Out of Her Shadow

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"Riley, what are you doing here?" Paige asked as she approached, surprised. She wore a T-shirt under a leather jacket with fitted jeans and boots, and she was holding three yellow balloons and party favors. The triplets had abandoned her side and were now surrounding Riley. Priscilla, the nanny, followed close behind, and Paige asked her to bring the balloons and party favors inside the house.

"Aunt Riley, you're back!" "Are you staying?" "Can you read us a story like you did that last time?" "Where is Ashe?" "Did you go away?" "How come you didn't call us back?" "I made you a picture!"

"Can I talk to your mother for a few minutes?" Riley asked the boys who were trying to outdo one another in catching her attention. In addition to all their questions, they wanted to show her their latest toys. Trey was carrying a plastic version of Thor's hammer while Trevor, judging from the stuffed toy he clutched against his chest, was apparently into Snoopy as the flying ace. Thomas simply kept embracing Riley, crying and refusing to let go, telling her how much he'd missed her and asking why she never called them back or answered their calls.

"You promise not to leave yet?" Thomas pleaded when Riley asked them again to go upstairs for a few minutes while she talked to Paige. "I have something to show you."

"Yes, Aunt Riley," Trey said. "Promise? It's been forever!"

Riley nodded guiltily. She knew that children shouldn't have to pay for their parents' mistakes. She'd seen her fair share of it herself when their mother had died in the fire, and her father had laid the blame on her. She didn't want the triplets to pay the same price, but what other choice did she have at the moment? Riley told herself that she needed space and that she needed to sort certain things out alone. But she'd sorted nothing for two weeks, and all that time, the triplets waited.

"I'll talk to you before I go," she said. "I promise."

"Cross your heart?" Thomas asked, his green eyes wide and trusting, and Riley stared at him for a few seconds. He had Gareth's eyes. They all had Gareth's eyes.

Riley nodded, fighting back tears. "Cross my heart. Now go upstairs and Mommy will call you so you can come down to see me before I go."

They watched the boys go upstairs, Priscilla waiting for them at the door to let them in.

"What are you doing here?" Paige asked again. "Did you come to see me? I sure hope so, because I'd like to talk to you, Riley. I've missed you."

"I came to see Clint, so I could make arrangements to see the boys without you or him, but it turned out to be a huge mistake, and now I know I can't do this anymore. I can't see the boys either."

"What?" Paige looked stricken. She looked up at the front door, glancing at the windows as if searching for a face, before turning back to face Riley. "What the hell did he tell you?"

"He told me everything that you should have been the one to tell me in the first place—about Gareth and the boys."

Paige brought her hand to her lips, her face turning pale.

"He had no right to do that," she whispered.

"You could have told me five years ago what you and Gareth did," Riley said. "Four years ago, three years ago—hell, even a year ago! You had all that time to tell me, Paige, and you never did. Instead, all you did was try to run my life while I was trying to figure out who didn't want me enough to kick me out of that apartment and leave with twenty grand pocket money."

Paige's gaze fell, her shoulders slumping forward in a manner so unlike the supermodel whom Riley had looked up to for so long. Riley saw that she had gray circles under her eyes and that, no matter how well she had applied her make-up, anyone could tell she hadn't been sleeping well.

"I don't know how you can do it, Paige, living like you and Clint do, knowing what you've done to me—and this lie you both chose to live with the boys," Riley said. "But I guess, as long as it makes you happy, it must be all right."

"It's not all right. It never was," Paige whispered. "I'm sorry, Riley. I'm so sorry for hurting you. I wanted to tell you so badly, but you were so torn up about Gareth's leaving, even years later. And when you overdosed, I realized that I could never tell you, not if it meant you could go back to drugs again. I didn't want to lose you—and I don't want to lose you. I know I should have told you, I really should have. You mean the world to me, you know that."

"If I meant the world to you, you would never have slept with Gareth in the first place," Riley said, continuing before Paige could interrupt. "But I get it now. I see why Gareth needed to get away from New York three years ago, and why he wanted me with him, too, before things went wrong and Clint got his hands into everything."

Paige frowned. "What do you mean? What has Clint done?"

"Just what he does best," Riley said, "protecting his assets, real and imagined. He was only doing what he thought was right—but right only for him and his family. But that's Clint for you, always working behind the scenes-"

"Oh, my God," Paige whispered, realization dawning on her. "He was the one who left you the money!"

"It doesn't matter now who did what," Riley said, not wanting to talk about it all over again. She'd talked enough for one day. "I've always looked up to you, Paige, and in some sick way, even after everything that's happened, I think I always will. Only because I'll always wonder how you manage to keep it all together. How you manage to keep this lie you live in all together."

"Because it's not a lie, Riley. And however you see it, I have to do it for the boys," Paige whispered. "I can't let them know anything else except that they're Caldwell's. Maybe one day they'll find out, but for now, I can't tell them anything, and I hope you understand that. I love them more than you will ever know."

"I know you do," Riley said, searching Paige's face. "Do you love him?"

"Of course, I do. I've always loved him, and I will always love him, no matter how hard he can seem to others. He loves his family more than anything, and I'm sorry he—we—hurt you, Riley. I really am."

Suddenly Riley stepped forward and hugged her, feeling Paige stiffen in her arms before sobs wracked her sister's body. Riley was as surprised as Paige for doing what she did. She never expected to be the one to make the first move, but somehow it didn't matter. Riley had no idea what the hell she was doing, but one thing that she did know was that she still loved Paige, no matter what happened between them. She was family, and as Paige always reminded her, family always stuck together. Sisters before misters, though Paige broke the rule a long time ago.

"Take care of the boys, Thomas most of all. He's quite sensitive," Riley whispered as she stepped away, hoping her tears would not fall. "Probably something he got from me. You know, me being too emotional and all."

"Aunt Riley, are you done yet?" Thomas called out from the top of the stairs. He was holding something Riley recognized was something he'd made at preschool, a folded piece of construction paper with his name scrawled at the top with glitter glue, and next to it, in capital letters.

I LOVE AUNT RILEY.

Riley fought back the tears as she nodded. She wished this wasn't happening; for it was all happening too fast, and she couldn't understand how to deal with the emotions hitting her all at the same time. But she needed to run as far away from them if only to escape the feelings that overwhelmed her.

"I'm done talking with your mother, Thomas. Why don't you guys come down and say good-bye to your Aunt Riley? I'm going away for a little bit, but I want my extra-long hugs before I go."

When will you be back? Did I do something wrong? Can you still stay and read us a story—just one? Will you put up my drawing on your wall? It's a drawing of me, Aunt Riley. Where are you going?

"Riley, please don't do this," Paige said, reaching for Riley, but Riley held her hand up.

"For once, Paige, please don't tell me what to do," Riley said, her voice almost breaking. "I need to do this for me."

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