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She was dead!
Or at least she soon would be, having escaped her mobile prison of the last ten years and hoofed the vacant roads to the terminal until her chest burned. Her breaths grew heavy and hard as she dropped her overlarge hiking backpack into the bus seat and slid in beside it. She couldn’t be too careful. A quick scan of the road through the rear bus window revealed no followers. No vehicles. Not even a frantic person rushing to catch her on foot. Her maternal aunt would kill her. But a metaphorical murder would be better than the one her other aunt had in store for her.
The drone of the bus engine, coupled with the spin of the wheels beneath her seat, eventually lolled her pulse into a regular rhythm as the vehicle passed blocks without any tenacious automobiles mimicking its every move. She was finally going to do what she wanted without someone lurking over her shoulder. It was her last chance. Today, she’d see the one person who’d known her best. Even though he’d never known her real name.
Ariana. That’s what he’d called her. That’s who she would be today. His Ari.
Glancing through the back window ten minutes into the ride, she took in the near-empty highway, and her shoulders released. She gave in to the rest that had weighed on her and tilted her head to the window, eyelids dropping. She was safe.
Manny’s gray t-shirt eased into her sleepy visions as her mind brought her back to that first day. He’d sat next to her in the waiting room of the principal’s office and nodded to the closed door where the tyrant ruled the school.
“Whatcha in for?” An accent hovered around the way he formed his words, but it wasn’t thick enough to place it. However, the olive tone of his skin and the sultry depths of his brown eyes suggested he might be of Latino heritage. She’d later learned his family had come from Mexico when he was little, after his mother’s death.
His eyebrow raised, reminding her he’d asked a question that begged an answer.
To this day she couldn’t fathom why the lie had made it to her lips. “Talked back to the teacher.”
He looked her up and down as though assessing the truth of her words and coming up short. “Which one?”
Her mouth opened. Then shut. She swallowed the lump in her throat. Having not met any teachers yet, there were no names to give. What was she thinking?
The principal’s door swung open, and the man himself sauntered out, followed by the woman she had called Aunt Jenny at the time. He handed Ari a slip of paper. “This is your schedule, Miss Baker. Your last school’s transcripts are quite impressive.”
Little did he know, they weren’t actually from a school she’d attended.
“Welcome to Fairwilde High. We’re glad to have a role model such as yourself at our school.” His gaze turned to the boy next to her as his welcoming expression morphed into a glare.
He shook Aunt Jenny’s hand. “Nice to meet you. Give me a call if you have any further concerns.”
Aunt Jenny smiled at the man, scowled at Manny, and grabbed Ari into a suffocating hug that wreaked of her favorite blend of calming essential oils. “I’ll see you after school.” She waggled her finger. “Be careful.” As though someone lurked around every corner ready to kidnap her.
Which was close to the truth. Except a simple kidnapping would not have been her end.
The principal stared after her as Manny gave Ari a smirk. “What was that teacher’s name again?”
She maintained eye-contact with the flats Aunt Jenny had bought her for her first day at the new school.
His face appeared in her line of vision. “Just want to make sure I don’t tick her off since she likes to get students in trouble.”
“You, young man,” the principal’s voice interrupted, “have already ticked off every teacher whose class you’ve entered.” He jabbed a sharp thumb in the direction of his inner-sanctum, and Manny followed without a word. The door slammed shut making Ari jump in her seat.
Just as she did, right now, at the bump of the bus over a rough spot in the road. Her eyes jolted open. Cars whizzed by on either side of the busy freeway.
What time was it? She tilted her watch. Could she have been asleep for 3 hours? She must have been, because now they veered onto the Fairwilde exit, and soon the terminal came into view. The vehicle slowed in a billowy cloud of its own exhaust that contrasted the clarity of air always breathed in this mountain-haven town. She loved this place and the years of life spent here. Not just because it was a quaint little ski resort village, but because it was here she’d discovered love.
Until she’d been ripped away.
Manny had been a big part of that—both the discovery and the hasty departure.
And today she’d tell him the truth. She’d come out of the darkness. Into the light. She wanted him there when everything changed. When she emerged from hidden places.
He’d told her he loved her once, but they’d been kids back then. Had he moved on? Found someone else? Could he love her now when he knew everything—that much of what she’d told him about herself had been a lie?
