I leaned against his shoulder again, trying to block out the memory I’d seen in Cole’s mind with something easier to stomach. “How did he and your mom even meet? I never thought to ask...”
“Oh, God, it’s almost repulsively romantic,” Liam said. “So, when Mom finally left...when she left her old life and took us with her, she drove straight through the night, just to put enough distance between us and the place. The car broke down in North Carolina. Harry was just coming back from his last tour of duty abroad and saw her screaming at the old Toyota, banging on the hood, everything. He pulled over and offered to take a look, and when it was clear she needed new parts, he drove us all to his mother’s place, who took one look at Mom and immediately adopted her in everything but the legal sense. And we stayed with them a week. I’m pretty sure that was the slowest repair of Harry’s life. He was coming home to open a mechanic garage. I didn’t mention that, did I? So he was determined that she’d be his first customer, and that she should let him do it for free, as a good-luck charm for the business. Kept lying about not being able to get a part in, the rascal, just to prolong the visit enough. It gave Mom time to find a job, and a sweet little place for us to live. They didn’t date until three years later. She just...wasn’t ready to move on with that part of her life until then. And after that they were just ridiculous.”
“Wow,” I said. “The luck of that. If she had taken a different road, or he’d come in an hour earlier or later.”
“Well...” Liam ducked his head a bit. “It’s kind of the same for us...right? Maybe I’ve never told you this, but it was total dumb luck we were in West Virginia at all that day that we found you. I was doing everything in my power to avoid having to drive through it.”
“Because of your father?” I ventured.
“Ah. So Cole told you the basics?” He waited for me to nod before continuing. “It’s like the whole state has this dark cloud wrapped around it. I feel really damn lucky I don’t remember life pre-Harry, because from what little Mom and Cole have told me, it was actually hell. I knew enough as a kid—a little kid, I mean—to be scared of the state and the man who lived there. That’s how my mom still refers to that part of our lives. In West Virginia this, or the West Virginia house that, that kind of thing. Cole told me once when I wouldn’t leave him alone that if I was bad, the man was going to come take me away.” He grimaced. “I know that man is still there, and that he’s alive. I had this fear, and I know it’s irrational because Chubs has told me it is a million times. Right up until I turned eighteen, I had this fear that if I went back to that place, he’d find me and force me to stay.”
“Why were you there, then?” I asked. Liam was a skilled enough navigator to have brought them around the state.
“Because that skip tracer, Lady Jane—she was running us to ground. I just wanted to lose her. And there was this moment I was driving along, and I saw the name of our old town, and it was just like...closing a circle I didn’t realized we’d left open. Because that time I had the ability to get myself out of there, I knew I could fight him and win if I had to, and Mom and Cole were safe. Driving by that last time, it’s like I stole back that last bit of control he had over my life. But it took going back to know that. I don’t know if I ever would have believed it could be that way, if I hadn’t been in that car with all of you.”
He felt my hand shaking and brought it up to lay flat against his chest, where I could feel his heart thundering against his ribs. “What I’m trying to get at is, as bad as everything seems, I think, at its heart, life is good. It doesn’t throw anything at us that it knows we can’t handle—and, even if it takes its time, it turns everything right side up again. I want this to be over for you, so, so much. I want to go to Thurmond and get those poor kids out so you can close your own circle. If nothing else, if this explodes in our faces, then I want you to know that I love you and nothing will ever change that.”
“I love you, too.” I flushed at his grin, wondering at how good it felt to say the words. I love you. I love you. I love you.
“Yeah?” he said. “The ol’ Stewart charm finally wear you down?”
I laughed. “Guess so. You had your work cut out for you.”
“Don’t I know it.”
The door opened again, and I leaned out of his grasp, craning my neck just as Nico came in. He startled at the sight of the two of us. “Oh—I’m—you’re—”
“Hey,” I said.
“I...forgot I had something. To do, I mean,” Nico said, rocking back on his heels. “But if you were going to stay I’ll...figure it out.”
“Nah,” Liam said, looking at me. “I think we’re done here...?”
“All yours,” I confirmed. “But try to get some sleep, okay?”
Nico nodded absently. I lingered a moment more in the doorway, watching as he went to his station and the light from the monitor washed him in a blue-white glow.
Liam tugged my hand toward the other hall, the stairs, the bunk rooms. I turned and tugged him in the opposite direction, toward the senior quarters and Cate’s empty room. The small smile on his face made me feel a little dizzy, the good kind of dizzy. One hand began to stroke down my spine softly, sparking an entirely different feeling low in my stomach.
I stood on my toes, taking his face in my hands. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark form come out of a nearby room—the little treatment room that had been set up. Liam turned toward it as the door squeaked shut and the person—Chubs—looked up, down, then back up again as his brain processed the moment.