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When she looked back up, he’d taken off his own. His dark eyes were suddenly tentative, and his scent was different: still dark and cool, but with just a touch of something sweet and tart at the same time…. Apple?


“They’re sport glasses,” he said. “The lenses are polarized and shatterproof, so they ought to be good for a long time.”


They were, she thought, very expensive, very nice sunglasses, and the right thing was to take them. To refuse would be mean, petty. But she didn’t want to encourage or like him. All she wanted was to figure out how to get away.


“Thanks,” she said, then closed the case and held it out. “But I’m really fine.”


A sliver of hurt arrowed across his face but was gone in an instant. The scent of apples faded as he took the case from her.


“Sure,” he said. “No problem.”


57


She was such a complete shit.


She should’ve taken the glasses.


What an idiot.


When she gave herself a second to think about it, Chris had ridden into the carnage and chaos beyond Rule, gone for miles to bring back books so a bunch of kids would have something to read. In the middle of all that, he’d thought of her. She could picture him wandering empty streets, weaving around dead bodies and dead cars, keeping one eye open for the Changed or an ambush and the other for the perfect pair of sunglasses for a girl he barely knew and who, with her track record, might just throw them back in his face.


Which she’d done. Even if she hadn’t needed him for information, being mean just to be mean … that wasn’t her at all. Idiot.


Kincaid kept her very late, until almost nine, and when she hurried to the front entrance, Chris wasn’t there. That was fine. A relief, really. But this was also the first time he hadn’t arranged for someone to wait for her. Maybe a sign that he trusted her to find her way back? No, after this morning, more like a big screw you, honey.


“Oh, thank goodness.” A tech—Loretta—fluttered up. She was a plump woman with no waist and hair that looked like a pudding bowl trimmed around the edges. “Chris wanted me to keep an eye out and let him know when Matt let you go, except I got busy and I forgot.”


She felt a little jolt. Relief. She felt relieved, and that was even more confusing. It was one thing to feel like a shit; it was another to realize that she cared if he was angry at her. “He’s here?”


“Yes, but—” Loretta put a hand on Alex’s arm and dropped her voice to a confidential whisper. “He’s over in the hospice wing. Let me go get him.”


“I’ll go.” Alex started down the corridor. “Which room?”


“Delmar’s.” Loretta flitted alongside. “Really, it will only take me a second. You should wait out front.”


“It’s okay.” Alex was studying name tags: Holter. James. Mitchell. She spotted the right room. The door—with its glass insert—was halfway open, and candles danced as dim orange flickers reflected on the glass. She felt a warm puff of air from the room’s catalytic heater. Okay, good, she could apologize for being an ass, or … well, think of something. “It’s right—”


She fell silent. Her eyes took in the single bed and the man lying there. He was withered and skeletal and looked so dry and desiccated that Alex wouldn’t have been surprised if a sudden strong wind was enough to shake his bones to dust. A green nasal cannula snaked over his ears and under his jaw. The only reason Alex knew he was still alive was because he blinked every few seconds like a turtle: slowly and thoroughly.


Chris’s back was to the door, but she saw the book and heard the low murmur of his voice as he read.


Something told her to be quiet, to just ease on out of there without Chris noticing, which she did. Loretta waited a few feet from the door and beckoned for her to follow. When they’d tiptoed halfway down the corridor, Loretta leaned in and whispered, “He reads to the very sick ones every night he’s in town. It gives them something to look forward to. But you won’t tell him I told you now, will you? He doesn’t like people to know. He’s really very private.”


“No problem,” said Alex, still dazed. That’s why he’s always here when I’m done. It hit her again that there was a lot more to like—even admire—about Chris than she’d imagined. “We’ll just pretend it didn’t happen.”


“Good.” Loretta looked relieved. “Now, here’s what we’ll do. You go on back and make like you’ve just gotten out, and I’ll wait a few moments and go get him. He usually slips out the side door for the horses.”


She did what Loretta asked. Perhaps five minutes later, she heard the dull clop of horse hooves, and then Chris was there, on Night, with Honey’s reins in one hand.


“Hi,” he said, with about as much enthusiasm as she might muster for a cockroach. “Sorry.”


