I leaned over the piping hot bowl of cheese-and-broccoli soup and breathed in through my nose. Not only did it smell like the best thing in the world, the delicious steam helped to clear my stopped-up nose just a little. Sitting back, I grabbed another tissue and blew into it, which my mom promptly plucked from my hand and threw into the trash can. It was already nearly half full of them.
"I can't believe he made you climb that mountain in the middle of the night!" she clucked, adjusting the blanket on my shoulders while I scooped a spoonful of soup into my mouth. "And in weather like this, too!"
The wind howled outside the cabin, throwing snow into the air like we were in the middle of a blizzard. It was odd, the night had been calm right up until I got into the cabin. Almost as soon as I'd shut the door behind me, the storm had appeared out of nowhere. The winds blew so hard that I could hear the timbers in Stark's cabin groaning, but the house held fast.
"It's irresponsible of him," Mom fussed.
In truth, I was barely listening. The soup's heat and flavor coated my tongue, making me roll my shoulders in appreciation. Normally my wolf wouldn't be okay with eating something without meat in it, calling it "prey food," but my mom's cooking was so good that even the big grumpy beastie inside me couldn't find anything to complain about.
"It's not that bad," I said once I'd swallowed. "He... had a good reason for it."
I looked down into the swirling colors of my soup and bit my tongue. As much as I hated saying anything good about the murdering creep, I wasn't going to let myself become Kimberly. Even if he had killed my dad, Stark was obviously trying to make up for it now. As long as he was me, Mom, and Kimberly's only defense against Hendricks and Majestic, the least I could do was try to see the good in him... even if it physically hurt to do so.
"I'll have to have a word with him," Mom insisted. She was in the kitchen again, fixing a mug of hot tea for me. For anyone else she would have made hot chocolate, but you know she's a good mom because she made a special effort not to poison her only child.
"Mom, seriously," I snorted, taking another bite of soup. "We're tougher than you think. I got cold, but it's not like I'm going to get frostbite or anything out there."
I wasn't exactly sure about that point, to be honest. It had taken me more than an hour to get up the hill, and when I finally succeeded and made it back to Stark's back yard I was shivering uncontrollably crazy and absorbing moonlight for strength like a sponge. Mom didn't need to know that, though.
"What were you two even doing out there all this time?"
I looked up at her in surprise. Had Stark not told her? No, of course he hadn't. She just about had a heart attack every time I left for school. Finding out he was teaching me how to fight would probably put her in the morgue— and unlike Kimberly, she wouldn't wake up again afterwards.
"Nothing," I lied. Mom gave me one of her patented I can see straight through you, young lady looks, and I busied myself by picking up the bowl and drinking the rest of the soup in one big slurp. It burned, but it burned so goooood.
"Amber," she said warningly.
"Really, it was nothing," I insisted. "He's just helping me work out."
Well, it wasn't a lie, right?
Mom's eyes narrowed, and I figured she had seen through my not-quite-a-lie. "Well, whatever you're up to," she said, walking to the other side of the table and sitting down opposite me, "I expect you two to behave, understand?"
It was a good thing I'd already swallowed, because otherwise I would have spit Mom's awesome soup all over the table.
"Say what now?" I demanded.
Mom folded her hands in front of her, her face an expression of mock calmness. "You heard me."
I shook my head. "No, nuh-uh, I know that tone. What do you think Stark and I are doing out there?"
Mom frowned. "I have no idea, because you won't tell me, Amber."
My face started to turn red again, and I slowly rose from the table. "You don't think that Stark and I are... are out there... NO!" I practically shouted the last word.
"I can't think of many reasons a grown man and a young lady would need to spend all day in the forest," she snapped in reply. "If you won't tell me what's going on, then of course I'm going to make assumptions!"
I put my face in my hands. "But assumptions like that? No, Mom! Just no! What the hell is wrong with you?"
Mom stood up now too. "Don't you use language like that with me, Amber. I am still your mother!"
I was already tired, but this argument took the rest of my strength out of me. With a groan, I sank back down into my chair like a boneless doll.
