C starts the first sentence. R is next. Followed by O, S, S.
My fingertips slide against the indented lines. When Jenny left this message, I can only imagine the fear she must have felt, hiding it so deeply in this book.
With a deep, but staggering breath, I dig in my purse for a small Post-it note and a pen.
The next letter is an I. I write it down, then search for the next. M. M. I stop at the P for “Promise me you’ll never leave.” MMP makes no sense.
CROSSIMMP. Rubbing under my eyes and double-checking them, that’s right. But it makes no sense. With my brows knit and the adrenaline pumping harder, I keep going. Q in “Quite the way to lead life.” S for “Secrets always come out.”
It makes no sense at all. There are no other words that can be made from the jumbled mess of letters. I search another chapter and another. Not reading at all, just gathering letters. And there’s nothing else. No other words hidden.
My blood cools and I struggle not to cry.
There is no message.
Deep breath. Deep breath. Don’t cry. Crying is useless.
A snide voice in the back of my head reminds me, so is searching for messages from the dead. They’re gone. They don’t come back. And they have nothing new to tell you.
I swear I can hear the crack that splits down my chest, through my heart and onward.
Hope is a long way of saying goodbye.
My own voice echoes in my head. Mocking some of the last words I ever spoke to my sister. And that’s the moment I break down entirely. I suppose I can take the death, the coercion, the break-in, the fear of losing my life. But losing hope?
Even I can’t live without hope.
So I read the lines again and again, although this time, they’re blurry.
There is nothing here but false hope and lines from an old book with no title. Lines that for the life of me, my addict of a sister thought worthy of underlining, though I can’t imagine why.
However gentle the knock at the stall door is, it still startles me.
Hiding my sniffling with the sound of pulling on the roll of toilet paper, I respond, “Just a minute.”
“Are you all right?” The question comes out hesitantly. “I just… is there anything I can do?”
How sweet a stranger can be. Kind and caring for someone they don’t know. If she knew, she’d stay far away from me. Everyone in my life dies tragically.
“Just allergies. I’ll be fine.”
She stands there a second longer until I add, “Thank you though. That’s very sweet of you.”
“I haven’t heard someone use allergies before,” the stranger in dark red heels replies, letting me know she’s well aware of my lies. “Is there anyone you’d like me to get for you?”
Although I owe this woman no explanation, I answer her. “No, I promise I’m fine. Just a really rough… month.” I say that without thinking, because my mind is riddled with thoughts of Jenny. And how I wish this stranger could simply go get her for me.
If only it were possible. That’s what I really want and need, far more than I should.
The woman leaves and another enters. I sit there for longer than I’d planned, drying my eyes and rearranging my bag before heading to the sink. There isn’t a lipstick in the world that could make me look better. But I try to hide my crying with the stick of concealer and powder in my bag. And then a coat of pale pink lipstick.
Letting it all sink in, the only relief I have is that there was no message about Jase or his brothers. There is no warning to stay away from him.
That knowledge releases the only inhibition I had for not losing myself in him. What a way to mourn. Grief is an aphrodisiac, or so I’ve been told. Although I’ve done damage the last twenty-four hours and I don’t know where we stand.
With my purse on my shoulder and the book safely tucked inside, I head back to the table feeling flushed, overwhelmed and with no appetite at all.
“So you weren’t tunneling an escape after all,” Jase jokes weakly as I sit down across from him. He sets his hand palm up on the table, but I don’t reach for it.
“I was… just realized it would take a little longer than I’d like,” I joke back, just as weakly. “No appetite?” I question, noting that he hasn’t touched the appetizers.
He shakes his head in response, his eyes ever searching, ever wondering what I’m thinking. “I need an answer first.”
“An answer to what?” I ask.
“I need you to agree to stay with me.”
“No.” My answer is immediate and I question my sanity. He could protect me. Jase Cross could do that. At the cost of losing my only sanctuary and the place that houses the memories I have. Living in fear is the worst thing I could agree to. I refuse to do it. I refuse to choose staying with him because I’m scared.