“It’s okay,” she said, swinging into Honey’s saddle. They rode in silence for a good ten minutes before she worked up the courage to ask, “So … what did you do today?”


It being dark, she couldn’t see his face, but she felt his eyes.


“Why,” he said, “would you even care?”


Well, that shut her up. They didn’t speak again. At Jess’s street, Chris waved to the lantern that was the guard and then said to her, “You can get off at Jess’s. I’ll stable Honey.”


“I can stable my own horse,” she said.


“Fine,” he said. “Whatever.”


As they passed Jess’s house, she said, “Look, this morning—”


“Don’t worry about it,” he said.


“No.” She reined in Honey and turned toward him. There was no moon, and she couldn’t see his face at all. “Please, let me just—”


“Can we not do this, please? There’s nothing you have to say that I want to hear.”


The words hit like a slap. “Then don’t listen, but you can’t stop me talking,” she said.


“Fine. Knock yourself out.”


“God, you’re making it so hard for me to apologize.”


There was no change in his scent at all. If anything, his shadows got stronger. “It doesn’t matter.”


“But it does,” she said, much more loudly than she intended. Her voice must’ve carried, because she saw the hard white blob of light that was the guard flick their way. She lowered her voice. “I was a real asshole. You were being nice, and I threw it back in your face. You didn’t need to get the books at all, but you did. You could’ve hightailed it back with just a couple, but you didn’t. You found a way to bring back the whole stupid bookmobile. And on top of all that, you remembered I didn’t have sunglasses and you rode around that whole town, looking for a pair. There are cannibals out there and raiders and people who want to kill us, kids like you and me, and you still risked it. So … I’m sorry.”


“Fine, I accept your apology, all right? Now, can we please stable Honey?”


They did so by the light of a Coleman, but Chris did not, as she’d expected, remove Night’s bridle or lead his horse to a stall. Instead, he remounted then held out his hand. When she looked up in surprise, he said, “Come on. I’ll give you a ride back.”


Without a word, she grabbed his hand and swung up behind him onto the cantle. “Better hang on,” he said. The scent of his darkness had not changed, but when she slid her arms around his waist, she felt the warmth of his back against her chest.


They didn’t speak during the brief ride back. At Jess’s, though, she dismounted and said, “Would you like to come inside for a little while? I didn’t have dinner, and I bet Tori put back a plate. She’s always doing stuff like that.”


“Wouldn’t want to eat your food,” he said.


“That’s okay,” she said. “I’m sure there’s enough for both of us.”


Jess opened the door just as Alex stepped up to the small landing outside the kitchen. “I thought I heard you out there. Come on in, both of you, before you catch your death.”


Alex could see the girls were all there, in their robes and slippers. Balls of yarn and a scatter of knitting needles littered the kitchen table. Ghost capered over to weave around Alex’s legs and whimper for attention.


“Jess. Hey, Tori, Sarah,” Chris said, crowding in after.


“Chris.” Alex heard the surprise in Tori’s voice and then saw Tori’s eyes pinball between her and Chris and then back again. “Jess was just teaching us how to cast on.”


“Cool.” He nodded at Lena. “Hey.”


“Hey,” Lena said. Her normally sour scent did not change.


Tori started to rise. “Alex, there’s a plate in the oven and—”


“She knows her way around the kitchen,” said Jess, gathering up the yarn and needles. “Come on, let’s leave these two to their dinner.”


“Hello,” said Lena, “obvious.”


“Do you always have to be mean?” asked Sarah.


“Chris, would you like some bread to take back to your place? There are a couple loaves in the pantry.” Tori started that way. “Let me—”


“Alex can do it, Tori,” Jess said. “As Lena is so fond of pointing out, she’s not a cripple. Alex, there’s hot water in that kettle, and Tori made a very nice crumble.”


“Apple,” said Sarah. She was studying Chris. “That’s your favorite, isn’t it?”


“Yeah,” said Chris. “Uh, thanks, Tori.”


“Come on, everyone. We’ll get that fire back up in the front room,” Jess said, shooing the other girls out, closing the connecting door to the front room behind them. Beyond, Alex could make out Lena’s muffled complaints and then something sharp from Jess.


Her cheeks warmed. “I’m sorry,” she said.

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