Tony's stifled laughter was the first sound I heard after waking up.
Opening my eyes, I saw him standing sideways facing the hospital bed I occupied. He was putting his fist to his mouth to strangle a loud snort. And he was amused by Dylan, located next to a large arched window, the only one in the room. Apparently he was trying to open it and was staring at the broken handle, which he now held in his hand.
"What a piece of shit," he muttered under his breath and tossed the broken object onto the windowsill, then glanced at Tony. "Stop guffawing or you'll wake her up."
Surprisingly, Tony tried to calm down a bit. Then both of my brothers gave me a controlling glance, and when they discovered that I really wasn't asleep anymore, their eyes widened. Dylan immediately moved forward to stand to my left. He tried to act natural, which he didn't do very well, because he was obviously uncomfortable. First he intertwined his hands in front of him, then he lowered them loosely along his torso and clasped them again.
Guys, bring a camera, a rare specimen of an embarrassed Dylan just stood in front of me!
I looked up at my brother's dark eyes. I imagined that my expression was void of all emotion, because at least that's how I felt in spirit.
"What... what's up?" he asked quietly. He was serious too, and his gaze was wary.
I knew my answer would either be hoarse or quiet, squeaky or snarling, so I didn't bother to open my mouth.
"What's up," snorted Tony, who was now leaning against the parallel wall with his arms folded across his chest and also watching me intently. "You'd ask her how she's feeling, not what's fucking up."
Dylan looked at him in exasperation.
"Then why don't you ask her yourself, you're here too, right?"
"Whatever, if you're talking, then talk."
"Then be fucking quiet."
I used the duration of their banter to explore the room I had been assigned in this fine clinic. It wasn't very big, but at least I didn't have to share it with anyone, and there was an extra door that probably led to my own bathroom. The walls were a cream color, probably like the hallway, if I remember correctly, but here there was a thick, dark brown stripe stretching across them just below the ceiling. Also, there was a flat-screen mini TV hanging across from the bed, and a brown visitor's chair in the corner near the window. Next to my bed, however, was a table with a pretty flower with thick, luscious green leaves.
Next to Dylan's head was a bag filled with a transparent liquid, which I noticed only when I tilted my chin up. Attached to it was a tube, which my gaze then followed. The other end was a needle stuck into the top of my hand. I stared impassively at the venflon, trying to remember who the hell had put it in me and when.
I glanced back at my brothers, but they weren't done teasing yet.
".. then make yourself useful and go, tell the rest she's awake."
"Well, fine, I'll go."
"Awesome, then go."
"And fuck you, I'm going."
So I continued my inspection. I was dressed in a grey t-shirt. It smelled of powder, so it must have been freshly washed, it was perfectly comfortable, so it must have been of good quality, and a hundred sizes too big on me, so it must have belonged to one of my brothers. I couldn't see the bottom of my outfit because I was covered by a simple, neat quilt. After a while, I was indeed haunted by vague memories of a nurse helping me to change. She had also attended to my forehead wound, and I wanted to lift my fingers to touch the bandage to confirm the reality of those events, but eventually my brain decided that tearing my hands from the comforter was too much trouble for my condition, so I gave up.
"Sorry, Hailie," Dylan muttered to me as soon as the wooden door with its rectangular, milky glass pane closed behind one of the twins. "Tony you know... Tony is stupid."
I stared blankly into my brother's dark eyes, then the growing urge in me to tease him won out and I spoke up for the first time.
"You aren't any better."
Dylan raised a finger and threatened me with it with a pretend serious look on his face.
"Ey, ey, you, don't cross the line, little girl."
I looked at him still unmoved.
"Nu, nu, nu," I muttered weakly.
This patented by him, stupid phrase immediately caused a wide smile on his face. It provoked mine as well, so that suddenly we both just burst out laughing.
At some point my amusement was too much and I felt physical pain. My still oversensitive throat hurt, which was probably due to the choking, among other things. My ribs were sore, and I had bruised them doing flips in that unfortunate car, and my jaw was sore. And a million other things, the analysis of which in my deplorable condition would be completely pointless.
Dylan, probably at the sight of my sudden wryness, became serious and I knew him well enough to know that his muscles, hidden under that loose, gray sweatshirt he was wearing, were tensing up.
"I'm going to fucking kill him."
His statement was quiet, calm, and so ordinary, as if he were simply announcing that he needed to cut back on the caffeine. That's why it sent shivers through me.
"Dylan..." I didn't know what I was going to say and just stared into his determination-lit irises.
"I'm gonna fucking kill him, Hailie."
"Dylan." Our oldest brother's sharp, cool voice rang out as he joined us in the room.
We both shifted our gazes to him. He was in his shirt, as usual, and only slight shadows showed under his eyes. However, they absolutely did not undermine his authority or call into question his strength. He was just casting a hard, warning look at our brother.
"Do you need to go out and cool off?" he asked him, politely as usual.
Dylan clenched his hands into fists.
"She can't even laugh!"
Vince, approaching my bed from the opposite side to Dylan, looked at him significantly, and only after a moment lowered his gaze to me. I was pleased to see that his frigid eyes immediately softened. I needed relief from him as much as ever. I needed him to treat me with kid gloves like I could always count on Will to do.
"How are you feeling?"
Vincent couldn't sound caring, so his question seemed to be thrown in a dry way, but I appreciated the very sense of his words. By the way, they made me realize how hopeless my state actually was.
Sore head, blocked nose and swollen throat could be signs of a simple infection, which my poor, cold body had every right to catch. On top of that there were bruises after the fight with Ryder and bruises after the accident. My limbs were still stiff, my stomach sucked with hunger, my mouth was dry, and I wanted to go to the toilet.
"Quite... so-so," I grunted, trying to do it discreetly, then added: "I think I'm a little sick."
Vincent looked down at me for a long moment and I counted that he blinked maybe twice during that time, then he spoke again, this time openly switching to formal tones.
"You have a feverish condition, the last time your temperature was measured was half an hour ago. This is due to the prolonged weakness of your body. You were dehydrated, so an IV was put in. There were no stitches in your forehead, but they're about to take x-rays of your head and abdomen to rule out serious internal injuries. If you feel up to it, you can take a quick shower first."
I followed his hand with my eyes. So I guessed correctly before that that door led to the bathroom.
I nodded my head. The vision of a shower that Vince had now planted in my mind worked on me like a carrot on a horse. I needed to feel fresh. I needed my hair clean and fragrant. I needed to brush my teeth with some strong mint paste. And wash my swollen eyelids with a cotton pad soaked in cool water. And scrub my back, and my feet, and, oh Jesus, my nails. I just looked at them. Where did that nasty dirt come from?
As if on cue, I tried to get up. I pulled my head off the stiff pillow, propped myself up on my elbows, and lifted my back, but the movements were too abrupt and demanding for my lazy body, causing me immediate pain in even a few places, and I sank back onto the mattress, sighing loudly.
Dylan and Vince rushed at me from both sides, both extending their arms in readiness to insure me.
"Hey, wait, kid, be careful."
I felt a hand on my chest, gently but firmly restraining me from any more such reckless spurts. Only moments later did I gather the strength and courage to open my eyes again. I immediately met Vincent's gaze, very intense, as if my eldest brother were trying by sheer force of will to convey to me some of his calm and composure. It was his hand that was holding me back. I glanced at it and the massive signet ring resting on one of its fingers. Similar to the one that Adrien had.
Then Vince took his hand, lifted it, and leaned over to, as I soon discovered, summon the nurse with the button hanging just above my head. Then, without a word, he pointed with his chin at my venflon, as if wordlessly arguing his actions. Well, yes, I had already managed to forget about that IV.
While waiting for the nurse, I didn't speak. I was looking at my slim hands, which in hospital conditions seemed to be morbidly skinny. Here and there they were decorated with ugly, purple spots. More than once I moved my stiff fingers, sometimes smoothing out non-existent wrinkles on the quilt. I was busy with silly things so I wouldn't have to make eye contact with my brothers anymore. Not long ago I had begged the universe to be among them, and now that I had them with me, I felt strangely indifferent. It wasn't that I didn't want them here, it was just that my effusiveness was blocked by something, as if my psyche had built itself a dam, in (rightful) fear that I would turn into a crying baby.
