Inviting Vaughn Abrams to the wedding probably wasn’t one of Saffron Brenwood’s best ideas. He’d been looking at her with that expression all evening, the one that hinted at an impending conversation about their future, a conversation she knew she wouldn’t enjoy. She hoped it was only her imagination because he was a lot of fun, and everyone said they made a striking couple with their fair skin and matching blond hair. Breaking up with him would be harder than it had been with most of her boyfriends.
She sat at the bridesmaids table with two of her foster sisters, Halla and Elsie, their dates having gone for drinks. Saffron’s feet were a little sore from dancing, and the floor was a bit too crowded now for real fun, but she’d get in a few more songs before the night was over.
“So,” Halla said to Saffron, “how long have you been dating Vaughn?” Halla’s blue eyes looked huge and eager in her narrow face.
Saffron lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. “Three months.”
Halla gaped. “That’s got to be some kind of record, right?”
“Maybe.” It was exactly a month longer than Saffron had dated anyone in over eight and a half years since leaving her parents’ home. She’d known Vaughn for a year before they started dating, though, and that was also different and maybe why he’d lasted so long. It helped that they shared a lot of the same interests, like hiking, river rafting, visiting second-hand stores, and hanging out with her foster sisters.
“Does this mean . . .” Elsie began, pushing back a dark lock that had escaped her carefully upswept hairdo.
Saffron glanced over to where Vaughn stood in line at the bar, getting drinks with Elsie’s date. He met her gaze at that moment and shot her a smile before turning back to his conversation.
“Of course not,” Halla answered for Saffron. “I knew the minute they started dating that he wouldn’t last. Just like all the others. It’s too bad, though. I like him.”
Something inside Saffron’s chest shifted, but she forced a convincing smile. “You do know me.” Even back when they had all still lived at Lily’s House as foster sisters, Saffron had been changing boyfriends as often as she bought a new pair of jeans.
“Oh, man,” Elsie said. “I really thought this one would stick.”
Halla gave an unladylike snort, which seemed out of place with the elegant blue bridesmaid dresses they were wearing. “Not a chance.”
Saffron looked away from the table to the dance floor, where two more of their foster sisters, Ruth and Bianca, were dancing with their fiancés. She suddenly wished she were with them, sore feet or no. Zoey and her new husband, Declan, were also dancing, staring into each other’s eyes as if no one else existed. Saffron was happy for them, but why did seeing them that way suddenly make her feel alone?
“Oh, no,” Halla moaned, bringing Saffron’s attention back to the table. “He got the wrong drink. Again.”
Saffron’s gaze shifted to Halla’s tall, too-thin date, who was approaching the table. Halla was a good two feet shorter than he was, even in heels and with her short hair spiked an inch. The difference had made dancing all night a challenge, but the real problem for Halla was his lack of memory. He’d left for drinks long before the other men, but Halla had already sent him back once.
“I’d better go with him this time, even if that line is long. It’s better than trying to dance.” She rolled her eyes and jumped up to meet him, striding as if she were wearing her normal camouflage pants and boots instead of a bridesmaid’s dress and heels. There had been some doubt that she’d wear the dress at all. But Zoey was the first of the original six Lily’s House foster girls to be married, and they were sisters at heart, if not by blood, and not even Halla could let Zoey down.
“So are you going to break up with him?” Elsie asked, bringing Saffron’s attention back to her. “I hope not. You seem so happy lately, and you deserve to be happy.”
Saffron’s smile came easier this time. “There’s really nothing to break up. We’re just dating. Besides, I have time. I’m only twenty-five.”
Elsie nodded and kindly didn’t point out that Zoey was younger than she was, and so were Ruth and Bianca, who had both become engaged this week. But Saffron saw the thoughts in her face and put her hand over Elsie’s where it lay on the table. At nineteen, Elsie was the youngest and most romantic of the six sisters. “Don’t worry about it. I’m fine.”
“But why?” Elsie asked. “What happened to you before you came to live with Lily? You never talk about it. Is that why you always dump even the good guys?”
