Roman looked up as Celine walked out the back door. “Oh, hey.”
“I made onion dip. Want some?”
“Gonna grill burgers later when Jamie gets home from hockey.”
Celine sat down beside him on the steps. “Doesn’t take a psychic to know what’s wrong,” she said.
He laughed, a short huff of air, and put a hand on her leg. “Yeah, I guess I’m pretty obvious,” he said.
“It’s okay to miss her,” Celine said. “She was a good friend to you.”
“I just feel like…”
Roman trailed off for a second, looking at the bright red leaves falling in their backyard, then back at her. “I just feel like I’m not allowed to mourn her,” he said. “I know that’s ridiculous. But it’s like, I couldn’t give her this one thing before she died. So why do I get to be sad that she’s gone?”
She put her hand over his and squeezed it. “I get it,” she said. “And I’ll tell you every day until you’re completely sick of it. That none of this was your fault and nobody expected you to save the day.”
They sat quietly for a moment, watching the last of the leaves blowing on the branches in the autumn wind.
“Did I ever tell you about my hometown?” Roman asked.
“Yeah,” Roman said. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Since…just since. But there’s this pizza shop there that I can’t get out of my head. I’m sure it’s terrible, but my grandmother would bring me there when I was little and it was a big deal when we went. I want to go back.”
“We will,” Celine said. “We’ll go do some market research.”
“Go see what the trendy pizzas of the Berkshires are,” Roman added.
Celine laughed, and he savored the sound. Then they sat in silence for a few minutes as the wind blew around them. They’d been together seventeen years this year. He almost couldn’t remember a time before her. Not just because he’d spent those years hammered, but also because she was simply a part of him. The better part, though if he were to say that to her, Celine would just roll her eyes.
Or maybe she’d agree. It all depended on her mood and what Roman had done just before he said it.
After a moment, Celine stood up, bracing herself on his shoulder as she rose. “You sure you don’t want a burger?” she asked. “I mean, I’ll make you one anyway, but I can only defend it for so long against a hungry teenage boy.”
Roman laughed now, the tightness in his chest loosening just a little. “You know what?” he said, standing up. “I have to go out for a little bit. So if he wants my burger, he’s welcome to it.”
Celine’s cheerful expression faded just a little. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“I forgot that I’m supposed to be meeting with Iris tonight. I don’t know how I forgot. I’m so sorry, babe.”
“It’s fine,” Celine said.
He looked at her, trying to gauge if it really was fine. But she seemed neutral.
“Just don’t stay out too long,” she said. “Come home and get some sleep tonight.”
“No, not of course.”
Shit, she was angry. Celine’s blue eyes narrowed as she looked up at Roman and whatever cheer had come to him in those past few minutes evaporated instantly.
“Rome, I’m not stupid,” Celine continued. “Do you really think I don’t hear you when you come in at three am? You stay out past midnight more often than not, even if you aren’t closing the shop. I hear you get up and leave and I’ve been giving you space. But you’re burning yourself out and you know it.”
The fact that she was right made Roman even more irritated than the fact that she was lecturing him at all. “Am I neglecting anything?” he demanded.
The question seemed to catch Celine off guard and he felt a nasty bit of satisfaction at that. “What?”
“Am I neglecting the kids? The shop?”
“Then stop worrying about it.”
For just a second, he thought he saw tears in her eyes. But then she drew herself up to her full height, somewhere around Roman’s chest.
“You know what?” she said. “Fine. Go. But I mean it. You’re killing yourself to do this.”
She stormed into the house, letting the door slam shut behind her. Whatever satisfaction Roman had felt at throwing her had curdled into that general pile of guilt that was building steadily inside him. What he wanted to do was go inside and apologize to her. But she didn’t seem interested, and he really did have work to do.
It’d be worth it, he told himself as he walked around the house and toward his truck. They were going to find a cure and he’d get out. Then she’d never have to choose between Roman and a life outside of New Winslow.
