Bound by duty, p.30
Bound by Duty, p.30Stormy Smith
Dawn was breaking through the trees as I finally got to my car. It was parked right where Micah had told me to put it. It was hard to reconcile the fact that just hours ago I had been kissing Amelia in these very same trees. As I dug in the trunk for my workout bag and spare clothes, my anger rose again. The realization of Micah being some kind of prince, engaged to my girl, had me yanking on my mesh shorts and t-shirt with violent motions. As my shirt came over my head and I pulled the hem down, I both felt and heard the rip of fabric. Looking down, I jumped. My right hand had partially shifted into a paw with claws that shouldn’t be there poking through the blue weave.
I untangled myself and sat on the bumper of my old Honda, breathing and staring until the fur melted away to skin and the razor-sharp nails became fingers. This time, I hadn’t even felt the change coming on. Usually, I had at least the forewarning of building sensations — the “too big for my own skin” feeling telling me I would soon stand on four legs instead of two. This time, though, there was nothing, which was even scarier than the change itself. I had become something. I wasn’t sure whether it was Amelia who had changed me, or if this was the difference all of my foster parents had always felt in me. I was an animal and I needed help before the wrong people realized it. I didn’t know who those people were, but I could hear what Amelia hadn’t said earlier tonight. There was so much more to the story and no one was safe — least of all, her.
I needed help. It didn’t matter whether I wanted it or not. She told me to go to Cole but I wasn’t ready for that. I couldn’t look at him without seeing her. I couldn’t walk inside his gym, past the training room where I’d held myself back from kissing her so that I wouldn’t scare her away. Tossing my bag back in the car, I slammed the trunk down with a little more force than necessary. There were so many thoughts in my head but most of all, I worried about Amelia. She still didn’t know who she was. I had tried to give her space to find herself, to see that the two of us together were more than we could ever be alone, but too much had happened too quickly. Now, I just prayed she was safe.
It was still early morning, but I couldn’t go home. I was too amped up from everything that had happened last night. Since I was always starving after shifting and a night of doing who knows what, I stopped at a local spot for a monster-sized breakfast burrito. I tossed my flip flops back into the car and walked toward the beach, scarfing down the burrito in record time. I watched as the waves came in and the surfers navigating them. There were hoards of surfers, most just sitting on their boards, bouncing up and down as the water beat against the shore.
I dropped to the sand, losing myself in the sound of the waves and the seagulls searching for their own breakfast. The world stood still in those few minutes and my mind was quiet. I felt like myself. Aidan the man. Not Aidan the beast.
Looking on while one surfer rode a wave stretching across the horizon, I was shocked to see platinum blond hair standing out like a beacon down the beach from me. I pushed up from the sand and slowly walked toward her. Bethany sat in much the same way I had just been, her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them, as she stared out into the water. Her hair whipped around in the breeze and I couldn’t see her face. As I closed in on her, I saw the familiar motion of wiping away tears.
“Bethany? Are you okay?” I looked down at her as she contained her wild hair and looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes. She wasn’t wearing any make-up. I’d never seen her look so vulnerable.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when she responded with her normal sarcasm. “You know, I can’t imagine why anything would be wrong, Aidan. My best friend was kidnapped right out from under my nose, I was held hostage by a psychopathic Queen on a power trip after I had been kidnapped by animal witches, or AniMages, or whatever they’re called, my boyfriend turned out to be a two-timing douche with magic powers, and I’m nothing but a human who gets used as bait and leverage. Can I do anything to help any of them? Nope. Sure can’t. So, it’s been a fine week. How about you?” she ended, a completely fake smile on her face as she stared daggers up at me. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Well,” I said as I dropped into the sand beside her, “I don’t know if I can beat that, but I’ll counter with the fact that my girlfriend is engaged to a prince of some kind of magical people I didn’t know existed until last week, who also happens to be a guy I thought I was friends with. She had a chance to run away with me and didn’t take it, choosing him over me, and pretty much eviscerating my heart in the process. And, I woke up not long ago suddenly able to turn into a wolf. My eyes light up like blue headlights and I lose entire chunks of time. I wake up naked every time it happens and have no idea where I am. How’d I do?”