If only she could be truly loved and trust that it could be forever.
Her hiking pack bumped heavily against her spine as she traversed the dirt road that led to his cottage. The cool, crisp, autumn air cleared her lungs of her sweat-scented bus travels.
His house’s lack of grandeur rivaled even the one Ariana shared with her aunt when they’d lived here. Very different from the one that was her due. And soon to be hers in full …
If everything went as planned.
As she entered the clearing from the deeply forested lane, she saw it. More ramshackled than it had been even three years ago. The shutters were crooked, one dangling in the breeze, the loose boards rattling against the structure. The front entrance was wide open to whoever may pass this way, and no car parked out front to evidence anyone inside.
Ariana scanned the graveled front and peeked into the windows. No movement or sound. She stepped toward the threshold and pushed the door wider. It creaked and tilted, then slammed to the ground in a cloud of dirt.
Gulping the mildewed air that had been snatched from her in that instant, she peered round the living room, through to the darkened kitchen, her gaze landing again on the door at her feet. The hinges were rusted through.
She jumped at the rat that scurried over the cracked wood and past her toes.
What happened to Manny and his dad?
Tears pricked her eyes as she, for the first time, contemplated she might not find him in Fairwilde at all. Had they moved so his dad could find better work than a dish washer at the swanky resort? Would Manny ever be able to follow his dreams to get a computer programming degree?
Her backpack seemed to take on weight as she considered that Manny might follow in his dad’s footsteps. She could barely form the image, but the memories, and the state of their one-time home, confirmed the possibilities.
Could Manny be drinking again?
After searching through the living room, kitchen, and the single bedroom, she found no food, no clothes, no electricity and only a few flea-bitten pieces of furniture. She ran out as though to escape the fears she could not allow, flung herself down the path, and out along the winding mountain road.
Where could Manny be? How would she ever find him? The people in her family—those who wanted her dead—knew of their friendship. They knew where he lived. Could they have … ?
Ari gasped for air at the thought. It couldn’t be.
It’s why she’d left three years ago, slinking away in the middle of the night. One week before hers and Manny’s high school graduation. No goodbyes. No explanations or truths.
Run, run as through a maze.
A spinning wheel will end your days.
The rhyme from her mother’s dream—nightmare really—ran through her mind to the beat of her hiking boots as they hit the dirt. Her father had laughed at the vision that conjured images of the curse of Sleeping Beauty. When her mother and father had both died the following week from two separate tragic accidents, it had left an eerie foreboding to her parent’s closest friends.
Her mother had been certain the vision had more to do with Ari. Ariana released a mirthless chuckle as she slowed her pace. As if there were any of those spinning wheel things around, and as if someone could really die or even fall asleep from pricking one’s finger on it.
The road ahead narrowed. Ari stood at the edge of the windiest section of this heavily wooded pass. She’d need to travel fast to get to a stretch safer for pedestrians.
Her chest tightened each time a car rushed by, sensing the driver’s frustration at seeing her and needing to brake in order to pass carefully. She’d lean into the rock cutout of the mountain to keep out of the way.
She relaxed at the sound of the stream trickling under the small overpass of the next stretch of road. This section opening wider, it was safer here. Pressing herself against the guardrail to stay out of the street, she glanced to the water below, swooshing over rocks. She listened to the birds singing in the trees, the squirrels scurrying through a brush of newly-fallen leaves. She lifted her face to the thin rays of light that peeked through the high foliage, and she drew in the crisp, clean, scent.
A jolt ran through her as the sound of a large flock of birds burst into the sky, then the roar of an engine gunning toward her.
She barely glimpsed the stricken features of the driver through the windshield as he yanked the steering wheel. The car shifted and skid sideways directly toward her, its front wheel still spinning as if it had no traction to stop its progress.
A spinning wheel will end your days.
Ari screamed for what seemed an eternity.
The bald kid’s cocky grin was beginning to get to Manny. And to think he used to let Jeremy win when the kid had first been admitted to the pediatric ward of Fairwilde General Hospital. He was a card shark at best.
Manny threw down his hand. “Fine. You win.” At least they hadn’t played for money.