He just had to hang on until then. They’d figure it out, then he’d get out. He’d take Celine on a long vacation far away from New Winslow. And while he was there, he’d sleep for fourteen hours straight.
Roman climbed into the driver’s seat of his truck. Keys, where were his keys? He started searching through his pockets, digging through to find them. He’d just had them. He remembered feeling them in his hand, where had they gone in the past thirty seconds? Did he leave them in the backyard? Shit, he’d have to go back and check, wouldn’t he?
As Roman reached over to open the door, he paused. The hand reaching for the handle was already full.
With his keys.
Okay, so maybe he was tired. But it wasn’t like long hours were unfamiliar to him or Celine. He’d probably gotten tired enough when the kids were newborns that he’d forget he was holding his car keys. This wasn’t a big deal.
It’s almost done, Roman told himself as he put the key in the ignition and turned on the truck. Almost done, then he’d take a break.
If Minnie hadn’t gotten a break, then why would Roman?
Roman was still heated when he got to Iris’s store half an hour later. Why was Celine being so stubborn? He wasn’t hurting anyone but himself doing this and if he did get hurt, then it would be worth it. He needed to get out of town. Minnie’s death was a stark reminder of what awaited him if he didn’t. Alone in town, separated from his family, unable to do anything about it.
He walked into the store and saw Andrew and Dr. Degas standing there. They were chatting about something or other when he came in and both greeted him cheerfully. Roman said hi, hoping that his anger wasn’t coming out in his voice as he did so.
“Where’s Iris?” he asked, looking around the shop.
“She’ll be down in a minute,” Andrew said. “She just got back from whatever she’s up to at The Countess, so she’s putting her things away.”
Roman was already ten minutes late, meaning Iris apparently had been too. He knew he didn’t have a right to be irritated, but that didn’t mean he could help the spark that went through him as he stood by the counter.
Iris came out of the back room a couple minutes later. “Hi, Roman,” she said.
She looked at him and he didn’t know if she was sensing his mood or if he was just doing a lousy job of hiding it. Oh well. They were here for work, not for social time.
“So,” he said, clapping his hands together. “Let’s get started?”
Iris grimaced. “About that,” she said. “The ritual I was looking at, it requires a little more prep time than we anticipated. I found another source that talks about ways to speed it up, but none of them are safe.”
“Seriously?” Roman demanded. “How long?”
“A week. Two at the most. It’s not so much prep that you have to do, it’s more waiting for the moon to be right and the crystals to charge.”
Roman ran a hand through his short hair. “And those options,” he said, aware of the fact that his voice was getting sharper and unable to really do anything about it. “What are they?”
“Roman, they’re really not-”
“What are they?”
“Mate-” Andrew started to cut in, but Iris held up a hand.
“We’re not doing them,” she said, her voice firm in a way that just pissed him off. “It’s blood magic.”
“Then take my blood,” Roman snapped.
He rolled up his sleeve, holding out his arm. “Come on, do you have a knife? There’s no point in waiting, just cut me, do the magic, and let’s get rolling.”
Dr. Degas’s firm voice surprised him. He turned to her, arm still outstretched toward Iris. Her face was set as she looked at him. “I’m calling this,” she continued. “You’re adults and I can’t tell you what to do in your own homes, but as your doctor, I’m saying we need to take a break.”
Roman turned to argue, but she just shook her head. “This isn’t working,” she said.
“That’s ridiculous,” Roman said. “We need to keep going.”
He turned to Andrew. “You get it,” he said. “Come on.”
Andrew looked grim. “A week isn’t going to make a difference,” he said. “Come on, let’s take a break.”
Roman sighed. Clearly none of them were going to agree with him right now. “Fine,” he said. “Fine.”
“Should we do anything else while we’re here?” Andrew asked.
Roman shook his head. “I’m going to leave.”
Iris tried to say something, but he just shook his head and tried to smile. “I’m fine,” he said. “It’s fine, really. I get it. It’s a good idea. I’ll see you all later.”
Before anyone else could say anything, he hurried out the door into the cold night air.