There was a sense of tension in the air, and I was sure that Dylan and Vincent were glancing at each other. And when the older one opened his mouth and grunted, I prepared myself for the sound of his cool voice, which didn't happen. We were interrupted by a nurse who entered the room with a smile glued to her face.
The lady looked a bit like a beautician at some esteemed spa. Her neat uniform consisted of a loose shirt and cappuccino-colored pants, and a pretty face was adorned with natural makeup.
My brothers stepped aside while the woman asked me questions about my well-being, which I practically didn't answer, cringing as she took the needle out of my hand. Several times she made sure I was able to shower on my own. As she helped me up from the bed, I thought I was going to throw myself back onto it and suffocate myself with a pillow as she repeated the extremely annoying word "slowly" to me every now and then.
I heard Vince throw quietly to Dylan to open the window and get some air in here and I almost rolled my eyes when he muttered in response that "Tony broke the handle".
"Slowly," the nurse chirped as I lowered my legs off the mattress. Waiting for me right by the bed were perfectly kitschy pink rubber flip-flops with fluffy pompoms. I don't know who brought them here for me, I don't recall having them before.
As I slipped my feet into them and prepared to lift, Vince approached and held out his hand. I gladly chose to hang onto his steady arm over those of the petite nurse. She didn't seem to have a problem with this and merely held out her hands, as if she expected my brother to lack the reflexes to hold me up in case I suddenly slid to the ground.
I clenched my teeth.
I took the first step and then the second.
"That's right. Slowly."
I twitched and stopped. I realized that I was unnaturally calm, while trapped in my soul were burning, extreme emotions. So it turned out that it didn't take much to release them.
"Well, I am doing everything slowly! I am slow! Even if I wanted to, I couldn't be fast! I can barely walk, as, I guess, you can see!"
My eyes opened wide when I realized that I myself was the author of this outburst. If I hadn't clenched my fingers on Vince's shirt, I would have just covered my own mouth in shock.
The nurse blinked, then lowered her head and apologized to me politely, continuing her assistance in silence. Dylan stared at me puzzled, with raised eyebrows, but didn't speak, and I didn't even dare looking at Vincent. Thankfully, he decided not to comment aloud on my rudeness.
The bathroom brought back in me the feeling of being in a hotel. The glass shower was small but very clean, the toilet white and scrubbed to a shine, and the large mirror over the sink well lit. I was given about five minutes to shower and I was going to watch myself with my watch in hand, because I wasn't allowed to lock the door so the other could react as quickly as possible in case something happened to me. And I wouldn't want someone, such as Vincent, to come in alarmed and find me without clothes. Oh, my lord.
My time limit was cut to the bare minimum, as half of it was lost to examining my battered body in the mirror. I looked terrible. So dirty and bruised. I had bruises in places I didn't even know it's possible to have them.
The warm water and flower-scented shower gel really made me feel better. I jumped into fresh clothes, which were another t-shirt, this time black with some red lettering – I was pretty sure I'd seen it a few times on Tony – and my sensationally comfortable women's boxers and black sweatpants. I was scrubbing my wet hair with a towel when an urgent knock on the door sounded.
The initial examination and evaluation of my injuries had been done while I was asleep, or almost asleep. I had no recollection at all of the doctor who had supposedly attended to me during the night, and had it not been for my brothers confirming this version, I would have thought someone was lying. Such trace amnesia, however, was to my advantage. Like probably everyone else, I wasn't fond of hospitals.
I left the room accompanied by the nurse and Vince. In the corridor we met Tony, who was standing by the candy bar vending machines, and then Will came across us immediately as well. He had come out from behind a corner and was just finishing up a phone call. When he saw us, he immediately came to me, hugged me to his side and at the same time took me over from Vince, who in turn disappeared behind the corner, already on the way pulling out his phone, as usual. This is how, in the end, my favorite brother accompanied me during the next examination, which, fortunately for me, turned out to be a formality.
When I was coming back, still accompanied by Will, we passed Dylan and Tony again, who announced that they were going to get food for everyone. Then we ran into Vincent again as he was talking (probably about me) to the nurse, and when I returned to my room, I found Shane stretched out on my bed like a comma. He had his head on his folded arms and had even taken off his shoes. He was watching tv.
This is what a hospital overrun by the Monet brothers looked like, if anyone asked. I was glad they were all here, nearby.
Which didn't mean I wasn't still irritated.
"Get off," I burbled, moving closer to the bed.
"Shh, little girl," he murmured and held out his arm, encouraging me to lie down by his side, and though I still felt a strange, unexplored irritation, I climbed onto the mattress with a grimace on my face and clung to his side.
Shane could be annoying, it was true, but I also had a secret weakness for him. He just had his moments where he was too comforting to get real angry at. I snuggled up against him and his warm sweatshirt and it felt nice when I felt his hand wrap tightly around my back. I even ignored the fact that I wasn't that comfortable at all. The feeling of closeness was successfully making up for it.
It's not that I fell asleep, I just closed my eyes and stopped hearing my brothers' voices for a moment. Will was giving Shane the boring news that the tests had shown me to have a mild concussion, which didn't look serious, but which had resulted in me being recommended to stay at the clinic a night longer. And then suddenly I smelled the wonderful aroma of a mixture of chili, ginger and, maybe spring onion or garlic? And my nose heated up.
Saliva immediately ran into my mouth and I blinked unconsciously. I was still nestled on the bed beside one of the twins, and as I looked around the room, I noticed that the other four were already here too. It was the first time today that I had seen them all in one room.
Dylan and Tony had brought over Chinese take-out and each now got their portion of the characteristically yellow noodles with vegetables and chicken in red cardboard boxes. I rose to a sitting position and leaned back against the cushions, digging into my dish.
"Funny thing," I began aloud, looking at the wooden chopstick with a friendly smile. "I shoved an identical one into Ryder Hardy's face."
The Monet brothers should have their own private photographer who would follow them everywhere and capture their priceless faces in moments like that, when they were so comical and unique that if it wasn't for the bitterness in me, I would have been rolling on the floor laughing long ago.
There was a grave silence. Tony stopped cackling and Dylan rustling. Everyone was now sticking their confused gazes into me. Even Vince, the king of composure, hadn't expected to hear such absurd-sounding words from my mouth.
I lifted my gaze, shamelessly reciprocating my siblings' attention without letting it intimidate me.
"What are you looking at?" I asked directly, making sure to look into the eyes of each of them, without exception. "Do you guys even care?"
The boys were so surprised that before they could answer me, I managed, shaking my head reluctantly, to go back to digging into my pasta, although it was clear that despite my hunger, my appetite was now equal to zero.
Will was the first to speak up. He himself also momentarily stopped caring about food. He put his portion aside, on the table next to my bed, and came closer.
I also felt Shane's hand, which he placed on my shoulder. I immediately knocked it off, a little more aggressively than I intended.
"I don't think so," I replied to myself, then stuck my gaze straight at Vincent, who had managed to occupy the only available chair in the room. "You'll probably just lock me in the house for who knows how long and maybe throw in two more bodyguards. Because why go into details."
"Hailie, when we found out that you had been abducted, there was no time for us to sit on our asses in peace," Shane said quietly and even he stopped eating.
"We were looking for you the whole time," Dylan added.
I gave him an irritated look.
"Well, you guys had a great pace, really. If I hadn't regained consciousness, I would have frozen a long time ago."
"No way, you've got to be kidding," Dylan snorted in the same ironic tone as I had earlier. He was leaning against the windowsill, but he got so put out that he put his box behind him and took a few steps towards me. "Do you really think we've been looking for you half-heartedly? How do you even imagine that, what, that when we got an info that you didn't go to exams, we didn't panic? That when we saw on the cameras that some fucker drove you out of school, we didn't put everyone on alert?! That we waved our hands? All right, fuck it, it's nothing, Hailie's gonna be all righty? Do you really think we're that fucked-up?"
I carelessly set my box aside, on top of the comforter, not caring if it fell over and soiled the pillowcase. I was more than willing to argue. There were too many emotions bubbling inside me that I needed to do something about.
