His snowy eyes opened, locking onto Clara’s. “You need to listen to your mother. She wants you to go.”
Clara pursed her lips, colour dotting her cheeks. “I don’t want to go. You have stories. I want to hear stories. I want to hear about the bad man. I want to stay.” Her huge brown eyes welled with tears.
A few times in the past, Clara used crocodile tears to wrap me around her little finger. I was immune to her wily ways, but Fox…he wasn’t.
He groaned and hung his head, clutching his skull in his hands. I never thought I’d see such a violent threatening man come undone by a few glass tears from a child.
Clara stopped instantly and did something that turned my dark hair grey.
Her little arms wrapped around his head, pulling his face against her tiny, breakable, oh so vulnerable chest.
“No!” I rushed forward, but Clue jerked me back.
“Zelly, you’ll frighten her. It’s okay. Ben’s here if anything goes wrong.”
She didn’t know what Fox was capable of. She didn’t know!
I wriggled in Clue’s hold, tears springing to my eyes as Fox ever so slowly pushed my daughter away. Every move was precise, controlled, seething with discipline and strictness.
Clara didn’t stand a chance at holding onto him. With his large hand splayed on her stomach, Fox pushed until an entire arm length separated them.
Her arms unravelled from around his head, and she stood with wide hurt eyes. “You don’t like to be hugged? I like to be hugged if I’m not feeling well or hurt myself.” She fidgeted, never taking her eyes from Fox. “You’re hurting, so I wanted to hug you. It’ll make you feel better. I promise.”
My legs trembled. I had no idea how I remained standing.
Fox looked at her as if she was the only thing in the world. His entire body trembled; his hands clutched his thighs, digging hard into muscle. “A hug isn’t the same for me as it is for other people, Clara.”
She inched closer again. “So…how do you make yourself feel better?”
Fox’s eyes rose to latch onto mine. The power of his silver gaze untangled the rest of my emotions, and a small moan trailed from my mouth.
“Well, your mother has been helping me a little.” He smiled, his eyes looking more like soft snow than harsh blizzard when he looked back at Clara. “She’s amazing. You’re very lucky to have her.”
Clara looked back at me and shrugged. “She’s okay, I guess.” A small giggle escaped her.
Ben laughed and my legs gave out. I had no choice but to sink to the floor and kneel just like Fox. The two of us stared across the gravel; my daughter in the centre.
His eyes shot silent promises.
I promise I won’t hurt her.
I give you my word.
I didn’t know what the final plea was for, but I shut my eyes, blocking him off. I’d never known a man who could frustrate me, terrify me, and undo me all at once.
My heart, bruised and torn thanks to Fox, shed the armour I’d conjured against him. A fissure broke the hardened shell, and something twisted deep inside.
I wouldn’t be able to help Fox.
But my daughter could.
My tiny, dying daughter who I would miss for the rest of my life.
My eyes flew open, ready to answer his silent beg. He wanted permission to be around Clara. I could manage for a few hours, and then I would whisk her away and lock her behind closed doors. There was only so much tempting danger I could handle.
You hurt her, I’ll kill you.
I’ll do it with no hesitation.
His large shoulders rolled inward and a faint smile kissed his lips. “Klyanus' moyey zhizni ya ne budu yey bol'.”
Clue shifted beside me, crossing her svelte arms. “Um, care to repeat that in English?”
Fox shook his head, eyes flaring wide. “Sorry. I didn’t know I slipped. I said, I swear on my life I will not hurt her.” His answer was for Clue, but he never looked away from me. His eyes resonated with truth. I honestly believed he would kill himself before he let whatever madness inside him hurt Clara.
A small smidgen of worry evaporated; I nodded.
Fox closed his eyes briefly, glowing with thankfulness.
Ben came forward, eyebrows drawing together. “Hang on, what do you mean you won’t hurt her?” His tone was sharp. “Of course, you won’t. Who the hell says something like that?”
Tension gathered in our small group, causing my skin to prickle. “It’s okay, Corkscrew. I know what he meant.” Ben looked at me with concern on his face. I nodded. “It’s okay. Truly.”
Clara bounced in her dusty black shoes. “I know what he means. I do. I do.”
My heart stopped, waiting for her declaration. Fox seemed just as anxious as he repositioned his knees uncomfortably.
“He means he doesn’t like hugs or being touched. I think the bad man made him hate hugs because bad men don’t like love. They’re evil and cold, and I don’t like them.” Her large eyes met Fox’s. “I’m right, aren’t I? You really do want my mummy to hug you even though she was mean and yelled at you, but you don’t know how. It’s easy, you know. All you have to do is wrap your arms around her.”
An eternity passed before Fox nodded infinitesimally. “You’re right, little one.”
The sweet surrender in his voice set fire to my blood. I just granted him the right to spend a few hours with Clara, not an eternity. I couldn't have him falling in love with her. She wasn’t his to keep.
I hurled upright onto my feet. “Don’t, Fox.”
His eyes met mine, frowning. “Don’t what?”
I glared harder, hoping he’d get my silent message. Don’t you dare fall for her. She isn’t yours to fall for.
He stood too and took a step back. He didn’t say a word.