She actually snorted. Which then turned into a chuckle. Which became all out belly laughter. I couldn’t stop myself from joining her. What we had just laid out sounded completely insane — completely and utterly insane. And yet, we were living it. There were parts of her story I hadn’t heard, and I was sure she hadn’t known the full truth about me yet, but it didn’t matter. I bumped my shoulder into hers as we settled down. She turned to me. “She told me you were a part of the supernatural club, but a wolf? And you wake up naked?” Her eyebrows rose and she gave me an incredulous look. I could only shake my head and laugh again.
We both turned to stare back out to the sea. As quickly as the laughter had come, it was gone. There was total silence between us as we sat there. The true weight of our words, of the realities sitting in front of us, stole any happiness I’d had like a plug being pulled from a drain. She was gone. Amelia was gone.
And then, Bethany hit me. She punched me in the shoulder with more force than I’d expected from a girl so small. I rubbed the spot and turned to her. She was grinning. “What’s gotten into you?” I asked.
“Here’s the thing about me, sweetie,” she said with a wry smile and a matter-of-fact tone. “I don’t just sit around. A girl needs a good wallow every now and again, but then you dust yourself off and get back on the horse. It’s time for us to saddle up.”
About the Author
Stormy Smith calls Iowa’s capital home now, but was raised in a tiny town in the Southeast corner of the state. She grew to love books honestly, having a mom that read voraciously and instilled that same love in her. She knew quickly that stories of fantasy were her favorite, and even as an adult gravitates toward paranormal stories in any form.
Writing a book had never been an aspiration, but suddenly the story was there and couldn’t be stopped. When she isn’t working on or thinking about her books, Stormy’s favorite places include bar patios, live music shows, her yoga mat, or anywhere she can relax with her husband or girlfriends.
Okay, enough with the third person!
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Eighteen. We all expect our lives to change when that number finally hits us. It is, after all, the year you are finally an adult, finally in charge of your own life. Most people wake up on that monumental birthday and run to the mirror, convinced that they were magically transformed during their 8 hours of sleep into a bona-fide adult. Others just lie in bed, thinking about the momentous changes that are sure to be coming.
I’m sure there are some people who just go about their day as if nothing were different and usually nothing really is. I like to think that those are the people who are most content with their lives… The people who have no unanswered questions, no haunting pasts, and no uncertainty about their futures.
When my 18th birthday arrived I didn’t rush to the mirror eager to see my grownup self. And being in the foster system since birth kept me from seeing that day as if it were any other.
I probably lay in bed for 10 minutes before my alarm finally convinced me to get up. 18 was huge. It was a birthday I had waited impatiently and anxiously for. It meant I was legally an adult and for foster kids like myself that’s a big deal; it meant that I was no longer a ward of the state. Finally, it meant control. I didn’t have to worry about getting a new family if I made a mistake. No more psych evaluations, no more child services, no more any of that kind of stuff that made up my life. I was free!
It also meant that I was, suddenly, responsible for myself.
Just the day before I had a team of people to answer to; people that fed me, clothed me, told me what to do and when to do it. If I had felt like a prisoner to the system before, I felt as if I were adrift at sea now.
After getting out of bed I gingerly stepped over my two duffel bags’ worth of clothes out into the hallway and made my way downstairs. Most of my room was already packed. I didn’t have many personal belongings, which would make moving that much easier since Margaret, my foster mother, was no longer responsible for providing me with a room.
Margaret was, as always, already up when I walked into the kitchen. She was an early riser and was usually drinking her second cup of coffee by the time I rolled out of bed. The previous eight months had actually been pretty decent because of her. She was an elderly woman, with salt and pepper hair and a disapproving mouth; not exactly warm and cuddly, but she treated me well enough. She kept mostly to herself except at mealtimes, when she insisted that we be together. I’d had worse rules. I think she appreciated my company since her own children so rarely visited, only twice since I moved in.
Though my world already felt so different, that morning’s routine continued as it usually did. Margaret finished making her oatmeal and started on the coffee while I poured milk into my Lucky Charms, then we both sat down to eat in companionable silence at the beige card table she kept in the kitchen. When the meal was finished I grabbed our mismatched dishes and brought them to the sink, before lathering them up with lemon scented dish soap and playing the part of dishwasher, as I always did. When I reached for the flamingo-decorated dishtowel to start drying, I was surprised to find that Margaret had already started on the job.
