He reached out to squeeze my hand, but I sprung forward and wrapped my arms around his shoulders. I hugged him tight, a move he returned. When I pulled back, I swallowed the knot in my throat. “Be careful.”
I watched him walk off the porch and down the sidewalk, joining Heidi by the gate. He was going to take her home so she wouldn’t be alone. I don’t know how long I stood there, but when I finally turned around, Jensen was waiting.
“Your mom said I could stay.”
“Downstairs,” Mom’s voice traveled from the hallway above. “He can stay here, but downstairs.”
“Got it.” Closing the door, I turned to Jensen. He was leaning against the archway that led into the living room, his hands in his pockets. I lowered my voice as I approached him. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”
“I’ve always thought you were a little cray-cray.”
My eyes narrowed.
He flashed a half grin. “I don’t think you’re crazy, Ella. I just don’t know what to think about all of this. I mean, Penn?” He laughed under his breath, but there wasn’t any humor to it. “It’s like we’re dealing with something that’s not flesh and blood.”
“Sometimes I wonder if we are,” I admitted quietly. “There’s something almost inhuman about it. Like there is no humanity there, behind that mask. I mean, I know it’s a living, breathing person and all, but how can someone do what he’s doing?”
“I don’t know.”
And I wondered if we’d ever know, or if we’d have a chance to find out before he picked us off, one by one.
I shuddered, knowing that was a terrible way to look at this. “I’ll get you some blankets and stuff.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Turning, I hurried up the stairs, not surprised to find my mom waiting outside of her bedroom. In her arms were blankets and a pillow. She’d been amazing through all of this, but I knew her. I knew none of this could be easy.
Hell, how could it be easy for anyone?
I slowed down as I approached her.
“I’m okay with him being here,” she said, pinning me with the ‘parent’ look Dad could never perfect. “Frankly, I’m only allowing it because I trust both of you, and I know it makes you feel better knowing he’s here, but I’m serious. He stays downstairs and you stay upstairs.”
If Mom only knew . . .
“Okay. We’ll behave.” I took the stack from her. “Thank you.”
She patted my shoulder. “Take this down to him and then get your butt back up here. And tomorrow we need to talk about other arrangements.”
I hid my groan. I knew what the other arrangements would be. Sending me to stay with my dad. There was nothing I could do about that right now.
I carried the pillow and blankets to where Jensen waited on the couch. Dropping them on the arm, I smiled slightly. “Here you go.”
He tilted his head back. “I can sneak up once your mom goes to bed.”
“I don’t think that’s a great idea since she knows you’re here,” I pointed out.
“Boo.” He took my hand, threading his fingers through mine. “A kiss before I say goodnight?”
I let him pull me down, and when his lips pressed against mine, the swelling pressure in my chest returned. The kiss was sweet and slow, but as his hands settled on my hips and slid up, stopping below my chest, it became stronger, deeper. When he kissed me, it was easy to forget the bad stuff, to pretend that everything was okay.
Those kisses had the power of building their own little world and blocking out everything else, but we weren’t in our own bubble. I knew Mom was probably waiting upstairs.
“That’s a perfect kind of goodnight,” I murmured against his lips when I pulled back.
“But it doesn’t make you want to say goodnight, does it?” He kissed the corner of my lip, and his breath was warm, tantalizing. “You better head up there before your mom kicks me out.”
Mom would have a coronary if she came downstairs in the morning and saw us snuggled together. Then again, considering all that had happened, I wasn’t sure if she’d be that concerned about it.
But I wasn’t willing to take that risk.
I wanted Jensen here, and not just because I felt safer knowing he was nearby, but because I hoped he was safer too. If we were right about whoever was behind this having gone off his own pattern, and if I was right and it did have to do with Penn, then Jensen was in as much danger as I was.
“Goodnight,” I said, kissing his cheek, but as I tried to stand, he held on. “What?”
“Can I ask you for a favor and you won’t get mad at me?”
He leaned back against the couch. “I want you to steer clear of Gavin.”
My brows arched. “What?”
“It’s not because of jealousy or any crap like that.”
I stared at him. “If it’s not jealousy, then what is it? Wait. You don’t think he’s responsible for any of this.” I drew back, eyeing him. “We’ve known Gavin since we were kids, Jensen.”
“I know, but . . . you trust me, right?”
“And I trust you,” he said, holding my hand and placing it against his chest. “But I don’t trust anyone else right now, because it seriously could be anyone at this point. And that scares the shit out of me. Because it could be someone we trust.”
Penn squared his shoulders and smiled wide. The glassiness of his eyes faded and I let out the breath I was holding. “It really isn’t a big deal, Ella.”
He was lying. If it wasn’t a big deal, his eyes wouldn’t be so shiny. Guilt was like a pool of churning acid in my stomach. I’d never really experienced that feeling before, not to this extreme. I didn’t like it.
“Can you and Jensen just forget about it?” He stood up from where he had been perched on his bed and picked up a large, colorful book about birds. “Because he’s apologized like ten times since Monday.”
I bit my lip, resisting the urge to squirm. “It’s because we do feel bad. And we really did plan on coming, but—”
Penn held the book to his chest and closed his eyes. “I know. You guys feel sorry. That’s all that matters. And it’s not a big deal. It’s not like someone died because you didn’t come to my party.” He laughed and opened his eyes. The shininess was completely gone. He smiled as he gave me a lopsided shrug. “Everything is okay.”
It could be anyone.
Those words haunted me over the weekend, even though I spent most of it trying to do normal things after checking in with Linds’ parents. She still hadn’t woken up and there had been no change in her status.
I didn’t know what I’d do if Linds didn’t wake up. It hurt, and it was too scary to even consider that. All I could do was tell myself that wouldn’t be the case. She would wake up, and she would be Linds again.
Luckily, Mom hadn’t discussed other ‘arrangements’ yet. Not that I was totally against staying with my dad, but I didn’t want Mom to be alone.
After checking in with his parents on Saturday morning, and then again on Sunday, Jensen had returned, and we’d spent the better part of the day curled up on the couch watching the DVDs of Supernatural he’d brought with him. But even the Winchester brothers couldn’t distract me from the direction my thoughts were taking.
It could be anyone.
Jensen was right. Over the course of the day, I mentally went over the list of suspects. I ruled out any females, even though Ms. Reed had been the one to send me to the storage room and upstairs at the farmhouse. I’d felt the attacker. It was a man or an extremely masculine woman with absolutely no chest to speak of.
I knew it couldn’t be Gavin. That would be like thinking it was Jensen. There was no way you could grow up with someone and not know they were hiding the fact they were a serial killer.