Keera sat with Arden at a picnic table in the park, people milling about them, some playing Frisbee, kids laughing in the playground, teenagers making out behind trees. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, and she was enjoying herself. And that was the problem.
Somehow the man had managed to not only change her mind about going out with him for the day, but she was enjoying herself as they spent time together. Being with Arden was becoming an obsession, and most likely it was too late for her to stop it.
It had been so long since shed even had a friendship that she felt lost in this town where everyone knew their neighbors, and felt even more lost with this handsome man who had made it his mission to save her. How was she supposed to turn him down, though, when he wasnt a man who accepted defeat?
If Arden werent so sweet, such a Prince Charming, out to save the kids, the community, and her, then this would be a different story. But he was that one-in-a-million guy who people talked about. He was that person romance authors wrote books about. He was damn near irresistible, even to a stronger woman than she considered herself.
A breeze blew past them, carrying Ardens scent to her, making her close her eyes and for just a moment imagine she was just a normal woman, out with an ordinary man, and everything would be fine. There was no evil in the world, and past trauma didnt exist.
For just a blessed, beautiful few seconds, she felt the weight of her sorrows lift, float away in the breeze, and she felt true joy.
Arden looked up, catching her gaze, smiling. She noticed that he was very aware of who was around them, of any possible areas where someone could sneak up from, but he didnt allow that to overrun him. He still knew how to relax, knew how to keep her calm. He knew how to have fun.
Keera, Arden said, snapping Keera out of her thoughts as she focused on him.
Yes? She couldnt remember what theyd been talking about that had sent her into her own head.
You were telling me about your family, he reminded her.
Ah, yes, of course he wanted to know what kind of people she came from. Thats why shed mentally retreated. Maybe there was a part of her that wanted to tell him exactly who she was because she knew hed find out and run far and fast from her. But there was another partan even bigger part, it seemedthat wanted to keep him in the dark.
Id rather hear more about yours, she said, forcing a laugh that sounded fake even to her own ears.
Ive told you about Kian, Owen, Dakota, and youve met Declan. You have to meet my parents to truly appreciate them, he said. Plus, with the way the school gossip channels run, Im sure you know enough about my family to write a thesis on us, he added with a laugh. Quit hedging unless you want to be at this park until midnight.
She had no doubt hed stay true to his word and not let her get away until she gave him something. The thing was, she was finding she wanted to share a piece of her past with him, wanted to let out some of these emotions that seemed to be drowning her lately.
My dad isnt a good man, she began. She was almost shocked when she said those six little words. If Arden had reacted with disgust or there was judgment in his eyes, maybe she wouldnt have been able to continue, but he sat back and waited.
No, I havent seen him in years, she admitted.
She hesitated, thinking about it for a while. When I was younger, he got in a lot of trouble. She was surprised to find she was giving Arden this much information. Now that he had her name and knew her father was a criminal, it wouldnt take much for him to put all the pieces together. It didnt normally take people long. Shed thought about changing her name, but what good would that do? If someone wanted information, they were going to find it.
So he got in trouble, and then he left? Arden asked. He seemed more horrified by this fact than anything else. Maybe it was because Arden was the type of guy who could never walk away from his family. There were men out there who didnt. Logically she knew this even if emotionally she didnt believe it.
Yes, he ran, she admitted. But he did call once out of the blue a couple years later. It wasnt because he missed me. It was because he wanted something.
What could he possibly think hed get from you after leaving you at such a tender age? Arden asked, showing his open disgust.
What it was doesnt matter. I had changed a lot already at that point. My mother was useless, so drugged out she didnt even know if it was night or day, and I was determined to live somewhat normally. For a while I tried keeping things together, but eventually I couldnt handle it anymore, and I left, too.
Yes, he answered. She could see how desperately he was trying to keep his tone neutral. She could also see he was horrified on her behalf. She saw that reaction a lot, actually, but after it all sank in, most people would shy away from her. Once they knew she was the daughter ofan infamous drug lord, they didnt come back. Hes had several new families since then, new identities, she said matter-of-factly.
It really doesnt matter. He moved on with his life, and Ive moved on with mine.
Youre taking this a lot better than most would, Arden said. He reached for her, but she was too vulnerable to be touched by him right now, when sharing this particular story. Arden was too much of an upstanding citizen to date someone like her, to even be friends with her.
He was busted with so much cocaine, he couldve supplied a small country. They thought I was involved with it. I was fifteen at the time. I was seventeen when I ran away from home.
Keera . . . , he began. She didnt want his sympathy. For some reason that would hurt her more than if he told her she was worthless. Maybe it was because she wasnt a victim anymore, and maybe it was because she thought of herself as stronger than she actually was. Whatever it was, she just needed to not have Arden look at her differently. Shed rather he permanently removed himself from her life than look at her like she was nothing more than a white-trash druggie who had no right to be influencing the children of his town.
