◇ KEL ◇
The late dinner with Miles and his family had been fine and pleasant, but something in my chest just didn't feel right after overhearing his entire family talking to him about me.
Every now and then I also thought of my father being stuck in Intensive Care again. Was he doing better? Unlikely, but I still hoped and prayed. Was there any chance he would recover from this long and depressing battle with cancer? Were the doctors doing the best they could to keep my dad alive?
Although difficult, I forced myself to stop worrying. I sat on the unfamiliar wine-red covers, appreciating the dimness of the room.
It was one of Ricchar's spacious and lavish guest rooms on the top floor. The Falcos were certainly well off. Miles was probably having a drink with his cousin downstairs, and I'd reasoned a bad headache so I could skip the post-dinner chats (a.k.a. more background-digging).
An odd ache in my chest lingered. So, Miles' entire family actually thought I was his girlfriend.
The fact that we'd be sharing this enormous house with his parents and his eccentric, very loaded cousin for two more days kind of discomfited me, but I couldn't travel to the airport alone. This estate was too remote. Right in the middle of the mountains. Also, I'd promised Miles I would keep him company this weekend. I didn't like breaking promises.
"You at home? No photo shoots to slay?" Jill's tone sounded a little playful this time.
"No." I tried to smile despite my growing anxiety and annoying indecisiveness. "Still at home?"
"Yep. Mom's still in the hospital waiting for Dad's pulmonologist." Jill sighed. "Are you in the city with Miles?"
"No. We...kind of...went on a trip with his parents."
"Oh, family bonding," Jill muttered, sounding less enthused.
I held my breath. Something in my sister's reply just stuck a knife-like pang of guilt into my chest. "Spur-of-the-moment thing."
"You told him about the letter?"
"Not yet," I replied, placing my phone on my thigh after putting it on speaker mode. Jill's question again reminded me of that rejection letter from the university.
Their mention of my "unverifiable" birth records still bothered me like an itch I couldn't scratch. I'd worked very hard on that application, spent money for transport, document retrievals and such...unlike my impetuous first attempts in other schools, and I couldn't just sleep it all off.
If only I could skip this impromptu weekend trip, leave work and everything behind, and just hop on a flight back to New York...
"So his parents paid him a visit?" Jill asked over the phone. Her clear and calming voice immediately drew me out of my anxious thoughts.
"It's Miles' birthday this Sunday," I explained. "We're at his cousin's place."
"A freakin' luxury estate in the middle of nowhere."
"Beats this old, creaky house." Jill giggled.
Then came some thuds outside the door. Someone went up the stairs? The door to this guest room was closest to the staircase. I stared at the door. A lamp kept the room from being too dark while moonlight streamed through the wide windows.
"Did you tell Miles?" Jill sighed. "That you need to go back home now?"
"Book your flight and get some sleep," Jill said and abruptly hung up.
I glanced to the door again, distracted by loud knocks. Barefoot in the dimness, I got up from the bed and rushed to the door.
It revealed a tall guy in gym shorts and a damp shirt, chest heaving from every breath. The hall lamps shone bright enough to highlight the dripping sweat on his shiny forehead and neck. His panting eased as his expression remained dead serious. Miles wiped his face with his sleeve, staring into my partly open eyes with eagerness.
"What?" I ignored the warmth of his ragged breaths fanning my cheeks and glanced down at his clothes. "You okay?"
"Got a minute?"
"Why?" I backed away to let him in.
Miles raked his fingers through his damp wavy bangs. Earphones hung over his shoulders, and he stepped inside my room without another word.
I watched my pretend boyfriend pace around the dark room for a moment. Then he stepped into the balcony by himself.
Yep. Even the guest rooms had balconies. A mansion this grand just told me Ricchar was a full-fledged businessman, just like Miles' father.
"You okay?" I stepped out to join my roomie. The high-fenced balcony seemed perfect for a late-night chat.
With his gaze pinned somewhere below the balcony, Miles didn't respond to my question and just took his shirt off. His toned physique glistened with sweat. Like me, he didn't frequent the gym but running was a favorite pastime.
"Want me to drive you to the airport tomorrow?" Miles wouldn't look me in the eye. He stared at the lush garden bushes, his brows creased in concentration.
Or was it frustration? "Tomorrow? You said Sunday." I leaned against the cold railing while his forearms lay flat on it. The bedroom remained pitch-dark, but the moonlight let me study the frown that seemed stuck on his handsome face.
Maybe his post-dinner talk with his family didn't turn out okay? Miles cleared his throat and paid me a glance. "I know, but...you said your dad's in the hospital."
"Still sorting out some work stuff. Schedules. Commitments."
"You booked a flight yet?" he asked after a moment of silence.