"I don't know, Dylan, I don't know!" I clenched my fists on the comforter. "What I do know is that normally you constantly demonstrate how great your reach is, how many people and organizations you have in your pocket, and suddenly all day long you can't find a car that fell off the road? After all, it's not like someone drove me to fucking Alaska!"
"There was a snowstorm! A goddamn snowstorm! It was snowing like fuck!" Dylan shouted.
"A helicopter couldn't even take off," Shane added.
"And those drones. The wind blew away three of them," Tony muttered.
"We've been looking for you the whole time, little one. Our options were limited by the weather, and then when it cleared up, we didn't know if you were still in the area or if that scumbag had driven you off to some unknown location," Will said softly.
"We took into account various possibilities, that you might have had an accident, that he took you to some hideout, that he ran away with you to another state..." Shane said.
"On the road where you crashed, the snow covered the traces of the accident," Saying this, Will stroked my head, staring into my eyes with seriousness.
"You don't know, hell, you don't even know how relieved we felt when Vince got a call from Adrien with the news that his men had stumbled upon our lost sister. I fucking thought I was going to puke," Dylan rumbled, shaking his head with such unspeakable fury that I couldn't look at him for too long. "And you're going to ask me if I cared?"
"You didn't even ask what happened," I burbled, somewhat lost in my own anger.
I felt Will's hand on my back.
"Please don't take this as our indifference, Hailie. We don't want to put pressure on you. We don't know how much you've been through. Your health and well-being is more important than digging into such fresh and unpleasant memories. We want you to tell us everything when you're ready," he explained calmly and matter-of-factly, periodically using his hand to make circular, soothing motions that made me shiver slightly. "Are you?"
I bit my lip for a moment. I was too angry and bitter to be embarrassed or ashamed of making such hurtful assumptions about my brothers.
Eventually, I grunted quietly.
"The boy who abducted me was a mentally unstable junkie who threatened to shoot everyone around him. The sooner he is captured, the better."
"We are looking for him all the time," Vincent spoke up and, traditionally, everyone turned towards him to hear what he had to say. He was sitting in an armchair, dignified as ever, and only the fiddly red box of Chinese food he held in one hand spoiled his elegant appearance a little. "I'm glad you feel like talking about this particular topic right now. Indeed, we were told that it was better not to attack you with questions right away in case they would only traumatize you, but since you yourself obviously insist on having this discussion, I'll be happy to hold it with you, Hailie."
I nodded with seriousness, wanting to show my full commitment.
"Okay then..." Vince also nodded. "I'll tell you what information we have, and then you can fill it in with your own, don't you agree?"
"Yes," I replied somewhat impatiently. I also sat down a little more comfortably. Let's get to the point.
"After ten thirty, I received a message that you didn't show up for the exam. Immediately, we started searching for you strating in the school and your security guard was tracking down the gps. He found your phone, along with your jewelry, abandoned on a locker in the hallway."
"Yes, we have your things, don't worry. They're safe," Will reassured me, anticipating my question. After all, I was very anxious to retrieve my father's gifts.
"We started reviewing the camera footage in that hallway," Vince continued. "We were able to identify your kidnapper as Ryder Hardy..."
"The brother of that loser who brought you the flowers, it should be noted," Dylan interjected, wagging his finger. "Coincidence?"
The very thought of Leo pained me a little, so I ignored Dylan's suggestion for now, still looking at Vince, who gave him a brief, annoyed look, as he always did when someone interfered with his words.
"He had a gun and threatened to use it if I didn't go with him," I explained, to which our oldest brother nodded.
"That's what it looked like on the video, too."
"The sticking point was the car you got into with him," Will added. He spoke in a calm tone and I liked that he told me everything in such a balanced way. "All the patrols were looking for him. If it hadn't been for the unfortunate accident, we assume they could have found you before noon. Besides, of course, they were looking for you and Ryder, too. Last night, the police were approached by a man who came across him on the road. He was cold and limping, but he didn't want to go to the hospital, he just asked for a ride. Later, the man watched the news and recognized Hardy's face, so he immediately reported to the police."
"What?" I groaned, holding back a sarcastic snort. "I don't believe it. Nobody helped me, but they helped Ryder?"
No, seriously, where's the laughable justice in that?
"He was on a different road. He had to go through the woods to get there. It's hard to believe he managed it because the guy said Ryder was in bad shape, but it's possible," Shane said.
"Your accident was unfortunate enough, little one, that at that spot on the curve you couldn't see anything. The snow covered all the traces."
I was thinking.
"So if I hadn't woken up, I would have died?"
Everyone fell silent for a moment, a shadow of horror reflected on their faces.
Finally Will spoke up again, first with a grunt.
"When the police announced that a witness had seen Ryder alone, injured in the area, we immediately truncated the search to the vicinity of that road where he was seen and increased the intensity. At about that point you made your walk into town. I think that if you hadn't woken up, however, we probably would have found you shortly thereafter anyway."
"There are several issues that need clarification here," Vincent interjected. "Everything indicates that you were alone in the car during the accident. So what happened that Ryder wasn't with you? What happened that you were separated and he was injured?"
I was silent for a moment.
"Well, ehm, that's because I shot him," I admitted, grabbing the box of food back to at least keep my hands busy.
A moment of silence.
"You shot him?" Will repeated, blinking in disbelief.
I shrugged my shoulders, avoiding the shocked looks of my brothers.
"Well, first... like first I threatened him, but he didn't take me seriously, then I had to show him that well.... well, you know I'm not joking," I explained, scooping up a portion of noodles with my chopsticks. "That's why I shot him in the leg. You said to shoot in the leg in case of emergency, right? So they couldn't run away and were less..." I swung my chopsticks. "... less mobile?"
I glanced at Tony, looking for confirmation in his bulging eyes, and popped the first bite into my mouth. The food was tasty and it would be great if I could enjoy it, but the current discussion required me to be one hundred percent attentive, so with my mouth full I shifted my gaze to Will, who was rubbing his temples, probably unconsciously and visibly confused.
"Wait a minute," Dylan interjected, furrowing his eyebrows. "How did you even take his gun?"
"Uhm, well we struggled a bit... It fell between his seats when he tried to strangle me."
"He strangled you?" Shane hissed.
I rolled my eyes.
"And how do you think I got those bruises on my neck?" I snarled, then turned my gaze to Dylan's tension-stiffened face. "Those self-defense tricks of yours are working after all, because he let go of me as I hit him in the ribs with my elbow."
He blinked, and his lips parted slightly.
"But... but why did he want to strangle you?" Will asked dryly.
"Oh, I don't know, he's a psycho." I shrugged my shoulders, stirring the noodles with my chopsticks. "He got awfully pissed when I kicked him in the crotch."
Moment of silence number two.
"How... in the car? In the car, you kicked him in the..." Shane crinkled his forehead, probably trying to visualize it in his head.
I sighed in exasperation at having to explain everything to them so thoroughly.
"Well, okay, I more like punched him. We struggled and then I dig my knee in between his legs."
Silence number three.
"Fuck," Dylan murmured after a moment and he massaged his fly."
I think all my brothers flinched too, and Tony let the air out of his mouth with a wheezing hiss.
I nodded my head.
"Then he pushed me to the ground and whacked me with his shoe." Here I pointed to my jaw.
"But... how did this even happen?" Will continued, and his usually strong voice sounded weaker and weaker.
I took another bite of pasta, and as I pulled it into my mouth, I lifted my chopsticks up. I chewed a moment, then spoke up with my mouth still half full:
"I stabbed him."
I think all my brothers at this point looked at their sets of chopsticks with momentary attention. Vince swept them around with a rather quick glance, but Shane, for one, even tested their effectiveness by nudging himself in the open palm with them.
"That one was broken and sharp," I winked at him, to which he just glared at me without saying a word.
"Okay," Will began, as if making a renewed effort to sound factual and sensible. "Let's try to sort this out." He looked at me. "You attacked him with a chopstick. Just... just like that? Out of nowhere?"
"Oh, no." I waved my hand. "It all started when I spilled his coke."
