Authors: Lee Strauss,Elle Strauss
I headed straight to the back door that led to the kitchen. Zoe
took the basket from me.
“Get in here before you freeze to death.”
I shook off the snow. “What’s with this weather?”
“I don’t know, but it means another day on the set of
House on the Prairie,
A joke. That was awesome. Zoe was alive in that nun’s outfit
“Patience, my dear.”
“I’m not sure what that is.”
I reached for her hand and peeled back the new bandage Taylor
had applied. “It’s looking better,” I said.
“Yeah, I still feel naked without it.”
Another voice interrupted. “
Rebecca had been watching our exchange. I pressed the bandage
back down. “Are you eavesdropping?” I said, ignoring her question.
“You’re in the kitchen. It’s not intended for private
“Zoe?” Dorothy called, giving me a look that said,
“We could use those eggs over here.”
Zoe scowled. “You said
In the afternoon I helped Philip Ranger knock icicles off the
He had light red hair like his father, but the finer facial
features of his mother. He was slight in build but strong, and I had to work to
keep up with him.
“Why aren’t you in school?” I asked. “You know, when you’re not
It was almost the end of September, well into the school year.
Zoe would’ve been a senior at her school in Sol City if I hadn’t stolen her
“Don’t need schooling past eighth grade,” Philip said. “Before
that, I was homeschooled.”
“Why don’t you need schooling past eighth grade? Everyone else
goes to twelfth grade at least.”
Philip ducked as a cluster of icicles crashed to the ground.
“Once you can read and got your numbers, what else do you need? As long as you
can read the bible and build a barn or a fence, you’re good.”
“What about history, or science?”
“We got all the history we need to know about in the bible.
Science isn’t necessary to survival. All that evolution stuff they teach is
just a bunch of lies.”
“I’ve read the bible, you know,” I said.
Philip stopped and stared at me with surprise.
“I don’t think you have to reject science to believe what you
read there,” I added.
He scoffed. “Tell that to my mother.”
I’d worked up a full sweat by the time we’d finished and undid
the top buttons of my coat. Philip left for the barn, and I followed him,
uncertain about what I should do next. I veered toward the shed to check on the
car. It was cold and I wanted to make sure it still started. I stopped to rest
on a hay bale, and scooped up a handful of snow to quench my thirst.
That was when I spotted Zoe leaving the house. She skated along
the icy surface of the walkway, and tilted her head back to catch snowflakes
with her tongue. Taylor’s blond head popped out from behind a tree. He didn’t
see me, but he sure saw her. His gaze followed her as she played and a wry grin
tugged at his lips. He gathered snow, pressing it into a ball and threw it,
hitting her squarely on the back.
I was about to rise to her defense when I heard her laughter
echo across the snow. She obviously wasn’t upset by the attack.
Taylor’s mischievous grin grew bolder and he formed another
snowball. He threw it toward Zoe, just missing.
“Hey!” she said. A smiled pulled up crookedly on her face.
If they had looked around at all they would’ve seen me, but
their eyes were zeroed in on each other.
My fingers curled into fists at my sides.
Taylor bent down to gather more snow.
She scooped some up and shaped her own snowball.
She’s going to engage him in a fight?
A flare of anger crept up my neck. I wanted her to tell him
where to go and to leave her alone. I wanted
to do it, but she
She threw her snowball hard and hit Taylor right on the side of
his head. I grinned a little.
Taylor’s eyes widened and then he sprinted toward her.
She yelled and headed for the barn, laughing loudly. My lips drew
downward into a deeper frown.
“No, you don’t,” Taylor said. His hands grabbed her shoulders
and he spun her around. They fell together into the snow bank, his nose inches
away from hers.
It was like watching a train wreck as it was happening. I
couldn’t pull my eyes away.
Taylor’s hand was full of snow and he held it up as if he were
about to mush it into her face.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Zoe said, grinning. Her voice carried over
the snow like it would over water.
