating that she’s so upset. But why? “Believe me, if I could convince her to look at other options, I’d—”

I stop as my mother quivers, her eyes darting around the room as her nails sink into my flesh.

“Ophelia, no. No, it’s not right! It’s sacrilege.

Holy hell, what?

She trails off with a muffled sigh, like just speaking saps her energy.

And those stinging nails in my hand are gone. Her eyes flutter shut as she sinks into the bed, her head lolling to one side.

“Miss Angela?!” Nell whimpers.

“Mom!”

Nell goes tumbling forward as I surge to my feet and press my fingers to my mother’s throat, feeling for—thank God.

There’s still a strong, steady pulse.

I almost had a heart attack myself, but she’s fine.

Or is she?

Leave it to Aleksander effing Arrendell to nearly kill her a second time.

“Miss… Miss Philia?” Nell whines, clinging to my leg. “Is your mom okay?”

“She’s fine, sweetie.” I exhale, dragging a hand over my face before looking down at Nell and gripping her shoulder gently. “It’s hard on the brain to wake up when you’ve been resting for so long. She just wore herself out and fell back asleep, that’s all. C’mon, let’s give her some rest. I’ll take you out for lunch so your uncle Grant can have a break from feeding us.”

That gets a bright smile, even if I need to talk to Grant, myself.

Because I have no idea what my mother’s reaction means.

Not that boy.

It’s not right.

Sacrilege.

Heavy words.

It worries me.

Actually, it scares me, and so does the fact that I have no answers, no idea what to do about it.

It’s almost a blessing that Mom’s out again. The last thing I need is her freaking out again and overstressing when there’s been a flicker of improvement.

I can only hope we dig up something ourselves—and soon.

We need to get to the bottom of this insanity before it’s too late.


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