He was distressingly silent.
Noah knew I looked different. He just refused to say it. I didn’t know why and at that moment, I didn’t even care. There was one thing on my mind and one thing only. I stood up. “Where are your keys?”
“Why?” he asked, drawing out the word.
“Because I want to burn that doll.”
My parents would be disconcerted if they saw me light a fire in our backyard and burn a doll I’ve had since I was a baby, so we needed somewhere else to do it.
“You have a fireplace, right?” I asked him as I headed toward the front door.
“Several, but we can’t leave.”
I closed my eyes. “Joseph.” Damn.
“And you. If we’re not here when your parents get back—I’m sure I needn’t remind you of your recent psych ward stint.”
As if I could forget.
Noah ran a hand over his jaw. “They trust me here, with Joseph, for an hour, maybe. But I can’t take you out alone.”
“So I’m trapped here indefinitely.”
“Unless . . .”
“Unless we bring them along.”
I stared at Noah, waiting for the punch line.
That was it, apparently. “You can’t be serious.”
“Why not? An invitation to the Shaw abode would go a long way with your mother. She’s desperate to meet my family—Ruth can distract her while we light fires and chant.”
A half-smile appeared on Noah’s lips. “Yes it is,” he said. “A little,” he added as my eyes narrowed to slits. “But if you’d rather they didn’t meet, I could burn the doll for you—”
“No.” I shook my head. Noah didn’t get it, and it didn’t even matter to him. He was game for anything, as always. But I needed to see with my own eyes that it was gone. “I want to be there.”
“Then it’s the only way,” Noah said with a shrug.
“You’re not worried about losing the sympathy card?”
“If your parents charm my parents, you might not be allowed here as much.”
An unreadable expression crossed Noah’s face. “Your mother’s clever,” he said, his voice low. “She’ll see things for what they are.” He stood and withdrew his cell from the back pocket of his jeans. “I’ll have Ruth invite her over tomorrow. For a ladies’ tea.”
“Your dad won’t be there?”
Noah arched an eyebrow. “Highly doubtful. And if he is, I’ll make sure we reschedule.”
“But I want to meet him.”
“I wish you didn’t,” he said as he scrolled through his iPhone.
“Why? Are you embarrassed?”
There was a bitter twist to Noah’s smile, and he answered without looking up at me. “Absolutely.”
I started to feel a bit uneasy. “By me?”
“You have no idea.”
When my mother came home, Noah instructed me to ask her if I could go for a walk with him. I shifted my weight under her stare as she considered me.
“Be back in half an hour,” she said finally.
I grinned, surprised. “Okay.”
“And don’t leave the block.”
My mother handed me her cell. “I’m trusting you,” she said quietly.
I nodded, and then Noah and I left. He loped gracefully ahead; his stride was so long, I almost had to jog to keep up.
“So where are we really going?”
“For a walk,” he insisted, staring ahead.
“Yeah, I caught that. Where?”
Noah pointed down the street at a black car parked under an enormous live oak tree. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
As we approached, an average-looking man exited the driver’s seat of the car. He flashed a bland smile at us.
“John,” Noah said with a nod, “I’d like to introduce you to your assignment.”
John held out his hand. “Mara Dyer,” he said to me as I shook it, “glad to meet you.”
Noah faced me. “John’s been working with a security firm so secure that it doesn’t have a name for—how long, again, John?”
“Since before you were a concept,” the man said, still smiling.
His answer surprised me—he didn’t look that old. And he wasn’t tall or broad or bodyguard-ish in any way. Everything about him was unremarkable, from his forgettable clothes to his forgettable face.
“He’s going to be trading shifts with his partner. Between them, they’ve protected four presidents, seven members of the Royal Family, and nine Saudi princes.”
“And now you,” John said.
Noah slid one hand around my waist and lifted the other to my neck, my cheek, tipping up my chin with his thumb. His voice was soft when he spoke. “They won’t let anything happen to you,” he said.
I won’t let anything happen to you, he meant.
And he might have been right, if Jude were all I had to worry about. But no one could protect me from myself.
NOAH OFFERED TO FIND AN EXCUSE TO STAY over that night but I was wary of abusing my parents’ benevolence. He couldn’t stay over every night, obviously, but more importantly, I needed to know that I would be okay on my own.
And that night, I was. I slipped into bed and stayed there until morning. Nothing was out of place when I woke up. The ordinariness lifted my mood; Noah had taken my grandmother’s doll with him before he left and later today it would be gone forever. John was watching my house. Noah trusted John and I trusted Noah, and even though I hated to admit it, that morning was the first time without him that I actually felt safe.
I checked for Jude only once on the way to Horizons, and I was uncharacteristically cheerful as the counselors put me through my paces. The day rushed by in a blur of blissful near-mundanity, considering my situation wasn’t remotely mundane, and I was actually able to worry about something relatively normal for once. Namely: my mother and Noah’s stepmother having tea.
He’d been right about the invitation; Mom really couldn’t wait to meet Ruth. On the way to Noah’s house that afternoon, his parents were all she could talk about. It did not escape my notice that she was more pressed and polished than usual. It almost made me feel guilty for using her as a diversion.