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Betraying Innocence & Games of Fire
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A year hadn’t changed the impenetrable walls of ivory. His shadow draped over the marble steps, a dark carpet of rigid hesitation as he stood torn between running and claiming the distance. The front doors gaped, unhinged jaws, a foreshadowing of his awaiting demons glaring, accusing him of his crimes and deeming him guilty.
He was guilty.
Memories he’d fought to drown prowled to the surface, goading him, mocking him…piercing him. Every stab drew blood. Weakness claimed his knees, threatened to cripple him.
God, he didn’t belong there. The year away should have been enough, was supposed to be enough, but it hadn’t been. Nothing could ever take away what he’d done, the things he’d said. Nothing would ever erase the blood on his hands. The heart he’d broken and left shredded and tattered, dragged by its strings from his boots. That agony, the suffering he’d unleashed, was unforgiveable. It was unforgettable. He could die a million times with slow, torturous glee, and it wouldn’t be enough.
The stone archway was a hollow void of her bright smile, her happy squeal of his name as she bounded down the steps, auburn curls a thick cape flying out behind her. She didn’t meet him. He doubted she ever would again. Those days, those single moments of sunlight breaking into his otherwise shrouded existence were mere memories of what could have been, what he’d destroyed.
Unconsciously, he crushed the heel of his hand into the pain cutting through the center of his chest. His jaw set as he willed back the urge to give in to his feet and bolt. The leather straps of his bag squeaked beneath the flex of his fingers.
You’re not a coward! He told himself, only to snort in self-disgust. He was nothing if not a coward. He was weak and stupid and heartless. He was evil and selfish. He should never have come home. He had no right to darken that doorway, to darken her life. She’d probably already moved on. Probably didn’t even care anymore. It was better that way, he told himself, assured himself. He had no right to want anything else. No right to ask. An angel didn’t belong with garbage.
“Isaiah my boy!” Wavy brown hair sprinkled with salt and pepper, Terrell Garrison appeared over the threshold, arms open wide and a brilliant smile crinkling the lines around his mouth and eyes. He’d aged in the six months since Isaiah had seen him. The strong, proud man sitting front row center at his graduation had a stoop to his shoulders and a tired glint to his green eyes. But that didn’t stop him from hurrying down the steps with the speed and grace of a man much younger. In an instant, Isaiah was jerked into a fierce embrace. Out of habit, Isaiah stiffened at the contact, having never been embraced by anyone, but her. The mangled scent of ink, tobacco, old parchment and disinfectant choked him as the other man’s familiar presence surrounded him. Air rushed from his lungs, momentarily unclogging the doubt weighing heavy on his chest. For a split second, he regretted not coming home sooner.
He drew away, cutting a smile onto his face, like standing there wasn’t slicing him to ribbons. “Still keeping yourself cooped up in the library, sir?”
The heavy whacks of Garrison’s hand on his shoulder muffled the man’s rumbling laughter. “You know me, always trying to better the world,” He motioned Isaiah to follow as he turned away. “I hope you’re hungry. Supper is waiting in the dining room.”
Dread coiled sharp and glacial in the pit of Isaiah’s gut at the thought of passing through those doors, at the possibility that she would be there, that he would see her. He wanted to ask, wanted to know, but he bit back the questions.
Damn it! He had no right to think about her!
“All right, Isaiah?”
Slipping seamlessly back behind his mask, Isaiah nodded. “Yes, sir. Just excited to be back.”
Garrison turned back to the sprawling columns of polished ivory, teetering walls of gleaming glass and lavishly nursed lawns. “Come along. I’m starving.”
Isaiah adjusted his grip on the bag, squared his shoulders and marched into what was surely to be his death.
Nothing had changed. The foyer sparkled beneath the pools of sunlight cascading through arches of glass cut into the ceiling, into the walls. It sparked off the dazzling chandelier in brilliant splashes of color. Paintings of medieval lords and ladies peered back from ornate frames of gold. At the far end, the extensive stairway hooped to the second floor, and his last memory of standing on them while he punched a hole into the chest of the only person he’d ever truly loved made his insides hurt. He turned away.
“Ira, take Isaiah’s bag, please.”
A slip of a girl with mousy brown hair and brown eyes shuffled forward. She kept her head down, hands clasped in front of her as she waited for Isaiah to pass over his luggage.
He hesitated. “It’s kind of heavy,” he said.