For an instant, Saffron couldn’t breathe. Pressure started in her chest, splitting into a deep chasm of nothingness. Only Lily knew the secret of her past. Saffron had been the first underage girl Lily had helped after finding her passed out on a bench, and by the time Lily had taken in the other girls, Saffron had become good at denial. Lily had saved her life, and Saffron had gone on from her mistakes, but in some very real ways, Saffron felt as if her life hadn’t moved on since that day, as if her emotions were forever frozen by what had happened to bring her to that point.
“I’m sorry,” Elsie said. “You don’t have to tell me.”
Movements in Saffron’s peripheral vision sent relief flooding through her. “Oh, look, here come our dates.”
Vaughn was in the lead, a smile on his face. “Sorry we took so long. There was a line.”
A slow song began as he set her drink in front of her. “Hey, let’s dance,” she said, popping up from her chair. Dancing would drive the memories away.
Vaughn sipped his drink before placing it on the table. “Sure.”
“We’ll see you in a minute,” Saffron said to the others. She felt Elsie’s eyes on her as she escaped to the dance floor.
Vaughn put his arms around her, and she leaned closer, loving the feel of his body so close to hers. She’d loved the attraction between them from the first moment they’d met at the end of last summer when he’d been the guide on a river rafting trip she’d gone on with friends.
They’d flirted probably more than they should have, and he’d asked for her phone number after the river trip. But she was a week into a new relationship, and she’d had to turn him down. Even after she’d said no, he’d helped her get a job at his cousin’s sports store, where he was managing their rafting business on the side. She learned he had recently left his job of five years as an animator at Datatoon Studios in California and was now in Phoenix preparing to teach animation at a local university.
During the months that followed, they’d often run into each other at the store, gone out with the same group of friends, or talked on Facebook. Yet it wasn’t until this summer, when they were both between relationships, that they’d gone on another river run together. He’d kissed her afterward, and that was all it had taken.
She almost wished she didn’t like him as well as she did, but he hadn’t pushed for commitment as hard as her past dates, so maybe they could go out another month or two before it had to end.
She snuggled her face into his neck. “Hmm,” she murmured, breathing in his aftershave.
He drew back. “What?”
“You smell good.”
He laughed, a contented sound that made her smile. “You say that every time I wear this aftershave.”
“Ah, that explains why you wear it so much.”
He laughed again, his arms tightening around her as the slow dance wound to an end. His face bent toward her, and his lips brushed hers with a kiss that was more promise than substance. Even so, it sent her heartbeat racing. When they stepped apart, his hands enfolded hers. “Can you come out on the balcony with me for a moment? We need to talk.”
A sinking feeling in Saffron’s chest warned her to say no. “I need to see Zoey off with the others.”
“I don’t think they’re leaving yet. Look, Declan’s talking with the DJ now. He must be asking for another song.”
“Oh. All right then.”
Vaughn pulled her gently in the direction of the deserted balcony. The late September evening felt too hot to Saffron, even in her short-sleeved dress, but that was probably due to the erratic pounding of her heart.
“Look,” he started. “This might not be the best time, but I’ve been trying for—”
She stretched up to kiss him under the moonlight. He kissed her back, and for a moment she forgot her worry. This was something they did really well. In fact, making out with him was better than it had been with anyone else. She might be able to avoid this talk altogether if they kissed long enough.
Too soon, Vaughn pulled away. He was probably frustrated, like the others before him had been, at the slowness of their physical progress. Saffron always broke up with men before hitting the bedroom. Always. Before any real commitment. It was what she had to do to survive the losses that still haunted her.
“Saffron,” he said, “these past three months—no really, this past year that we’ve been friends—I want you to know it’s been good. Especially all the time we spent together this summer.”
Oh, no, here it comes, she thought. A proclamation of love, after which he’d ask her to be his exclusive girlfriend, or even to marry him.
“It’s been fun,” she agreed, keeping her voice light. She didn’t want to hurt him.
He fell silent for a moment, his blue eyes searching hers. “You are an amazing woman. Beautiful, smart, fun, sexy.” He paused, swallowing hard. “I love being with you. And if I thought I had any chance with you, I’d follow you to the ends of the earth.”
