Eva called me every day, but she didn’t have much to say either. She was trying to deal with Salina’s death and her part in it just like I was.
Finally, a week after I killed Salina, Owen dropped by the Pork Pit. My lover stepped into the restaurant, making the bell over the front door chime. It was five minutes before closing time, and the restaurant was deserted except for me and Sophia. The dwarf jerked her thumb over her shoulder at him.
“Privacy,” she rasped.
“Thanks, Sophia,” I murmured. “I’ll finish locking up. See you tomorrow.”
The dwarf gave me a hopeful smile, then pushed through the double doors and went into the back of the restaurant.
Owen waited until she left before squaring his shoulders and walking over to the counter. “Hi.”
I smiled at him, trying to tell him that I understood, trying to tell him that I wanted to move forward. But he didn’t return my smile, and his eyes were dark and troubled in his rugged face. Not a trace remained of the giants’ attacks on him or the injuries he’d gotten when Salina had used her magic to throw him against the Ice bar. No, Owen looked just fine on the outside. Inside, though, I knew it was a different story—for both of us.
“I’d like to talk, if that’s okay with you,” he said.
I nodded. I locked the door and turned the sign there over to Closed. We moved to a booth out of sight of the storefront windows. The honk and hum of the cars sounded on the street outside, but we sat in silence.
Finally, Owen drew in a breath. “I’m sorry about how I acted the other night. When you . . . killed Salina . . . it affected me more than I thought it would.”
“I know, Owen. And I’m sorry about that. Sorrier than you will ever know.”
I didn’t apologize for killing her. I didn’t say that it simply had to be done, that Salina wouldn’t have ever stopped, that I’d probably saved Owen’s life—all our lives—by cutting the water elemental’s throat. He knew all that as well as I did. And if he didn’t, well, then we had an even bigger problem than I’d imagined.
“One of the things that bothers me the most is that you had Finn pull a gun on me,” Owen said, his violet eyes harsh and accusing. “You let him hold me at gunpoint while you killed Salina.”
I wasn’t surprised he was upset by that, by how I’d had Finn keep him out of the fight. Not only had I killed Salina, but I’d also taken away Owen’s choice in how things would go down. I would have been just as angry if our positions had been reversed.
“And what would you have done if I hadn’t? You would have tried to stop me, Owen. Hell, you told me to stop—more than once. I was trying to protect you, trying to keep you safe.”
Trying to spare you from having to kill someone you once loved.
I didn’t say the words, but they hung in the air between us, weighing everything down, weighing us down, with their many ugly implications.
Owen shook his head. “No, you just didn’t trust me enough to do what needed to be done where Salina was concerned. You didn’t trust me at all, Gin. Not with her. When we went to Blue Marsh, and you ran into Donovan again, I trusted you to make the right choice. I trusted in your love for me. I trusted you not to hurt me. I expected the same courtesies in return, but you didn’t give them to me with Salina.”
I didn’t say anything at first. I couldn’t, because his words were too true. I hadn’t trusted him with Salina because I hadn’t wanted to get my heart broken when he chose her over me. When you cared about someone, you gave them the power to hurt you, and I’d feared that Owen would throw away my concern just like Donovan had once done. Deep down, I knew it was irrational, that Owen was nothing like Donovan, but I’d still felt that paralyzing fear all the same.
“But I did trust you,” I replied. “Did I have doubts? Sure. Was I worried that Salina was coming between us? Absolutely. But I handled all that as best I could. Even when you went to see her alone, I came after you—and that’s when I heard you tell Salina that she could leave Ashland. That wasn’t what we agreed on. Not at all. You didn’t tell me what you were really going to say to her, so I’d say that you didn’t trust me either.”
To that, he didn’t say anything. He couldn’t, because my words were as true as his had been a moment ago. For once, I let my emotions show. Let him see my clenched jaw, the tightness in my face, the cold, harsh accusations in my eyes. I let him see my anger and my hurt and my disappointment—in him.
“I’ll admit that I was jealous of her,” I finally said in a soft voice. “She was everything that I’m not, and she was a part of your past that you couldn’t seem to let go of. That maybe you didn’t want to let go of.”
