She huffed with faint amusement. “I remembered afterward that my neighbor had promised to visit. She was bringing me a birthday cake. But I was so spooked I grabbed my knapsack and the envelope and took off through the back. I should’ve just opened the door. Running away was dumb, and Varvara would’ve taken me in.”
“Varvara?” I repeated, surprised by the unusual name.
“Varvara Nikolaev,” Nadine said with a passable Russian accent. “I usually call her tatushka. She was … she’s a great neighbor. I think she would’ve helped me, but by then, I’d already run away and I was too scared to go anywhere near my house again. So I went to a youth shelter instead. A counselor noticed me researching sorcerers, and he set up my meeting with the druid.”
“What happened then?”
Her expression softened. “I had no idea who he was. I was scared of him, but more scared of my parents. I told him everything. He listened, then …” Her tension melted away, her spine bending and shoulders relaxing. “He said I could go with him, and he promised I’d be safe.”
“He didn’t give you the ‘walk away or come with me and never return’ line?”
“He did, but I didn’t want to go back so it didn’t bother me.”
“What about now?”
She blinked in confusion.
“Do you want to leave?” I clarified, the words quiet but intense. “You went with him when you were scared and vulnerable, but if you could leave here and still be safe, would you?”
“I don’t want to leave. I like it here.”
“But …” Frustration burned through me. I knew I shouldn’t push her, but I couldn’t stop myself. “He got you out of your parents’ reach, but that doesn’t make him a hero. He’s using you for his own ends, just like he’s using everyone else here. Don’t you want to escape?”
She gazed at me for a long moment, then rose to her feet and picked up the basket of roots.
“You don’t get it, Tori,” she said, her tone surprisingly kind. “I don’t need to escape. I’m not trapped here. No one is.”
My hands clenched into fists, but otherwise I didn’t move as she walked to the door.
Nudging it open with her foot, she glanced back. “If you want to leave, just ask him.”
She vanished into the house, but I stayed where I was, glaring at the sunny valley. Not trapped here? Just ask if I wanted to leave? Yeah, right. Maybe she believed all the previous captives who’d disappeared had gone off on their merry way to start a new life elsewhere, but I knew better. The Ghost wouldn’t let his ex-captives wander into the wider world where they could spill the beans about him and his creepy cult.
His worshippers couldn’t see the bars around them. They thought they were here of their own free will when it was all a cruel manipulation.
But what the hell was I supposed to do about it?
I bleakly pondered the question until the clatter of the door startled me out of my thoughts. Chatting excitedly, all the Ghost’s devotees filed out of the house, and my frown deepened. Morgan and Terrance exited last, just behind Nadine. She waved cheerily as the group filed down the stairs and onto the path.
“Hey!” I jumped up. “What’s going on?”
As the others continued down the track, some carrying baskets with the distinct look of an upcoming picnic, Morgan hung back, her nose wrinkling the way it always did whenever we spoke.
“Where’s everyone going?” I demanded.
“We’re heading into town,” she explained shortly.
“Wait.” I rubbed a hand over my face. “Wait, wait, wait. You’re going into town? Just … going? He’s allowing it?” Ugh, now I was doing the “he” thing too.
“Yes. Though, to be clear, you are not allowed. He didn’t give you permission for a day trip.” She checked her watch. “We’ll be back, hmm, after midnight. We’re going to the cinema for a late movie.”
“To the cinema?” I spluttered.
Mistaking my shock for disappointment, she patted my shoulder patronizingly. “We take a trip every month. Maybe he’ll let you join us next time.”
“Have a nice day.”
I was still gawking when she hastened away. Snapping out of it, I ran down the steps as she jogged to catch up with the others. “Wait! You’re just leaving me here by myself?”
Rounding the corner of the house, I almost fell on my face in renewed shock. A big white van was parked on the grass, the mythics already loading inside it. Terrance sat behind the steering wheel, and as I stood there like an idiot, Morgan hopped into the passenger seat. The side door slammed shut and the engine rumbled to life.