Taylor’s hand fell to his side, but his eyes never left Zoe’s
face. “Is Noah Brody courting you, Miss Morgan?”
My heart stopped as I waited for her answer. The silence of the
forest echoed over the field, through the trees, enveloping the farm. Finally
her lips moved.
“No, we’re just friends.”
My throat seized up. Anger boiled in my gut, a hot wave about
to crash to shore. Where was
Zoe? I didn’t know this girl anymore.
I waited for her to push Taylor away. Time froze with the weather.
She didn’t move. He narrowed the distance between their lips until they
I shouted, “Zoe!”
Her head jerked to the side. She scrambled out from underneath
him, smoothing her coat, and straightening her wool cap.
Her hand flew to her mouth as she glanced back at Taylor. He
tipped an invisible hat and left us alone.
Shards of anger, hurt, and regret, all twisting erratically and
drawing blood, sheared my heart and soul. I spun back to the shed, and kicked
the door as I went in.
I couldn’t believe her!
My legs quivered as I pressed against the car, needing it to
hold me up. My heart skipped and jumped and skydived over a cliff. I crossed my
arms tightly across my chest as if that could hold it in.
She stood in the doorway in her overly big winter coat, her
long, cotton dress dragging on the shed floor. I glared at her.
She stared back, her eyes glistening, the light streaming in
from a small window reflected in her pupils.
“I’m sorry, Noah.”
She wrung her hands. “I don’t know what got into me. I just got
swept up in the moment.”
“Swept up in the
?” I huffed with disbelief. “You
put yourself in the moment, Zoe. I saw you.”
She stepped closer. “Noah, please. I’m really, really sorry. I
messed up, I know. I’m just confused.”
I ground my teeth and shook my head. I’d made a mistake by
taking Zoe from her family. A huge, freaking enormous mistake. I should’ve left
her alone, left her with Alison and Paul
Jackson. She was one of
“I’m an idiot for thinking I could fix you,” I said in a low,
strained voice. “You don’t remember
Pain filled her eyes at my words and for a moment I was glad. I
wanted to hurt her like she’d hurt me.
She took another cautious step. “I do remember
it’s more like a movie I watched on my DigiWall over the summer and not my own
life. I don’t understand my own feelings.”
“Taylor looks like Jackson. Is that why? Do you miss
“God, no. Jackson killed my brother.”
A fresh wave of remorse engulfed me. My lips tightened around
“I should’ve left you alone, Zoe. You’d still be in Sol City. You’d
still be with your parents. You’d be in school like a normal teen.”
Her blue eyes darkened to almost grey as she pleaded, “No. I
wouldn’t be a normal teen. I’ll never be a normal teen again. You did the right
thing by taking me. I hate myself now, but at least I know the truth.”
My breath hitched. “You
Tears ran down her cheeks and she pressed her palms against her
eyes. I felt myself soften.
She wiped her face, but wouldn’t look at me. “You’re right, I’m
broken. You deserve better.”
Now that she was willing to let go of me, I didn’t want her to.
My own conflicted desires roped my heart. I was a sucker for punishment. A
I reached for her hand and pulled her to me. “I’m sorry I said
I lifted her chin and wiped her lips with my fingers. I
couldn’t kiss them so soon after they’d been on Taylor’s, so I pressed my lips
against her forehead instead.
“It’s going to take some time,” I said softly. “But, you’ll
one day, fully remember. I love you, Zoe. Don’t forget
I waited for her to say it back, but I knew that she wouldn’t,
that she couldn’t, not truthfully.
And I didn’t want her to say it unless she meant it.
“Uh-hum,” a gruff voice sounded, causing us to jump apart. Mr.
Galloway stood at the doorway of the shed, a stern frown pulled down on his loose
His disapproving gaze settled on me.
“Young man,” he said. “While you are guests on our commune, you
will behave according to our rules and customs.”