This was different from the normal approach. “Uh, thank you?”
He gave a soft laugh that held no real mirth. “I mean it. But I’d be blind not to see that you aren’t as invested in me as I am in you.”
“I love being with you,” she protested. “I’m just not ready—”
“For anything more. I know.” He nodded, giving her a gentle smile. “You’ve been up front about that from the beginning. But I do want more. I’m ready to move on to the next part of my life. That includes a family, children. I’ve loved teaching, and I plan to finish out this second year, but after that I might be going back into animation full time. Last week, Datatoon made me a substantial offer to head up one of their game design teams, and I’m considering it.”
“That’s great,” she said. It didn’t feel great, though. It felt horrible. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You’ve had a lot on your mind, and I wasn’t even sure I was going to consider it. I know how you love being close to—” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Like I said, I’m not sure what this year will bring, and I don’t have to give them an answer right away. But in the end, that has nothing to do with what’s going on between us.”
“And what is that?” Saffron barely choked out the words.
“Nothing.” As her eyes widened, he hurried to add, “Not that I don’t want it to, but there’s a part of you I can’t reach, and I don’t know how to.” His forehead furrowed, and his eyes held a deep sadness that echoed in her stomach.
“Are you breaking up with me because I won’t sleep with you?” She felt more hurt than angry at the idea. It was something she understood at least.
“Of course not.” He ran a hand through his hair, pacing two steps away and then back again. “Before we got together, I watched you go through six boyfriends in less than a year. I’m happy you weren’t sleeping with them. Believe me. I also know that though you didn’t agree to see them exclusively, you didn’t date others at the same time. One proposed, one invited you to meet his parents, and one asked you to move in with him—and in each case, less than a week later, you were dating someone else.”
What could she say? He was right about all of it, except that there had been another proposal and two of her dates had called her frigid for refusing to sleep with them.
“And every time,” he continued, “I could always tell when you were getting ready to cut them loose.” He paused, holding her gaze as he finished. “Well, you don’t have to cut me loose, because I already know.”
“But . . .” She’d known it was ending too, so why did Vaughn’s dumping her hurt this much?
“Saffron.” He took her hands. “I don’t know what happened to you. I wish I did. I thought I could be the one you would trust enough to let through.”
Moisture glittered in his eyes, and she should feel some satisfaction that he was hurting too, but she didn’t. Not even a tiny bit. She only felt exposed, vulnerable. He’d discovered the truth—that something was broken inside her. Something that made it so she could never love anyone the way she had once loved a boy named Tyson.
“Am I wrong?” he asked.
It took every bit of strength inside her to say, “No.”
Vaughn squeezed her hands before bringing them to his lips to kiss. “If that ever changes, I’d love to know. Because I think we could have something great here.”
Slowly, he released her, his eyes roaming her face as he backed toward the door. Waiting? If she flung herself at him, would he stay? She suspected he would, because he was that kind of man. But it would only delay the inevitable, and she cared about him enough not to lead him on. She wished she could give him what he wanted. She’d wished that more than once with other men over the past eight years, but tonight the feeling was different, as if a piece of the wall around her heart were breaking.
“I’ll take off now,” he said, thumbing over his shoulder. “Unless you want me to stay.”
She’d had to be here earlier for photographs, so they had separate cars, which worked out well for this moment. Maybe that’s why he’d planned their breakup in a public place where there wouldn’t be a scene. As if she’d allow herself any kind of a scene.
“Goodbye, Vaughn,” she said quietly.
He nodded, his face tightening momentarily in the way it always did when he tried to hide any emotion. “Goodbye, Saffron.”
Only when he was gone did she turn to the railing and let a few tears escape. Maybe if she hadn’t brought him here tonight as her date, he wouldn’t have realized what they were missing. It was hard not to see the love in Zoey and Declan’s eyes as they’d exchanged their vows.
“Saffron!” Halla called from behind her. “Hurry! Zoey’s gathering her things to leave. We have to get things ready.”