“I can finish this up, Margaret.”
“I don’t doubt your abilities Della, but I can at least dry the dishes on your birthday.” Not knowing what else to do I thanked her, then turned to go back down the hallway into my soon-to-be former room, but was stopped by a tentative touch on my arm.
“Della, the new kid isn’t supposed to be here for another couple of weeks. You’re welcome to stay here until then,” Margaret said, surprising me completely. I knew that she was going to get another ward soon; she’d been fostering consistently for the past 10 years and was a way station of sorts, only holding on to a kid for a few months until a better place was found.
“Um, thanks Margaret, but I’m already packed and it won’t take that long to move my things into the apartment above the convenience store.”
My job at that store had been a lifeline. I mean, the pay wasn’t exactly great, but in a smaller town the job options were limited, especially since school was out. My boss Marv was letting me rent the small room above it for cheap in exchange for fixing it up and making the space livable, since it barely fit that bill.
After thanking her for the offer I went on to my room. I was supposed to meet one last time with my social worker that morning, and even though she no longer had any say in my life, old habits die hard and I put on my nicest sundress and made sure my mousy brown hair was properly subdued.
The meeting really should have been before my birthday, to see how I was preparing for the transition, but things kept getting held up. Sara was by far the best social worker I’d had, mostly because she hadn’t been doing the job long enough to become disenchanted with it; she still cared. She was the one who got me placed with Margaret instead of in another group home.
I didn’t hear her car pull up, but I knew when she arrived all the same. I always had good, even uncanny instincts for that type of thing, and I was at the door by the time she was up the steps. This would be the last time I saw her, but I wasn’t expecting this particular visit to affect my life in any way—I thought that meeting represented the end of my old life, but really it marked the beginning of my new one.
We sat in the only café the town had to offer. Sara always insisted on meeting in a ‘neutral’ place so that I would feel comfortable. Usually Margaret would be at another table reading a newspaper until she was called over for her own part of our meeting, but I guess since I was now 18, Sara didn’t need to speak to my former guardian any more.
She spent the first few minutes sipping her black red-eye, which was just a fancy way of saying coffee with a shot of espresso; having a caffeine addiction must be part of the job description for social workers. I had my usual raspberry hot chocolate with extra whipped cream even though it was really just fancy chocolate milk, since I ordered it iced over the summer months.
As my entire existence had been unpredictable, I liked the comfort of having something in my life being unchanged, even if that something was only a sugary drink.
I decided to jumpstart the conversation right when the silence was beginning to turn awkward.
“I’ve already packed everything, and Margaret said I could borrow her car to move my things and go shopping for the necessities later on. There’s an old pickup that’s been for sale for as long as I’ve been here and I think I have enough money to buy it, but I didn’t want to use all of my money right away. I mean, the store is right down the street from-”
“Della, I know. We’ve already talked about all of this. Really, I believe you. This isn’t really an official meeting. I took an early lunch break so I could see you today. You remember the promise I made you when we first met?”
Ah, the promise. I remembered it. It was the week after Thanksgiving and I had just been kicked out of another foster home and was staying in a group home, I thought until my birthday.
Group homes can be all right sometimes, but this one wasn’t. There were too many other teenagers, and those of us who’ve lived in the system our whole lives, well, we’re kinda hard to live with. I didn’t do so well with other people and I was an easy target for some of the other kids, and by kids I mean guys.
I had just spent another sleepless night guarding myself from the creeps in the house. Most of the other girls would help each other out and take turns keeping watch, but I didn’t make friends very easily, so I was on my own.
On this day, in walks Sara, yet another Social Worker who had been thrust upon me. I don’t know if they get to trade us kids like baseball cards or what, but I rarely had workers stay with me for more than a year or two before throwing their hands up. Maybe they all just quit after working with me, I don’t know. Anyway, you could tell Sara was new on the job because she carried a shiny new briefcase and there were no discernible grey hairs.
I grudgingly sat in the room they used for private meetings and
Well, after she hinted about the 10th time for me to open up, I did… big time!