Crickets made subtle noises around the mansion, and I loved the countryside smell and the dewy grass scent that soothed my senses. "Planning on it."
"Were you on the phone with Jill? Or your mom?"
The question didn't surprise me. I knew he'd been meaning to ask me the moment I'd excused myself from the dining table and left him alone with his family. "Why?"
My timid and fairly deflecting response made him turn to face me. Miles crossed his arms below his bare chest, looking at me intently now. "You're going back to the States?"
"Yeah." I looked away, confounded by the thought of not telling him about my most recent anxiety attack. "Just for a week or so." It wasn't a lie, but something in Miles' dead serious expression just made me break off our stare.
"You didn't tell me what the letter said."
Letter? He knew I'd received a letter from the university?
Oh. Right. I'd found the envelope in my room the night before I opened it. Only to read the rejection letter that spoiled my entire work week. Of course he'd left it on the nightstand himself. Stupid me. "They rejected me," I muttered. The reality of the statement still left a stinging pain in my chest.
"Why didn't you say anything?" Miles sighed and turned to the starless sky again. He threw his damp shirt over his shoulder.
"I was gonna."
"You don't wanna try again?"
"I should just...go home and get my degree. Get a loan again." My response sounded weak to my own ears. I didn't bother telling him more about what the letter said, or my utter disappointment in myself, especially since it was the seventh time I'd been rejected by a scholarship program.
"Oh," was all Miles replied.
"After I visit my dad and sort out some stuff with the agency." I took a step closer to my cheerless friend. Nice that I could still smell his cologne. Even sweaty he smelled good.
"Glad I asked, then." Miles faked a grin. He wasn't looking at me again.
Although our conversation remained calm and rather neutral, I couldn't help frowning at his gloomy mood and snorty reply.
"Why not just tell me?" When I kept mum, Miles shifted his weight to his left foot to regard my reaction. "I mean, why even keep it a secret? That's just...stupid."
His quite harsh tone hurt my ears so I avoided his gaze. Although I wasn't used to him being this frank and eristic, I knew he meant well. But did he have to make me feel like I was the most stupid, naïve girl on the face of the Earth?
"We have a problem or somethin'?"
Confused by his tone, I looked back at him with a frown. "No. But you're acting like we do."
A sigh was his immediate reply. His knuckles protruded as he gripped the balustrade. Then he faintly shook his head, his lips pouting in a deep frown.
"I need to go home. My mom begged me to."
"Fine. Go." Miles massaged the bridge of his aquiline nose. His palm almost covered his face, and he still refused to look me in the eye.
"W-Why are we even arguing about this?" Annoyance and confusion were just building up in my chest. "You know I wasn't planning on staying here for long."
He didn't reply.
"I've been applying for scholarships here all year; you know that. No luck. At all." I tried to step closer to him again. "Maybe it's time for me to face reality and just...go back home."
"But why didn't you tell me about the letter?" Miles asked quietly. "Didn't even tell me your dad's in the ICU again."
"I was gonna. But you've been busy we barely talked all week. I-I've been busy, too."
"Oh come on..." Miles scoffed. He leaned against the railing, clearly unaware of his petty grievances.
My initial reaction was another frown. "Anything else you wanna argue about?"
He kept staring skyward.
"It's late. Goodnight." I trudged back to the bedroom. Dismissing the vexation his attitude was giving me took a while, but I kept trying. I didn't even want to bring up the subject of him snooping on my phone. I was just too tired.
Before I could hide under the thick covers and sleep it all off, Miles caught my arm. His hand tugged and pulled until I turned around to face him.
He stood still. Shadows darkened his taller figure as we remained standing in the space between the balcony door and the empty bed.
Tension strained my neck as I stood before him, frowning, chin tilted upward. We exchanged stares in the dimness, and I couldn't do much but lift my arms to touch his face. "You're being weirdly argumentative." I sighed when he didn't respond. "Stop. It's driving me nuts."
"Tired of living with me already?" Still shirtless and brooding, Miles gently pushed me away.
"What?" I muttered in disbelief. "No. I─"
"Sleep. I'll drive you to the airport first thing." He left me standing by the bed and rushed towards the door, his hasty steps driven by his inexplicable temper.
"Hey─" I tried to stop him and even followed him to the door. "Miles."
"Night." He walked off and shut the door behind him without sparing me another glance.