Clara spun to face me, hands on her hips, looking far too opinionated for her young age. “If he gets to be called after an animal I want to, too. Call me Pony…no wait, call me Horse.” Her nose wrinkled. “They’re not as pretty as a Fox.” She spun to face him. “Why does my mummy call you that?”
Fox glanced at me before very cleverly changing the subject. “Why do you want to be called Horse or Pony? I think Clara is a very pretty name.”
Clara giggled, moving back toward him as if he was the largest sunflower and she was a hungry bumblebee. “It’s because I love horses. My favourite show in the whole entire world is Flick the pony, and I want to grow up and own lots and lots of horses and be a jockey.” Her bright, hopeful voice made me want to burst into tears.
She had an obsession with horses—it would be a dream come true to be able to afford her own equine or even riding lessons. In a different world. A different life maybe. A different existence where she didn’t have a death sentence hanging over her head.
Fox smiled. “I like horses, too. All animals. I make them if you’d like to see?”
A cloud rolled over the sun, casting us all in shadow. My body tensed, sensing an omen, a premonition of doom. I didn’t want Clara anywhere near his house. I would never get her out of there with all the fascinating artwork and statues. I’d agreed to let Fox talk to her, but I didn’t agree to more time than a brief acquaintance.
Clue moved closer, whispering in my ear. “I’ve never seen a man so besotted with a kid before. No wonder you like working for him. Beneath the scary appearance, he’s a massive softy.”
I snorted. Fox. A softy? Was I the only one who saw past the livid scar, the surliness, and into his soul? His dark and damaged soul?
No, I’m not the only one.
Clara did, too, but instead of being afraid of him, she suffered the same malady I did. She wanted to fix him. She stupidly thought a bit of glue and paperclips would fix him. And it would break her heart when she realized it wasn’t possible. But how could I prevent her from trying?
“Do you have horses and ponies…and sheep? Oh, I like sheep.” Clara once again moved far too close to Fox.
He pre-empted her touching him and took a step back. “I have many animals, but no sheep.”
Clara chewed on her cheek in thought, looking as if that was a deal breaker. Her eyes lit up. “Can you make a sheep?”
Fox smiled softly. “I could make a sheep if you wanted one.”
She nodded. “Good. Yes, I want one.”
Fox moved away a little more, stress lines and shadows darkening his face. He’d run the gauntlet, and he looked as if his reserves were dwindling. How much longer could he hold onto his self-control?
Moving forward swiftly, I grabbed Clara and pressed her against my legs, imprisoning her with my arms around her neck. She squirmed, but let me contain her.
The third and final life changing event came in the form of Clara’s innocent question.
“Mummy, I want to see Roan’s animal collection. Don’t make me go home yet, okay?”
His true name.
My eyes shot to Fox’s, wide and amazed and slightly hurt. He’d told my daughter, who he’d known all of ten minutes, his first name. He hadn’t given me that honour. He’d taken everything I had to give and hadn’t granted me a single part of himself.
Fox gritted his jaw, recognising my anger, but not acknowledging it. Instead, he asked, “Is Clara why you leave every night? Why you don’t stay?”
Clue sucked in a breath beside me, finally sensing the sparks and awareness between us. I didn’t give him an answer. It wasn’t any of his business.
He dropped his eyes to Clara. “Does your mum come home to you every night? Would you miss her if she didn’t?”
Clara, happy to be included in an adult’s question, reeled off way too much information. “Yes. She goes to work and then comes home and hangs out with me and Auntie Clue and Ben. We watch television. She makes me do homework.” Her nose crinkled. “Bleh.” Then her little arms came backward and squeezed my legs behind her.
My heart clenched with overwhelming love. “But then we lie in the dark and talk about what we want most, like an ocean full of chocolate ice-cream, and I fall asleep to her telling me lots of wonderful stories. She’s really awesome.” She looked up, her little nose catching a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds. “I love her. I would miss her if she didn’t come home, because she’s my best friend in the whole wide world.”
She moved suddenly, rushing to Fox and wrapping her hand in his.
He froze, turning from man to statue. His legs wobbled, but he stayed upright this time. “Is that why you like my mummy? Does she tell you stories and help with your homework?”
Clue and Ben held their breath, feeding off my fear. I didn’t dare move in case I triggered a violent reaction in Fox. Ben subtly moved closer to him, putting himself in grabbing distance.
I flashed him a grateful smile. Thank God he was here. I needed a constant bodyguard around Fox. And I hated how sad that was.
Would we ever find a balance? A peaceful moment where we could touch and laugh and stroke like any normal couple?
We’re not a couple.
Things between us were complicated, but it’d been transformed into a Rubik cube with a thousand different colour sequences now that Clara had skipped the line from secrets to Fox’s realm.
Fox never let go of Clara’s hand, and my heart remained in my throat as he ducked to her level.
“She helps me with my homework, but she doesn’t tell me stories. Do you think you can tell me some she told you?”
I couldn’t think of anything worse. Every story I’d ever told Clara was steeped in fact and twisted with life lessons I’d learned the hard way. My trials had become mythical beasts, my defeats evil witches, but every story ended with a happily ever after.