I can take care of myself…
Hayley is determined to achieve her goals and build a life that she can be proud of. If only a certain someone would go away. She doesn’t understand how the others can forgive so easily? Worst of all, she can’t reconcile her attraction. Meanwhile, a child has vanished.
I will never leave you...
Gabriel has accepted their fate, but the human world is confusing. The longer they are in it, the more unsettled they become, especially with their attraction to Hayley that is far beyond the vanilla. It contradicts their nature, a nature they don’t fully understand. On top of that, Gabriel gets dragged into an investigation they didn’t ask for.
They both have to confront their demons to save the child. Can they overcome their internalized Shame and allow themselves a chance at happiness or are the Scarstoo deep?
Note: This book may contain situations that are difficult for some readers. See Author notes for details.
Word Count: 57481
Setting: Tucson, AZ
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Same Universe / Various Characters
“Hey! See you later!” Jesús chimed as I sauntered away from him and Ashley.
“Yup. Bye!” I replied.
“Try not to piss anyone else off today,” Ashley said with a smirk.
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t know what Prof. McKenzie’s problem is. I’m a straight A student. She really needs a life. I can’t help that I’m extra. It’s my sexual orientation,” I said, with a shrug.
They both snickered as I walked away.
Do you take anything seriously? James’s voice drifted through my mind, and I smiled to myself.
The answer to that was obvious. No. I didn’t take anything serious. Life was too short to worry about the stupid shit. I had one goal and that was to get through school and move on to helping abandoned children.
Where is Mommy?
A chill ran down my spine even though the air was warm.READ MORE
The desert sun burned bright in the sky, shining down on passing cars. The air filled with the sound of car horns and alarms, mixing with the skid of bicycles. I dragged my feet along the sidewalk, surrounded by freshly watered grass lawns, glittering in the bright sun.
My shoulders grew heavier the further I walked, passing benches scattered along the path. Midterms were coming up and, although I had a hard time paying attention in class, I always made sure to ace my tests. The curriculum was difficult. Mix that with rebuilding the coffee shop, and it was exhausting, but I was determined.
When my phone rang, I jumped and pulled it out of my pocket, glancing at the screen. Cory.
“Hey,” I said into the receiver.
“I just wanted to know when you’d be home. What do you want for dinner?” he asked.
“I’m going to the library to study. I don’t know when I’ll be home,” I replied.
A loud yawn escaped my lips. I shook my head to clear away the weariness. All I wanted to do was sleep.
And never wake up. I frowned, pushing away that thought. Even now, my mental health would get in the way of common sense.
Common sense? Ha! I dragged my hand down my face and continued to walk. Several students ran by me as Cory started to speak again.
“When is the last time you slept?” he asked.
I smiled. Cory was always taking care of me. No matter how many times I told him he didn’t have to, he persisted. I understood why. We were cousins, after all. I would do the same for him.
Ever since that day he walked me out of the rehab, he made sure I had everything I needed. He was far too kind for his own good. It annoyed me every day, but it also warmed my heart. I wouldn’t tell him that, though. I glanced to the side as if he could see me. “I slept last night.”
He sighed heavily through the phone. “You were up until like three AM!”
I exhaled and slumped. I wished he would stop watching me so closely. Sometimes I wondered if it was because he didn’t trust that I would remain clean and sober.
He doesn’t. I shook my head again.
He just cared about me, that’s all.
I reminded him daily that I was not a child. It didn’t stop him.
Buildings rose around me, a mix of lecture halls, dorms, fraternity, and sorority houses. Banners stretched across the library entrance advertising reading and research events. Students stood in groups outside the library, laughing and talking, while others sat on benches or walked towards the parking garages.
“I’ll be fine,” I muttered.
“Uh-huh.” I could feel his eyes roll through the phone.
I clenched my jaw, holding back my anger as best I could. He didn’t need that. Not after what he’d been through. I gripped the phone. “Have you heard anything about the insurance check yet?” I asked, hoping to sway him away from the conversation.
We spent the last five months trying to get the stupid insurance company to pay to have Fresh N Hot rebuilt. The angel, Gabriel, had attacked Jamie at the shop to get back at their brother Lucy—who happens to be the devil. Cory was caught in the crossfire, and the shop was destroyed.
“They sent the check yesterday,” he replied.
When I reached the old brick building, I leaned my hip against the stone railing that surrounded the steps leading up to the entrance. “I don’t know why they took so long. You need a better insurance company.” I knew why, but it still annoyed me. Andy, Jamie’s boyfriend, and his partner, Detective Skyler, altered the police report, but they were still suspicious. It was their job to pay, but these companies would weasel their way out if they could. Especially the small insurance companies.
“They were cheap. I’m not exactly rolling in cash in the coffee business, thanks to that damn chain,” he said. He always complained, but I knew he loved it. It gave him purpose. “It’ll be there soon.”
I could hear the uncertainty and decided to drop it. None of this was his fault. I could be harsh, and I usually didn’t know when I was doing it.
It’s safer that way.
I sighed in exasperation. “Let me know when it gets here so we can get started.”
“Don’t worry about it. Concentrate on midterms. I have James to help and you don’t need to put everything on your shoulders. We’ve got this.”
I frowned. I didn’t get what the big deal was. I could help and ace my exams. “Fine. Just let me know if you need help?”
The call disconnected, and I yawned again, making a note to stop by the shop. Cory wouldn’t actually let me know. I would have to keep an eye out.
A gust of hot wind kicked up dirt around me as I made my way up the steps to the library.
I walked through the double doors into the massive two-story building. Sturdy bookshelves lined the walls, librarians worked at the long front desk in the center of the room, and student assistants scanned and checked books out. I moved past the staircase leading to the second floor and sat down at a long table. Bright fluorescent overhead lights beamed down on me.
