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By:Amanda Lance

I also thought acceptance to some prestigious universities might make Dad okay with me living so far away from home. Plus, with Sonoma State being less than an hour from Ben and Elise’s house, I knew I would never have to be far from Charlie.

His hearty laugh echoed on the path. I tried not to laugh along with him, though it was almost irresistible not to smile when he did. “I think that says more ‘bout the police work around here than your abilities as a liar.” Though I could hear the mockery in his voice, it was clear it wasn’t meant for me.

I rolled my eyes and tried to focus the topic. “I’ll have you know that I have become an accomplished artist in the lying sub-genre. If I ever got caught sneaking in here, I have a bunch of lies saved up that are completely believable.”

“Oh yeah?” I felt Charlie grin in the dark, and reached out to his face for confirmation.

“I’ll say I’m collecting samples for my horticulture class. I could say I’m star-gazing, or I’m looking for a lost dog. Maybe I was here earlier today and lost something important I can’t live without…”

I could hear myself trailing off as I explained my list. Though Charlie might not have wanted to admit it, I had become something of a success as a liar. All of my half-truths could be added or multiplied to equal whole lies, and I could only deny that so much. Deceiving Dad about exactly why I wanted to go to SSU and letting him believe my strange, budding happiness was the fluctuating emotion of an excited teenager was okay because it was keeping him safe. While my safety was secured with Charlie, I didn’t know how Ben and the others would feel about my Dad being let in on the criminal aspects of our lives and if they would feel the need to intervene.

Again, I wished Mom was around. Dad’s conservative attitude probably wouldn’t give way to any emotion I could express. And even if I could find a way to at least tell Dad that I was in love with Charlie, he would certainly want to meet him, and when they did, Dad would almost definitely recognize him. Would Dad panic and alert the authorities? Lock me up in a nut-house? Though by no means violent, what if Dad tried to take on Charlie by himself? I knew I couldn’t risk it. I would have to live with my fuzzy logic for a while longer. Maybe if I could show Dad that I could live alongside the guys while keeping my grades up, then it would be easier to convince him that Charlie and I had a genuine relationship.

As we reached the large sugar maple, Charlie untangled himself from me and jumped up on a root that emerged from the ground. I wrapped my arms around myself, missing his warmth, though I was too prideful to admit it.

“You might be good at it, but you hate it about as much as anything else.” After finally testing all the roots, he sat on the same one he always chose.

“I’d hate losing you more,” I confessed.

Charlie glanced up at me through his perfect eyelashes. He was making very deliberate movements as he reached for something in his jacket pocket. I didn’t need the flashlight to see what he was doing.

I lunged for him and seated myself in his lap, reaching in the empty air for the cigarette. “No!” I laughed despite my scolding, noticing how easily he gave way and allowed me to lean into him.

“It’s the only one I’ve had all day!” When he was this close, I could see his grin and every scar, both faded and fresh, that I had memorized. I was so very glad to be there suddenly, and so very amazed at how he could make me forget my troubles.

“So if you wait a few hours longer, then you went an entire day without one.”

Reluctantly, he handed the cigarette to me, bracing his arm around me as he did so. Though he rolled his eyes, his smile didn’t falter. After I put the cigarette in my own jacket pocket, I made sure to close it completely, having been pick-pocketed by Charlie and his good intentions before.

“You shouldn’t have to lie for me.” His grip around me tightened. Since he turned the flashlight off, I was afraid he was frowning in the dark.

“I don’t think of it that way. Besides, it’s only temporary. Once Dad sees that—”

“That what? That the idiot who kidnapped you, stole you again, and made you an accomplice to a bunch of criminals, still calls you his? Something tells me that you being on the honor roll ain’t gonna change him wanting to string me up.”

I touched the tips of his fingers. Since he had all but quit smoking, he had taking to biting his nails when his anxieties were at their highest. “It’ll be okay, Charlie. Things just have to cool off and adjust. It’ll be difficult enough for Dad with Robbie and me both out of the house. Give him a little while before I introduce the idea of me dating, at least? Dad and Robbie both need that. I don’t mean to sound self-centered, but I am the main girl in their lives.”