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Things hadn’t turned out the way she’d imagined they would. The box… it was supposed to help her. Give her everything she’d ever wanted.

And instead it had left her with one damned annoying talking fox.

“You should go back, you know,” he said, one back paw reaching up to scratch behind his ear.

Cassie stayed silent, her eyes focused on the road in front of her. She gripped the steering wheel tighter.

Emil sighed. “But, of course, you won’t. Still too blind and too selfish.”

Gritting her teeth, Cassie jerked her head from one side to the other. “I’m allowed to be selfish. Everyone is.”

“Not when it means abandoning your husband and children.”

She snorted. “Some husband. He never did anything to make me happy. He’s the selfish one.”

Emil’s whiskers twitched. He stood up on all fours, then rested his front paws on the armrest attached to the door. Now high enough to see out the window, he took in the town they’d driven into.

“It wasn’t his job to make you happy. You could’ve done that yourself.” Emil paused for a moment, his eyes following a bird as it soared past them. “And what about your children? What excuse do you have for abandoning them?”

Cassie swallowed back the retort that came to her. She’d told herself, when she’d left them, that her children had been holding her back. That she deserved better. But she wasn’t so sure that was true anymore.

Which, of course, was Emil’s whole point.

He let the subject drop, as he always did when they reached this point in the conversation.

Pulling into a motel parking lot, Cassie let her shoulders relax. Finally, she could get out of the car and give herself a little space from Emil.

“Stay here,” she said, pushing her door open. Not that Emil would listen. She wasn’t entirely sure he could if he’d wanted to.

By the time she’d walked to the front of the car, Emil was beside her. He trotted to keep up, slipping through the lobby door when Cassie pushed it open.

The lobby was one of the most run-down they’d come across on their little road trip. Not that the other hotels they’d stayed in had been the Ritz or anything. But at least they’d been decently nice.

This one, though… the customers’ side of the front desk housed a grand total of two chairs, and both seemed to have more rips than fabric. A path to the front desk had been worn into the faded carpet, whose wall-side edges hinted at a once-bright pattern. And there was the distinct scent of body odour hanging in the air.

Not the type of place Cassie had ever pictured herself spending the night, but she didn’t have much of a choice anymore. She could only hope her room would smell better.

The man at the front counter stood up, a welcoming smile on his face. “How can I help you?”

“Need a room,” Cassie said.

Emil, who’d reached the desk before her, gave her what she’d learned was meant to be a frown. “Be nice.”

Cassie rolled her eyes. “Please.” She stopped in front of the desk and subtly examined the cracked top. It seemed clean enough, so she leaned forward and rested her elbows on it.

The desk clerk didn’t even glance down at Emil before turning to his computer. Nobody ever did. “One bed or two?” he asked.

“One will be fine.”

She tapped her fingers on the desk while the man slowly typed. A year ago, she would’ve made a sarcastic comment about his pace. Today, it wasn’t worth the rebuke she’d get from Emil. She didn’t know how much more of that she could take.

“Alright,” the clerk said as he looked up from his keyboard. “I can put you in room 216.”

Cassie nodded. Emil, who’d been sitting on the floor by her feet, hopped up onto the desk. “Do they have a pool here? Ask him if they have a pool.”

She ignored him and focused on the man behind the counter.

“I just need you to sign a couple of papers, give me a credit card for payment, and we’re good to go,” he said.

She tugged her wallet out of her purse and searched it for a credit card that still had some sort of balance on it.

“You know, you wouldn’t be having these money troubles if you hadn’t taken advantage of Brian the way you did,” Emil said. He lay down on the desk, wrapping his tail around himself. “If you’d focused on following your dreams, you’d probably have been making money off of them by now. And, more importantly, you’d be happy. With or without Brian.”

“Shut up,” Cassie hissed.

“I’m sorry?” The clerk frowned at her. His hand hovered above the debit machine, Cassie’s credit card gripped tightly between two fingers.

She shook her head sharply. “Nothing.”

He studied her for a moment before slowly nodding and returning to the payment process.

Inside, Cassie fumed. Emil didn’t bring up that particular aspect of Cassie’s life very often. Mostly because she never let him get very far with it.

She knew damn well what giving up on her dreams had cost her. What it had turned her into. She just didn’t want to think about it.

The printer behind the clerk spat out some papers. He twisted around to grab them. “If you could just sign these, we’ll be all set.”

Cassie scribbled her name on the bottom of each page. The clerk looked it over, nodded, and handed her a key card. “Have a good stay.”

Nodding, Cassie turned away. But she froze when Emil caught her eye. “Manners,” he admonished.

She stared at him for a moment, until she felt something break inside of her.

He’d won, of course. There was no doubt that he would. Even she knew it’d just be a matter of time.

She sighed and turned back to the clerk. “Thank you,” she said. “You… you have a good day.”

The man grinned at her, but she didn’t stick around to hear his response.

Five minutes later, she dumped her overnight bag onto the bed.

“Now what?” Emil asked as he hopped up onto the bed.

Canvases flashed through Cassie’s mind. Some were partially painted, others were blank. Waiting.

“Now, I grab us some supper. We’ll spend tonight here. And tomorrow…” She paused and stared, unseeing, at the window across the room.

“Tomorrow?” Emil took a step toward her.

She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. “Tomorrow, we head home, and I see if I can clean up my mess.”