"What?" I choked.
My father was uneasily leaning against the dresser, but he didn’t pull his gaze away. He had called Melanie and me into his room. We were sitting on the bed, my mom standing beside my father with determination.
"I already accepted, Autumn," my father said, "it’s a good opportunity. I’ll be able to provide you with the things I could never provide you with before."
Troy had known about this, which is why he had said that in the restaurant yesterday. He hadn’t lied; he knew my father had already taken the job. He knew before I did.
"I don’t know why this upsets you," my mom said softly. She strode over and took a seat beside me, taking my hand in her palms. "Don’t you like this house? Of course, we won’t be getting anything near it. But soon, your father will finally be able to buy a big enough house for all of us. That’s a good thing."
Yes, it was a good thing. So why wasn’t I excited? I could finally get a dog or a cat - or both - and afford to feed it. I could have my own room and dance carelessly around my bed without worrying about Melanie or my parents walking in.
But I didn’t want to lose myself in all the luxuries.
I got to my feet, angry that my eyes were beginning to burn. "Congratulations," I said to my father before walking out.
They didn’t need my contradictions. It’s not like I had an argument to defend my case, either. My father deserved to be happy with his new job in the Rhys business. It was an opportunity he had only ever dreamed of. And now his dream had come true. Why should I be the one to ruin it?
I was just about to turn to descend the marbled stairs when I nearly crashed into Troy. My hands were tucked into my short pockets and my eyes were glaring at the immaculate gleams on the granite floor. So, of course I hadn’t noticed him. I was too distracted by my own angry thoughts.
"Whoa," Troy said, steadying our feet by resting his hands on my shoulders. I looked at him in shock, pulling away instinctually, "I was just on my way to your room," he went on hesitantly. I was quick to notice his discomfort. He cleared his throat and moved his hands awkwardly at his side, as if he didn’t know what to do with them, "are you okay?"
The question caught me off guard, and he smiled uneasily at my puzzlement. He lifted one of his hands and tapped his index finger on the space below his eye. "You’re um…" He didn’t finish. Instead, he slipped off the towel that hung over his shoulder and motioned me to take it. That’s when I realized he was dressed for the pool.
When I didn’t take the towel, completely confused, he frowned. His hand with the towel slumped back to his side. "Violet didn’t do anything, did she?"
I wrinkled my forehead in bewilderment, but before I could answer, I tasted the drop of salt. With panic, I reached up to touch my face. Sure enough, I felt the tears. The mortification came immediately.
Without a second thought, I turned and rushed down the stairs. My haste nearly made me tumble down the steps, but I was able to catch myself on the rail before getting seriously injured. Unfortunately, this only slowed down my pace and gave Troy a sufficient amount of time to step in front of me. He opened his mouth to say something, but decided against it, frowning instead. He offered me his hand, but I could only stare at him.
With exasperation, he linked his arm with mine, just like he had that night of the opera. He pulled me forward and led me down the stairs, hesitating at the foot of them before turning and leading us to the back of the staircase. When we stepped into the library, I tried to yank myself away, but he didn’t let me go. We reached the wide glass doors at the other side of the room and he opened one, finally releasing me. I hesitated at the door frame.
"Where are you taking me?" I asked him unevenly, still clearing the tears from my throat.
"To your death," Troy muttered in an irritated sarcasm, resting his hands on my shoulders so he could lead me forward.
I stepped onto an open green field, one wide brick walkway in the center, which seeped below a tall hedge. A few dark tables and chairs were set on the grass, large umbrellas shading them. Colorful plants and shrubs outlined the large mansion, disappearing off into the indiscernible distance. A few marbled fountains and beds of plants filled some of the empty spaces.
When I didn’t move, Troy took my arm again, with the same exasperation, and led me toward the hedge. It wasn’t until we turned to step behind it that I realized there were far many more hedges. We were quickly sinking into a maze of tall hedges and I felt as if the walls were beginning to close in on us. I halted.
"The center is worth it," Troy assured, pulling me forward against my will.
"I don’t want to go anywhere with you." The words came out before I could think them through clearly. This only made Troy whip his head to me in disbelief.
"Why? You don’t trust me?" The frustration in his tone wasn’t hard to note. The way he said that also seemed more like a statement, as if he already knew my answer and found it rather annoying.
I didn’t hesitate in my short, "No."