Owen sighed. “Salina and I were finished the moment she first hurt Eva, even if I didn’t realize it back then. But as soon as she came back to Ashland, I should have made it crystal clear to her that we were long over—and to you too. I thought I did that day at the Pork Pit. But that doesn’t change the fact that you killed her, Gin. Right in front of me. I asked you not to, and you killed her anyway.”
“I didn’t kill her for you. So I could have you or keep you.”
No, I killed Salina for Eva, for Kincaid, for Cooper—and for myself too and everything she represented to me. What I could have become if not for Fletcher. Maybe what I was anyway.
Owen’s face tightened. “I know that. Over these past few months, I’ve watched you do what you thought needed to be done, no matter how dangerous it was. Even when other people told you not to do something or tried to get you to stop, you went ahead and did what you thought was right anyway.”
“Is there something wrong with that?”
He shook his head. “I can’t say that there is. Not after I’ve seen how you’ve helped people. But I never thought you would tune me out the way you sometimes do Bria, Jo-Jo, and even Finn. I never thought I would ask you for something—something important—and you would just ignore me.”
I could have protested. I could have told him that he was wrong. That I listened to my family and friends, that I didn’t just tune them out, but he was partially right. Because in the end, someone had to make the hard decisions, had to do the dirty work, had to be the bad guy, and, like it or not, it seemed that quite often that someone was me.
I thought about telling him what I’d promised Eva, about how I’d promised his baby sister that I would protect Owen no matter what—even from himself, if it came down to that. But I kept my mouth shut. Owen had to accept what I’d done on his own and not just because I wanted him to. He had to forgive me on his own terms, in his own way, and not because I gave him an excuse to.
We didn’t speak for several minutes. Outside, folks went about their day, talking on their phones, getting into their cars, driving home, but inside the restaurant, it was like Owen and I were frozen in place, stuck in this one awful moment, and not sure where we went from here. I could almost see our future swinging back and forth like a clock pendulum.
Tick-tock, tick-tock. Together, apart. Together, apart.
“So where does all of this leave us?” I finally asked.
“I need . . . I need some time, Gin. To think about things. You. Me. Us.”
Those were the words I’d been dreading hearing, and they caused my heart to crack, splinter, and disintegrate into black dust, leaving a hollow, cavernous space in my chest, an ache that just pulsed and pulsed and pulsed with pain.
Owen hesitated. “And it’s not just about Salina. It’s about me too. All these years, I believed her lies, and I hurt Eva, Phillip, and Cooper because of it—and you too. Because I believed in Salina when I shouldn’t have. I feel like such a fucking fool. I said before that you didn’t trust me. Maybe you were right not to, because I’ve clearly been wrong about this most basic thing. I just—I just don’t know anymore. What to do, what to say, what to feel about any of this.”
Bitterness colored his voice, and the guilt he was feeling made him grind his teeth together. His mouth twisted with disgust—at himself.
I wanted to reach out to him, wanted to put my hand on top of his and tell him that it wasn’t his fault. That Salina had fooled a lot of people.
But I didn’t.
I knew that I had to give Owen some space. I had to give him some time to come to terms with what had happened, work through everything, and settle it for himself. He had to come back to me on his own, he had to find his way back to me on his own. Otherwise, we’d never truly recover, and we’d only be going through the motions, pretending to love each other, and it would eventually eat away at and undermine everything we had together. I’d rather have lost Owen completely than have had him by my side when I knew he didn’t really want to be there.
And the truth was that I needed some time too—time to think about Salina, what she’d meant to Owen, and how I felt about all that. I needed some time to convince myself that I wasn’t like Salina, that Mab hadn’t ruined me the way she had the water elemental, that she hadn’t twisted me into something sad, dangerous, and grotesque.
That I wasn’t a threat to the people I loved.
Owen slid out of the booth and got to his feet. I did the same. He started to go, but I caught his hand in mine. He turned to meet my gaze.
“I understand,” I said, “and you take as much time as you need. But know this, Owen. I love you. Now, today, tomorrow. That won’t ever change, no matter what happens between us.”
I moved closer, cupped his face in my hands, and kissed him.
For a moment, he gathered me up in his arms and kissed me back—kissed me back with all the passion, all the concern, all the love I felt for him.
Then he broke off the kiss and stepped away. I curled my hands into fists so I wouldn’t be tempted to reach for him. He’d asked for space, and I was going to give it to him.
