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Fire crept up the side of the building, reflecting more clearly than any mirror ever could. Ripping through the walls, feeding on the oxygen in the air, it was destructive and more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen before. There was so much more to come, so much more to take from the people who had wronged him. 

While he listened to the wood snap in the flames surrounding him, the smoke grew thicker. He was having trouble breathing before too long, and he knew that it was time to get out of there. 

Before he had even gotten a dozen feet away, his phone was in his hand and he was blocking the call so that he could call emergency services. It wouldn’t do to have the fire spread to the forest around the abandoned house. He might know about fire and how it would act, but he didn’t know exactly how long it would take for the small volunteer fire department to respond. 

He clambered into his truck and drove away, with the orange flames licking the sky behind him. Soon… very soon he’d have a plan. 

* * *

Margot looked down at her phone as she sat at the traffic light. It was midnight, and she still had probably twenty minutes to go until she got to the hotel she was registered at for the night. Birch County hadn’t changed much in five years. The streets were deserted, and there were old-fashioned streetlamps every couple hundred feet. 

Main Street had been redone to attract tourists about twenty years ago, and now it looked like a modern version of the town’s photos from the early 1900s. There weren’t any chain stores in Birch, just mom and pop stores that had been run by the same families for the past fifty years. As she waited for the light to change, she couldn’t help rolling down her car windows and taking in a deep breath of the fresh Maine air. Salt and pine met her as she closed her eyes and inhaled. Although the town bordered the ocean, it was a warm night in April. 

She pressed the unlock button on her phone and opened her messages. The one from Maya still sat at the top of her screen. 

I need you to come home. It’s an emergency.

As soon as Margot saw it, everything shifted. And just like that, she got on a plane and came home. Maya had been her best friend, helping her get her life figured out when she had left Birch to make a new life for herself. Now, she needed Margot to come home. So here she was. But she still had a burning desire to know what the emergency was. She had refused to tell Margot what it was until she got home. And Brian had reassured her that no one was dead or dying, so it was an easy decision, coming home.

The light turned green finally, and she tossed her phone into the passenger seat and took off. The rental car had more get-up-and-go than she expected, and soon she was going over fifty miles an hour down Main Street. The shops zipped past her, and the wind blew her long blond hair around her face. It took her a minute to notice the blue lights flashing in her rearview mirror, but she jumped when she heard the siren, and immediately turned on her blinker, signaling that she was pulling over.

Her heart was racing, unprepared to deal with any of the deputies. She didn’t know if they would recognize her now that she had her natural hair color restored. When she had lived in Birch before, she had colored it black from the time she was old enough to convince her mom to let her. Once she had gone to Arizona, though, she had decided to let it grow out blond. She reached into the back seat for her purse and grabbed the registration from the glove box, knowing that she’d be asked for it.

The cruiser was parked behind her, with the spotlight on, so she couldn’t see the face of the deputy who had gotten out of his car and took his time walking to her window.

“Do you know why I pulled you—” The voice cut off as he bent over to look into the car. Jake. Of course it would have to be him. The look in his eyes alone said that he remembered exactly who she was. 

Margot tried to smile, but she knew that it wouldn’t help her appearance. She was wearing an oversized hoodie with a pair of yoga pants, not a trace of makeup, and her hair windblown from driving with the windows down. He just stared at her with his mouth hanging open. It took her eyes a few seconds to focus in the cruiser’s spotlight. When her eyes adjusted, she noticed that he had lost weight, but his eyes were still the same brilliant shade of green. 

“Hi, Jake.” She almost whispered it as she looked up directly into his eyes. He didn’t answer. They stayed like that for a minute, and then he clicked his flashlight off and abruptly turned away without saying a word.

She stayed in her car and waited, but he didn’t pull away. So she kept her car off since the last thing she needed was to be arrested for fleeing from an officer. First five minutes passed, and then ten before she made her decision. Finally, she was getting ready to turn the key in the ignition when she heard his car door open and then slam. His boots hit the pavement, and with every step her heart rate increased. When he stood at her window again, she felt a knot in her throat and tried to swallow around it.

“What are you doing here, Margot?” He spoke softly, as though he was afraid of her answer.

“Um. I’m here for—” 

“Actually, you know what? I don’t really care. You left… you didn’t come back. What the hell is wrong with you? Five years, Margot. Five years, and you never came back. And now you expect to walk back into this town. You should just turn this car right around and go back to Arizona. You don’t belong here anymore.” He was breathing deeply now; she saw his chest rise and fall beneath his bulletproof vest. She couldn’t help herself, riling him up even more.

“Technically, I’m driving back into town. I need to get to my hotel before they charge me for checking in late.” 