Silence number four lasted very briefly, because Shane, in astonishment, leaned back so much that he flew off the bed, made a racket, and, though he got to his feet very quickly, cursed aloud for another long moment.
Nobody even paid any attention to him. Everyone else stared at me like I was some rare species of tooth fairy crossed with a Santa Claus elf.
"No, I feel like I'm going to vomit," Dylan moved toward the door, not to the bathroom but the one leading outside the room, but stopped in front of it and turned back toward me. "Cocaine? Really?"
"I don't really know what it was. Some kind of white powder. They call it cocaine, right? I've seen it in the movies," I've defended myself as if naming it was the biggest problem here.
"Did he want to get high in front of you?" Tony asked with a disgust.
"Yes, although now that I think about it, it didn't matter too much, because he had certainly acted under the influence of drugs even before." I shrugged my shoulders again.
"Your friend says he's the one who gets high all the time," Dylan burbled.
I needed a moment to process what he said before I drew the following conclusion.
"Wait a minute, I mean you guys.... t-talked to Leo?"
I immediately looked at the calm Vince, who reciprocated my gaze and just barely nodded visibly. He was resting his elbow on the armrest and supporting his temple with the palm of his hand, and I knew that underneath that hard shell, he was busily sorting out all the thoughts and information he had heard here now.
I trembled. Because of everything that had happened, I hadn't managed to devote much time in my head to Leo. I didn't even know if he was still my friend. It unpleasantly soured my heart, now that I realized he might not have been for a long time.
"Of course, Hailie. The first thing we did after identifying your kidnapper was reach out to his family," Will declared.
"And what did his family say about it?" I asked with an audible tension in my voice.
"They didn't know what Ryder was planning."
I didn't even bother to hide a sigh of relief.
"Probably," Dylan interjected with elation. He took a step toward me again. "They probably didn't know. You can't be a hundred percent sure."
I turned my head back to Will.
"What had Leo told you?"
For Will, the topic of my friend was apparently not as important as talking about me and my experiences, but I guess he was persuaded by my pleading look because he finally answered my question.
"At first we were suspicious because Leo hadn't shown up for his exams either. It couldn't have been a coincidence. And it wasn't. Gina Hardy, his mother, had been taken to the hospital that same morning. She lost consciousness. As it turned out, someone had spiked her coffee with some strange mixture of sleeping pills. When Leo couldn't wake her up, he got scared and called an ambulance. He followed her to the hospital, and Ryder was then free to carry out his plan."
"Wait, what are you saying, Ryder poisoned his own mother?" I whispered in awe.
"Poisoned may be a bit of an overstatement, but..."
"...but he put some shit in her coffee, yeah," Dylan finished, shaking his head in distaste. Then he pointed a commanding finger at me, as he too often liked to do when he ordered me around. "That's why you stay away from that family."
"From that, Leo hasn't done anything wrong, so I don't know what you mean," I hissed angrily at him.
Dylan was already opening his mouth to add fuel to the fire of our argument, but luckily he was interrupted by Will.
"Stop it," he threw at him in a bossy, firm tone. "Stop it. She's supposed to be resting, don't upset her."
"That's right, Dylan, don't upset me."
My mean brother gave me a murderous look, but he didn't speak, he just finally left the room and I think he wanted to slam the door, but he was thwarted by the silent closing system and instead of a bang there was a quiet click.
I sighed quietly under my breath and stared back at my Chinese food. I would eat it with more pleasure if I didn't have to stress about such conversations. Of course, a few more questions were asked in my direction, which helped my brothers to patch up the holes in their picture of events, but I had to admit that seeing my reluctance, they quickly let it go, following the rule of not bothering me. All in all, it was to my advantage, because I finally finished eating, and spent the rest of the day alternately napping and receiving occasional visits from the doctor and nurses. I was accompanied almost the entire time by Shane, apparently comfortably sprawled out in my bed, and I have to admit that it was very soothing for me to wake up and see that he was with me.
That, among other reasons, is probably why when I woke up in the middle of the night, terrified of a nightmare, and saw that no one was at my side this time, I panicked a little. I looked around the empty room. The television was already turned off. Darkness engulfed the room, just like in my dream, which certainly didn't help calm my wildly galloping heart.
My awakening itself was terribly abrupt, as I choked at the same moment that I bolted upright on the bed to a sitting position. Heavy drops of sweat ran down my forehead and also wet my shirt. I coughed, trying to calm my ragged breathing.
I shuddered, felt sick, and felt like I was suffocating in this room. That's why I slipped out from under the covers and, getting used to the cold outside, jumped off the bed. I put those weird slippers on my feet and, wrapping my arms around myself, slipped quietly out of the room.
I squinted my eyes because it was unnaturally bright in the hallway. It was also empty and I looked around unconsciously, contemplating which way would be better to go. Right, left? I felt like I was in a horror movie, like I hadn't woken up at all. Maybe I wasn't awake. Why am I alone, why isn't anyone here? Someone must be working here. I hugged myself tighter and tighter. I chewed my own lips, moving forward. What was missing was for the lamps on the ceiling to start blinking, or for some hoarse old man's voice to start calling my name. Or for someone to start breathe at the back of my neck.
I quickened my step, a bit frightened, and then I reached the end of the corridor and saw Vincent around the corner. In his black pants and shirt. He was leaning against the wall and carrying on a phone conversation, staring intently at the opposite wall.
I stood up like I was in a daze. Jesus, it was Vincent, what a relief. How good.
"No. All contracts first are to be reviewed by a lawyer. Until they're reviewed, there's no point in... to go into them." At the end of his statement, my brother noticed me and, clearly surprised, threw me a head-to-toe look, then refocused on his interlocutor. "Leave it and wait for the green light. We'll talk some more later."
And he hung up, at which point he took the phone from his ear and, still holding it, approached me with furrowed brows.
"Why aren't you in bed?"
I blinked. I'd enjoyed having Vince in front of me for too long, alive and real. It made me drift off and I had to gather myself to answer something meaningful.
"I-III... I needed to go to the bathroom?" I whispered innocently.
"Is there something wrong with the one in your room?"
"I needed to go for a walk."
"In the middle of the night?"
"I had a bad dream."
He watched me for a moment and then nodded.
"I'd like you to go back to sleep," he declared, slipping his phone into the pocket of his smart pants and then placing the same hand on my shoulder. "Walking the halls at night won't help the nightmares."
"Going back to sleep won't either," I muttered, obediently letting him guide me. As long as he was present with me, I did not remember about the fear.
"I will go with you," he offered. "I was with you in the room, but the phone rang. I didn't want to talk there so you wouldn't wake up."
I nodded, accepting his explanation. As we approached the door to my room, I felt a momentary relapse of apprehension, as if I really didn't want to go in there and as if it would equal a return to my nightmare. I tensed my muscles as we were about to cross the threshold of the room, but Vince turned on the light and it turned out that with him I wasn't so scared anymore. Just a room like a room, with a rumpled bed in the middle.
"Are you going to tell me what the dream was?" my eldest brother asked when I buried myself back into the bed.
I waved my hand dismissively.
"You don't want to hear it, Vince, seriously," I joked, though my laughter was overtly forced.
"I wouldn't have asked if I didn't want to."
Already cuddled into the pillows, I watched somewhat suspiciously as he unhurriedly walked over to the armchair and then with a quiet rustle pulled it closer to my bed, so that when he then sat down on it, he was right next to me. He looked a little like a psychologist in therapy or, well, a judge at a trial.
My gaze dropped to the quilt as I realized that one of the rare moments of honesty between me and my guardian was inexorably coming. I sighed.
"I saw my mom."
I cast him a glance to gauge his reaction to my words, but I forgot that I was dealing with a master of hidden feelings, so at the sight of his stony face, I looked away from her again.
"Then, right after the accident. Before I woke up," I continued, with a heavy heart remembering those moments. "I was lying in my old bedroom and couldn't move, but my mom was there with me. She was sitting right next to me, on the edge of the bed, like that." I gestured to best visualize my vision to Vincent. "I could even smell her, it was definitely her. As real as it had ever been."
Vince shifted his gaze from the edge of the bed I was pointing to, back to me. He didn't speak, so I continued my story, involuntarily getting more and more turned on.