I could do nothing but watch as the van drove toward the trees where an obvious, if overgrown, track cut through the forest. There had not been a road there yesterday. Was I losing my mind?
If I was, I was losing it real good, because once the van had disappeared among the trees, the dirt road got harder and harder to see until, three minutes later, the forest had reclaimed it. I wasn’t even sure where the road had been anymore.
Goddamn it. Maybe Nadine was right. No one here was trapped—except me.
Stomping furiously, I circled back to the porch. The sun blazed, the beautiful blue sky stretching between mountain peaks. I hadn’t seen this many consecutive sunny days since I’d moved to the coast, and it annoyed me that it was so nice out. It should have been dark and gloomy. Maybe thunderstorms. Or hurricanes.
I glared at the front door. I didn’t want to sit in the empty house by myself, listening to the silence. I wanted to be in that van, heading into town—whichever town, it didn’t matter—where I’d have my first real chance of escaping.
But that bastard knew I’d be gone in a heartbeat if I got the chance.
I stormed away from the house. For half an hour, I meandered about the property, eventually ending up at the paddock fence. Bracing my elbows on the wood, I observed the horses and cattle, grazing serenely. As hopelessness overwhelmed me, stupid tears stung my eyes.
“Do you ride?”
I almost screamed. Whipping around, I half fell into the fence, my heart pounding. I’d thought I was alone. But no, there was one person left, one I’d forgotten to count—and the last person I wanted to deal with right now.
The Ghost stood a step away, his eyebrows furrowed over bright green irises. He’d transformed yet again. Instead of a black-clad villain, he wore a white t-shirt tucked into fitted jeans, and a coiled rope hung over one shoulder. I scanned him from his tousled black hair, over his tattooed arms, then down to his feet.
Still clutching the fence and vaguely afraid he might tie me up with that rope, I wrinkled my nose. “Cowboy boots?”
“Riding boots,” he corrected, annoyance flickering over his features. “I asked if you ride.”
“Oh. Uh. ‘Ride’ as in ride horses? That’d be a very big no.”
He shrugged, stepped past me, and jumped the fence in one smooth move. I watched him go with my jaw dragging on the ground for the second time this afternoon. I’d assumed he’d be gone today.
“What are you doing?” I called.
Without looking back, he waved one hand, but I had no clue what that meant. After a moment’s hesitation, I clambered over the fence and into the pasture.
As he strode through the grass, he whistled sharply. The horses’ heads came up, and with prancing steps they trotted over to him. I stopped a safe distance away as he patted the horses and gave them cursory examinations, checking for injuries or something, I supposed. After a few minutes, he looped the rope around a tan-colored horse’s head, tied a makeshift halter, then walked off again. The horse followed, hooves thudding.
Hands shoved in my pockets, I followed him and the horse into the shade of the barn, where he tied the end of the rope to a metal loop on a post. He disappeared into the tack room, where saddles lined one wall, and returned with a handful of grooming brushes. Though I was standing right there, he said nothing as he lined up the brushes on a stall door.
Equally silent, I observed as he brushed the horse down. My attention lingered on the flex of his muscular arms and the shift of the dark tattoos on his back, visible through the thin fabric of his white t-shirt.
“Not hiding your face today?” I eventually asked. Did I lose points for speaking first?
“Everyone is gone for the day.” He worked the brush over the horse’s flank and dust puffed from its coat.
“Everyone but me,” I snapped. “Why couldn’t I go too?”
“I don’t trust you.”
“Don’t trust me how? That I won’t run off? What about the others? You don’t think they might run off?”
“They might, but if they do, I don’t care. They can’t identify me.”
Cold apprehension battled with disbelief, and I didn’t know how to respond. “Nadine can.”
He switched brushes and rubbed down the horse’s legs. “She, unlike you, doesn’t want to leave. And she, unlike you, trusts me.”
My hands clenched, fingernails digging into my palms. “You’re right. I want to leave. Let me go.”