She turned the key in the ignition and hoped she appeared much braver than she felt. Margot waved to Jake as she drove off, leaving him at the side of the road to watch her taillights as she disappeared down the road. She knew she was tempting fate, but honestly didn’t really care about getting a ticket anymore. The night lights, mixed with the steady rhythm of her tires transported Margot into the past to five years ago, to the moment her life changed forever. 

“How many times do I have to tell you, Jake? My name is Margot, not Lilly. I’m not ten anymore.” She looked into his eyes and knew that he was ribbing her just for fun. 

At the age of ten, Margot had decided that she didn’t like her first name and wanted to go by her middle name. That moment led to almost ten years of her being called Lilly. Now that she was an adult, though, she wanted to be called by her real name. The problem was, she worked with cops. A rowdy bunch of people who, once they got it in their head that they wanted to call you something, stuck with it. 

She grew up around deputies. When her dad died, they welcomed both her and her mother into their family with open arms. Although, now that she was telling them where to go and giving them the information they needed to do their jobs, it seemed like none of them took her seriously. It was frustrating beyond belief and it was ten times worse with Jake. 

Jacob Findlay, the deputy that she fell into bed with after a lifetime of friendship, and ever since had fallen head over heels for. At twenty-seven, Jake had already finished his degree and was a member of the Birch County Sheriff’s Department. He had done all of it and still had six months before he would turn twenty-eight. He didn’t have to worry about figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. They weren’t close to being on the same level, not really.

Margot couldn’t even look him in the eyes, because they both knew that calling her Lilly wasn’t the real problem right now. The problem was that she had told him she was pregnant a week ago, and now he was planning their lives out. Having just turned twenty, Margot didn’t want to have her life figured out for her. She was supposed to leave this town and go off to college. Even though she had taken the job the department offered as a dispatcher, she felt stuck.

“Margot… Please, don’t leave like this. We can figure this out. We can do this… together.” His eyes, greener than she had ever seen them before, blazed with his unspoken words. It shattered everything in her resolve, and he folded her into his arms, holding her tight. 

Neither of them said anything, but they knew that the problems wouldn’t resolve themselves. Margot knew that she would be giving up her future to stay with him and have the baby. Still Jake knew that he couldn’t do anything to keep her in his arms if she decided to leave. They had both seen their good friend Maya almost die, and it changed everything.

She sniffled and realized that she had started crying in Jake’s arms. “Baby. It’s okay; it’s going to be okay. We can do this.” His voice was the last thing she heard before she fell into the welcoming arms of darkness.

* * *

Jake watched Margot speed away from him and knew that his carefully constructed world was falling apart right in front of his eyes. The last five years completely crumbled, leaving him just as raw and heartbroken as he had been the night Margot had left him.

There was a car accident. Maya had been the one to call him at home. “Jake, you need to get to Maine Coast. There’s been an accident… Lilly got hurt.” Jake couldn’t hear anything else that she had said, because his heart rate had instantly skyrocketed. Lilly was hurt and what about the baby? He forced himself to take a deep breath, knowing that he had to ask.

“Maya… the baby?” He couldn’t bring himself to finish the question.

“I don’t know, Jake. She was taken in the ambulance.” He disconnected the call, getting into his truck and taking off. He made it there in record time and didn’t bother to go in the main entrance. Swinging around to the emergency entrance reserved for law enforcement and medical professionals only, Jake threw his truck in park and ran through the electric doors. 

“Where is she?” he asked Linda, a nurse married to one of the deputies he worked with. 

She was crying, and she pointed to the far room. It was strange; as a nurse she had been trained to keep her emotions in check. He nodded at her and tried to rush to Margot’s side. He really did, but his feet felt like they had been covered in cement and every step drained a year from his life. When he finally reached the doorway, only a few seconds had passed, but he felt every single one of them weighing on his chest. 

It tore him apart to see her lying in a hospital bed. The sight was even worse than seeing Maya after her attack. Lilly’s black hair was pulled to the side, and her skin was almost as pale as the sheets that she was wrapped in. Her hands were laced together over her abdomen, and she was turned away from him, but Jake could hear her heart-wrenching sobs from the doorway.

“Oh, baby. I’m here.” He moved into the room and brushed her bangs away from her forehead, kneeling down to kiss where his fingers had just been. The woman he was prepared to spend the rest of his life with curled into his hand and grieved for their baby. Jake waited for her to stop crying, but it didn’t happen for a long time. When he was greeted with soft snores, he took a deep breath and let himself mourn the loss. 

While she slept, he called dispatch and had them update him on everything that had happened. Lilly had been driving when a drunk driver ran a red light and smashed into the driver’s side of her car. The other driver had walked away without a scratch, but not Lilly. No, not his precious flower.

He stayed with her until the doctors discharged her. He was the one wrapping her carefully in a blanket when it was time to take her home. He moved her into his house and tucked her into a makeshift bed on the couch. It was only when she was asleep again that he let himself cry for what they could have had. When he was finished, he crawled onto the couch and held her until he fell asleep. Hours later he woke up and realized she had packed her bags. 