The eight-year-old beamed. Okay, maybe it was still a good thing for the kid to whoop him. Especially today, after they’d gotten word his fellow patient had died overnight. The grief hung in the air like a dark green fog, in a zombie forest.
Manny rubbed Jeremy’s bare head and stood. “Gotta go, dude. Lot’s of homework to catch up on.” The semester had only begun, but shooting for this to be his final year of college, he’d signed up for more than a full course of online credits. He’d be pulling many an all-nighter this year, especially if he was going to continue to volunteer here.
Jeremy smirked. “You just don’t wanna get beat again.”
“Yeah, that too.” He winked.
Manny took the elevator to the first floor. As the doors rolled open, he saw medical personnel rush down the hall. Turning his head toward the activity, he felt a draw to the opened room.
A long tone sounded. “Flatline!” a voice called.
Manny swallowed hard. He’d seen enough medical drama to know what that meant.
A bolt of electricity sounded, followed by the continuous tone. Manny watched from across the hall. Between the frantic personnel, blood-matted brown hair surrounded swollen, purple flesh. A limp feminine hand dangled toward the floor.
A doctor rubbed the paddles together, more sounds, more panicked maneuverings then another bolt.
Finally, the blip of a heart monitor sounded, and Manny felt the sigh every person in that room must have released.
Thinking of little Charity who’d lost her battle with cancer last night, he considered the loved ones who’d be left alone if this patient lost her life too. And the memories from three years past …
The heart-wrenching sobs of a mother whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver.
Guilt tour through Manny as fresh as the first time he’d learned his part in the tragedy.
The ache in his chest grew as his head fell back against the wall, listening to the voices emanating from the room.
“Hit and run. Got a call from a witness that saw it.”
“What hit her? A mac truck? She’s got bruises, cracked ribs, lacerations and swelling everywhere.”
“Some of those came from the fall into the ravine below the road. We had a tough time reaching her.”
“Nothing we could find. But we were too focused on saving her to care who she was.”
Manny’s jaw dropped. He knew what it was like to lose family and feel alone. He’d be alone today if his Aunt Amelia Rivera hadn’t convinced her boss to hire him as a chauffeur and give him a place to live over his garage. Manny shook the memories of his first years of employment with Cole Harrison out of his mind. The dude had been practically a recluse. He didn’t need a chauffeur. But Manny knew better than to point that out. Cole wasn’t one used to letting his kindnesses be known. Even if everyone else already saw them.
Good thing Carly had come into his life this year. Otherwise, his boss might not have been alive to continue his secret altruism.
Maneuvering his VW Bug up the windy drive back to the mansion Cole Harrison called his home, Manny wondered what road the hit-and-run victim had been on and how she had landed in the ravine. He spotted a break in the guardrail and hoped it hadn’t been here. It would be quite a drop for anyone falling at that point.
He reached the manor, parked the car, and headed to the house to check in with Cole. The door opened as he neared.
“Manny, there you are.” Aunt Amelia placed a hand to her chest. “I’ve been looking for you all day.” He loved when her accent grew extra rich with excitement. It reminded him of when his mother used to sing Mexican lullabies to him as a child. “Where do you go to all the time?”
Before he could answer her question Charles Jurvis, Cole’s long-time man-of-business, burst from the study and practically split the air between both Riveras as he shot out the front door.
“Oh, that man.” Aunt Amelia grumbled as she shook the fisted dish towel in the air and strode from the foyer.
“What’s for dinner, Mrs. Rivera?” Cole groused as he came from the den.
“It’s a surprise.”
Cole’s eyebrow shot high.
“Carly says she’s coming to cook for you, so I am surprised.” She disappeared into the kitchen.
Manny nodded toward the exit the sprinting lawyer had taken. “What’s with Jurvis?”
The scar across Cole’s cheek twitched with his tightened jaw. “Not sure. We were talking about the totals the Gala fundraiser took in last night for the veteran’s retreat center, and he got a text. For a man whose skin is the blackest ebony, I’d never imagined it could turn that pale.”
“I hope everything’s okay.” Jurvis was not Manny’s favorite person. He always seemed to treat Manny like he didn’t belong. Recently, they’d been on opposing sides of whether or not to provide Cole alcohol as he tried to break free of his addiction. Still, Manny would never wish ill on the man-of-business.
