“Look at me,” he demanded, reaching down and roughly grasping her chin. “You’re lucky it wasn’t loaded or you’d be dead now. Understand?”
She nodded frantically, hyperventilating.
“Good. Now go to your room for your punishment. It’s time you learn what happens when people forget their place.”
Dr. DeMarco unlocked the door and stormed out with the gun. His words bounced around her frightened mind as images hit her, flashes of dead eyes gnawing at her aching chest. That’s what happens when people forget their place.
Death happened. Number 33 happened. Frankie told her to remember, and she was sure she would never forget. How could she?
She pulled herself up on shaky legs and made her way to the third floor, fear overriding all logic. Bolting straight for Carmine’s room, Haven tore open the window and climbed through. Running along the balcony, she held her breath and forced herself not to look down as she scampered into the tree and shimmied down to the yard.
The moment her feet hit the ground, she ran. Trees and brush scratched her limbs as she navigated the dense forest, her heart thumping wildly. She moved as fast as her legs would carry her, having no sense of direction as she once again ran for her life.
Eventually, the forest thinned. Haven saw the clearing beyond the trees and turned in that direction, shoving branches out of her way as she broke through to the road. The squeal of tires made her stop in her tracks, and she gasped when she saw the familiar black car.
No, no, no . . .She backed away, shaking her head, but it was too late.
Dr. DeMarco grabbed her and dragged her toward the idling car. Haven begged him when she saw the open trunk, but he picked her up without much effort and threw her in the back with no regard. She stared at him, horrified, and his furious eyes bore into her before he slammed the trunk.
Haven flinched as she was encased in darkness.
He accelerated, the force flinging her around the trunk, her head slamming against the side of it. Sobbing, she frantically felt around for some way out. A small light came on whenever he hit the brakes, illuminating the space enough for her to see. She found a small lever and pulled it, stunned when the trunk popped open. She jolted again as Dr. DeMarco slammed the brakes, but she managed to climb out quickly. Her feet carried her a short way down the road before she was seized from behind, an arm circling her throat as a hand roughly pressed against her head. She flailed around, but his hold was too strong.
In a matter of seconds, her vision faded.
The moment he walked in the door from school that afternoon, he knew something had happened. It was a feeling in the air, a stifling silence, a sense of danger that made his adrenaline pump overtime, charring his nerves as it ran through his veins.
Carmine headed upstairs, looking around, and found his bedroom door open when he reached the third floor. A cool breeze swept through his room, the window wide open and curtains rustling. His heart rate spiked. This was bad. Real fucking bad.
The voice behind him was icy, detached. “How did she know?”
Carmine turned around, seeing his father near the stairs, nonchalantly leaned against the wall with his silver revolver tucked into his pants.
“How did she know what?”
“How did she know your window opened, Carmine? Because it’s my house, and I didn’t know!”
Carmine turned back to the window. Oh, shit. “Where is she?”
“Does it matter?”
His father stared at him hard. “Why?”
Carmine blanched. Why? “Because it does. You’re a lot of things, Dad, but . . . Christ, this? I didn’t think you were this fucked up!”
Vincent’s eyes narrowed. “Do you have something to say?”
“Yeah. Nothing’s gonna bring her back.”
Vincent’s calm mask slipped. “What?”
“You heard me. It’s not gonna change anything! She’s still gone!”
Those words broke something inside Vincent, severing his tenuous grip with sanity. He grabbed his gun and aimed at Carmine’s head.
“You won’t shoot me,” Carmine said. “I look too much like her.”
Vincent’s hand shook, confirming it. “Stay away from the girl.”
He meant it as a threat, but Carmine only felt relief. It meant that Haven was still there, somewhere . . . but he had no intention of keeping his distance from her.
“Time to play in the snow!”
Everyone jumped up at once as Dominic shouted those words, and Haven just sat there when they ran from the room. Celia laughed. “Aren’t you joining them?”
“Am I supposed to?” Haven asked, looking to Dr. DeMarco for direction, but he said nothing, his expression giving her no hint.
“If you want to,” Celia said, “but you’ll need to bundle up.”
She headed upstairs, finding Carmine waiting for her. Haven put on some extra clothes before grabbing her coat. She wore so many layers she had a hard time walking down the stairs. The group headed for the back door, and Dominic collapsed to the ground right away, sending white stuff flying everywhere. He formed snowballs to pelt Carmine with, and Haven laughed as he threw some back. The fighting got out of control quickly. Haven ducked as Dia ran, snowballs barely missing them both. Tess wasn’t lucky, though, and one slammed her in the chest.
Dia wandered off to snap pictures as Haven crouched down, running her hand through a pile of snow. She could feel the coldness through her gloves, the air chilly against her flushed face. She watched it drift through her fingers, captivated by the way it crunched when she made a fist.
