Authors: Alyse Raines
“She’s—” Fragile. Skittish. Strong. “Different.”
“Well, I won’t push. I’m just so bloody pleased that you called.” Mom blew her nose and Andrew groaned. “Oh, don’t give me that. It’s been over a year, Andrew. A mother’s allowed to feel emotional when her lost sheep returns to the flock.”
“Not the sheep analogies again.”
She clicked her tongue. “Don’t get cheeky with me, Andrew. Now, look. I’ve got to run, but you ring me on Wednesday afternoon if you can. I’ll be home around four and expecting your call. In the meantime, you ask that girl of yours to come, and tell her I won’t take no for an answer.”
“We wouldn’t be staying at your place the whole time, though.”
“You can’t take her to that construction site you call a house! She’ll run for the hills, Andrew. I’m telling you.”
“What’s wrong with my house?” He said it as a joke, provoking her. Mom loved his house—on the outside. The neglected insides made her cringe. He told her, when he first bought it two years ago, that the bones of the place were fine, however, he’d need to add some meat and make it look nice.
“It’s a heap, Andrew. Wes and I were out there a few months back, checking things over. He cleaned out the gutters for you, and noticed that someone had gone ‘round and smashed all the windows. We’ve had them replaced, mind you, and he checks when he can that it hasn’t happened again. But still!”
Miranda. No one else knew about the place, and it sat far enough off the main road that, unless you knew it was there, you’d never see the house. The driveway looked more like an old, overgrown path than anything else. For the past twenty years, the house had sat there untouched, except for an old woman who dusted the inside, until she’d passed away—three months before Andrew bought it.
“Anyway, love,” Mom said, “I’d better get this food on the table. Else your brother will inhale this batch of cookies. Oi! Hands off, you grubby, little, greedy guts!”
“I’ll call you on Wednesday.”
“Make sure you do. Otherwise I’ll ring you, because now I’ve got your number.”
Another punch to the gut—a reminder of how he’d treated his family like shit. Worse than shit. “I will call. Enjoy your lunch, and say hi to everyone for me.”
When the call ended, Rosie was fast asleep, and Andrew’s stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Over six hours ago. He popped three meal-sized frozen burritos in the microwave and leaned on the counter. Could he work on Sawyer? Get her to go with him? He wanted to. God, he wanted her in his life, somehow.
Andrew spent a year doing deep reconnaissance missions with MARSOC before the accident that took his leg, and with them, learned patience. Growing up with two siblings, one older and the other younger, taught him silence. Sometimes he spent days at a time crouched in the icy Afghan mountains scouting the enemy. He sat for hours at a time staring at a single location, waiting. Could he wait for Sawyer to come around? What if it took weeks? Months? Yeah, he had patience. Not
Across the room, Rosie huffed in her sleep. He stared at Rosie, noticing a few pieces of leaves stuck in her fur from their jog this morning, and suddenly Andrew had the perfect idea. He’d seen the look on Sawyer’s face when he mentioned the course he made, and again, when Logan and Taylor discussed their plan for the course that night at dinner. She wanted to try it. And he wanted to see her push herself. Whatever demons lurked in the shadows of her mind, he didn’t know for sure, but he could guess.
Andrew changed into clean work out gear, made sure Rosie had food and water, and grabbed his bag, sitting by the door. Time to force the issue.
Days without a threatening text: thirty-four. Days without hearing Andrew’s voice: thirty-four. Days listening to how much Rachel loves sex with Lola: thirty-four.
“She does this thing with her tongue and her finger at the same time…” Rachel sighed dramatically from the worn, olive-green armchair near the window.
Sawyer ignored her—stared straight ahead at her black-and-white TV with bunny ears. She found a channel playing another old movie and for once, Rachel didn’t complain. They were supposed to be figuring out what Sawyer could do for the Studio Art project. Rachel was working alone on a sculpture. A giant, honking piece of stone in a studio space near the class. She was chipping the stone away piece by piece to create something. Sawyer thought Rachel probably didn’t know what she was making yet, the way she went at the stone.
“Your apartment is boring,” Rachel said. “Where’d you get this TV, anyway? The dump? Because you should totally put it back there.”