I plea temporary insanity. I just wanted her to be quiet- this was the only time I could sneak off to sleep without worrying too much about being… ahem… bothered, and I hated her for interrupting that. It was like an out-of-body experience and I could only sit there and watch myself blubber about how there was no place for me. That I never did anything wrong and people still couldn’t stand to be around me. That I didn’t even have a single living relative and how that must be proof of how innately wrong I was.
Basically, I told her about every foster kid’s worst fears.
When I finally got to the part about how sleep-deprived I was because I didn’t want to be woken in the middle of the night again by some creep sticking his hand up my shirt, I came to my senses, wiped my face, and refused to make eye contact for the rest of the meeting.
Right before she left, after unsuccessfully hugging me (I’m not a hugger), she took my hand and told me she’d help me. She promised to help me find my place.
The next day I was placed with Margaret, an ideal home for a kid like me; a place that had locks on the doors. As far as I was concerned she had kept her promise, even though she would have been the first person to do so in my entire life. So when she asked me if I remembered, I was kinda wondering if she wanted me to return the favor or something. I just nodded my head and stirred the now gross-looking whipped cream into my iced chocolate milk.
“Well, it’s taken me a little longer than I anticipated and when I did find it I had to wait until you were 18 to give you the details, which is why I had to cancel our last meeting. I mean, it was hard enough not telling you over the phone.”
She seemed to realize that she wasn’t making any sense, took a deep breath, and tried again. “I found it. Well, I found something.”
“You found what?” At this point I was pretty confused.
“I found your place! I mean, I found where you come from, and your family, and well, everything!”
Now I just thought she was being cruel. “I don’t know what you mean. I was told my mother died giving birth to me, that she was a Jane Doe,” I pointed out.
“Well, she did and she was. But, I got hold of her personal effects and was going to give them to you for your birthday. Here.” She pulled out a manila folder and slid it across the table.
“It turns out that some detective a few years ago got into some trouble and was put on desk duty, and one of his case files was finding out who your mother was! Her name was Gabriella Deare from North Carolina. There are some things that go to you,” she said as she tapped the folder. “So, take a look.”
Numbly, I opened the folder and tipped the contents out, barely registering the clink of metal that hit the table with all the paper. If I had ever had a surreal moment, this was definitely one.
I didn’t look at the copy of the police report; in the state of shock I was in I knew I wouldn’t be able to make any sense out of it. There was a cheap journal that had been a vibrant red at some point, but many years’ worth of fading turned it into a dull pink. Flipping through it I saw a looping scrawl of what must have been my mother’s handwriting, since her name was carefully written on the front cover. There were more papers there, but I couldn’t make my brain function enough to understand the writing that covered them, though I could tell that they were probably important documents by the multiple signatures that appeared at the bottom of most of them.
Sara quietly observed me through all of it, tactfully not commenting on the amount of shaking my hands did as I very nervously organized the papers so that all the sides lined up perfectly and slipped them back into the folder. Left on the table was an ornate key, nearly black, and when I picked it up I saw the top of it was worked into one of those interlooping knots. It looked familiar to me and I realized it was the same as the power of three symbol from a show that one of my foster mothers used to watch. There was a long chain looped through the top, which I started wrapping and unwrapping around my fist as I looked up at Sara, too overwhelmed to talk.
“There’s a lot to take in there, I know. And I’m sure someone would have notified you soon anyway about all of this, now that you’re of age. I just wanted you to have it today. I wanted to be able to hand it to you and offer my help, as a friend.” She paused for two whole seconds, and her exuberance made me see her for the first time as someone more than my jailer; she was a person and probably only a few years older than I.
“Are you going to go there? I mean, it’s quite a long way away - North Carolina is literally on the other side of the country, but you still have family there. And a house!” She picked up the folder that was laying on the table and waved it, as if there were a house inside. “Your grandmother left you a house too. I’m not really sure how that works since you weren’t even born when she died, but it’s been held in trust for your mother’s daughter all these years; there’s a lawyer who’s been in charge of keeping up with the taxes and insurance, so all you need to do is prove who your mother is and you’re all set,” she took a big gulp of her coffee, then continued.
“Also, there are a couple of bonds that were your mother’s. They were easy to track down once I had her name and social security number. They are being held in a safety-deposit box close to where she lived, and they go to you now as well. About six thousand dollars in all, and they’re fully matured.” She took a deep breath, since she’d been talking so fast, then went on destroying my world-view.