“Jake, I can’t stay here.” Her eyes were bleak, and although her face was clean, it looked like she had been crying again.

“I know.” Even though he felt like someone was stepping on his chest, Jake knew that this moment was coming. The car accident just made it possible for her to escape.

“I need to do something with my life. I need to get out of this town. It’s just going to be too hard.” She looked at him then, and he felt his resolve crumble. He searched her eyes for any sign that she was waiting for him to convince her to stay, but there was none. 

“I know.” He worried that if he said anything else his voice would crack, betraying his emotions. 

She was silent for a few moments before she sat down next to him and pulled his hand into hers. “Do you remember the day your dad forced you to take me fishing? It was right after my dad’s funeral. I was so happy to get to do something.”

“I’ll never forget it. You were so small then. Couldn’t have been much older than seven or eight.”

“I was six. You were fourteen. And you got so mad at me for messing up your fishing pole that I ran away and got lost in the woods. It was dark before anyone found me at that old cabin.”

“I don’t think I have ever been that scared in my entire life. A little blond angel crying and running into the woods all because she was terrified of me, and there was nothing I could do about it.”

“You called me Margot, while you were calling for me. It was the only time you’d ever done it. But I couldn’t see you, and it was dark so I couldn’t find my way back to the truck. Do you remember what you said to me when you found me?”

“No.” It was a lie though. He remembered. 

He could see the bedraggled little girl with mud on her cheeks looking up into his eyes like he was her savior all those years ago. He remembered the promise he had made to himself, even then, to protect her. She had stared at him with gray eyes that had been too large for her face, and she had trusted him. She was lost in the middle of a dark forest. She had been shivering, clutching her arms around her middle, trying to stay warm. 

“You picked me up, shook me like a rag doll, and then gave me a hug. You said, ‘Little Lilly-girl, you better never leave me like that again.’ At that very moment I promised just that. A part of me has known since I was six that you were the man who could keep me here and keep me safe. Still, I can’t stay anymore. I need to grow up, Jake.”

“I know you do.” He put his head in his hands and sighed.

“I need you to let me go, Jake.” When he didn’t answer her, she left. Later he got the news that she had left town, landing in Arizona. He knew that she was lost to him for good. A part of him had died that night when she walked away from him. He knew that she wasn’t going to come back, and it completely destroyed him.

He didn’t talk about it, not with the other deputies or even with his family. As Jake pushed the memories back where they had stayed for the past five years, he knew that something had shifted. The anger was back, overshadowing everything that he had done to move on in the five years since she had been gone. 

Jake knew it was her, even without her signature blue-black hair. Those gray eyes were the only thing he needed to see, and he knew immediately it was her. His heart started racing when he had walked back to his cruiser. He had nothing to protect him from the pain. He had tried to work it out, and even called Brian. Somehow Brian’s phone was off and there was no way that he was going to call Maya’s phone this late at night on her day off. She’d chop him up into little pieces. So Jake had composed himself before going back out to just write her a ticket and then leave. All of the pent-up emotions that he had been hiding from the world for the last five years just exploded, and the next thing he knew, she was driving away with her hand waving at him out the window.

“Shit,” he said to the silence. “Shit. Shit. Shit. What am I going to do?” He put his head in his hands and wanted to scream. Instead, he went back to his cruiser, a department-issued Ford Edge, and started the drive home. Once there, he signed off duty and went inside to the woman he had started seeing over two years ago, in an attempt to get over his only real love. 

His life was bleak, empty except for the nights that Laura came over. Undressing was simple, and by the time he made it to his bedroom at the back of the house, he was only in his pants. Rather than put any pajamas on, he stripped to his underwear and threw himself into the bed. Hoping for sleep that refused to come, Jake only saw Margot’s face when he closed his eyes. Those gray eyes he had seen looking up at him in ecstasy a hundred times, the very same eyes that had challenged him not only in bed but with their humor and intelligence as well. He saw all of their history from the time they were children, up until the moment she left. If he were being honest with himself, he would include the fact that he kept tabs on her through the years and had even flown out to watch her graduate from college. It was one of the proudest moments of his life. 

Wishing for sleep to come was the most he could do tonight. Tomorrow, he would go see Maya and Brian to see if they knew why Margot had come home. It was harder than it should have been, with the memories of their life together flashing before his eyes. So many hours and days spent together, and yet at the time, he had thought that it would never be enough. Then she had been gone, leaving Jake alone to pick up the pieces and struggling to figure out where his life was going. 

“Damn you, Margot,” he said to the silence. “Damn you.” And then he let sleep claim him, wishing for the first time in a long time that he couldn’t feel the warmth of Laura’s body next to his own.