Saffron hastily wiped the tears from her cheeks, took a deep breath, and forced a smile as she turned to her foster sister. “Great. This’ll be fun.”
Halla stared at her. “What happened? Wait, did you just break up with him? Here? It couldn’t wait one night? Seriously?”
“No, he broke up with me.” Despite her control, her voice wavered. Saffron bit her lip to stop herself from saying any more.
“Oh, that jerk!” Halla rushed to her and gave her a hug.
“Not a jerk. He just knew it wasn’t going anywhere.” Instead of feeling better at Halla’s support, Saffron felt worse. “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I forget him and go on?”
Halla drew back. “Forget who? Because I know you don’t mean Vaughn.” Her eyes invited more.
“It doesn’t matter,” Saffron mumbled. “Maybe I’m always going to be alone.” If anyone but Halla had come to get her, she would have bitten back the words. The other girls still had romantic dreams, but Halla was down to earth. She wouldn’t try to convince Saffron that it was all in her imagination, or that real love was just around the corner.
“Because even when I’m with someone,” Saffron added, “I’m really still alone.” A familiar numbness was spreading inside her, and Saffron welcomed the feeling. At least there would be no more tears.
“Maybe it’s time to find out why,” Halla said. “Maybe you need to face this head on like Zoey did when she testified against her uncle in court. Whatever it is that’s bothering you might look different if you face it down. And if you need a listening ear, you know I’m always here.”
Saffron nodded, tempted for the first time to confide in someone besides Lily. Halla, who’d had to escape her house through an upstairs window to get away from an abusive and controlling father, had a clear grasp on how some parents didn’t do what was right for their children. She’d understand.
Elsie appeared in the doorway. “Hurry, you guys! You’re missing it.”
Saffron and Halla followed her back into the reception center and out to the front, where people were forming two lines. As Zoey and Declan, the new Mr. and Mrs. Walker, ran past them in a deluge of dried flower petals, Saffron cheered with the others. At least on the outside.
On the inside, her mind was churning. She’d assumed that one day she’d meet someone who would make her past disappear, but maybe she’d been going about this all wrong. Halla might be right that she needed to face the past, go back to where it all began. The idea of returning to Temecula was like a dead space inside her, but she needed to know. She’d recently connected with her younger sister on Facebook, and she did want to see her. Not so much her parents, and especially their mother.
And Tyson. The black hole growing inside seemed big enough to consume her now. Maybe confronting him—wherever he was—would be cathartic. If she could find him. Eight and a half years had passed after all.
She watched Zoey climb into Declan’s truck, which was decorated with balloons and streamers. She looked so happy, nothing like the terror-stricken young woman who’d been called to testify in court a few years ago.
“Okay,” Lily shouted. “Let’s pack up their gifts and get out of here.”
Dutifully, Saffron helped load gifts into the waiting cars. Then she drove her blue Hyundai Elantra to help unload the gifts at Lily’s House where they would be stored until Zoey and Declan returned from their honeymoon.
Saffron always loved coming to Lily’s House. It was home, the place where she and her fosters sisters had all finished growing up after running away or having been abandoned by their own families. Even as adults, Saffron and the others turned to Lily like a mother, though she was only four years older than Saffron.
One by one, Saffron’s foster sisters left with their dates, and Lily’s current foster girls went to bed. Mario, Lily’s husband, took their sleepy boys upstairs to tuck in. When they were all gone, Lily, with her ten-month-old asleep in her arms, pinned Saffron with her knowing stare. “Stay for some herbal tea?”
“Yeah, thanks.” Saffron didn’t want to go home to the apartment she’d finally been able to afford on her own. She would have to gather up everything that reminded her of Vaughn and either send it to him or throw it away. Facing that right now made her want to give in to the tears pressing at her eyes.
In the kitchen, Lily laid baby Cherie in Saffron’s arms. “If you’ll just hold her while I make the tea.”
How did Lily always seem to know what she needed? Saffron willingly held Cherie to her chest, feeling the little body settle into hers, hearing her tiny breaths. Holding Cherie, and Lily’s boys before her, had always been a balm to Saffron’s soul. But it also hurt as her mind invariably wandered to what might have been.