“They wouldn’t mail them to me, said they had to be picked up by the deposit owner, which is you, in person. There might be some other things in there as well; they couldn’t tell me. You’ll need to update your birth certificate so that it has your mother’s name on it, and just bring that and her death certificate, which is in the police file, to prove that you are who you say you are. I have all the necessary paperwork in the folder for you. They were really friendly on the phone. I’m sure they won’t make it difficult for you once you get there.”
I had no idea what to say, or what to do. All I could do was stare at her, too dumbstruck to say anything. How was I even supposed to feel in this type of situation? Actually, I started feeling a little angry. That anger helped me find my voice.
“You mentioned family? I have living, breathing family there?”
“Yes, I can’t believe I was going on and on about a house when I should’ve been telling you about your family! Your mother’s father still lives there, and I believe she had a brother, and there’s probably some extended family.” She sounded really excited at the prospect and completely unaware that I wasn’t.
“The police had to contact them about my mom right? To identify her or something? Do they know about me?” I knew the answer: of course they did.
“Well, I’m sure they know about you.” I could tell the exact moment that it dawned on her what it meant that they must have known about me for years now, if the police report was correct, and that I was just learning about them. We orphans are usually shipped off and adopted by any living relatives, or at least fostered by them. The only exceptions are if they’re unfit or unwilling to take us on. Even if they hadn’t learned of my existence until a few years ago, they still would have been notified and asked to take me in.
I could see the pity seep into her face. Since I wasn’t in the mood for the pep talk she was probably about to give me, I gathered the folder and stood up. I was already clutching the key in my hand so hard that my fingers were tingling from lack of blood flow.
“Yeah, well. Thanks for giving me all this. I’ve got to go though, still got a lot of stuff I need to do and well, I think Margaret wanted me to eat lunch with her today before I left.”
As far as excuses went, mine was pretty lame. I just had to get away from her, get away from other people for a few minutes. I walk
I walked the two miles back to Margaret’s, going back and forth between mad, hurt, and excited to learn all these new things about myself. Mad and hurt seemed to win over excited, and after I let myself into the house, I went to my room and shoved the folder into one of my still open bags, then told myself that nothing in my life was different because of it; I was determined to forget all about it.
Margaret, with her perfect timing, was just finishing up my favorite lunch when I walked in: grilled cheese and tomato soup. We were going to eat on the patio, and I was instructed to wait at the two-person table while she brought out our plates.
I didn’t realize that I still had the key and chain wrapped in my fist until I went in for my first bite. I put it down and tried to ignore it, but every few moments I’d realize that I’d stopped eating and was tracing the imprint left in my palm and staring idly at the offending key.
“Is everything okay, Della? How was your talk with Sara?” As a rule, Margaret and I didn’t talk about things, not real things anyway, but she must have noticed that something was up with me and was trying out her very rusty maternal instincts.
“It was good I guess. Very informative.” I muttered the last bit, but not really softly enough to not be heard.
“That’s a pretty necklace. I don’t remember seeing it before. Did Sara give that to you for your birthday?” She gestured towards the key sitting innocently next to my bowl.
“Well, kind of. Apparently it belonged to my mother. They found out who she was. I guess she left me some stuff back where she lived. Not like I’ll go and get it or anything. Her stupid family can just keep it.” I rarely acted the part of a surly teenager, but exceptional circumstances are cause for exceptional behavior, or something like that.
“Della, they know who your mother was? She has family? Child, that means that you have family! That’s something to be happy about!”
“Yeah, but they knew about me! They knew where I was. They didn’t just find out, they’ve known for years. I could have had a home, Margaret; they could have been my family. They didn’t even contact me and let me know they existed. They could have, you know. Even if they didn’t take me on, the courts would have let them contact me. I know tons of other kids in the system who at least get a birthday card from their birth family, even if they’re being fostered,” I told her, even though she was well aware of that fact. Then, when she didn’t say anything, I went on with my rant.
“They didn’t even want to know me. Why would I go there for some stupid house that’s probably run down, and some stupid family that doesn’t care if I exist? I’ve gone my whole life without whatever’s out there and I don’t see why I need it now. I just want to forget about it all and get on with my life!”