“I don’t mind, sir,” she whispered to her feet.
Unsure, but seeing no other choice, he held it out to her. Her fingers were a cool brush against the warmth of his. He released his hold and she nearly capsized forward on her face as the weight of his bag settled on her slight frame. Isaiah grabbed her, steadied her.
“My apologies, sir.”
“Maybe I should take it up.” He reached for the bag.
“I’m all right, sir.” She staggered back, out of his reach. Her cheeks grew rosy with exertion. Her breaths came out in puffs. She waddled back, sideways and then forward towards the stairs.
“She’ll be fine,” Garrison said, patting Isaiah on the shoulder, simultaneously propelling him in the direction of the dining room. “Come on. Ruth made all your favorite dishes.”
Giving Ira one last worried glance, Isaiah followed Garrison through an opening on the right and down the winding corridor. The familiar path led them past the library, the parlor, the sitting area and finally the dining room. Isaiah held his breath as he crossed over the threshold. His gaze instantly swept over the room, taking in the long, rectangular table, the high-back chairs, the glossy marble floors, stone hearth and crystal chandelier. Everything was exactly as it had been the last time he’d been there, everything, except that she wasn’t there. She wasn’t sitting across from him, grinning over the flickering flames of candlelight or teasingly nudging his foot with hers beneath the table. She just wasn’t there at all. What’s more, there were only two places set. Disappointment settled on his shoulders as he took his regular spot on Garrison’s right.
Relief! He corrected. It was relief. He wasn’t ready to face her, didn’t think he ever would be. Six years at one of the toughest military schools in Canada, under some of the hardest, strictest teachers and he felt physically sick at the very idea of crossing paths with one girl. His professors would be appalled. They would probably strip him of his diploma.
Garrison claimed his place at the head of the table, smoothed a hand down the front of his cream-colored suit and reached for his napkin. His green eyes rose to Isaiah as he draped it casually over his lap. His face split into a smile. “It really is great to have you home, son.”
Isaiah forced himself not to glance at the empty seat on the other side of the neatly placed table, to not visualize big, blue eyes peering back at him from a face loved by the gentle glow of candlelight. Instead, he focused all his attention on the man who had assigned himself as Isaiah’s guardian and protector, the only man that had given him everything without asking for a single thing back. The only man he owed his life to.
“It’s good to be home, sir.”
Garrison showed teeth in a smile. “I’ll be honest, for a moment, I wasn’t sure you wanted to come back. You seemed so hesitant when we spoke on the phone with all that talk of joining the Forces this fall. I almost took you seriously.”
His training kept him from fidgeting. “I feel it’s my duty to protect my country and do my part to create a better future, sir.” He made no mention of the promises he’d made to people he hadn’t seen in ten years, promises he had every intention of keeping, heaven willing.
Long fingers spread in a questioning gesture as Garrison sat back. “Well, that’s easy enough to do through charities and other functions once you made a good future for yourself. I can call several universities and see if we can’t get you early admission. I know with your stellar record from the Academy plus a recommendation from me.” He dropped his hands into his lap. “You can have any sort of future you wish.” Garrison picked up his wineglass. “If, after, you decide you still want to pursue this path, I’m sure we can find something more suitable.”
Isaiah struggled not to grimace, not to lose his patience. None of this was anything he hadn’t already heard over the phone every night since his graduation three months ago. He had tried so hard to keep away, to uphold his own silent promise to himself, to her. Coming back was just cruel. But Garrison had badgered until there was no choice except to succumb and return to the last place on earth he ever wanted to see again. He didn’t understand why Isaiah wanted to join the army. Why he’d wanted to fight. But Isaiah had his reasons. Some were more selfish than others, but it was for the best.
“I don’t think university is the right option for me, sir.”
Garrison took a sip, set his glass down and waved a hand. “Then take a year off, think about it while you enjoy your youth. I know it will be nice to have you around the house for Christmas. It’s been horrendously quiet around here.”
He couldn’t help himself, couldn’t bite back the words burning in his mouth. “Where’s Amalie?”
Like shutters closing on a pleasant view of warm meadows, Garrison’s expression closed. Lines bracketed his mouth and creased the spot between his brows. His gaze dropped to his neatly folded hands resting in his lap.
“She won’t be joining us,” he said, his tone definite. “She will be having her supper in her room.”