Lily hummed as she put cups of water into the microwave. Two minutes later, she brought the water over with several boxes of herbal tea on a tray. Saffron wasn’t ready to give up the baby yet, so she just pointed to the apple spice tea and let Lily put a bag into her cup.
“So,” Lily began as the tea steeped. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“It’s just . . . all of the girls are going on with their lives, but I only pretend. You know what I mean, right? I’ve dated a lot of wonderful guys, but the minute they want more commitment than a few kisses or a fun date, I end things.”
Lily nodded. “It’s something I’ve worried about the past few years. Why do you think you do that?”
Saffron let out a long sigh. “I don’t know. No, that’s not quite true. I think I’m still in love with Tyson.” She paused, grateful that Lily didn’t rush in with any words. “I’ve tried not to love him. I mean I was only a kid when it all happened. How could love at that age be real? And yet when I think about a future, about a family, it’s only him I see.” Now her tears came, tears for herself, tears for Tyson, tears even for Vaughn, who’d never had a chance.
“And I’m still so angry at my mother for throwing me out,” she continued. “Abandoning me when I needed her most. If she’d only stood by me, maybe . . .” Maybe things would be different. She and Tyson might be together. She might be in a house where their sons slept upstairs and it might be their baby lying in her arms right now.
“The maybes are the hardest part,” Lily agreed. She began removing the bobby pins that held her blond hair up in a twist.
The fact that Lily didn’t come right out with a list of options told Saffron Lily knew exactly what she should do, but it was something hard, something that needed to be her choice. She’d seen Lily, who was a fountain of wisdom, counsel dozens of foster girls who had gone through her house in exactly the same way.
“Are you managing me?” Saffron asked, attempting a smile.
Lily laid another bobby pin on her growing pile and chuckled softly. “I was only twenty-one when you came to live with me. Remember how we hid you in my room at college?”
“Oh, yeah.” In the beginning, Saffron had done nothing but lie in Lily’s bed, trying to recover from severe malnutrition and the endless heartbreak.
“The point is that we’ve been friends a long time,” Lily said. “It’s not managing. It’s trying to help a friend decide what she should do. But I think you’re right that you’re stalled emotionally, and it breaks my heart.” Lily teared up and it took a moment for her to recover and begin speaking again. “Remember when we moved in here, and we told you that even if you helped out with the house payment, you couldn’t have boys sleep over? And you said—”
“If I ever find a boy worthy of sleeping over, I’d probably marry him. But don’t hold your breath because I was sure he didn’t exist.” Saffron sighed. “Oh, yeah. I remember. The girls still tease me about it.”
“At first I thought you wanted to avoid getting hurt again, but for a long time now, I’ve known it’s something more. Because there have been a few guys I thought you might fall for, and Vaughn is probably the best of them all.”
Saffron blinked and another tear escaped her eye. “What I felt for Tyson . . . I thought it would go away. That I’d wake up one day and it would be gone, but it hasn’t changed at all.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “I think . . . I think it’s time. I think I have to go back. I need to find him. I want to know why he never looked for me.”
“Maybe he didn’t know where to look.”
Saffron had told herself this over the years, but it still hurt that Tyson hadn’t come after her. He had to know something was up when she disappeared. Instead, he’d left her all alone to deal with the consequences of their love. The horrible, heartrending consequences that still made her cry when she was alone.
“Maybe,” Saffron allowed. She could at least listen to his reasons—if he cared enough to share them.
“It’ll be good to see your sister,” Lily added.
“It will.” Kendall had only been ten when Saffron had to leave. That day, as she’d thrown a few things into her backpack, Kendall had begged her not to go, and their mother had come in and ordered Kendall away. Saffron hadn’t been allowed to say goodbye.
For years, the idea of Saffron’s old life in Temecula had felt more like a vivid dream than reality. Kendall was certainly less a sister than the foster sisters who had been her family over the past eight years since Lily had found her. Even her days with Tyson and how much they’d been in love was like a life lived by someone else.