◆ MILES ◆"Good run?" Ricchar glanced to the labyrinth. "Is Mykaela in her room? Cloe will be back tomorrow. She can keep them entertained until Sunday."Sunday? Oh. Right. It was my birthday this Sunday─actually the main reason I, Kel, and my parents were all here on this boring, weekend family vacation."Since all you plan to do is sulk after every little thing your Mamma Eleana says." My cousin Ricchar chuckled when I didn't say squat."I don't sulk." I poured myself a glass of wine. I'd already drunk two glasses during dinner, but my half-hour jog barely got rid of the muscle tension I was trying to alleviate. My back still ached as much as my legs, no thanks to the long drive."I get it, though
◇ KEL ◇ It took me a while, but, finally! I figured it out. I let out a sigh, white mists coming out of my nose and mouth.The dimness only amplified my dark imagination. My skin just hated the bitingly cold horror-movie ambience of this place. "Miles?" I wrapped my arms around myself. I peered around the grass-covered space. To my utter confusion and horror, the paths diverged into more mazes. "Shit." This thing didn't end! Did anyone see me walking into this labyrinth? Anyone from the Falcos' security staff? Or one of the maids could've seen me. Moonlight was sparse in this side of the lot. Shadowed hedges towered over me by at least four feet. How did I even end up trapped in this creepy old maze? Ugh. I was just trying to find him. Perhaps Miles and his older cousin were hanging out somewhere in this impressive garden. This backyard could be the size of an entire football field, if I wasn't overcalculating. "Miles?" I called out. An old sweater covered half of my poor excu
◇ KEL ◇Me? In love with Miles?
◇ KEL ◇"When would you be back?""I don't know yet."Sitting on the edge of the bed, Miles frowned at my answer. "Don't leave the country for good."His blunt response left me standing next to him, his attentive gaze taking over my thoughts.He looked sad—his eyes said it all. Apparently, he didn't want me to leave him alone in his countryside house while trying to make something out of his solitary life, left to his own devices for years and years to come. But there was something else he didn't want to share."Fine. Why?" I sighed. "Don't say nothing again, or I'll tell your parents you've been lying.""It wasn't... I dunno why I did it. Okay?""So if they bring it up again tomorrow, at some point, you'll fess up and apologize?""No." Miles cut off our staring contest and rubbe
◆ MILES ◆"Vases? Stuffing them in stupid jars? Really?" I watched my mother sit back in the elegant swivel chair. At my tone, her perfect brows creased and her reaction denoted confusion. "A ten-year-old could come up with better ideas, Mamma." I sighed and bit back the urge to swear. What I'd discovered just minutes ago now convinced me how big of a mistake it was to ask Mykaela to come with us.Where the heck was my father and cousin? But my mother being here should be able to straighten out a few things; I had a nagging feeling she knew all about it.Just another branch of the family business, seemed like. Impatiently, I paced around the study room filled with books and paperwork. I couldn't help but examine my mother's flimsy attempt at pretending to be busy.My Mamma Eleana sat behind a large desk, her prim manicured fingers flipping through the pages of a ledger. On the desk stood piles and piles of paperwork. A teacup the same white shade as her wrinkle-free dress sat next to a
◇ KEL ◇My search for the basement only took seconds. I found the narrow stairs behind a door almost perfectly hidden among inconspicuous marble columns, if it weren't for the bloody hand prints on the edges. Not to mention the bright red droplets on the floor.It's the door where Ricchar and his men went through; I was pretty sure. I took the stairs and was surprised when it led me to a wide and well-equipped basement. Tall dividers, rows of lights, and what looked like locked storage rooms filled the space. It looked three times bigger than Miles' studio-type basement."Charr? Ricchar?" I knocked on the rooms I passed by, ignoring the uncanny feeling of being watched.From what the maid said, the bloody and wounded woman was actually Cloe—Ricchar's wife—and Cloe definitely needed medical attention. I weighed the odds. There couldn't be a doctor around here, especially in a place as remote as this exclusive estate."Mykaela!" A messy-haired, scowling Ricchar grabbed my arm from behind
◇ KEL ◇Face and neck damp with sweat, I glanced to the other fully conscious person in the room. I opened the door wider and quietly stepped in.Ricchar watched his wife closely as he rested on the wrinkled comforter. Then he looked at me when I stayed slouching by the door. "Grazie."His wife remained still on the single bed. Cloe's face and extremities were no longer covered in her own blood. The exhaustion had knocked her out before her wounds got stitched and bandaged carefully—I had to stitch up the biggest ones to ward off infections.Ricchar and the guards trusted my first aid skills and training enough to let me do whatever I thought would help Cloe best.To our advantage, the Falcos' former medical staff had stocked first aid drugs and enough medical supplies in the mansion's basement, vital in cases such as this. The cold, dry basement was perfect for stocking emergency meds and supplies.
◆MILES◆"What d'you mean 'we can't leave'?""The risk is too high.""Her dad's critical in the hospital." I took a step back and sighed out loud. The frustration, confusion, and worsening anxiety was already constricting my chest. My father's inexorable response did nothing but thin out my patience.Fine. We shouldn't just leave the estate af