Sawyer glared at Purple Punk Princess and opened her mouth to tell her she didn’t have to hang out at her place when a hard knock sounded at the door. Her heart froze. Her bones froze. Her skin, muscles, nerves, and every cell in her body iced over. Only one person she knew knocked like that—like he wanted in, and he’d get in whether she opened the door for him or not.
“You going to get that, or just sit there like a statue?” Rachel got up from the chair piece-by-piece, like someone was pulling her marionette strings. Like a dancer.
Sawyer wanted to scream “don’t!” as Rachel reached the door and pulled the chain aside and yanked the door open. Instinct made her want to curl into a ball, but her body didn’t move much.
“Oh, hey,” Rachel said. “Didn’t think I’d see you around anymore after Ms. Crazy there”—she pointed over her shoulder at Sawyer—“went all Angry Bird on you in the café.”
“Well, I decided enough’s enough.” Andrew burst into the room, a hurricane, his eyes dark, carrying a big duffel in one hand. He indicated Sawyer with his chin. “Get something comfortable on, like what I’m wearing, and grab your running shoes. You’re coming with me.”
“I am?” Sawyer sounded like a chipmunk on helium.
“Yup. You have three minutes, starting now.”
For a second, she didn’t move, eying Rachel and Andrew, and wondering what the hell he meant. Interrogatives whipped in the winds of her mind. What—? Where—? Why—?
Rachel raised a brow, like she was saying “well?” Andrew did the same. Still she sat on the couch, confused and a little bit curious.
“Clock’s ticking,” Andrew said, his voice a shadow.
Sawyer crossed her arms. “What if I don’t want to? What if I still want nothing do with you after—”
“This isn’t for me. It’s for you. And if you don’t do what I asked, I’ll carry you to your room, strip you, and dress you. Then I’ll drag you to my truck.”
The idea of being naked in front of Andrew created a bubble of fear and lust that popped and shot solar flare heat through her body.
“So what’s it going to be, Sawyer? Want me to see you naked? Or will you do it yourself?”
She had seen a few sides of Andrew. This one was dark and a little scary. And it turned her on. She squeezed her legs together which only intensified the ache. A thread between her old life and this moment snapped when she realized she was sitting there, horny as hell, because a guy said he’d take her clothes off and put new ones on. He didn’t mean it in any sexual way, and here she was, turning into a puddle of hormones.
The hell is wrong with me?
That was all the incentive she needed.
Sawyer jumped up and ran to her room. Rifled through her dresser. She had track pants and sweatshirts galore. Nothing pretty or feminine. Just baggy everything. With holes. Not to mention her shoes, which were straight out of an 80s catalogue.
“Clock’s ticking,” Andrew warned.
In record time, she changed, tossed her feet in her shoes, and met Andrew in the kitchen.
Why am I doing this? What
She eyed Rachel who smiled, her school stuff all packed up and tucked in her bag.
“I’ll see you later,” Rachel said on her way out the door.
Help me, you traitor!
Sawyer wanted to shout. She didn’t. She followed Andrew to his truck in silence and got in the passenger side. He shut the door and his wide strides carried him to the driver’s side. Still, he didn’t say anything as he started his truck and drove away from the building. Had she lost her mind? She was mad at him. She should turn around and go home, and if he tried anything, just … call the cops. If she opened the door, would he slow down, or stop?
How hard can it be to tuck and roll?
She could do it. She
Andrew pulled into a wooded area and parked, and it was too late. Sawyer followed Andrew’s lead and stepped out of his truck. A brisk wind lifted her ponytail as she looked around. Trees missing a good portion of their leaves painted a fiery canopy under a powdered sugar sky. Bright colored leaves carpeted the forest floor, giving the near-naked trees an ethereal glow.
“Come on,” Andrew said, slinging his bag over one shoulder. He took off into the forest.
Sawyer scrambled after him. “Where are we going?”
He pointed at the trees. “Less talk, more walking.”
Oh, hell no
. He didn’t just—oh, he did! Sawyer double-timed it to his side. “Where do you get off telling me what to do, huh? First you barge into my life and pretend to be—” What, exactly? She still wasn’t sure what he’d been aiming for. “And then you tell me I’m crazy, and I need a shrink, then you ignore me for a
, and now—”
Andrew stopped so abruptly it knocked her off balance. He shot out a hand and grabbed her arm, keeping her upright. “I wasn’t ignoring you. I was giving you space. Anyway, this isn’t about us right now, okay? This is about
He released her arm and kept walking. Before he disappeared, she ran after him, his words pounding in her head in time with her pulse. Giving her space? For what? What did he mean, this was about her? What about her? Where was he taking her? Oh shit, why’d she come?