"I don't want to fight, Mom," I said, raising my hand weakly. "I've been fighting all day." Fighting with fists and with words, fighting Stark and fighting my own sense of inadequacy, and I was freaking tired of it.
Slowly, Mom sat back down too.
"Just... I promise we're not doing that, okay?"
"All right," Mom said after a moment's hesitation. "I trust you."
I breathed a sigh of relief. "Thanks."
We sat in silence for a few minutes, and I pulled my blanket tighter around myself. The washing machine hummed in the laundry room. My clothes had been soaked through when I got back, so Mom had immediately gotten me out of them and into this soft, warm, dry blanket. I just hoped Stark wouldn't come out of his bedroom and see me. As I looked across the table at my mom, a shadow fell across my mind again. Stark was in his room, but once we were done here, where was Mom going? She had gotten angrier than I'd seen her in a long time when she'd talked about Stark and me spending the whole day together. Had that been parental concern... or jealousy?
"Hey," I said. It went against all my better judgement, but I had to know. "What's going on between you and Stark?"
Just like I knew she would, Mom went rigid as a board.
"What makes you think there's anything going on between us?" she demanded, her own face turning red now.
Despite how bad I felt for bringing it up, I couldn't help but roll my eyes. "Mom, please, you're about as subtle as the Hindenburg crash."
Mom opened her mouth in indignation, but then seemed to wilt. With a sigh, she slumped down in her chair. "It's... it's nothing, Amber. Nothing for you to worry about at all."
"So you are sleeping with him," I said, the words coming out more forcefully than I'd intended.
"Amber Pace!" Mom snapped, sitting up straighter. A little bit of color came back to her cheeks. "You will not speak to your mother about things like this!"
"How could you?" I asked, leaning towards her. "What about dad?"
Mom let out a little gasp, and her face turned pale again. I immediately regretted saying that. Well, I regretted saying it the way I had, anyway. That had been more like a slap in the face than the calm rebuke I had meant for it to be. But, still...
Suddenly, Mom's eyes turned cold. "I don't know if you've noticed, Amber, but your father is dead."
I sat back in my chair, as if her words had physically struck me.
"And so, what?" I hissed in reply. "You jump in bed with the first guy you meet?"
"Amber Stephanie Pace, you listen to me right now—"
I pointed at her. "No, you listen! Doesn't Dad's memory mean anything to you? How could you do this to him?"
"How dare you?" Mom demanded. "Of course his memory means something to me. It means everything to me! How dare you say otherwise?"
"How dare I? You're the one who—"
I froze, my mouth hanging open and my finger still pointing at her. What... the... hellwasIdoing?
"Mom..." I said, my hand shaking. I let it fall limp to the table. "I'm sorry."
Shame rolled over me, leaving me gasping like a fish out of water at my own audacity. Mom sat facing me, looking positively haggard with tears building up in her eyes and her lips pursed tight. What was I thinking? I mean, I wasn't happy about Mom getting with Stark, but bringing my dad into it? Accusing her of not loving him? What kind of monster was I?
"I didn't mean to..." I spluttered, my brain grappling for something, anything, I could excuse my behavior with. "I'm not..."
Dad would know what to say.
And with that, the dam broke. With a high pitched whine, I lost strength entirely and collapsed, my forehead striking the table with a loud bang. Pain lit up my skull, but I ignored it. I deserved it. What was...
A hand came down on my bare shoulder, and I looked up to see my mother standing over me. Tears were running down her face as well.
"I'm sorry," I sobbed. I tried to think of something else to say, but there wasn't anything. All I could do was keep saying it over and over again, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
Choking back her own emotions, Mom knelt down and wrapped her arms around my neck in a hug. "Baby girl, I'm the one who should be sorry," she whispered into my ear. "You've been going through so much. It's not fair for you, and it wasn't fair for me to keep this from you."
"I miss Dad," I said, turning in my seat to hug her back. "I miss him so much."
"I miss your father too." Mom hugged me even tighter.