"She told me to wake up and warm up, and you know, after the accident I was lying in that car and I was cold, really cold, and in the dream I didn't feel it at all, I didn't feel it at all, even when I woke up, and she knew I should warm up, and well it had to be her, right? Because if I didn't know it myself, it couldn't have been happening in my head, because I wouldn't have made it up, she somehow appeared to me, she.... It was her, right? What do you think?"
I nervously clenched and unclenched my fists on the comforter over and over, swallowing every now and then the excess saliva caused by my sudden verbosity. By now I was looking straight at Vincent, hungry for his reaction. I wanted him to confirm my words. I respected him, valued his opinion and wanted so badly for him to nod and say that yes, it was my mother who saved me from death. That she really is out there somewhere, watching over me.
"I don't know, Hailie," he finally said, and I stared at him silently with my chest rising and falling irritatingly fast alternately. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't control my overly rapid breathing.
Deep disappointment must have been etched on my face because, staring at it, Vince sighed heavily. I didn't even try to hide my grimace. Because if he didn't know, who was to know?
"But if it really was her and she's the reason you woke up, I owe her a huge debt of gratitude."
With those words spoken in a calm, matte tone, Vincent rose and came even closer to me. He placed his hand on mine, which was currently balled into a fist. I wasn't sure how much tenderness his eyes were currently expressing, as my own eyes suddenly glazed over with tears.
Through trembling lips and the gathering lump in my throat, my voice became extremely thin and squeaky as I spoke again.
"A moment ago I dreamt that I was in bed again, in my old room, and I still couldn't move," I said, and with each word it became harder and harder to say the next. "It was also dark. And Mom disappeared. She was no longer with me. And so, so I was alone again..."
Vince sat on the edge of my mattress, just like I had shown him earlier that my mom did, and pulled me to him. I let him do it without any resistance. I hadn't even realized how much I needed such ordinary closeness until I got it from my oldest brother.
He hugged my now tear-streaked form tightly, himself defining the notions of stability and strength that I craved so much in that moment.
"Maybe she wasn't at your bedside," he began calmly after we had not spoken for a while and I could hear only my inept attempts to suppress the sound of crying, "because she knows that someone else is watching over you now.
I stared at the empty chair that Vince had just occupied, processing his words. Even before their meaning reached my confused brain, my body had already had time to react, as I felt a tingling sensation around my heart.
The moments when I had the honor and pleasure of receiving some tenderness from Vincent were at a premium. It was then that I had the opportunity to listen to the balanced beating of his heart, to feel the warmth radiating from him, and to reassure myself that he really was human, like the rest of us.
"Maybe. Thanks, Vince."
He may not have spoken much or often, but when he did decide to open his mouth, the words that came out were sincere and meant a lot. I didn't need him to babble over my ear right now about how everything was going to be okay. He could defuse my momentary crisis with a simple statement.
As this was all happening in the middle of the night, just as quickly as I woke up from my sleep, I was able to fall into it and I was still snuggling up to him when I heard him speak softly:
"I'm sorry I didn't teach you to drive better."
The sight of the Monet's residence touched my heart at least as if I had seen the love of my life after years of separation. I had become accustomed to calling this place home and, as any home should, this one exuded for me an aura appropriate to shelter and comfort. I knew that I would be warm and comfortable in this place and that I could always count on all my basic needs being met unconditionally here.
I was wearing extremely comfortable sweatpants paired with a sweatshirt that still smelled new. I don't often do this, but today I wore a color that, without question, I thought reflected my mood. The strong lilac shade was like spring, like a new beginning, like happiness, energy and a little strength too.
I rolled my eyes as I tied my hair in front of the mirror and the thought came to my mind that I had chosen clothes for the color of the bruises that were going to stay on my face for a long time. The wound on my forehead was sealed with a skin-colored plaster, which I covered with my fringe, but I couldn't cover my neck and jaw. It was only one night since I came back from the clinic and although I felt good mentally, nobody expected me to look like a newborn.
The smell of fresh bagels and homemade herb butter wafted from the kitchen. Eugenie was doing her best to welcome me in the most pleasant way possible. I was walking down the stairs, enjoying the fragrance, when I heard the sound of some not-so-pleasant clash that disturbed my vision of an idyllic breakfast.
I wrinkled my eyebrows, going down the stairs at a measured pace, so as not to irritate my muscles still sore after the accident.
"This is the main entrance, for guests. Did anyone invite you here as a guest? Because I don't think so," Dylan growled at a tall, young blond man, in whom only after a while I recognized Leo.
His hair was a bit disheveled, probably because of the hat he must have taken off a moment ago and was now holding in his hand. He was wearing a dark jacket dusted at the shoulders with rapidly melting snow.
"I don't know any other entrance. Last time I came in here," he defended himself.
"Last time you were my sister's guest, today you are not. Get your ass in the car and come to the back..."
"Leo!" I called out when I saw him. My eyes opened wide and my mouth remained parted in shock. I stood in front of him, right next to the invaded Dylan, staring at him as if I expected him to be just a hologram, well what the hell was he supposedly doing here. Well, that sounds like a good question. "What are you doing here?"
It didn't escape my attention how the boy's gaze changed as soon as it rested on me.
"Hailie," he whispered quietly as if a little to himself.
"Great," Dylan burbled under his breath, rolling his eyes at the sight of me.
"How... are you feeling?" my, after all, still friend asked. He was looking at the marks on my face with pain intensified by the knowledge of who had made them.
"Better," I shrugged my shoulders. "But seriously, what are you doing here?"
"Your brother, I mean, Vincent asked to see me."
I furrowed my brows and shifted my questioningly-suspicious gaze to Dylan, who was obviously impatient with our chatter.
"Because," my brother growled and stepped back a little to stand slightly behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. Then he pushed me gently towards the kitchen. "Go on, eat your breakfast."
I wriggled out of his grasp and stood to the side so as not to have him behind my back. I also sent him a look titled "Are you kidding me? I want to know what's going on and I'm not eating any breakfast until I get some answers."
Dylan read it flawlessly as he ostentatiously raised his eyes to the ceiling, muttering some kind of curse word under his breath.
"Stop doing that," I growled at him. "My friend is in our house and I want to know why he was dragged here."
"Friend? The brother of that whole friend of yours tried to kill you, kidnap you and then kill you again, what are you, you have a memory like a goldfish!"
At the very word, that friend, I saw hope appear in Leo's eyes, as if someone had turned on a light in his dim irises.
"Yes, his brother," I emphasized. "Unfortunately, we both have no influence on our siblings' behavior."
"I am not doing anything. I'm just being mean for now. I'm not trying to murder him. Yet."
Then Leo decided to interject, apparently eager to break up the exchange of words between me and Dylan.
"I'm here because I expressed a desire to help. In finding Ryder."
I opened my mouth again and quickly closed it, wrinkling my forehead. Though I didn't say anything, Leo nodded as if confirming some theory of mine.
"A trace of him had disappeared. He must have gone into hiding somewhere, no idea where. Your brothers..." Here he nodded at Dylan, who, for a change, listened to him in silence. "... they're looking for him, and I... I want them to find him." Saying that, he let the air out of his lungs.
I watched him for a moment. Those beautiful honey eyes of his that held so much undeserved pain and suffering.
Leo undid the zipper of his jacket and fanned the right side of it, as if he were suddenly hot as hell. He wasn't looking at me anymore, just glancing somewhere off to the side, at the marble floor.
"Ryder does something, disappears, and then comes back with fake apologies. It's a pattern. It's always been that way for as long as I can remember. He's like a boomerang." He shook his head, looking up a bit for a change. "He always comes back. I'm sure he will this time, too. Wherever he is now, sooner or later he'll get into even more trouble. He'll run out of money, he'll get into trouble, he'll have nothing to do. Then he will come back," he explained, finally daring to return my gaze. "Because he knows that our mother will always accept him, no matter what he does. And she is the only such person in this whole world, and he is well aware of that. Apart from her, he doesn't really have anyone."
"The question is," Will said, who had just appeared on the stairs and was approaching us slowly, with his hand stretched out on the banister. "Will you be able to sell down the river your own brother when the time comes?"