“Obviously, something is not.” Cole clacked the digits of his myoelectric prosthetic hand—a habit he’d developed whenever in deep thought—and gave Manny a sideward glance, a hint of accusation in his deep voice. “So where were you last night? We missed you at the gala.”
Manny thought about the smile on little Charity’s face when he’d played the guitar and sang NEEDTOBREATHE’s song, Garden, to her. She’d told him she was afraid to die so he thought a song about Jesus at Gethsemane would be just the thing. She left this world shortly afterward. Manny didn’t regret missing the gala, no matter his employer’s dissatisfaction. “I was at the hospital.”
Cole stilled. “The hospital?”
“Yeah. That week you were admitted … for …” he swallowed, “you know—”
Cole gave a short, tight nod.
Manny shrugged. “—I’d wandered onto the pediatric floor and met some kids up there. Some inpatient. Some come for various kinds of treatments. I’ve been visiting them regularly ever since.” He didn’t mention the idea had once been inspired by an old high school crush who’d talked about visiting sick kids as a fun ministry. At the time Manny couldn’t have imagined how being around all that sickness would be anything but a drag. Neither had he known what a ministry was.
Now he understood.
Now, he had to do it.
Cole patted the left side of his head, the spot where the upper edge of his long facial scar made the dark hair stick up a bit. “Well, you missed the news.” The lower edge of the scar at his lip tilted up. “You are now looking at Carly Rose’s fiancé.”
Cole’s lids lowered as his voice grew dark. “I know. It’s incredible to imagine anyone agreeing to marry me.”
“No, I …”
The depth of Cole’s growing smirk unnerved him.
“I mean you—”
“I know. I’m not all that …” he ground out, “friendly.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to say.” Even if it were true, he certainly would never voice the thought. “You work fast.”
Cole stared at the myoelectric hand as he spun the wrist in a 360. “Well, when you find something valuable, it’s a good idea to snap it up before someone beats you to it.”
Immediately, Manny’s mind traveled back four and a half years to his first real encounter with the girl he’d already lost.
He’d sat at the lunch table all by himself since his two best buds had taken the day off—skipping—to go skiing. Manny couldn’t afford the sport his rich pals engaged in most of the time without him, and he was already in trouble with too many teachers to make the outing worth it. He opened his backpack, given to him by a local church group, and pulled out his English Lit book to see if he could make sense of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester.
The new girl with the white-blond hair and aquamarine eyes slid in at the edge of the cafeteria table. “Hi.” There was a sheepishness in the way her shoulders bunched.
Manny peeked up from the paperback. “Hi.” He couldn’t figure out what she wanted from him, and she wasn’t quick to spill her guts, so he turned back to the pages in front of him.
His stomach growled.
“Um … I was wondering …” She pulled a paper bag from her satchel then tugged a sandwich from it. “… if you’d like this sandwich.”
Manny’s muscles tensed. Did he look like a charity case? Probably, since most of his clothes were thrift-store bought, and he hadn’t brought a lunch in weeks. Had she noticed? Had anyone else?
“Um … my aunt thinks I’m too skinny, so she makes me two.” She pulled out another. “But I can’t eat them both no matter how hard I try.” Desperation filled her voice. “And I really hate to waste good food.”
He stared at the strange girl whose crystal blue eyes averted his as soon as he caught them.
She shrugged. “You know, starving children in Africa and stuff.”
Okay, that deserved a smile. As if to let Manny know the ham and cheese in front of him was exactly what it needed, his stomach protested its emptiness. Not his favorite, but if his dad didn’t recover from his latest binge and go back to work, there’d be nothing to pay for groceries this week either. He took the bag from her. “Can’t let the kids in Africa starve.”
Her eyes had a shine in them. That, coupled with the color of her white-blond hair, made her appear as though a light shone from within her. It would’ve been creepy if it wasn’t so … beautiful. Her smile made Manny wonder if the clouds would break open—right in the middle of the cafeteria—and a choir of angels might begin to sing. Except …
He gestured with the bitten sandwich. “You know this is the second time you’ve lied to me.”
Her little blond eyebrows bunched as she chewed her own lunch. “What do you mean?”
