In a lifetime filled with stupid decisions, Cooper Reynolds couldn’t think of a single one dumber than walking away from Lou.
What was he thinking?
She has just walked out of an explosion, and the first thing she’d done was ask him who he was and if she should know him.
His girlfriend. She was the only person outside his family who knew his secret, and she’d looked at him like he was a stranger. And he’d been so stunned he just let her walk away. He couldn’t move. His heart had stopped and he’d forgotten how to breathe entirely.
As the ambulance departed from the library, carefully navigating the new crevice in the middle of the street, Cooper watched the red lights fade into the distance and wondered what he’d just witnessed.
Lou had no idea who he was, but that didn’t mean he should just let her go.
She probably had a head wound, and more likely than not it was temporary. What was she going to think when she came around at the hospital later, remembering everything, and he wasn’t there?
Mentally kicking himself, he jogged back to his truck and followed the ambulance out of town. The whole way to the hospital he chastised himself for letting Lou think for one second she didn’t know him.
What a dummy.
After finding a parking space, he ran into the main hospital corridor and was almost past the front desk when a brusque-looking nurse shouted, “Hey, where do you think you’re going?”
Cooper skidded to a halt, hoping she might show him a little compassion, but the expression on her face seemed permanently locked to no-nonsense. “My girlfriend was just brought in. From the library explosion in Poisonfoot. I need to see her.”
For one brief, shining moment, the nurse looked sympathetic. Then her small, pitying smile vanished, and she pointed at the waiting room. “I’m sorry, honey, I really am. But family only. Have a seat and be patient. We’ll take good care of her.”
Cooper fidgeted nervously, debating running after Lou anyway, but the hospital was huge and he hadn’t the faintest idea of where to start looking. Security would catch him before he ever found Lou.
Giving the nurse a grudging, “Thank you, ma’am,” he found himself an old, worn-down chair in the waiting room and sat on the very edge of the seat. If a doctor or anyone he knew came through, he was ready to jump up at a moment’s notice.
The room smelled of bleach, like someone had tried to sanitize all the emotion out of the place. Cooper imagined all the crying families getting bad news or good, and thought about the mark that sort of thing must leave behind.
There was a TV in the corner, but the volume was off, and all the magazines were at least four years old. He picked up an old Sports Illustrated that featured the Rangers/Cardinals World Series—a heartbreaking loss for any Texas fan—but he couldn’t get past the table of contents. His gaze kept darting between the main entrance and the doors into the emergency room.
After what felt like a thousand years but was only six minutes according to the clock on the wall, Lou’s grandmother, Elle Whittaker and a woman who resembled Lou came running in through the main doors, skidding to a halt at the desk. Cooper got up but didn’t approach them. Elle wouldn’t appreciate his being there, and he couldn’t appeal to the other woman—who he assumed was Lou’s mom—with Elle around.
He maintained enough distance to hear what they were saying but so his eavesdropping wasn’t too obvious.
“…perfectly fine, the doctors are—”
“How can you say she’s perfectly fine?” Lou’s mother snapped. “She was in an explosion.”
“I can assure you Eloise was lucid upon arrival, and her injuries are minimal. The doctors are just doing a series of tests as precautions.”
“Precautions against what?” Elle demanded.
“They’re just making sure she hasn’t sustained any cranial damage. But please, let me take you in, and the doctors can explain what’s going on.”
“Can we see her?” Lou’s mom asked.
The nurse rounded the desk and led them through the emergency doors. Cooper stared at the empty foyer and back at the waiting room where he’d been told to stay. He should wait. He definitely shouldn’t follow them.
Tossing the magazine back on the coffee table, he ran after them, slipping through the doors in time to see the trio round a corner. He kept a safe distance but managed to follow them through a winding maze of halls until they came to an abrupt stop near a row of curtain-lined beds.
Lou was in one of those.
Several doctors and nurses were buzzing around the area, but no one seemed especially interested in Cooper’s presence. Apparently once you were past the gatekeeper, people assumed you belonged. He hung back near a bathroom alcove, where he could see Elle and Lou’s mother being introduced to a doctor, but he couldn’t hear anything being said.
One of the curtains slid open, and Cooper’s pulse raced, but it wasn’t Lou who emerged. It was Ariel Wyatt, Cooper’s mother. She looked like a Real Housewives of Atlanta reject with her too-tight dress and her platinum-blonde hair. But rather than her usual perfect hairdo, she appeared mussed, and her skin was smudged with soot.
Cooper recalled seeing her outside the library and wondered what the hell she might have been doing there. Checking out used books didn’t seem like something Ariel would be too interested in. He chewed his lip, mulling over the possibilities, and remembered what Archer had said just before the accident.
One way or another it’s going to end. When it does, don’t forget I tried to make it easier on you.
