Twenty-four

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I must have fallen asleep at some point because when I wake, Reece is gently shaking me from the driver seat, his blue eyes staring down at me in a way that causes my heart to flutter. 

Slowly, I sit up, fixing my gaze on the window beside me. "Why have we stopped?" I ask.

"We need gas," Reece says, opening his car door before climbing out, "and a snack wouldn't hurt."

"It'll hurt if they find us," I say, but I get out of the car anyway, following Reece's instructions to sit in the diner across the street whilst he fills up the tank.

I cross the distance to the small building opposite, swinging open the door before sliding into a red, tattered booth. I'm so used to the colors blue and green dominating the Marine World enclosures that the bright pink walls seem somewhat garish, and I tear my eyes away to focus on the handful of people occupying the booths, instead.

Two gentlemen are sitting across the diner, their eyes fixed on mine in a manner that fills me with unease. I strain my ears, able to hear what they're saying even from several booths away.

"Don't even think about it," the one on the left says, his eyes not leaving mine. "She's mine."

I remain frozen in my booth, certain they've been sent by Marine World to capture me. Yet despite my fear I feel too paralyzed to move, to draw any more attention to myself.

It feels like forever passes before Reece walks in, and just the sight of him causes my muscles to unclench as he slides into the booth opposite.

"What's wrong?" He asks in a low, even voice, leaning across the table until his tanned arms are touching mine.

"Those men behind you are staring at me," I say, keeping my eyes fixed on my hands as I speak. "I think they might be working for Marine World."

I take a deep breath. I didn't come this far only to be dragged back to Marine World, and I'm just gearing myself up to dart back to the car when Reece subtly glances behind him before turning to face me, a look of amusement flashing across his features.

"They're not staring at you because they recognize you," he says, opening up his menu before scanning the list. "They're staring at you because you're pretty."

For a moment, I'm completely taken aback by this statement. I sit back in my chair, looking at Reece with a bewildered expression. I'd assumed once I'd left my enclosure this fascination with my appearance would end, but it looks as though Marine World has forever put a spotlight on me.

I open up my own menu, taking in the Welcome to Georgia speech bubble before skimming through names of foods I've never come across before.

"What do you want?" Reece asks when I place the menu down with frustration.

"I'm not sure," I say, for some reason feeling embarrassed about my lack of knowledge of the outside world. "I don't know what anything is. We were always given the same food in the enclosure. A bowl of oats or chicken and rice."

Annoyance flashes across Reece's features, but before he has chance to reply, the waitress comes over and gives us a welcoming smile. She's a beautiful lady with unruly red hair that reminds me of Jewel, and I can't help but imagine the girls curled up in their night enclosure, wondering how it is I got out and why I left them behind.

Reece orders for the both of us, a list of words that sound foreign to my ears, and then the waitress totters away and Reece rests his tanned arms on the table, looking over at me with his eyebrows furrowed.

"You don't need to be scared, Aura," he says. "Nothing's going to happen to you."

I nod, but deep down I know he can't ensure my safety any more than I can ensure his.

"Did Muriel tell you why she didn't want to come?" He asks, and I tense before shaking my head.

How can I allow Reece to continue with this escapade without knowing all of the facts? Why am I so afraid to tell him the truth, anyway? Surely Reece will understand why I did what I did. Surely, he'll understand I had no other choice.

We remain silent until the waitress comes back with a tray full of plates, placing them down between Reece and I at the same time I raise an eyebrow.

"Are we saving some for later?" I ask.

"I figured you could try a bit of everything to see what you like," Reece replies.

I'm unable to stop myself from smiling as I stare down at the abundance of food, wondering where to start first. I bite into what Reece tells me is waffles with berries and its delicious, rich, flavors burst across my tongue with the very first bite.

Next, I try the eggs and bacon and then the French toast until I'm bursting and can't bear to eat another bite. Reece simply watches me from over his coffee cup as I slurp down my orange juice, for once in my life feeling well and truly full.

Afterward, I head into the restroom before looking in the mirror, examining myself in what feels like a new light. My face looks the same save for the dark brown eyes, but something feels different.

I feel different.

A bitter taste crosses my tongue and I fling open the restroom door, crouching over the toilet bowl before vomiting up everything I'd just devoured. I collapse against the stall wall after I've finished, able to feel beads of sweat coating my forehead.

I'd allowed myself to believe I was human, that I was just like Reece and the other diners enjoying their meals, but as I stare down at the contents of my meal, I'm reminded once again that I will never be like them. I will never belong in this world.

On the way out, one of the men who'd been sitting in the booth opposite corners me in the hallway outside of the restrooms, preventing me from squeezing past.

"Hey," he smiles down at me, his tone of voice and leering gaze reminding me of Jackson–the real Jackson, not the man he'd pretended to be for so long.  "I saw you earlier and I just wanted to tell you you're beautiful."

I force a smile, the kind I usually reserve for the guests at Marine World. Who knew I'd still be forced to play the same old role even out here? 

"Thanks," I say, moving to squeeze past him, but he doesn't budge.

"Can I get your number, or something?" He asks. "I'd love to take you out, sometime."

"I don't–"
"Oh, come on," he presses, his eyes roaming over my body appreciatively at the same time he touches my arm. "I promise I don't bite."

Now that I'm free and no longer have to worry about being disposed of, I'm about to do to him what I've dreamed of doing to Jackson when a body snakes up beside me, shoving the diner against the wall before I even have time to blink.

Reece towers like a giant over the man he has pressed against the wall, his fists gathered in the man's chequered, blue shirt. "Touch her again and it'll be the last thing you do."

The man raises his arms in defeat, his brown eyes wide as he looks at Reece with a pleading expression. "I'm sorry, man. I didn't realize she had a boyfriend."

Without a word, Reece lets go of the man's collar and allows him to scatter back into the diner before turning to face me.

"Are you all right?" He asks, his eyes quickly roaming over my body for any visible signs of distress.

"I'm fine," I swallow, wishing my voice didn't have to shake as I said it.

"Come on, let's go," he says, wrapping his calloused hand around mine before leading me back into the diner.

I find my own hand squeezing his back, wishing he didn't have to ever let go.

A/N

Hey guys, hope you enjoyed reading. What did you think of this chapter?? 🧜🏽‍♀️





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