He’s going to kill me and bury me out here
. The thought made Sawyer hiccup and her feet scissored over a tree root hidden under a pile of leaves. Going down! Mayday! The leaves broke her fall, but her bones still shook.
A second later, Andrew pulled her to her feet. His stern I’m-in-charge tough-guy mask fell away, replaced with thinly veiled concern. In a flash her fears evaporated, flying up past the International Space Station, blending in with wishes, stars, and space dust. Andrew cared. Why, she didn’t know. She’d pushed him away at every chance. For whatever reason, he
care, and he wouldn’t hurt her. She knew that.
“I’m fine.” She touched his hand on her arm. “Can you tell me where we’re going now?”
The slow examination of her body from head to toe made Sawyer’s skin feel transparent. Andrew stepped back. “It’s a surprise. Come on, not much farther now.”
They walked in strained silence. Slower this time. Wind played an inconsistent melody on the trees. Dry leaves crunched under their feet. Sawyer pushed her hands inside the kangaroo pouch on her hoodie, warding off the chill. After a few minutes, Andrew stopped at a fallen tree and set his bag down. She thought he bent a little funny at the waist instead of the knee, but shoved the thought aside as he sifted through the contents of his duffel. A couple rope ladders. A few black things that looked like big solid raindrops. Bright green duct tape. A couple bottles of water and some stuff with electrolytes, according to the label.
Andrew grabbed a ladder and handed it to her. Then he slung his bag back over his shoulder. “Remember when we went out with Logan and Taylor?”
The night everything went to shit. “Yep.”
They walked a couple paces, deeper into the woods, and stopped at a wide-trunked tree with a thick branch overhead. Andrew set his bag down and took the ladder from her. Their fingers touched. The universe expanded in her chest.
He took the ladder and walked over to the tree, throwing the rope over the branch like nothing happened. Like the world wasn’t knocked off its axis. Like touching her didn’t affect him. “Well, I figured you might want to try it.”
Sawyer’s thoughts skidded to a stop. When she spoke, the helium-addicted chipmunk had returned. “Try it? Like, now?”
As he walked to her side, his smile was sunshine. Shooting stars. Made her belly clench. His eyes filled with yearning so strong, it sucked the air from her lungs. Andrew stepped closer and his gaze dropped to her mouth. She felt it, warm and tingly. Then he moved away, but the heat on her lips remained.
Andrew shrugged. “Why not? You seemed interested before.”
She looked over her shoulder, expecting Rachel to pop out and start laughing. They’d all have a good chuckle at her expense, then they’d go home and—
. She did. “I am. I want—” To be strong.
To be able to face anything—or anyone—who comes at me
. Without fear or doubt. No hesitation. “Tell me what to do.”
Twenty minutes later, Sawyer stood at the beginning of the course. Andrew had walked her through it three times now, and he’d run the course with her, showing her the way to the finish line. That way she wouldn’t get mixed up and accidentally run off in the wrong direction. Not that she worried about getting lost, not with Andrew here, but she wanted to do this, start to finish.
Andrew moved his head from side to side. A series of pops in his neck made her cringe. He swung his arms in a backward arc. “Ready?”
She stepped up to the starting line, a straight strip of ground between two trees that Andrew cleared of leaves with his heel, trying to calm her rabbit pulse. On a deep breath in, she smelled the forest, alive and dying at the same time. Schrödinger’s scent. That made her giggle.
With his head cocked to the side studying her, dark strands spread across his brow, Andrew seemed more at ease than he had in the last month. Maybe that was because of her, maybe not. And so, what if she had something to do with his good mood? Secretly, she loved that they were talking again. Ignoring him for the last month hurt. He had become a part of her daily schedule, one she looked forward to and dreaded at the same time.
Now she recognized what she felt, and why, and instead of being afraid, Sawyer let her emotions drift like the tide. She didn’t have to do anything about these feelings if she didn’t want to. They were there, like air and the Theory of Relativity, and black holes. He stood there staring at her, and her skin felt paper-thin, like he could see her organs and knew what her thoughts were, and for the first time, she didn’t feel like drowning. She felt free.