He stopped next to Dylan, so that now they were both standing opposite Leo and fixed him with expectant looks. I watched as if from the sidelines, glancing at the duo of my creepy brothers standing in counterpoint to Leo's lonely one.
"It's not that I haven't thought this through," my friend replied quietly. He must have been overwhelmed by the presence of the Monet brothers. And that's just the two of them! "I realize the consequences. Ryder just... He's overstepped all boundaries." Leo shook his head. "He's never been a real brother to me. Family never interested him. He didn't give a damn about me or Mom. And recent events have made me believe that he will never change. He will always be a troublemaker. When everything gets normal after one of his outbursts, he does another one. You can't live like this. Mom doesn't deserve this. He only steals from her, he's raised his hand against her more than once, against me. He hides drugs around the house. He puts us in debts..."
I felt sorry for him with all my heart. I could say with a clear conscience that I believed him, but it wasn't me here that Leo needed to convince of his intentions. Will and Dylan looked at him intently, both with their mouths clamped shut and hands folded over their chests.
"Well, let's talk," Vincent suggested, appearing as another Monet next to us. Today he was rested and ready for work. I smelled his strong perfume even before he stood in our midst. "Since you're already in this part of the house, let's just go to the library," he offered.
"Of course," Leo replied, trying to match my brother's manners.
Vince turned and headed toward the room, and Leo obediently followed his lead. The two of them were immediately followed by me, as if I were an equally important interlocutor here.
"Ey!" Dylan called out behind me, drawing the attention of Vince, who threw over his shoulder without turning around:
"Without you, Hailie."
"With me," I countered firmly.
Then my oldest brother slowed his step and looked at me.
"Without. You," he repeated more emphatically, then nodded towards the kitchen. "Breakfast, now."
"It's okay, Hailie," Leo added quietly and then I stopped. Biting my lip, I followed the two men to the library door with my eyes, having a vague, slightly bad feeling. Conversations with Vincent didn't come out of nowhere, and they were rarely pleasant, especially for people outside the family, as I had come to notice.
Then I felt Will rub my shoulder and I allowed him that discreet urging, stepping into the kitchen with a quiet sigh. Eugenie, who had just set a basket of still-warm breadstuff in the middle of the table, took one look at me and in a few seconds was lamenting about how big victim I was, then complimented me on my supposedly excellent appearance, and then moved all the bagel toppings she had set on the table closer to me. Among them was the jar of the aforementioned herb butter and a few other spreads like peanut butter and roasted eggplant paste.
I chewed, sitting as if on pins and needles. I was stressing about the meeting that was taking place a few rooms away. Knowing that Leo was in my house alone with the terrifying Vincent filled me with sympathy and maybe also fear.
As soon as I was left alone in the kitchen and after consuming one whole bagel, I couldn't stand it and slipped out into the hallway. I tried to give the impression that I was just strolling along, but in fact, I was lurking near the door to the library, consumed with curiosity about the conversations that were going on there. Unfortunately, even as I pressed my ear to the massive wooden door, I couldn't get a word out from behind it. Vince never raised his voice, and Leo was not a noisy person as well.
So it was no surprise that I didn't hear when they finished and when the door opened, I had to jump violently away from it to avoid being hit. With a shameless look on my face, I rubbed the arm it had nudged, because all in all, I expected to end up like this. Vince looked at me and just raised his eyes to the ceiling. I suspected he knew full well that my attempts at eavesdropping were having a miserable effect.
Leo looked... good. He had survived the conversation and seemed motivated, as if some decisions had just been made and he was ready to implement them.
"I will walk you to your car," My offer seemed to be addressing him, but in fact I was also looking at my brother, who was the only one of the three of us who could have any objections. To convince him, I added sweetly: "Please."
"Three minutes," Vince said, then he nodded at Leo and walked away from us, heading for the kitchen, probably attracted by the wonderful smells.
I muttered to Leo that we'd better go outside, because I didn't trust the privacy in this house. The level of it here, at least mine, was practically nil. I threw my jacket over my shoulders, put on my shoes, and even wore a hat so no one could admonish me for not taking care of myself. Leo smiled at the big pom-pom that stuck out at the top of his hat.
In the winter, my brothers were more careful to always park their cars in the garage, so only Leo's car stood in the big driveway. My friend didn't speak until we were standing next to the driver's side door.
-"Hailie, tell me how I can look you in the eye," he confessed, actually looking at the snow-dusted drive at first. "After all this... The fact that Ryder..."
"But you're not like that," I said quickly. "You're a good man, I know it."
He looked at me.
"It doesn't matte..."
"It does," I interrupted him at once, very firmly. "It matters. Yes, it matters. You had no say in Ryder's decisions. Just as I have no control over Vincent's decisions, for example." I wrapped my arms around my torso. "I don't know what he's doing behind his office door. I don't know and I'm not going to answer for it. Just like you don't have to answer for Ryder's actions."
"Your brothers seem to have a different opinion on this. They don't comment on it out loud, but I don't think I'd fare well in their eyes by wanting to turn my own brother in."
"I think even they can see how far you are from a true brotherly relationship," I whispered. "Ryder is mentally ill. Besides, you obviously care about your family. You're turning him in for the sake of your mom."
"For her and, after all, for you too."
I smiled a little, and Leo smiled back, but he soon turned dark again.
"I hate him, Hailie. I hate him and I'm sorry," he said, sighing heavily. "Especially when I look at you and your siblings and see that it's possible. That you can fucking live together normally. And that you don't have to kiss each other's asses every day to love each other after all."
When he said that, I felt shivers run down my body, because I realized at the same time how accurate his conclusions were.
I licked my lips and touched his shoulder, moving closer to him beforehand.
"I'm sorry, Leo," I whispered. "It's so... unfair..."
I tightened my fingers on his jacket and felt his hard muscle. He glanced down at me. I loved it so much when our gazes met. He always looked so deeply into my eyes...
"That's right..." he murmured slowly "... and we can't change it. It's hard. I've learned a long time ago that life is hard. "Then he raised his hand and covered mine with it. I liked that it was so big and warm, despite the coldness around. "I am glad that your brothers are taking care of you."
I put my arm behind his back and hugged him with all my might. I had to do my best to hold back the obsessive thought of how much I wanted to hold him like that often. And how much I'd like to be his support and help him. To be the person who makes him feel better and who colors his grey reality.
"Hailie Monet, home, now!"
I broke away from Leo, frightened by the aggression in Dylan's tone. Naturally, I was more worried about my companion than myself.
"Yeah, they do care," I sighed, glancing behind me at the figure of a huge dude who had left the front door wide open and was now gliding towards us. "Go on now, Leo. I hope we can stay in touch."
"I'll do my best," he whispered, then flashed me his beautiful smile and got into the car, and I quickly stepped back so he could slam the door as quickly as possible. Finally, before he even did that, he gave me one last sad look and said, in contrast, jokingly: "Take care, ya know."
I laughed quietly and sincerely. Because what else was there to do but laugh?
Leo started the engine just as Dylan arrived, and I watched with relief as he drove away without having to face my irritated brother.
"What he, what you..." he burbled with far too much reproach. "Why did you touch him?"
"I just hugged him."
He didn't finish because I rolled my eyes, opened my arms, and clung to that mountain of muscle that is my mean, annoying as hell, overprotective, bossy, bossy, and mean (yes, I know, I repeat myself) brother.
"Because cuddling is cool, Dylan," I muttered into his chest, savoring the beauty of our sister-brother hug. My eyes were closed, but I smiled automatically when I felt his arms wrap around me too. I didn't doubt that this would happen.
"Not the worst."
He no longer sounded as puffed up as he did just a second ago.
We stayed like that for a long moment. It was chilly, but warmth radiated from Dylan, which, thanks to the currently zero distance between us, effectively protected me from the cold.
Then a phrase came to me out of nowhere and flowed out of my mouth extremely smoothly and naturally.
"I love you."
Dylan tensed a little and I anticipated why. The Monet brothers were the kind of tough guys who didn't talk much about feelings among themselves. And they certainly didn't define them so precisely. My mom and I, on the other hand, used to repeat those beautiful words to each other at every possible opportunity. Only now it hit me how long it had been since I had heard them from anyone, so I was doubly glad when my brother finally said them:
"Well I love you too, little girl."