He studied me for a moment, his emotions successfully hidden behind a wall in his eyes. What exactly did he expect? I hadn’t even known him for a week yet. Just because my father trusted his, and vice versa, didn’t mean their children would contain that same trust. I hoped that my point was winning in the debate in his mind, but when he only shook his head and steered us forward again, I knew I had lost.
"What did Violet do this time?" Troy asked, more reluctant this time.
"She didn’t do anything," I snapped, trying to pull away from his grip again. My struggle ended in failure.
"Then what’s with the tears?" He didn’t glance at me. The hedges made us take a sharp turn.
"When did I start to open up to you?" The words came out harsher than I intended, remembering the encounter with my parents. Troy’s father was the only reason why my father even considered taking such a job.
"I’m trying here," he muttered.
"Don’t..." Not to mention, he was very bad at playing kind, "where are you taking me? My parents will be freaking out soon." I wasn’t exactly sure if that was true, but I figured that may be that would change Troy’s mind if he really did plan on killing me.
Would he kill me? No. He wouldn’t. But I couldn’t prove that.
"Damn it, Autumn," Troy finally let me go when I began to struggle like a fish caught in a hook. He stepped so close to me that I instinctually jumped back until my back rested against the sharp twigs of a hedge. He leaned one hand beside my head, his eyes narrowing down at me, "I don’t know how it is for your kind, but I was taught to console the sad. And by my speculation, you are in need of some cheering up. It’s not something I do often, so could you at least play along? I haven’t even had a chance to fail my attempt."
I knew I was not afraid of him, but for some reason, my palms began to get sweaty and my pounding heart was making its presence known to me. Could he hear it? He must have, because Troy suddenly sighed, the frustration gone, before retreating to the hedge across me, a good several feet away.
"I don’t know how to act around you," he said, "no one has ever hated me because of my money. I mean, not the way you do. People have hated me, but only out of jealousy. But those types of people wouldn’t have hesitated in accepting diamonds." His eyes darted up to mine in realization, widening, "your father must have told you about the job offer," he frowned, "that’s why you were crying?" when I don’t answer, he said, "that is pathetic, Autumn."
My weird symptoms disintegrated, and I felt the tears of furry make their way up my throat. Before I could snap back at him though, he spoke first.
"I was there when my father offered him an official position. Your father was happy. You want to know his first words he gave in response?" Troy pushed himself away from his green wall and stepped over to me, giving me a fair distance to breathe. "Now I can finally spoil my girls with the things they could only dream about before."
Something trapped inside my throat and I had to bite my lips to stop any unnecessary crying. I stepped back into the hedge until I could feel the thorns press onto my back. It was a punishment I was giving myself for getting angry at my father when what he did was only to please Melanie and me. I should have also known that my father would never become an arrogant wealthy man. Not after all we had gone through. He was better than that.
The tears must have slipped, because Troy cleared his throat and began to look uneasy again. I wiped them away, feeling ashamed at my embarrassment. That is not something I wanted to make clear in front of any of the Rhys.
"I’m going back inside," I choked. But it only took two large steps for Troy to block my way, his discomfort gone. I spoke before he could, "look, you’re really bad at this. I can go settle my emotions somewhere else. On my own."
I expected him to get angry, to frown at me and come up with a few retorts, but he doesn’t. He just shrugged, looking away, "I walk through this maze when I’m stressed," he said quietly, "I have memorized every right turn to find my way into the center. But when I’m having a particularly bad day, I purposely let myself lose my way. It keeps me busy, trying to choose the right path after getting lost. You’d be surprised how long it could take. Nevertheless," he looked at me, "it helps me."
I was beginning to wonder if he was suggesting I get myself lost in this maze, something I was smart enough not to do. Yet, I found myself glancing at the long path beside me, wondering which opening would be the one to lead me closer to the center. I shook the thought out of my head.
Troy past me and began to head deeper into the maze. He halted in front of an opening. "You know your way back," he said without looking at me. A couple of steps later, he disappeared from my sight.
I hesitated in place for a moment, slowly pressing in deeper into the thorns on my back until I was sure I had cut myself. With a shaky breath, I pushed away from the hedge and fixed myself up. I began to make my way, trying to remember which turns to take, but for some reason, I kept glancing back.
What was in the center? Why did Troy say the center was worth it? What could be worth the risk of getting lost in a narrow maze?
And just as I was about to take my first sharp turn out of the narrow path, I hesitated. Before I knew I was doing, I was rushing back to the opening where Troy disappeared into.