I grew up in a world of wealth and privilege. Neither of my parents gave a crap about my brother or me. Holidays were spent apart, summers apart. We never had a nanny too long, so no relationships were forged with anyone, but I didnt know any of that was wrong. I had all of the best clothes, the newest gadgets, anything I could ever want, she said, trying to make it sound like that had been great.
And you were utterly alone, Arden said, not as a question. He was the first one to come to that conclusion. She hadnt told too many people this story, but the ones who did know thought she was bragging or this was a golden time in her life. They had no idea how wrong they were.
Both of my parents had affairs all the time. They never tried to hide it. When my father got busted, he ran, but he was never alone. My mother wasnt sad to lose him; she was terrified of losing her lifestyle. But we all did. The government seized everything, right down to my Rolex watch and Gucci boots, she said with a bitter laugh. She hadnt cared about the material things, but she had cared that theyd gone from at least having food on the table to literally barely having a ramshackle roof over their heads and sharing the floor with mice.
Here again was another question she was never asked.
She smiled, this time allowing him to take her hand. She knew it was dangerous to do, but she was beginning to trust this man.
I was a good student, a really good student, so I got scholarships, and I have a lot of student loans, she said. Now she was afraid hed think she was after him for his money. Nothing she could say here was helping her feel better about herself.
Not many would rise above. Im impressed, he told her. She so desperately wanted to trust him.
She hadnt told him who her father was, but a few key words on the computer and hed know. Maybe it was better this was out in the open. If she was going to get fired from her job, shed rather have it happen now, before she was too attached to this town, too attached to Arden. She feared it might already be too late for that, but shed prefer that it happened sooner rather than later.
Keera stopped speaking and waited for Arden to comment on what hed just learned. She was, on the one hand, afraid of the goodbye, and on the other, it felt as if a weight had been lifted.
Though the waiting was only taking seconds, it felt like a lifetime. Keera was afraid to look up, afraid to see disgust in his eyes. Everything within her was screaming for her to stand up, to leave this park, to leave this town. But Keera wasnt that seventeen-year-old scared girl anymore.She refused to run. She might start over, but she wouldnt cower. Thats what her father had done, and thats what her brother had done.
Keera, he said softly. She didnt meet his gaze. Please look at me, he said, his tone not changing. Shed appear a coward if she didnt do what hed asked, so with great effort she squared her shoulders and looked up, making sure to meet his gaze, defiance in her own. All she saw in his eyes was kindness.
You live here now, and youre no longer alone, he said, shocking her.
Arden . . . , she began. She didnt know what she really wanted to say, but it was most likely a warning that it was in his best interest to stay far away from her.
I dont say things I dont mean. Youll never be alone again, he told her, conviction ringing in his tone, making her almost believe what he was saying.
I prefer to be alone, she said. At one time shed actually meant that. Its less complicated.
He squeezed her hand, and Keera realized she wasnt interested in letting him go at this moment.
Thats what we say to ourselves when it doesnt seem like we have any other choice, Arden said. She wondered if he was right. She wondered if it was one more layer of her protecting herself to think she was better off without anyone.
How would you know? she asked. Youre surrounded with family and friends. Everyone wants to be with you.
You should remember from those years you thought you had everything, he began. You can be surrounded by people, but that doesnt mean you arent lonely.
His words stunned her. He smiled as he shook his head, and she was quiet as she waited for him to continue.
Dont take that the wrong way. I have incredible parents, wonderful siblings, and I do love this community, but we all go through journeys, and times in our lives where we feelhe paused, as if searchingfor the right wordswhere we feel we arent good enough or where we compare ourselves to others and find that we come up short.
You felt as if you werent good enough? she asked, obviously stunned.
Hey, that shouldnt be such a shock, he said, flicking his finger under her chin and smiling.
But why would you ever think youre not good enough? she pushed.
Trust me, Im confident in myself, he told her before letting out a sigh. But I grew up a middle child in a family of five siblings. I also decided from a young age I had a passion for teaching, which is far less heroic than becoming a doctor, he told her with a laugh, or a fireman . . . He trailed off as he shrugged.
Do you think your siblings are better than you? she asked.
No, he told her quickly. Its not that at all. Im just saying that all of us have moments of feeling . . . too ordinary.
Silence greeted those words before Keera smiled. She didnt think he was playing her; she felt he was actually giving her a piece of his vulnerability, but she also had a difficult time imagining him ever feeling as if he was coming up wanting in any situation.
Well, you are kinda average, she told him when the moment had become too personal.
Ill show you average, he warned, a sparkle entering his eyes.
And just that quickly, he allowed her past to go back to where it belonged, and her worries faded as he jumped from the table, then proceeded to chase her through the park, allowing her to think shed gotten away before swooping her up in his arms.
Yes, she was in trouble when it came to Arden Forbes. She was in big, big trouble.
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