We both walked into the house, grinning. Dylan's heavy arm weighed down on my shoulders, and the fingers of my left hand clenched on the back of his shirt. I took off my jacket, hat, and shoes and together we headed straight for the kitchen where Vince sat with Will, visibly surprised to see such a beaming agreement between me and Dylan.
Eventually we broke away from each other and I, true to my convictions, chose to sit at the table next to Will. Eugenie had left a pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice and I generously filled my glass with it, seeing that my brothers were more interested in coffee anyway.
I still had a lot of issues to discuss with them and was just thinking about whether to bring them up already, now that Shane and Tony had appeared as if on cue. Since getting the Monet brothers together in the morning and over breakfast in one room was usually a mission bordering on the miraculous, I decided I couldn't pass up this opportunity.
Shane was shirtless and with wet hair and an aura full of vitality, so I guessed he did his morning training, while Tony was still asleep, because with his eyes closed, the first thing he did was move to the coffee machine.
"Vince," I started innocently and when I got his attention I added: "I'd like to talk."
"Now?" he asked, lifting his favorite Star Wars mug and taking a sip of the black drink.
"Mhm, it could be here."
Naturally, everyone fell silent, extremely curious to hear what I had to say.
And I, before I started, took a deep breath.
"This isn't working."
Some gave me glances, ruminating, others furrowed their brows. Vince stared at me with a neutral expression.
"What do you mean?" Shane asked. He was one of the frowning eyebrows, because apparently he didn't understand my confession.
"Everything. The way my life is now," I explained. "I moved in with you guys over a year ago and so many... weird... things that have happened to me in that time..." I shook my head, rolling my eyes. "... I can't count them."
"They shouldn't have happened," Shane muttered after taking a bite of his bagel.
"But they happened. And who knows what else will happen."
"What are you driving at?" Will asked, who was sitting quite close to me, so he leaned his head a little to see my face.
"At the fact that..." I took another deep breath. "I want changes."
The Monet brothers were all watching me, paying much more attention to me than to their breakfast. They were anxiously waiting for me to define myself and I was glad to be taken seriously for a change.
"What changes, little one?" Will continued gently.
Answering, I looked straight at the silent Vincent.
"I want a normal life. I'm sixteen and I want to live like a normal teenager. I want to make my mistakes. I want to be able to survive in your world," I said firmly, and at the look on some of their faces, I continued even more emphatically: "When Ryder kidnapped me, it wasn't the bodyguard or the tracker on my phone that saved me. I saved myself. If I couldn't defend myself, Ryder would have strangled me. If I couldn't shoot, he would shoot me. And if I couldn't drive, I couldn't leave him on the road and drive away."
The brothers were silent, and I glanced each of them separately in the face, then turned directly to Vincent:
"We've been doing things your way so far. With all the prohibitions and such. Maybe recent events are proof that your way doesn't work after all? Maybe it's time to try something else?"
He thought about my words, for sure, and that was already my small success.
Then he sighed and shook his head, looking me straight in the eye.
"What else, Hailie?" he asked. "As much as I'd like to, I can't allow you complete independence."
"But I am not talking about complete independence," I protested quickly. "It's not that after what happened to me, I'm not afraid. I agree to a bodyguard and I agree to, I don't know, even this stupid gps and all, but if I'm going to live this way, I want fewer restrictions. I want to live as normal a life as possible." I looked pleadingly at Vincent, knowing that this is the moment where we can either get along and I gain, or we don't and then it's me who loses. "I want compromises."
"Well... like..." I hesitated "I'd like to use my car sometimes."
Dylan and Tony rolled their eyes.
"What? This is my car, yes or no? You guys bought me a car that I can't drive, that's nonsense. All my friends are taking their driving tests now. It's a normal thing that most teenagers my age do. I want it too."
"How would you compromise on that?" Vince asked matter-of-factly, taking another sip of coffee.
"Well, that... Well, that... I don't know. I haven't thought it all through yet." I shrugged my shoulders. "Maybe something like sometimes I go to school alone and sometimes I don't?"
"You don't need to go alone, we go to the same school," Shane protested.
"But that's the thing, sometimes I want to. I want to have the choice that if you piss me off, I can get in my own car. Or drive to a friend's house after school. Sometimes. Besides, you're going to college soon, right or wrong?" I looked at Shane with a raised eyebrow, then glanced back at Vince. "I want to be mobile. Especially since we live in the middle of the woods, well for God's sake!"
"All right, no need to get carried away," Shane muttered. "I get it."
"I'm not getting carried away, it's just these things are so obvious.... Or school. I want to go to school. I like Tatiana, but individual classes make me tired..."
Dylan smirked amused, and Tony snorted:
"It's more like you can't be the best at individual classes."
Now everyone was looking at me with gently mocking smiles, which annoyed me immensely.
"I like being the best and so what," I burbled defiantly. "Learning is something I'm good at and going to school motivates me. And that's it."
"All right, we're all proud of you," Will laughed, patting me lightly on the back.
"What if another Ryder comes along and threatens you in the school hallway?" Vincent asked.
I was quiet for a moment, wondering what to answer.
"I think the school is at fault here. They should be more careful about who they allow on their area," I said finally.
Vince nodded his head.
"That's right. The school authorities will definitely face consequences, however, whatever safety measures they don't implement, you can't trust unreservedly that they will make sure the situation doesn't happen again."
I was thinking.
"Then what do you suggest?"
"If you insist on going to school, I will only agree to it if you agree to have a bodyguard accompany you both outside and inside the school."
My jaw dropped.
"What, you mean in class? And in the cafeteria? And the hallway?"
"In front of the classroom, and in the cafeteria, and in the hallway, yes. Everywhere."
I slumped on the back of my chair.
"That's... a little extreme," I muttered.
"I know," Vincent nodded. "But I'm not leaving any room for discussion on this one."
Logically, I didn't have time to think carefully about this condition. But the fact was that I had set myself to make some compromises here, and since Vince had agreed to cooperate, I wanted to show that I was also willing to do so.
Shane tilted his head.
"Ha!" he exclaimed with a laugh, then grinning, he added: "You'll be the most popular girl in school."
I pressed my lips together in a straight line.
"She kind of already is," Tony muttered.
"She will be even more."
"Sonny probably won't be so happy," I chuckled, trying to distract them from my school social status.
The boys fell silent and immediately aroused my suspicion with that.
"What is it?"
"I haven't decided what we're going to do about Sonny yet."
I furrowed my eyebrows.
"What?" I gasped. "But why? What do you mean?"
"Because you were kidnapped right under his nose," Dylan explained to me, putting a deadly thick layer of butter on half a bagel.
"But it's not his fault. No one could have seen this coming. He didn't do anything wrong," I defended him, and seeing my brothers' impassive faces, I added more forcefully, "I want Sonny to stay as my bodyguard. He is good, you said so yourself."
"Why do you care so much?" Shane asked.
"I don't need another stranger in my life. I'm used to Sonny and I like him. He's discreet and kind at the same time."
Vince looked at me, and rubbed the ear of his now empty cup with his finger, apparently contemplating. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders.
"I'll think about it."
I didn't pursue the subject further. It was Vincent, it couldn't go too easily with him.
"I want my social life to be more than just going to the movies or the mall. I want to visit friends and... go to parties."
Now it was my oldest brother who raised an eyebrow.
"You're sixteen years old."
"I'm not saying to party every week," I retorted, "but if there's an occasion, I want to be a part of it, not sit locked in my bedroom watching my friends have fun on social media."
"No way," Shane countered.
I was surprised for a moment that this time he was the one playing first fiddle in such a vicious restriction of my freedom, but then I realized that Dylan, who usually did this, must have been so unusually silent, because his quick-witted heart still had traces of tenderness from our conversation a few moments ago.
Will and Vince were surprised too, as they glanced at him with interest.
"You really don't want her to party," Shane said to them. "She turns into an animal in bars."
"True," Tony confirmed with a silly smile.