His eyes cut to Zoe. “And I believe they could use your
assistance in the kitchen, young lady.”
She smiled weakly at me before leaving. I stared after her,
feeling winded by what had just happened.
The guys waited at the dining room table, the far side and the
two end seats taken while the opposite side remained empty—symbolic of the imbalance
of power in this commune and pretty much any organized state. The weak and the
strong tribes rubbed against each other and there was plenty of in-tribe
friction as well.
The tension between Taylor and me weighed heavy and I was
surprised that the other guys didn’t notice. Maybe it didn’t seem so unusual to
see Taylor smiling like the cat who caught the lone mouse, and me fashioning a
perpetual scowl. It was a good thing that Philip sat between us, or who knew
what kind of damage I might be tempted to do to Taylor. I pictured a fork
pinning his hand to the table.
Contrasting the odor of cold sweat and nerves was the succulent
aroma of roasted chicken. Dorothy carried the platter of carved meat into the
room. The rest of the girls brought in bowls filled with potatoes and other
cooked root vegetables.
Finn recited the obligatory pre-meal prayer and then the eating
frenzy began. As what was apparently the custom, we continued to eat in near
silence. It appeared that conversation was reserved for post-dinner, guys only
drinking, and probable kitchen gossip.
I kept my eye on Mr. Galloway, half expecting him to break
order and to call me and Zoe out, and almost wishing he would. I’d like to
shove that info in Taylor Blake’s face. Mr. Galloway caught me looking at him
once and stared back with reproach. I shifted my gaze to Mrs. Galloway. She was
craning her neck, staring at Zoe. Mr. Galloway must’ve told her about our
When plates were scraped clean and bellies rubbed, Finn pushed
back his chair and stood with his fingers tented together.
“Simon and Hannah, will you please stand with me.”
Simon and Hannah stood opposite each other across the table.
Their eyes locked and embarrassed grins washed over their faces. I took that as
a good sign that Finn wasn’t about to give them a public lashing for something.
“Family, it’s my privilege to announce the betrothal of Simon Ranger
and Hannah Blake.”
My jaw dropped in surprise. I’d never witnessed anything to
show that these two even noticed each other much less loved each other.
Maybe it was an arranged thing.
A murmur of congratulations was offered around the table.
“With a new betrothed couple in our midst,” Finn said, “we are
reminded of the sacredness of the marriage bed, the importance of keeping
Here it comes
. Mr. Galloway had informed Finn that he’d
caught Zoe and me alone together in the shed, I was certain of it. Obviously,
Mr. Galloway was unaware of his own son’s illicit tendencies.
Finn continued, “Pure, both physically and spiritually,
I couldn’t stop myself from glancing over at Zoe. I remembered
our make-out session in the old church in LA, and how I was the one who’d kept
us from going too far, too fast. I’d used the same words with her:
Finn wrapped up with a prayer for the couple. I worried that
they weren’t that happy about this exchange but then I saw Hannah wink at
Nothing around this commune was as it seemed.
The girls cleaned up, and Finn opened the locked cabinet.
Taylor slapped Simon on the back. “Welcome to the family.”
Everyone shook Simon’s hand, and I congratulated him last.
“You’re great at keeping secrets around here,” I said, shaking
his hand. Finn’s eyes darted to mine, and I realized my slip belatedly. I
hadn’t meant to infer to the others that some of them might be keeping secrets.
Finn pulled out a decanter filled with an amber liquid and
Philip handed out the shot glasses. Finn filled his before giving the decanter
to Taylor who poured for the rest of us. I glowered at him as he offered mine
to me. The image of him kissing Zoe was seared on my mind and made my blood
boil. I gripped the shot glass and toss the contents down my throat. The
burning sensation was a needed distraction.
I wasn’t the only one tense with nerves. Despite the recent
happy news, a raw agitation filled the room.
“This cold snap has damaged much of the fall crop,” Mr.
Galloway said. “Will be a lean winter.”