Over the next several hours, I leaned over my sociology textbook, skimming each line slowly and trying to remain focused. A yawn burst from my mouth without my permission, echoing through the silent space. I looked around and found that only one librarian and a single assistant remained. A few students sat scattered around the room with earbuds in as they stared at their textbooks.
When I finished going to Pima, it had been a culture shock transferring to the University. I grew up here in Tucson, but it still was a completely different world going from one school to another, especially in a completely different part of town.
I returned my attention to my book and tried to continue to read.
My phone shrieked loudly, and I jolted upright, realizing I had dozed off. When I scanned the room, the librarian glared at me. I frowned and glared back, pulling my phone from my pocket and hurrying to the exit.
“Hello?” I said, stepping outside and looking out at the dark campus. The streetlights had turned on, spotting the night with specks of light. The stench of cigarette smoke drifted into my nose.
“Ms. McDonald,” Tammy said.
“Hey,” I replied.
Tammy was my boss at DCS, the Department of Child Safety. Although I was not a master student, I had managed to get an internship working with the children in group homes. I wasn’t getting paid, and that sucked, but I would do what I had to. I had a place to live, thanks to Cory, and he understood.
When I was brought on, Tammy put me to work immediately. Making me run meaningless errands, including getting her coffee and taking paperwork across town. She was kind of a bitch, but, to my surprise, I held my tongue. It wasn’t something that came easy to me. I really needed this job. To this day, Jamie still teased me about having to be careful with what I said for the first time in my life.
Not the first time.
“I need you to come in,” she said.
I took a deep breath to keep myself from yawning. “It’s seven.”
“We have an emergency. This seems like a good learning opportunity,” she said with annoyance clear in her voice.
I clenched my jaw. “What happened?”
“A child has gone missing.”
My heart hit my chest and then sank low in my stomach. “I’ll be there in twenty.”
When the call disconnected, I stared at the phone for a moment, goosebumps rising along my skin. I called a Lyft before I hurried back inside to get my stuff as the sound of coyotes drifted from the dusty mountains in the distance.
When Tammy and I stepped inside the fence, I inspected the building that looked like a large home bathed in shadow. Playground equipment peeked around from the back. A sign with guest hours was hung by the door as we approached.
We entered the quiet house and walked down the hall past several rooms with bunk beds pressed against the walls. A child filled each bed. Some of the rooms had two or more single twin beds with older teens who looked like they were about to age out.
It was just as I remembered. I spent several years in a group home and being inside one made me sick to my stomach. I was really going to have to get over this. Weakness did these children no good.
The tension in my jaw increased as we moved further into the house. The home was filled with simple furniture, whiteboards in the kitchen with assigned chores next to posted house rules. Along the walls, ragged books stood together on old bookshelves.
I eyed the kitchen, trying to keep my nerves under control as memories threatened to take over. A woman stepped out into the hall, and I was grateful for the distraction. I could see the bags under her eyes and the slump of her shoulders. It was clear she was worried and exhausted.
“Thank you for coming so quickly,” she said when she reached us. Tammy nodded and pulled out a notepad. The woman glanced at me.
“She is my intern,” Tammy said. “When did you notice the child was missing?”
I looked back to the other woman.
“One of the other children came out and told us he was gone when she woke up to use the bathroom.”
Tammy scribbled something down. “Was there anything unusual about the child’s behavior or any clue that they might run away?”
She thought that the kid had run away. I narrowed my eyes. It was true that children ran away quite often. I was one of them, but did she have to assume it was their fault? They could have been kidnapped. Blaming the victim was never okay.
No one will believe you.
My stomach churned as Tammy asked more questions. The conversation faded into the distance as my mind raced with a million thoughts. Was he okay? Did someone hurt him? Was he hungry and alone?
Acid rose in my throat as the memory of Eden returned. Eden was a child Tammy put in my care when it was discovered she was sick—which turned out to be the bubonic plague. They banished her from the house, not wanting the other kids to get sick. I took her to Adam, the only doctor I trusted, but despite his efforts and because of Lucy's curse, she died anyway. Both blamed themselves. I wished they would realize it wasn’t their fault.
“I need to use the restroom,” I said. The woman nodded and pointed me in the direction of the nearest bathroom. I excused myself.
As I walked further down the hall, the soft snores of children drifted out of the rooms. Something flashed in my peripheral vision. I peered into the room, finding a little boy sitting on a bed with something in his hands. It glittered with an unnatural light that illuminated his face as he gazed at it in awe.
“Can I come in?” I whispered.
The child’s head shot up, fear in his expression. I softened my voice and asked again. He nodded, gripping the object.
When I stopped at his side, I studied it. It was a long branch twisting and curling in on itself in places. The wood grain was fine and barely visible through the white glow of its surface.
“Can I see it?” I asked. The child frowned and looked down, lost in thought for a moment, and then handed it to me. I inspected it, turning it around in my hand. It radiated a warmth as if it was alive. “Where did you find this?”
“Bobby is missing, and I found it under his bed.”
That must be the missing child, I thought. I peered at the branch, then backed away. The child played with his hands like it was a nervous habit.
“You’re fine. You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. The boy relaxed.
Kids got in trouble for everything in these places, and they had always been on high alert, expecting at any moment that they would be punished.
I plastered the best smile that I could muster on my face. “Thank you.” He grinned.
I left the room and entered the bathroom, pulling out my phone. “Hey,” James answered.
“Hey, I need to talk to Andy,” I said, leaning against the wall. I heard shuffling and mumbled voices through the receiver.
“Hey,” Andrew said.
“There’s a missing child.”
“I’m aware. It has been reported,” he replied. “That’s not my department.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. “This is not normal.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you know any trees that glow?”COLLAPSE