“You’re getting off track,” I murmured warningly.
She inhaled and exhaled deliberately. Nodding once, she sniffed and said simply, “I’m sorry.”
“Go on.” I crossed my arms awkwardly, avoiding the splint on my broken one and doing my best to seem like I was fine and not seconds away from vomiting over the cucumbers.
“I think, if we stand any chance of moving on, you need to accept my apology.”
“And what exactly are you apologizing for?”
She rolled her eyes.
I cocked my head, waiting to see if she was smart enough to know just how much her initial trespass pissed me off. No, not just pissed me off. Hurt me. Her very first step into my sanctum had been the first of many hurts she’d delivered. Her very presence was more pain than I could endure. Every stare, every smile, every attempt at being nice clawed over my skin and left me bleeding.
Everything I’d survived in my past was nothing, fucking nothing, to what I’d have to survive with her. Which meant my only weapon was brutality.
And I will wield it with as much precision as I can.
Her eyes glossed with something I dare not analyze. Pity definitely, but also those damn feelings she’d mentioned. Feelings that were like an infection, making me feverish and sick, a wound that needed to be cauterized or cut out if I had any chance at reversing the damage she’d already caused my heart.
“I’m sorry for entering your valley and your home.” She blinked, delivering a single sentence that threatened to soften me. “Truly.”
The world lurched.
My head pounded.
But I nodded in her direction with all the respect she’d just given me. “Thank you.”
Our eyes locked, caught, once again knotted and tangled, ensuring we weren’t two people but one. My back pricked. My pulse skipped. I grew wobbly for other reasons.
She was the one who looked away first, gasping as if she’d drowned in my stare. Dropping her gaze to the dirt, she murmured, “You have to let me go.”
I gripped the stem-and-leaf-covered wall behind me, keeping upright even as my bruised brain tried to make me fall. “That’s an impossibility.”
Her head snapped up, eyes flashing. “Why?”
It was my turn to drown. She was my new oblivion, and I wanted to tumble. “Because, Gemma Ashford, unfortunately for you, when you entered my valley, I didn’t want you. I hated everything you represented. You forced me to remember how to be human. You woke me up from the comforting monotony I’d found. You reminded me that loneliness isn’t just a word but a disease that I’ve suffered from for eleven unbearable years.”
I swallowed hard as bile lashed up my throat. “You stomped into my life and ripped away my forgetfulness. You showed me that if you could find my valley—a complete stranger with no business being here, then my family...” My voice cracked. My vision went black, then gray, then a kaleidoscope of reds.
Pinching the bridge of my nose again, I spat, “The fact that they never came back... It means they left me, and I can live with that. It’s what I wanted. My entire existence in this place was sacrificed so one day we could all be free. I’m grateful. I’m glad they’re out there, living lives away from here. Safe, hopefully. But the thing is—” I looked down at the girl by my feet, at the leash tethering us together, at the holes in my vegetable patches and the blatant lack of regard for winter prep, and I felt ancient.
I felt like the bear who had to gather and feast, a ticking clock in its soul, pushing it to eat more, forage and harvest, because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t survive hibernation. It would die in the dark, hungry and alone and in pain.
I was that bear.
And this naïve, belligerent girl had raided my pantry.
“The thing is...” The world flickered in and out. My grip on sanity slipping. “You owe me my life. I didn’t want it anymore. But you...you’ve gone and claimed it.”
My knees buckled, sending me crashing before her.
She gasped and tried to catch me, succeeding only in tangling our bodies together as we kneeled in earth as if we were about to be executed. And who knew, perhaps that was exactly what would happen.
Thanks to her, we would go hungry. We would be in pain. But the difference between me and that lonely bear was...I had her.
As grayness slithered over my vision, I mumbled the most honest confession of my life. “I can’t let you go because I’d rather die with you at my side than alone.”
Her arms trembled as she lowered me down, down, down.
My head hit dirt and my eyelids closed. Concussed nightmares dragged me deep, but not before I whispered, “I’m not lonely while you’re here. That’s why you can’t go. Why you can never go. You’re mine.”