As I lay in bed that night, having gone to class, and eaten dinner, then listened to the quiet mumblings of conversation going on around me after lights-out, I found myself reading and re-reading the words I’d written for Cecelia this morning in my memory.
I’ve made many mistakes in my life—few people my age can say otherwise with any truthfulness—but one of the mistakes I regret the most is not having had more time, more life to spend with you.
She’d dictated the words slowly, pausing every now and again as if to word the sentence just so in her mind before saying it aloud. And I’d written what she said, word for word.
I’m sorry for entering your life, only to leave it so soon. I mourn the fact that I won’t get to see you marry Drake. I mourn the fact that I won’t get to see you meet Felix. I’m sorry I stayed so far away when you were young. I did it out of respect for your parents—because they had the right to raise you without shifter influence—but now I wish I’d chosen differently. This isn’t what I wanted, and sometimes I’m so angry about how this has turned out that it takes my breath away. But then, in those moments, I have to stop and be grateful for the time I got to have with you, however short. The truth is, nobody knows how much time they have.
I wasn’t lucky enough to have children of my own—fate didn’t have that in store for me—but between Drake and you, I got all the best parts of being a Mom. That the two of you would be made for one another is like fate herself is giving me a gift; like maybe she thinks I deserve it. I hope I deserve it.
The two of you are beautiful together. I hope you never want for anything.
I need you to be strong. For Drake, because he needs your passion and your determination when all he can see is darkness. And for everyone else—shifter and otherwise. You’re the only Brayton left, Leah.
I’d begun shaking, with tears running down my face as I tried to swallow down sob after sob.
“Ferris.” Cecelia’s voice had been calm, low and quiet. “Ferris, look at me.”
I’d squeezed my eyes shut for a moment and taken a quick deep breath to steal myself before looking up at her.
“I’m sorry to burden you with this,” she said. “I’d hoped that, maybe, we’d keep one another’s secrets.”
“You don’t want people to know you’re dying?”
“And you don’t want people to know about the baby. Eventually, everybody will find out—both of our secrets. But for now, I don’t want them to know. All it would do is taint every conversation, every interaction I have with the people I love—the last ones I’ll get.”
What she said made sense—even while it made my chest ache like my ribs might crush my heart.
After a moment, I’d nodded. “Yeah, alright.”
A guard had come to get me a moment later. I’d wanted to hug Cecelia goodbye, but the guard had been annoyed to see my uncuffed wrists and he hadn’t given me the chance before wrenching the cuffs back in place again and leading me from the room.
Exhausted, but unable to make my brain stop reliving the morning, I rolled over in bed to see if Samantha was still awake and available to distract me with conversation until I could fall asleep. But when I opened my mouth to say her name, bile shot up the back of my throat instead of words.
I threw off the covers on pure instinct and darted through the shadowy darkness to the toilet across the room.
“Ferris, is that you?”
“I’m fine,” I gasped between gagging heaves before vomit came coursing up my throat, rendering me mute.
I felt it when Samantha knelt down beside me. She put a hand on my back. “Was it something you ate?”
* * *
“You told her it was food poisoning?” Cecelia smiled weakly. Her eyes were more bloodshot, her movements more slow and careful today. She looked like she was in pain.
I opened my mouth to say that of course I’d let Samantha believe my throwing up in the middle of the night had been food-related, but I stopped short and groaned instead. What made me think I was going to be able to keep up this charade? Cecelia had been right—of course I wouldn’t be able to hide this forever.
Cecelia reached unsteadily for my hand, which I gave her without pause. When she looked at me, her pained eyes were steady. “You tell them when you’re ready to. Everyone who needs to know already does.”
I smiled and nodded, but then found myself staring at her. “You called Leah’s parents after I came to stay with them,” I said, suddenly remembering the memory I’d been reliving yesterday before she’d woken up.
She looked questioning for a second, but then her expression turned to one of recognition. She smiled with a slow nod. “But do you know how I found out you were there?”
She shook her head gently. “Collin. He called me because he wanted to help you but he didn’t know how.”
She must have seen my expression because that slow, pained smile was back on her face. “Collin is fiercely loyal,” she said. “Once he’s claimed you as one of his own, that’s it. His unwavering commitment to the ones he loves, and to what is right is one of his most admirable traits.” She took a slow breath. “He hides his good heart behind that bad boy facade—and I’m not saying he’s a saint, or that he hasn’t done his fair share of stupid stuff but…” She trailed off, her eyes closing.
I didn’t know what to say. And I worried perhaps she’d fallen to sleep, and I didn’t want to disturb her, so I went to sit back in my chair again.
She opened her eyes and pegged me with a stare. “Drake and Leah… what they are together is amazing but… it’s horrible too. I need you and Collin to be there for them. They’ll need your help–your normalcy.”
Stunned silent and shocked still by her sudden intensity, I nodded, somewhere between sitting forward and leaning back in my seat.
“You and Collin don’t have biological imperative on your side to keep you together, but with Collin, you don’t need that,” she went on, talking faster now as if she knew she was short on time—or, more likely, short on energy. “And Drake and Leah will need to see how to make things work sometimes because biology doesn’t solve arguments. It won’t make the two of us agree all the time, or make sure he only ever does what I want. It won’t make it so I tell him everything, or so he can drop everything and be here when I need him.” Her eyes rolled back in her head, fluttering closed as her head fell back against her pillows.
I leapt up to hit the call button, but then she kept talking, her voice clear and as strong as before, like she was awake. I slowed my alarm—maybe she was okay. All the pain had left her face. She smiled.
“Do you remember when you surprised me?” she asked, though I wasn’t sure who exactly the question was directed at. I lowered myself back into my chair.
“You’d told me you didn’t think you’d be able to come, and I was so disappointed.” Her smile spread. “But then you were coming up the driveway the next day. You must have flown all night.” She sighed. “We made love in the front yard because we couldn’t wait to get inside.”
Her smile faded. “Felix, I’m scared. Are you going to be okay? It all seems so stupid now, the arguments and the time I spent agonizing over whether what we did was right. It doesn’t matter. I never could tell you no because I could never stand the thought of hurting you. But now I think I can’t avoid it.” A tear ran down her face. “Felix, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
She took a deep breath, then her breathing turned slow and deep and steady like middle-of-the-night sleep.
I sat still for a second, afraid of what would happen if I moved. On the one hand, I wanted to know who she was talking to—who was Felix? But, on the other hand, I knew I had just heard something that hadn’t been meant for me. And having heard her talk to nobody I could see had left me cold, my stomach heavy.
The red notebook I’d written in while she dictated yesterday was on the bedside table. I could have taken it from the table, opened it, and probably found the answers to those questions—but it wasn’t my notebook, and the answers weren’t mine to demand.
When the guard came to get me, I was wiping tears from my face and Cecelia was still sleeping.