Sawyer looked up at the powdered sky through orange, red, and yellow flames. She’d do this, and maybe, if Andrew wanted her to, she’d help him with Fundamentals—if he wanted her help.
She turned to him, her shoulders back, a lighthouse beaming in her heart. “I’m ready.”
“You can do this.” He squeezed her shoulder. Then Andrew got into position on the line, waited for her to follow his lead, and counted down. “Five—four—three—two—one.”
Andrew barreled ahead, and Sawyer kept on his heels until the first ladder. He beat her over and kept going. By the time she jumped down from a thousand feet, her heart doing the cha-cha-cha on her tongue, Andrew was so far ahead she couldn’t see him. She pushed her feet onward. Up ahead, on a tree about twenty-five yards away, she spotted the first speed bag and ran for the tree with her fists ready, just like he showed her.
She hit the bag once, twice, a couple more punches. Enough to get it moving and feel the burn—those were Andrew’s instructions. Hitting up was harder than it looked. Plus, Andrew’s six plus feet were giant compared to her five and one inch. She hit the trail again, coming to a thick fallen tree, and jumped over. Up ahead, another rope ladder. Sweat covered her skin. Her lungs stung with the cool air and exertion she wasn’t used to.
This time, Sawyer made it up the ladder faster, but hesitated before jumping down. Seeing Andrew up ahead from her vantage point, waiting for her, his hands on his hips and a cocky grin on his face made her push on. She landed with a jolt and ran the path up to Andrew, who continued on at a slower pace—still faster than her, though. She ran harder and faster than ever before. She ran, jumped, climbed, and punched, until her thoughts were the trees and her breath was the wind, and her heart became one with the forest.
By the time Sawyer crossed the finish line, her lungs only took in a teaspoonful of air at a time, her legs were on fire, and her stomach crotched itself into an untangle-able knot. She did it—she ran the course from start to finish. No giving up.
In the next breath, she met a wall of muscle and her feet left the ground. Sawyer gave a shout, half shocked and half giddy, as Andrew spun her in circles. Sunlight filtered through spindly branches. Cold air stung her cheeks.
“You did it!” He laughed and spun her faster.
For a minute she thought he might kiss her. The world blurred away until there was only Andrew, his warm, hard body holding hers, and the fear didn’t close in on her. Sawyer met his gaze. Tension crackled like lightning between their lips. She felt his breath on her face and watched the blue of his eyes darken a shade. Sawyer licked her lips, her heart beating so hard she tasted her pulse.
“You did good, Sawyer,” he said, his voice thick. Andrew slid her down his body to the ground, making sure she was sturdy on her feet before letting go and taking a couple steps away.
He swallowed, his gaze darting to the ground. Andrew grabbed his duffel and took out two of the electrolyte drinks, handing one to Sawyer. He wouldn’t look at her as he emptied his bottle and replaced the cap. Oh, right. He was seeing Emory.
Well, whatever. She wouldn’t let his weird and grumpy mood dull her high. Besides, she had to be at work in—Sawyer checked her watch—a little over an hour. Just enough time for a bubble bath. Without saying a word, Sawyer turned and walked toward the starting line, figuring she’d find her way back to his truck from there.
“Where are you going?” Andrew sounded a little too amused.
“I have work later.”
He touched her hand. “My truck is back that way.” The idiot grinned and pointed over his shoulder. “Let’s get the stuff and I’ll take you back. Besides, I want to talk to you about something.”
Sawyer groaned. “Not more shrink stuff, I hope.”
They reached a tree with a ladder and Andrew climbed up to unhook it. “The stigma isn’t as big as it was say, ten years ago.” He jumped down and Sawyer held the duffel open while he coiled the ladder up and put it inside. Andrew took the bag from her and motioned on. “Lots of people go.”
She nodded, her insides squirming. “Where I grew up, I’m sure lots of people did it, but you didn’t tell the world, or even recommend a shrink to your neighbors.”
“You make talking to a professional sound like doing drugs.”
Sawyer shrugged. Said nothing.
“Well, Jennifer is great. I see her.”
That shocked her. “You?”