What did that have to do with this? Did Archer think killing Lou would be the ideal way to break her up with Cooper? Even Archer couldn’t be that crazy, could he?
Ariel approached Elle and Lou’s mother and spoke quietly to them, placing her hand on Lou’s mom’s shoulder. It was killing Cooper to not know what they were talking about, so he risked a move closer, squeezing himself in beside a rack of supplies. He wasn’t exactly well hidden, but if no one was searching for him, he’d probably go unnoticed.
“It was quite sudden. I don’t know what happened.”
“Thank goodness you were there,” Elle said, but her voice seemed tense. “Heaven knows what would have happened if you hadn’t been.” The older woman stared at Archer’s mom, and the coldness in her eyes made Cooper shudder.
“Yes, naturally. Quite glad I was there myself.”
The animosity between the two women was so evident that Cooper wondered how Lou’s mom wasn’t picking up on it. Ariel said, “Mary Anne, why don’t you go see Eloise. They have her in the second-to-last bed.”
Lou’s mother didn’t wait to be asked a second time. She hurried off and vanished behind one of the curtains. Cooper wanted very badly to follow her and see Lou for himself. Though she’d spoken to him outside the library, he was still worried about her. And selfishly he wanted to make sure her memory had returned.
Instead he waited, hoping Elle and Ariel might say something more now that they were alone.
His patience was rewarded.
“What on earth were you thinking?” Elle snarled. “She could have been killed.”
“You told me she hadn’t come into her power yet. You were very clear when I asked. You said she hadn’t come of age, and there would be no risks if Archer or I were to augment her.”
Archer? So he did have something to do with this. And what did they mean by augment.
Cooper bristled but stayed quiet.
“She hasn’t shown any signs of magical ability, and her father didn’t report anything to me before he died. How could I have foreseen this?”
“How could I have foreseen it?” Ariel shot back. “It wasn’t something we could have planned for. Did you know she’d be this powerful?”
Elle shook her head. “It’s more than I could have dared hope. I’ll keep a closer eye on her from here on out. I don’t know if she’s ready for the truth yet. Not so soon after losing Devon.”
Ariel winced as if Elle had struck her. “She didn’t recognize the Reynolds boy at all when she saw him.”
“Thank goodness for small favors. That gives us some more time.”
What. The. Hell?
Cooper couldn’t quite process what they were talking about. Lou had some sort of power? That made sense given what she’d told him. But enough power to level a library? That was crazy talk. And both Ariel and Elle seemed relieved to find out Lou hadn’t known who Cooper was. Was it just because they, like everyone else, didn’t think he was good for her? Or was something more sinister at play?
He leaned against the rack, and a box of medical gloves tumbled to the floor, landing on the tile with a loud smack. Elle and Ariel both turned, locking eyes on him immediately.
“I’ll handle it,” Elle said, and moved towards Cooper.
Like a deer stunned by headlights, he wanted to run, but her stern expression kept him locked in place.
“I-I just came to check on Lou.”
“Well I think it’s high time you went home. How much did you hear?”
Lie, his brain screamed. Lie lie lie. “Heard? I can’t hear anything in this hall. I was waiting until you left and then I was going to sneak in.”
Elle grabbed him by the arm, and considering how frail she looked, her boney grasp hurt. “You listen to me, Cooper Reynolds. I thought I was clear with you before, but I don’t think you took me seriously. Eloise has a chance here to be free of you, do you understand me? Free of all the hurt, and harm, and sadness you’re going to cause her. And you are going to hurt her, we both know it.” Her meaningful stare said she knew a great deal more about Cooper than she was letting on. If her family had been the ones to curse his, like Lou had theorized before her accident, it would make sense Elle knew the truth. “Do you want that?”
He wanted Lou. But Elle’s words sat heavily on his conscience, and he had to be honest about he’d long been hiding from himself. Lou would be better off without him.
“No,” he said.
“This is for her own good.”
“Stop. Listen. She doesn’t know you anymore. And you can’t tell her otherwise. If you try to meddle, if you force her in any way, it will only drive away the memories further. And if that happens, it could do serious, irreparable damage to her. You will make it worse, do you understand?”
He didn’t. He couldn’t comprehend what she was telling him. Lou’s injury had made her forget, but surely her memory would return on its own, even without his help, wouldn’t it?
Unless she hadn’t lost her memory naturally.
But that was crazy. Even considering what he’d heard, he couldn’t imagine how anyone could force someone to forget a person they cared about.
“Cooper, do you understand?”
“Good. Now get out of here before I call your mother.”
He gave one last look to the curtain where he knew Lou was, and held his breath, hoping she would walk out and see him, recognize him, and fix this whole thing. But nothing happened.
“Go,” Elle insisted.
She’ll remember on her own, he promised himself.
And with that last shred of hope, he turned and left the hospital.