"You guys are stupid," I snarled at the twins angry that they were making such a terrible advertisement for me. "That was different. And no one is talking about bars here."
Vince pointed his finger at me, the one with the signet ring.
"I will think about it, but one of the conditions will be an absolute ban on alcohol," he announced, squinting his eyes. He showed that he was still irritated by my antics on the islands. "If the condition is broken, we will go back to the old mode."
"Agreed." I nodded, trying not to exude too much excitement. Vincent was really playing along with me, what's going on!
Vince waited patiently for me to mumble out another request, and if he expected what I was going to say, he didn't let it show.
Here even Dylan couldn't stand it and, even though he still refrained from making an affair, he pushed back the chair he was sitting on loudly and stood up ostentatiously to make himself some coffee. That much was enough to read his attitude of total disapproval towards my whimsy.
The twins both snorted dismissively, and it seemed to me that if Will and Vince hadn't been trying so hard to play the more mature part of my siblings, they would have allowed themselves to do the same.
"What about him?" my favorite brother asked, apparently trying to show me that he wasn't going to jump to conclusions (compared to some), which I accepted with gratitude.
"I like him," I shrugged my shoulders. "I'd like to be friends with him. And I'd like you to accept that."
"Friends?" Dylan burbled, looking at me from in front of the coffee machine, but when I returned his gaze, he immediately looked away from me without saying anything else.
"Yes. Friends. The same way I'm friends with Marshall." I cringed as I remembered something. "Or is it that you have nothing against Marshall because his father works for you, so you have him on the string?"
"Hailie, it's not like someone has to work for us to us have him on the string."
"Don't think to yourself that we don't keep an eye on this whole Marshall," Shane muttered. "We just know him more or less and that he's not by nature... you know..."
"He's not much of a fucker," Tony finished for him,
"You..." I barked at him "You better don't even talk. You tried to fuck my friend!"
Yes, I said that. I didn't have enough experience talking about sεﾒ to choose the elevated words, so I just mimicked the ones I'd already heard somewhere. And since I was living with the Monet brothers and just happened to be irritated...
"Hailie, language," Will admonished me sharply.
Vincent got a little annoyed too, but fortunately, the attention was quickly taken off me.
"Tony?" Will now turned to the youngest of the Monet brothers, his voice clearly demanding an explanation.
Tony's eyes opened wider and he blinked.
"Hello? At the pre-Christmas house party?" I snarled, additionally angry that he was playing dumb.
Shane glared at his brother, biting his lip to keep from laughing.
"Did you tell her?" Tony was indignant, and surprisingly he directed his reproach at Dylan, who was cooling his hot coffee with a gust.
"What, are you kidding?" he muttered and sighed with a disappointment worthy of a five-year-old: "I just lost my dirt on you."
"You..." I started, but there was no point in finishing. What was I supposed to say? I closed my mouth, tried to cool down quickly, and spoke again, more calmly, directing my words to Tony. "Look, just stay away from Mona. And don't you dare take advantage of the fact that she is temporarily infatuated with you."
Tony smiled mockingly, but, at the look on the faces of our two oldest brothers, said:
"Chill, I actually don't give a damn about her."
On the one hand, I was glad that he did, but on the other, I was annoyed by his pouty attitude towards girls. I mean, he could be nicer about other people, right? Will and Vince looked at him disapprovingly for a while, which I was glad about, and something told me that they would come back to this topic in private. Very well, finally I wasn't the only one who was going to receive reprimands in this house.
Finally Vincent focused back on me.
"I have one more condition," he announced.
I shifted my gaze to him and waited in all seriousness for him to reveal it to me.
"And it is non-negotiable," he reserved.
Of course it is not.
"You will go to a psychologist."
I raised my eyebrows. I had not expected that.
"To a therapy," Will explained softly.
I furrowed my brows.
"This is something that should have been arranged from the very beginning," Vincent announced. "Right after your mom died. My fault for not seeing this through."
"No, Vince," I resisted softly. "I don't need a psychologist. I'm fine, I'm coping."
"I'm not saying there's anything wrong with you. But I think it wouldn't hurt to have someone help you sort out a few things in your head."
"It's out of the question," Vince said again, closing my mouth.
I stared at the table. Me, to see a psychologist?
"Okay," I muttered, but then I decided to look at Vince. "So we have a deal?"
He raised a brow and his blue eyes flashed with amusement.
I didn't let him get away with it and looked at him expectantly.
"My social life and freedom in exchange for my privacy and therapy?"
Vince nodded, but only after a moment. He never did anything on impulse. Then I reached up and extended my hand toward him, making it clear that I was taking our conversation extremely seriously.
He looked at it and I don't know if I was amusing him or not, but looking deep into my eyes afterwards, he shook my hand. I felt his hard metal signet ring and a firm grip, the kind I imagined he had when he struck a bargain with his partners.
"We'll try," he said as he took his hand away. "But remember, if you cross the line, we'll go back to the old pattern."
Now I was the one who nodded.
All of our brothers listened to our haggling with interest and none of them particularly interfered anymore, though I was sure they still had a lot to say. Especially Shane and Dylan. The situation, however, was too elevated – Vince actually agreed to take me seriously. We even shook hands to seal our negotiations. And these arrangements were going to have a real impact on several important areas of my life. I didn't know how their implementation would go or if they would definitely be applied, but I was certainly going to test it out soon.
I didn't sit down anymore. I successfully ended the discussion and with a class worthy of it, I wanted to leave the kitchen. I grabbed a glass of juice and planned to evacuate to the living room, where I could relax in front of the TV, just as I had dreamed when I lay in the car, heartbroken by the hardships of the situation I was in at the time.
It was kind of like such a signal to the guys, because suddenly they too started to get distracted. Shane grabbed the last bagel and got up to leave with it, Tony poked him in the shoulder because apparently he was craving it too, Vince was pulling his phone out of his pocket, Will was putting empty coffee cups in the sink and only Dylan had anything else to say.
"Hey," he started.
Everyone else forced themselves to pay attention for a moment, glancing at him.
"Nothing," he shrugged his shoulders, seemingly indifferently, then lifted his head and stuck a look of his dark eyes straight into me. "I just wanted to take a moment to emphasize out loud that our little Hailie beat the shit out of a grown-up dude without mercy."
To hide my embarrassment, I took a sip of juice.
For some reason, I expected that I might get punished for what I told the guys at the hospital that I had been doing with Ryder. To my surprise, Tony was the first to speak up and he nodded and shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, I'm impressed there."
Wow, I swear it's an honor to hear him say that.
"It couldn't have been any other way," Vince said, and his amused smile made me have to flutter my eyelids to believe that I wasn't just hearing things.
"After all, she's our Hailie, right?" Shane winked and pinched my cheek.
"You can't cheat your blood and genes," Will laughed.
I clenched my fingers on the glass because it hurt. A lot. Oh, Jesus.
This is the moment.
This was the moment I felt like I really belonged here.
Chills rushed through my body and I stared ahead at my joking brothers, in severe shock, because I never expected the feeling of belonging to be given to me so suddenly and out of nowhere. They say that adaptation is a process, that it takes time, that you have to get used to it, gradually. I thought that once that happened, the moment when I became a real part of the Monet family would be invisible and the boundary I had crossed would be blurred. What's more, I thought I had already crossed it.
And I couldn't have been more wrong, for few things in life have I felt as strongly as I do today, here and now, this bond. It fell on my shoulders like a superpower, and that's not an accidental comparison at all, because I really felt this energy and magic accumulating powerfully in my heart right now.
And I could honestly admit to myself that I finally felt like a real sister to my brothers.
A/N: Here we go, guys! The end of Miss Perfect and Her Brothers book. What a long and wonderful road! When I started translating my book into English for myself, I never thought anyone would read it. And here it is, a surprise. Thank you for being involved in my story no less than I was and for persevering to the end. Thanks to you, I have made tremendous progress. I have managed to grow and this is the most you could have given me. Thank you also for every comment and star. I wish I could have added chapters more often, but that's the way it went. Nevertheless, I'm glad that, as promised, I brought this book to a close. I am very grateful to all of you and send you a huge hug.
Hopefully it's not a goodbye, just a see you later😏❤️