No matter how much it fucking hurt.
“Take care of yourself, Gin.” Owen hesitated. “I’ll be seeing you.”
I forced myself to smile. “Yeah. We’ll see each other again real soon.”
Owen nodded, then turned and walked out of the restaurant. The bell over the door chimed as he stepped outside, ringing like a dirge for the dead, and the end of our relationship.
Or was it? Was this the end? Could we get past this? I didn’t know. I hoped so. Oh, how I hoped so. But my hope was as useless as tears would have been. So I stood there in the shadows staring out the storefront windows for a long time, the dust of my heart quivering with sadness and a chill creeping into my bones, despite the warm spring sunshine outside.
The next day was business as usual at the Pork Pit. I still had a barbecue restaurant to run.
I cooked food, waited on tables, and cleaned up after my customers. But for once, my mind wasn’t really focused on the tasks at hand and I was just going through the motions. My misery must have shown, because Sophia stopped chopping onions long enough to give me a tight hug. I thanked the dwarf and got back to the macaroni salad I was making.
About three o’clock that afternoon, someone not entirely unexpected walked through the front door—Phillip Kincaid.
The casino boss was once again in a suit and tie, and he had his blond hair slicked back into his usual ponytail. Kincaid surveyed the other customers in the storefront, then walked over and took a seat on a stool right next to the cash register.
I didn’t ask why he was here. I was still too preoccupied with Owen. Besides, I figured Kincaid would get to it sooner or later.
Kincaid ordered a couple of hot dogs, coleslaw, fries, and three of the chocolate cupcakes that I’d baked fresh that morning. I fixed his food, set it in front of him, and picked up my copy of Little Women. Normally, I would have breezed through the rest of the book hours ago, but I was having a tough time concentrating. Still, I gave it a shot, even though I had to go back and skim the paragraphs so I could recall the words I’d just read moments before.
Kincaid ate his meal in silence. He didn’t bother me, and I didn’t speak to him, but the quiet between us wasn’t hostile. If anything, it was almost . . . friendly.
He finally let out a satisfied sigh, pushed his empty plates away, and untucked the napkin in his collar. “Another fine meal.”
“That’s what I do here.”
I thought he might pay up and leave, but instead Kincaid threaded his fingers together on top of the counter and looked at me.
“I went to see Owen last night,” he said. “He invited me out to his place for a drink. Cooper too. The three of us spent most of the night talking. It was . . . nice. Like the old days.”
It didn’t surprise me. Now that the truth was out and Salina was dead, there was nothing standing in the way of Owen and Kincaid resuming their friendship. I was happy for them. They’d been family once upon a time, along with Cooper and Eva, and I thought they could be that again.
“I know the two of you are having trouble right now,” Kincaid said. “I’m sorry for that. Really, I am. It was never my intention to cause those sorts of problems for the two of you. I just . . . I just wanted Owen to know the truth. Finally.”
I shrugged. Kincaid being sorry didn’t change things between me and Owen, but it made me feel a little better.
“You know, I’d enjoy getting to know Owen again while you can,” I said in an easy voice. “Because once he realizes that you’re in love with Eva, he’s going to morph right back into that overprotective, big brother, bear mode.”
Kincaid froze, his glass of iced tea halfway between the counter and his lips. “What? What are you talking about?”
I laughed, a genuine, bona fide, amused laugh. “Oh, come on. It’s so obvious. The way you were looking at Eva on the riverboat, you hiring me to be there to protect her in case Salina showed up, the fact that you still let Eva get away with calling you by that ridiculous childhood nickname. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.” I gave him a hard stare. “But you need to keep in mind that she’s only nineteen. And you’re not exactly the safest guy to be around in Ashland.”
Kincaid shrugged, but he didn’t deny any of it. If anything, his eyes brightened at the thought of her. “Eva Grayson was the first person who ever gave a damn about me. That’s not the sort of thing you forget.”
“No,” I agreed. “It’s not.”
“And that’s why I’m going to give Eva some time to grow up—a lot of time, actually. Like you said, she’s still young. She hasn’t figured out what she wants out of life yet. I’m going to give her that chance. And in the meantime, I plan to have plenty of fun.”
I arched an eyebrow. “And if it comes to pass that she doesn’t want you?”