It was Isaiah’s turn to avert his gaze. He scrubbed his wet palms down the thighs of his cargo pants. She didn’t want to see him. It shouldn’t have surprised him, but it did. It shouldn’t have hurt, but God, the pain was unbearable.
“How is she?”
Stop asking! Stop caring! Keep your mouth shut! But he could never stop caring. He could never stop wanting her, needing her. The torture he’d suffered those twelve months away was infinite. Being skinned and salted alive was a pleasure cruise in comparison. But he needed to know. God, it was selfish, but he needed to know she was all right.
“She hasn’t been well.” Garrison toyed with the corner of his napkin. “Her conditions have worsened since you were here last.”
A jagged ball of rusted nails cut a bloody trail down the column of his throat, his chest and settled in the pit of his stomach. Spikes of ice pierced through his lungs, immobilizing every breath, freezing his blood. It was solely his grip on the armrests that kept him from leaping to his feet; kept him from charging out of the room; kept him from finding her, pulling her into his arms and begging her to forgive him. This was his fault. If she was worse, it was because of him, because of what he’d done, or because of what he should have done sooner. He did this to her. She was suffering because of him.
Garrison took up his wineglass once more and toyed with the stem. “If anything, things have been catastrophic.”
The food arrived on a gilded trolley, domed platters brimming with succulent meals fit for royalty. Somber-faced servers set the dishes on the table. One filled Isaiah’s glass with ice water. But his lungs were already frozen. His blood was clotted with splinters. The sight of food turned his stomach.
“Is someone watching her?” He slicked his lips, his voice a broken mirror reflecting every emotion crashing into him. “Is someone with her? Making sure—?”
Garrison raised a hand, signaling him to be quiet. His remarkably flat, cold eyes watched the ballet being performed around the table as trays were set in their proper places, glasses were filled and food was catered.
“We can serve ourselves,” he told the nearest server.
The man, staring respectfully at his feet, bowed his head, snapped smartly on his shiny heels and hurried to grab his trolley. The others followed his lead like dogs on a tether.
Garrison watched them, waited until they were fully out of sight before focusing on Isaiah once more. “After the mess Julia made, I can’t trust people not to talk and I don’t want word of Amalie getting out to certain people.”
“She’s alone?” Those two words were laced with anguish, with anger and disbelief.
“No, not alone.” Garrison sat back, hands folded neatly in his lap. “She has Gabriel — Julia’s replacement — who comes in five times a week to tutor her and Isabella takes up her food and makes sure the room is in order. Amalie and I have our meetings three times a week where we discuss her progress. I already mentioned to her that we would consider bringing more people into her life as soon as she makes more of an effort to get better. I do not want another horrific incident like with Julius Barnabas. You remember that, don’t you?”
Isaiah nodded. “Has she…” he trailed off, too numb to formulate the nagging words.
Garrison shook his head. “She assures me she no longer sees things, but there are times I see it in her eyes, the way she moves. I keep our meetings to her room. I notice she’s more relaxed there. I’ve told her that until she makes more progress, she will be confined to her room. I think this saves me from having to constantly hover over her and make sure she’s not going to do anything stupid.”
Isaiah didn’t want to imagine it, didn’t think he had the nerve to continue sitting there when the image of Amalie — tiny, fragile Amalie — sitting alone and sick in her room, kept rotating around in his skull. But now that it was there, digging roots into his brain, he didn’t know how to shake it.
“Sir, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but does she need to be locked up?”
“It’s for her good, Isaiah. I know it sounds harsh and unreasonable right now, but I can’t have her wandering about, talking to herself! Can you imagine the chaos that would cause if someone were to see? I have enemies watching my every move and major backers that would not hesitate to pull their funding if word of Amalie got out. These people don’t understand how hard I’ve worked to bring her this far. I can’t have them getting wind that, here I am trying to cure mankind of retardation and my own daughter is mentally challenged. Do you understand?”
He didn’t. Maybe he was too blinded by emotion, too overcome by the ever present need to protect her, but he didn’t like the idea of her being stored away like some dirty secret. He didn’t like her being alone. The latter killed him, destroyed him, devastated him. The very idea that she was somewhere in the maze of rooms and corridors, alone, maybe frightened, slashed at his heart.
Garrison sighed when Isaiah sat torn between two voices. “It’s for her own good, Isaiah. I promise you. Everything I do is to help make her better.”