“Yup.” Andrew deftly unhooked the first speed bag and tucked it in his bag. “PTSD. Trying to figure out this shit storm called life.”
“Aren’t we all?” Her sneakers crunched dead leaves. When Andrew didn’t continue, Sawyer asked, “What happened?”
He paused. “You sure you want to know?”
“I wouldn’t have asked.” If he told Emory, Sawyer wanted to know, too.
He didn’t speak for a long while—they gathered the rest of the equipment in silence and walked back to his truck. When they were both inside, he leaned back in his seat. Gathering his thoughts, probably. She let him have his time, keeping an eye on the clock. If worse came to worse, she could call in. She had never missed a shift, even with her … extra-curricular drinking.
“We were ordered into a village in Afghanistan to help the army keep the peace while a SEAL team went in on the sly. All that week, there’d been firefights and bombers hitting targets at random. Maybe a quarter of the people had taken off. Everyone was restless.”
His biceps bulged and stretched his sleeves until Sawyer thought they’d split open Hulk-style. She slid across the bench seat until her thigh touched his. Andrew relaxed a fraction.
“Nine days in, the fires started,” he continued, his voice strained. “Smoke blocked out satellite view. You couldn’t see shit on the streets past your outstretched arm. We formed chains and tried rescuing people the best we could, going room by room through the houses, but—” Andrew shook his head. “So many dead. Burned alive. What kind of fucking jackass piece of shit nut jobs kill their own people as a distraction?”
She didn’t have an answer. There were “jackass piece of shit nut jobs” everywhere, even on home soil. One of them married her sister.
“On the second day of clean-up, my platoon and I were patching up a couple women and their kids. One of them kept trying to get our attention, but he didn’t speak any English and our guys who spoke Pashto and Dari weren’t around. I offered to go with him, see what he wanted. I followed the kid through ruined houses, deep into a section of the village we’d closed off as too dangerous. I kept telling him to come back, but he wouldn’t listen to me, so I had to follow him. I couldn’t watch anyone else—die.”
Andrew took a shuddering breath. “He came to a pile of rubble and stopped, and he pointed at it and said something, and kept saying it until I came to the heap. That’s when I saw it—a nose. I scraped away bits of rock and charred wood and, Jesus fuck, it was my best goddamned friend. When he saw me digging, the kid helped. Kevin was still breathing. He grabbed my arm”—Sawyer hadn’t realized she’d slid her hand into his until Andrew squeezed her fingers so tight, the bones exploded to dust inside her skin—“and his lips moved. I couldn’t hear him so I leaned in, you know? To hear better?”
Sawyer nodded but didn’t speak, didn’t interrupt the tension in the truck with unnecessary words.
“Well the next thing I know, the kid’s running like someone lit his socks on fire, and a second later, my eardrums explode. Damn air raid. I couldn’t wait any longer—I yanked Kevin out of the rubble and dragged him away before what was left of the building collapsed on us. We made it to the road. A couple guys saw us and helped me get him into the back of a truck. I sat with him while they drove. It was chaos.”
He shut his eyes, probably reliving the kind of hell she couldn’t even imagine. When he spoke again, his voice tight with pain, Sawyer’s eyes filled.
“I thought we were home free. That we’d passed the shit. That Kevin would be okay.” Andrew’s body turned to stone beside her. “Halfway to the nearest town the vehicle in front of us hit an IED. I watched them burn. A second later, we were flying. I couldn’t hear, couldn’t see. There was Kevin on my chest, and I felt his hands on my face, slippery from all the blood.” He shook his head. “I woke up later in Germany. Kevin was dead. Most of my team was dead.”
Andrew’s breath shuddered, his shoulders hunched, the muscles so tight his shirt stretched threadbare. Without saying another word, he started the truck and drove away from the forest, his body relaxing as he pulled up to their building. Still, Andrew didn’t speak. She felt like she should say something, or do something—anything—but she couldn’t think what. Hugging him seemed like the wrong thing.
He saved her from having to make a choice. Andrew shut the truck off and hopped out with his duffel bag. Sawyer scrambled out after him and they walked into the building in a storm cloud. Andrew went straight into his apartment and Sawyer stood in the hallway for a minute before going inside her place. All through her shower and getting ready for her shift, with rubber legs and burning lungs and strained emotions, she thought of Andrew.