Only the way it had ended, that night with blood everywhere, stayed with her as if it had been yesterday.
This summer after she’d started dating Vaughn, for reasons she couldn’t pinpoint, her thoughts had been continually drawn to her sister. Maybe because Vaughn was always talking about his younger sister, or maybe because Saffron was seeing less of her foster sisters. She’d looked for Kendall, found her on Facebook, and sent her a message, letting her know the name she was using now and telling her she was in Phoenix. Almost immediately, Kendall had begun asking to see her. Saffron had avoided the request so far, partly because Kendall was still living with their parents in Temecula, but also partly because the memories were too painful.
“Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about Kendall,” Saffron said. “I think something is wrong with her. But she won’t say what.”
Lily set down her tea. “Well, she is living in the same house you haven’t been able to return to in eight and a half years. I mean, people can change, but maybe it’s not easy for her there. She might see you as a way out.”
Saffron sniffed hard, fighting more tears. “I know. And if she needs help, I should give it to her. I’m definitely going back. Even if it ends up being just for her and I don’t find Tyson at all.”
Lily’s smile was gentle. “Then maybe it’s time I returned something to you.” She rose and leaned down to take the baby from her arms. “And this one, I’ll go tuck in with her daddy.”
Reluctantly, Saffron relinquished the warm bundle to Lily. The baby had steadied her, had given her the human connection she’d so desperately needed after this terrible evening.
Lily returned in minutes with a small white jewelry box that Saffron recognized immediately. Her heartbeat thundered inside her chest. She knew too well what was inside, and she accepted the box without opening it. As she did, Lily’s hands closed around hers, holding her fast and staring into her eyes.
“Saffron, you can do this. But if you need anything from me, I’m here.” Lily released her and stepped back.
“You always have been.” Saffron stood, clutching the little box. “I’d better get home.”
Lily nodded and walked with her to the door. She stood there, framed by the light until Saffron placed the little jewelry box next to her purse on the passenger seat and drove away.
Was she really going back to California? Yes, she needed to or nights like this one would forever be in her future, with good men like Vaughn walking away because she couldn’t love them. Or breaking up with a man she liked because she couldn’t commit. Another tear skidded down her cheek.
In her room at her apartment, she sat on the bed to slip off her heels and automatically checked her phone, which she’d silenced during the wedding ceremony and had neglected to turn back on. There had been two calls from Vaughn. Her heart leapt. Maybe he’d reconsidered.
But the text message he’d also sent destroyed the hope: Just checking to make sure you’re okay. I understand if you don’t want to talk to me. I’m really sorry. I wish things could be different, but I hope we’re still friends.
Maybe he would have been the one to finally heal her heart, but now she would never know. He would never know. “You tried only three months,” she whispered, deleting the text. “Your loss.” But the words were a waste because she didn’t know if even three years would have been enough time.
Beside her on the bed, the jewelry box beckoned with a temptation she’d never been able to resist. That was why she’d placed it in Lily’s safe-keeping soon after she’d gone to live with her. Lily kept two locked boxes in her closet for that explicit purpose—to store the girls’ special treasures or important documents. Unlike the others who’d gone through Lily’s House, Saffron had never asked for it back.
Inside was a folded piece of paper, a small, pale blue shirt, and two pictures of the sweetest angel in the world. She held the shirt to her face, breathing in the smell that wasn’t there any longer but that her memory filled in. One of the pictures was a close-up of a baby wearing the shirt, his eyes shut, as if asleep. The other picture was of her holding his tiny form, gazing down on him with bewildered tears in her eyes.
Next, she unfolded the paper, though she already knew what the birth certificate said: Tyson Dekker Junior, son of Rosalyn Brenwood and Tyson Dekker.
Rosalyn. A name she hadn’t answered to in so long that she felt it belonged to someone else. For endless moments, she sat there, holding her treasures, eyes tightly shut.
When at long last the brutal ache began to ebb, she replaced the items inside the jewelry box, set it in the top drawer of her nightstand, and pulled out her suitcase.
She was going to find Tyson—and face her family. It was the only way.