The burden on her heart lessened. Just for a while, she allowed her guilt to ease.
Carmine strolled over to her. “Wanna go for a walk, tesoro?”
She nodded and trudged through the snow behind him. They hit the tree line, and Carmine took her gloved hand as they walked out toward the creek. He paused a foot away from it and glanced down at the rushing water, a look of longing embedded in his features. She stared at him, and he must have sensed her gaze, because he smirked after a second. “Like something you see?”
She nudged him. “You know I do.”
They stood under the trees, hand in hand, as two squirrels ran by. Haven watched as they chased each other through the snow before scaling the tree beside them and leaping onto a branch. She ducked, realizing what they were doing, but Carmine was too slow. He looked up in time for one of the squirrels to hit a pile of snow and send it flying into his face.
“Son of a bitch!” he said, pulling his hand from hers to brush the snow away. She laughed as she watched him, and he cut his eyes to her. “Something funny?”
She bit her lip to hold in the laughter. The moment she finally got herself under control, the squirrel came running along the tree again, more of the snow falling onto Carmine.
There was a mischievous glint in Carmine’s eye when Haven laughed again. She turned to run as he started toward her, recognizing the expression from the fiasco with the dishwasher, but she only got a few steps away before her foot caught on something. She fell into the snow face first, a rush of cold instantly overtaking her body.
“See?” Carmine said. “That’s what happens when you laugh at me.”
She rolled over to look at him and tossed a handful of snow at his chest. “And that’s what happens when you laugh at me.”
He chuckled, pulling her to her feet. “You’re covered now.”
She shrugged. “It’s just water.”
“Just water? You can get frostbitten, or sick, or even pneumonia. Fuck, there’s hypothermia. All sorts of things could happen. You might lose a toe.”
“Carmine, I was born prematurely in the horse stables, and I survived. I’ve had the daylights beaten out of me, and I survived. I’ve had a gun shoved against my throat, and I survived. It’s frozen water . . . I’ll survive.”
“So you’re saying you’re a survivor again?”
“Yes,” she said. “And I just got my thesaurus, so I haven’t had time to find other words for it.”
“Carry on,” he said. “Keep living. Remain alive.”
“Aren’t they definitions?”
“Synonym, definition . . . same difference. It’s just a technicality.”
Staring at him, Haven fought back her laughter again. “I don’t think that’s the word you want.”
He ignored her. “You know, I was premature too. A few weeks early. My mom always wanted a bunch of kids, but they stopped after me. I never understood why.”
His voice was wistful. Haven closed the distance between them and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Maybe they realized they created perfection with you and didn’t need any more.”
“I’m far from perfect, Haven,” he said. “I have more flaws than I do good parts.”
“You have flaws, but that’s part of what makes you wonderful. You are perfect—perfect for me.” She reached up on her tiptoes and kissed him softly before whispering against his lips. “Besides, flaws, no flaws, perfect, not perfect . . . they’re probably just technicalities, too.”
The sound of Carmine’s laughter warmed her frozen skin.
The airbag deployed with a loud pop, silencing Haven’s screams as her seatbelt locked into place. Slamming into it, she gasped for air, unable to take a breath until it deflated. She glanced at the driver’s side, her chest on fire as she tore off her seatbelt. Carmine was slumped forward, his airbag splattered with blood from his face. Haven screamed his name, pawing at him, trying to find some sign of life, and she cried out with relief as he took a shaky breath.
The slam of a car door nearby alarmed Haven. The black sedan was parked alongside the road, everything hitting Haven at once as four men approached, all of them shrouded in black masks.
They were a blur in her panicked state, their rapid approach severing any grip she might have had on herself. She considered trying to run, but she wouldn’t leave Carmine when he couldn’t fend for himself. “Carmine, I need you! Please!”
Her distress skyrocketed as the men neared, their voices muffled to her ears. Glancing around the front seat, she spotted Carmine’s gun on the floorboard. Her heart pounded vigorously. She hesitated for a split second before grasping it with trembling hands.
Someone appeared at the driver’s side, and Haven pulled the trigger as a reflex. It sounded like an explosion in the confined space, and she yelped, remembering to keep a grip on the gun so it didn’t slip out of her hand. The bullet shattered the driver’s side window and grazed the man’s face. He grasped his cheek and turned as someone screamed, the man behind him dropping to the ground a few feet away.
The first man ripped off his mask as he spun back around, and Haven shrieked when she recognized Nunzio. He whipped out his pistol and reached into the window, grabbing Carmine by the hair. Yanking his head back, Nunzio pointed the gun to his temple the same time the passenger door opened and a gun pressed to the back of her head.
The person behind her spoke, his voice heavily accented. “Drop the fucking gun, sweetheart.”