Neither of us said anything for a few minutes. I still felt like scum for saying what I did, but at least Mom understood, even if I didn't deserve it. I would never deserve a mother like her.
"Do you love him?" I finally asked.
Mom pulled away. "What?"
I looked at her with wide, teary eyes. "Stark. Do you love him?"
Mom's lip quivered. "Amber, he's done so much for us, for you. Even if he is... responsible for your father's..." she took a deep, shaky breath, unable to make the word come out of her mouth. "But he brought you here, he gave you and Kimberly a roof over your heads and food to eat. If he hadn't, we probably would have all starved, or worse!"
She hesitated, and then leaned in closer to me. "And when I'm around him, I'm not afraid anymore. The nightmares stop. I don't see him whenever I close my eyes. Amber, how could I not love him after all that?"
My breath caught in my throat, but I managed to give her a nod.
"Baby," Mom said slowly, "I still love you more than anybody else. If you're not happy with this, then I'll... I'll..."
I blinked. Even after I'd treated her so horribly, she was willing to break up with the man she loved just to make me happy.
"No!" I cut her off. I reached out and put my hand over hers. "Mom, you're... I'm not the only one things have been hard for lately. I know it hasn't been easy raising me these past few months. I'm not the same girl I used to be..."
"And I still love you just the way you are."
"... and things haven't been fair for you, either. If you love Stark... if you feel safe with him, then go ahead." I managed to give her a smile through my tears. "Then go and make yourself happy for a change."
Mom gasped a little, and her lip quivered. "You have no idea how much that means to me," she said, breaking out in a smile herself. We hugged again, a happy hug this time, not a comforting one. This whole situation was backwards, the daughter giving her mother her blessing to date a man older than either of them, but... well, I was getting used to things being backwards, upside down, inside out, whatever. It didn't matter, as long as someone here was happy.
"So," I said a minute later when my stomach growled, "think I can get a little more of that soup?"
Mom laughed, something none of us did enough anymore, and got up to refill my bowl. While she did, I sat back, dried my tears, and thought about my situation. Mom was dating the guy who had killed my dad, and I was strangely okay with it. I would never forgive Stark for what he did. There would always be a part of me that hated him. But at the same time, I couldn't deny that he was a good guy. He legitimately regretted what he'd done to my family, and was doing everything he could to make things right. He couldn't bring my dad back, but what he had done... it was more than I could have asked for. More than any of us could have asked for.
"Mom?" I asked as she made her way back to the table, bowl full of soup again. "Do you—"
I never got to finish my sentence, because at that moment a knock came from the front door.
Both of us froze, and slowly turned our heads to look at the entryway. I glanced at the clock hanging on the wall. It was almost nine o'clock. Mom and I shared a look, and I knew we had both realized the same thing: it didn't matter how late at night it was, Stark never got visitors. Hesitantly, we both got to our feet. There was a weight in the air, the kind you feel when something's about to happen, but you don't know what.
"Who do you think..." Mom started to say, but fell silent when Stark's bedroom door opened. I instinctively pulled the blanket more tightly around my body. He came into the den wearing the sweatpants and t-shirt that served as his pajamas, but what caught my attention was the rifle in his hands. My stomach turned a somersault inside me.
"Stark," Mom said, stepping into the living, but Stark stopped her with a wave of his hand.
"I've got a bad feeling about this," he grunted. "You two stay in there."
I gently took Mom's shoulder and pulled her back into the kitchen. Nodding gruffly, Stark took his gun in both hands and crept toward the door, his feet not making a single sound on the hardwood floor. He deftly cocked the gun and leaned forward to peer through the peephole... and then he reeled back, cursing like a sailor.
Panic shot through my veins. "What is it?" I demanded.
Stark turned to look at me, and I saw pure, unadulterated terror in his eyes.
"I- It's him," he stammered. "It's Hendricks!"
NEXT TIME: C-C-C-C-C-CLIFFHANGERED! The demon lord of douchiness has finally appeared! Things must be bad if came in person instead of sending Becky or the Octopus. What’s going on? I know all the answers, but you’ll have to wait until next week to find out!