Margaret sat back with her hands in her lap for a few minutes, but I knew she wasn’t going to drop it since she got a certain look in her eye when she knew she was right about something. It was a look that she usually reserved for trivia game shows, something she was both obsessed with and brilliant with.
“Well, it seems like it would be a little difficult to move towards your future if you don’t know your past.” She wiped invisible crumbs from her mouth with her paper-towel napkin. “Della, even if you don’t see these people at all, you need to go back and find out about your mother. You said she left you a house? That seems like a pretty good way to start a new life, which is exactly what you have been planning to do, isn’t it? Why shouldn’t you start that new life in a place where you can find some answers rather than above some old convenience store?” she asked in her no-nonsense manner.
“It’s not that simple, Margaret. Even if I wanted to go, the house is in North Carolina. I’ve never even left California. I can’t go all the way to the opposite side of the country just because of some empty house and some relatives who don’t want to know me. How would I even get there? What am I supposed to do there? It’s better that I just forget the whole thing and move on with my life, don’t you think?” My argument sounded weak even to my ears.
“Well, I suppose you could do that, but if it were me I’d want to know. I’d want to know where I came from, and know who my family was. I’d even want to know the worthless relatives who didn’t want to know me, because you can’t find any answers if you don’t ask any questions. But I guess I’m just more inquisitive than you are. Those questions would burn at me and keep me up at night. To each her own, though.”
Obviously satisfied with planting the seeds she knew would take root in my thoughts, Margaret kept the conversation light for the rest of lunch. She did, however, seem really pleased with herself and was uncommonly cheerful for a woman who never smiled. After lunch she insisted on cleaning up again, and I excused myself for a run.
Now, I am by no means an athlete. I don’t go to the gym or play team sports, but there is something about running that is extremely satisfying. I usually only take my runs when it’s raining outside, one oddity of mine from a long list of them. I also like to run barefoot. I’ve had my share of stubbed toes as a result, but the feeling of my bare feet hitting the earth is just exhilarating to me.
I took the trail behind the elementary school I had found my first week in town. It was a dirt path that wound through a semi-wooded area to a clearing with a picnic table and a few sandboxes. I always made a beeline for the huge redwood tree that seemed to watch over this little family spot; it was a lonely reminder that this entire area was once a huge forest. I sat down with my back to the tree, dug my toes a little into the dirt and grass that surround the roots, and let myself absorb the calm that the tree offered with my head back and my eyes closed.
I’d been doing that a lot, going to that redwood and thinking about my future, and thought I had figured out which path my life would take. I would work at the convenience store, buy the old beat-up truck, rent out the tiny loft apartment, and save up for community college. I had only vague plans after that since I wasn’t in the habit of making long-term plans, never having been in one place long enough to make them.
My plan, which only that morning seemed exciting and fulfilling, was now lacking. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was missing, but I was sure that I could no longer be satisfied with that life, with any life really, at least not until I put my curiosity to rest. I guess I wasn’t too surprised that I’d come to that conclusion. Margaret’s seed had taken root and was sprouting.
I had managed to save nearly a thousand dollars working part-time at the convenience store, but I knew that wouldn’t last long. Airfare would take up a big chunk of that and, for once, I was really glad that I didn’t have that many things. Everything I owned could easily be packed into a couple of suitcases. It wasn’t as if there were anything keeping me here. If I went to North Carolina and it didn’t work out, I could just go somewhere else, start over in a place where nobody knew who I was, where I could be whoever I wanted to be. Besides there was a little money waiting for me, more than enough to replenish what I would spend getting there, and if the house belonged to me, then there wasn’t anything that anybody could say about my living there.
Who said I even had to see the supposed family that lived in the area? I figured I could ignore them quite as well as they had ignored me over the past few years. Better, in fact. I ended up being so very wrong, but at the time the thought comforted me and helped me steel my will toward a new direction.
I stayed a good deal longer under that tree, making mental to-do lists and planning my next few days. I didn’t think about what I would do once I got to my mother’s house, didn’t think about the family that still lived in the area. Instead, I kept my thoughts filled with the few things I could control: the details of what I needed to do the next day to claim my inheritance.
Before going back to Margaret’s house I stopped by the convenience store to ta
Bound by Duty by Stormy Smith / Fantasy have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on40 votes