"That smells amazing, Piri. What is it, oatmeal?"
"Horse food," Piri groused.
"I read on the internet that horses respond exceptionally well to homemade treats," Suzanne said, following me into the kitchen, "and the Senator adored the idea. This recipe has oats, apples, carrots, salt, sugar, molasses, and water: easy as pie!"
"Easy for you," Piri muttered.
"What?" Suzanne asked.
Piri smiled and nodded. "Easy."
But when Suzanne turned away again, Piri made a face and did something with her hands. I couldn't be positive, but I was almost certain she'd just flipped Suzanne the Hungarian bird.
I walked into the pantry and rummaged around for a snack I could easily take to my room. I was eager to get to my computer and scrutinize the pictures I'd taken.
"So," Suzanne called inside, "do you have dinner plans?"
"Depends. What are you offering?"
From deep inside the pantry I couldn't see Ben, but I'd know his voice anywhere. For a moment I considered staying where I was. We used to be close, but Ben and I had been avoiding each other for a long time, and right now I didn't have the patience to handle the awkward stares and stammers I knew I'd get if he had to deal with me.
"Ben!" Suzanne said. "Hi! I was just, um – well -- "
Was she stammering? Suzanne didn't stammer; she was far too on her game for that. I came out of the pantry to see. I took a deep breath first, rallying patience for the moment Ben saw me.
I needn't have bothered. Ben was slouched in the doorway, gazing at Suzanne with a teasing smile on his face. I was in his field of vision, but he didn't even glance my way. I might have expected that – that he'd make a point of trying to avoid my eyes, all the while sweating and stammering and making it clear that the whole thing was a world of effort – but this wasn't like that at all. He wasn't working at not looking at me; he just wasn't. For a second I suspected it wasn't even Ben. The sweater he wore was much more casual than his usual button-down oxford, and his hair… I swear it was tamed with product.
Stranger than anything superficial was his body language. Even leaning against the door jamb he seemed to hold himself taller than he had before, and his smile radiated confidence. And was it possible he had gotten stronger and more filled out over the last several weeks?
I pushed further out of the pantry for a better view.
"Ah, I misunderstood," Ben said to Suzanne. He pushed off the door and glided to the kitchen island, where he grabbed an apple from a fruit bowl. He was close enough that I could stretch out my arm and touch him if I wanted to, but I wasn't even on his radar. "Tell you what," he continued, "I'll offer then: dinner tonight?"
Suzanne's grin spread wider than her skinny face. "I'd love it. I don't know how late I'm working, though…"
"Call me when you're done, I'll pick you up."
"Great!" Suzanne chirped. "Should I bring the cribbage board?"
Really? They were playing cribbage? Until that moment, I thought I was Ben's sole cribbage partner. He'd taught me the game, and the two of us played marathon sessions.
Of course, that was back when we were close. Before he realized he had feelings for me. Before I nearly felt the same way. Before I met Sage and the entire center of my world shifted. And before I learned that in our own way, Ben and I were just as connected as Sage and I. Our connection wasn't based on love, but on death. In lifetime after lifetime, Ben's jealousy destroyed me. It happened in this lifetime too – it was Ben's fault Sage had been captured.
Was Ben interested in Suzanne now? And if they fell for each other, would that be enough to break the crazy cycle of tragedy he, Sage, and I had been playing out again and again?
"He's special, isn't he?"
The honey-sweet voice whispered into my ear, but when I whipped around there was no one there. "Is something different about him?"
The lilting voice was in my other ear now. It was familiar, I realized as the blood drained from my face. It was the woman I'd seen at the gravesite – Amelia's mother.
"He'd be good to you. Not like Sage." She gave a long sigh – a rush of sweet air I seemed to feel inside my head. "Poor Clea. If only you knew…"
Was the chestnut-haired woman really there with me? Could I talk to her?
If I could, it wasn't going to happen in a room full of people. I darted up to my room and shut the door behind me. "It's a terrible shame," the voice continued, "but the sad truth is just because someone says he loves you, you can't trust it's the case. You don't want to believe me, but you'll see."
"Tell me where he is," I said to the empty room. "That's all I want to know."
"I'll show you," she said. "You'll see. Goodbye for now, Clea."
But I could feel the difference in the room; the woman was gone.
What was she? Why was she just a voice in my head, when before I had seen her in front of me? Why had she come alone this time, and not with her family? And what kind of creature could both blink in and out of existence, and speak inside someone's mind?
I smiled and paced as adrenaline surged through me. It was a strange reaction to my bizarre day – I supposed a saner response would be fear. But for the first time since Sage was ripped away from me, I had a lead, no matter how inexplicable.
Now I just had to follow it.