He tilted his head. “In fact, this is only the second thing you’ve ever said to me. The first being a few weeks ago in the principal’s office. Which means in the very short time I’ve known you, you’ve lied to me one hundred percent of the time.
Manny didn’t know a face could turn that shade of pink. She turned away and stuffed her dirty paper napkin into the bag.
“Hey.” He gave his girl-charm smile. “I was only kidding.” Even if it was true. He lifted the empty sandwich bag. “I really appreciate this.”
Her shoulders settled and her hands clasped in front of her.
He swallowed the last bite of sandwich. “So what’s your name, or is that a secret too?”
Her eyes shot wide as if caught in another lie.
What was wrong with this chick? “Do you have one?”
She studied his face as if to discover whether or not she could trust him. “Ariana.”
“Ariana.” He liked the way it spilled over his tongue in a whisper. It fit her.
Her grin suggested she liked the way he said it too. She pulled his book toward herself. “Oh, Jane Eyre. I love that story.”
She fingered the pages. “Of course you wouldn’t like it. You’re a guy, and guys don’t like romance.
You got that right.
“It’s a great story. Sort of a realistic re-telling of Beauty and the Beast.”
Manny rolled his eyes. “A fairy tale?”
“No.” Her voice sounded as though she’d eaten the best cake ever, with that fluffy buttercream frosting. “That’s what makes it so great. Brontë took the best parts of that story and made it relatable to the readers of her day.”
“I’m not into fairy tales.”
“That’s the point. It’s not a fairy tale. It’s real.”
He scoffed. “And long, and hard to understand, and …” he grimaced, “… evidently a romance.” He’d practically shivered at the last word. Yet at that moment, with this girl, in that cafeteria, he’d begun his own romance.
One that hadn’t ended well.
Today, he looked at his boss, whose relationship read very much like that novel. Cole was something of a Mr. Rochester, and Carly a Jane Eyre. It made him appreciate the story even more.
When you find something valuable, it’s a good idea to snap it up before someone beats you to it.
“Hey guys.” Sam Sakamoto waltzed in the front door of the manor.
Cole blew out a breath and turned a sardonic sneer toward the man. “Don’t you knock?”
Sam feigned offense with a hand to his chest. “I thought we were family here.” His friendly grin seemed to soften Cole’s rough edges.
No, they weren’t actual family, but both had vied for the paternal attentions of Sam’s father, the stable manager, at one time. Not to mention Carly’s.
“So where were you last night?” Sam gave Manny a playful jab.
“Manny was visiting sick kids at the hospital.”
Sam’s eyebrows shot high.
Great. His secret was out, and he needed to shift his thoughts from Charity’s lost battle. “There was an emergency hit-and-run victim brought in as I was leaving. They had to use the paddles to shock her back to life. If you think it’s exciting on TV, it’s totally intense in real life.”
“You got to see them do it?” Sam asked.
“Yeah. The door was open, and they were all focused on saving her. I stepped near and felt rooted to the spot. I couldn’t help it. I needed to find out if they’d revive her. Evidently, the patient was pretty banged up. I hope she survives.”
Cole stretched his neck. “Hit and run? I can’t believe anyone would run off after something like that.” He placed his natural hand on Manny’s shoulder. “Oh, before I forget, I’m gonna need your help with some preparations for the retreat center. Can you ride a horse?”
Sam smirked. “Dad’s been teaching him for years now.”
“Yeah, Dad needed something to do when you were avoiding him.”
“Well, good.” Cole ignored the barb. “It will come in handy, especially when we go out to the cabin to clean it for the guests.”
“Can I ride the new horse, Panther?”
“So you know Panther already, huh?”
“I’m glad you like him. We’ll need to purchase a few more for guests, and we need ones the inexperienced riders can use.”
Manny smiled. “I wouldn’t give them Panther then.” He would have named the horse Rides the Wind if he’d had the opportunity. That’s what he loved about the powerful beast. Panther liked to blow through the trees in the forest at gale force. But despite his apparent strength, he was keen to the rider’s needs.
After an outing with the spirited gelding, Manny had asked the stable manager why he’d selected this particular animal for therapy rides. Joe had leveled his gaze on Manny in a way that made a chill run down his back, and proclaimed, “He has a purpose here.”