Noah nods, and his agreement smarts more than it should.
“What does that mean for us?” I ask.
Noah releases a long breath and crosses his arms over his chest.
My fingers shake as I shove my hair away from my face. “Did we leave Kentucky because we didn’t believe we’d last if we stayed?”
“I don’t know.” Noah kneads his eyes and when he lowers his hands he repeats, “I don’t know.”
Flames lick along the stairwell, blocking the only way up, and it’s the coughing from the living room that keeps me from charging the bedrooms. Smoke smothers my eyesight…my ability to breathe.
It’s dark. Too dark to see, but a burst of color from something electrical exploding in the kitchen creates a flash that illuminates my brothers on the floor. Jacob lying over a lifeless Tyler.
“Jacob!” I shout, and he lifts his head.
“Noah!” He hacks so hard that I’m afraid he’s choking—dying. Fear grips me like it never has before. They’re dying. My family is dying.
My lungs constrict and burn. I cough then crouch to move along the floor. Jacob launches himself at me. My heart beats again with the feel of tiny arms around my neck and the sight of Tyler’s chest fighting upward for air.
Sweat beads on my brow. The heat threatens to melt my skin. “Where’s Mom and Dad?”
Upstairs. Nausea rolls through my stomach. My brothers out first. Then my parents. Maybe they escaped through the back. Out the window, down the tree. But this paralyzing panic eats the logic. They’d never leave without Jacob and Tyler. Never.
Behind me, the flames dance closer to the door. Protect them—a screaming mantra in my brain. I grab two blankets off the floor, wrap my brothers up and race for the exit.
Two steps to go for the foyer and there’s a crack from above. In pure instinct, I turn my body and huddle Tyler and Jacob close to my chest. A rush of hot air, embers flying around and pain slams into my shoulder. I yell out as fire feeds off my shirt, and I dart through a wall of flames for the door. Jesus Christ, I’m on fire.
My eyes shoot open, and my body jolts. There’s a pounding through my bloodstream, and my heart’s a damn freight train. I’m not a nightmare type of guy. Never have been, but sometimes, my mind replays my past.
It’s a nightmare that reminds me that I failed, and as I inhale, I remember the promise that I swore to Echo the night she recovered her memory…I won’t fail her…never again.
I glance over at the clock. It’s still early. Echo’s locked in my arms, and I’m surprised she didn’t wake when I squeezed the life out of her. She let me hold her as she slept, and it was my sole comfort in a long, torturous night. Our last words hanging over me like a guillotine.
Echo shifts, and her bottom presses into me. I take advantage and draw her closer. Her tank rides up, and I rest my palm against the heat of her stomach. I lived too long in cold isolation before Echo stumbled into my life, bringing her warmth and love. When we drove out of Louisville, we seemed indestructible.
I need us to be indestructible. I can’t return to cold and alone. Things are complicated. No doubt. But we’ll battle through this. We have to. Giving up is not an option.
“Me and you,” I whisper, hoping my words will sink into her subconscious, beyond where she overthinks. “It’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Echo’s hand glides over mine, and she links our fingers together. “You like disturbing my sleep, don’t you?”
I kiss her shoulder, permitting my lips to linger on her soft skin. Guess I did wake her. “Just keeping things straight between us.”
“In my sleep?” Damn, I love that groggy voice.
“You argue less that way.”
Her body shakes with silent giggles. “I don’t argue.”
“That sounded like an argument.”
“You’re impossible.” Echo eases to her back. Her smile fades, and I hate that last night still weighs on her. “It all seems overwhelming. Like everything is stacked against us.”
“It’s not so bad other than your dad would prefer for you to get over your juvenile delinquent phase and our friends hate each other.”
The smile doesn’t reappear like I’d hoped. Guess telling the truth as a joke didn’t work.
“Being together, Noah, it’s hard and you know it. We keep each other honest. It would be so much easier to slink back into our old lives.”
Very easy. Return to living day to day, not giving a shit one way or another about anything or anyone. Not killing myself over a future in college and a damn degree. But if I chose simple, I wouldn’t have Echo.
She forces me to question myself—why I do whatever I do. Before her, I couldn’t have cared less about college or a job that went somewhere or a future. But Echo deserves a man she’d be proud of, and the Malt and Burger isn’t good enough.
That same pride she has in her eyes when she walks down the street with me now, I want her to have walking down the street with me in ten years. If I stay as I am, she won’t remain proud.
I brush a finger slowly along Echo’s arm, tracing the smooth skin between her scars. She covered her arms in public again, and my shoulders stiffen. Am I busting my ass to move forward while Echo is falling back into her old life? Before I can ask, Echo opens her mouth. “Will we be okay when we go home?”
“We’ve been through too much for something like this to get us down.”
The knots coiled in my gut relax when that siren smile appears on her face. “So we have to stay together because we’ve walked hand in hand through hell?”
“Don’t overanalyze the rules, baby. Just follow them.”
Echo laughs out loud. “Since when have you followed any rules?”
“Since always. They happen to be mine.”
“The ones you make up don’t count.”
“They do.” I slip my hand along her side. “Like the one that says that I have to kiss you if we’re in bed together.”
Echo raises a brow. “That’s a rule?”
“Fuck it, Echo. I’d kiss you if you were sunbathing on nails. A bed’s a hell of a lot more comfortable.”
She stares up at me from beneath dark eyelashes. “You are so bad.”
“Damn straight.” Right as I go to kiss Echo, someone knocks on the door. Damn it all to hell. “Go away!”
“Be nice! It’s probably housekeeping.” Echo shoves at my chest and while she doesn’t have enough strength to push me away, I drop back like a domino, and she hops out of bed.