Damaged Desires: A Frenemy, Military Romance
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From award-winning author LJ Evans comes an electric, second-chance, standalone romance between a broody Navy S.E.A.L. and his best friend’s fiery sister…
“Challenge accepted!” were the last words she expected him to utter, and now it’s a race to see who will back down first.
Dani Whittaker has turned in her Washington D.C. insider badge, leaving behind the backstabbing ways and seedy politicians. When a friendly favor ends with the one man she can’t have making her body sing in ways she hates to adore, D.C. isn’t the only thing she needs to escape.
Navy S.E.A.L., Nash Wellesley, is all about honoring a promise to his dead brother, so accepting a dare from the long-legged force of nature tempting him isn’t in the cards. Not if he wants to keep his only remaining friend and stick to the code he grew up on.
But retreat is impossible after Dani’s new job puts her in the headlights of a fanatic, and Nash is called upon to protect her.
When the chase ends, will they be left shattered or will they emerge from the ashes together?
Inspired by Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams, comes a standalone, bodyguard romance about the triumphant healing power of love that just might make you laugh, tear your heart out, and slowly combust. Are you ready for it?”
*Contains nongraphic assault flashbacks not involving the hero.
Release date: October 26, 2020
Publisher: LJ Evans Books
Print pages: 451
Content advisory: Non-graphic assault not involving the hero.
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Damaged Desires: A Frenemy, Military Romance
“When everyone believes ya
What's that like?”
Performed by Taylor Swift
Written by Little / Swift
My eyes were squeezed shut while a hollow dread gripped my entire body. Fear cast its dark hand over every piece of me as the elevator lurched. The blood in my veins was replaced with liquid panic as large hands squeezed my breasts and tore at my dress. The stench of his cologne mixed with the scent of the alcohol poured over me, stifling me, making it even harder to breathe.
My limbs locked up, refusing to execute any of the self-defense maneuvers my Vice Admiral father had taught my sisters and me. Instead, my legs wobbled almost to collapse while his vile threats echoed through the recesses of my brain.
The loud ding of the doors had my eyes springing open, and I took in the empty space.
I was alone.
I thrust myself out of the box and leaned up against a cool marble pillar, running my fingers along the smooth surface, allowing the sensation to bring me back to reality. To the fact I was standing in the Russell Building and not The Oriental Hotel on that dark night over a year ago.
I groaned. I was a ridiculous cliché.
It made me hate Fenway all over again. Made me hate myself because I didn’t consider myself weak, and yet, here was proof I was. I couldn’t step foot in an elevator without reliving it. Without the god-awful sensations filling every part of my being.
I avoided the damn things as much as humanly possible. But the janitor was mopping the stairs, and I was in a hurry because I was already late for the happy hour Senator Matherton and my grandfather requested I attend. So, I’d pushed the button, knowing I didn’t even have my meditation app with me. Knowing there was nothing to stop my brain from going exactly where it had. Hoping today was the day it would disappear, and I’d feel normal again.
As soon as I’d realized I couldn’t take the stairs, I should have gone back for my phone. I’d left it in my bag with security so I could quickly slip through the metal detectors and reclaim the umbrella I’d forgotten. The late summer downpour outside had made it impossible to leave the building without it unless I intended to show up at the bar looking like a cat in a bath.
That was not an option. The staff waiting to say goodbye to me was pretentious and backstabbing enough without me giving them extra fodder. The rumors rumbling through The State Building at my departure were already weighing the senator down. It was the reason I was a bag of both regret and relief on my last day.
I pushed my shaking legs into action and stumbled down the hall. As I ducked my head in and grabbed the umbrella, the sound of my name halted me.
“I can’t believe Dani actually left.” It was Gary. He was fairly new, and fairly clueless, but likable in a guileless way.
“It should have happened long before now.” That was Charles. Obnoxious, conceited, and perfect for The Hill, Charles.
“It’s hard to trust her after the whole Fenway debacle,” Charles’s voice dripped with condescension.
“What do you mean?” Gary asked.
Charles lowered his voice as he told the story to the newbie. I leaned in to catch the words. “I heard it was a setup. The entire event was orchestrated by Dani to get Fenway kicked out of office.”
My heart stopped and started again, anger flooding the blood vessels which were barely recovering from the panic moments before. I was so tired of this conversation. I was tired of the gossip. Nothing in my life had been the same since that night.
“You’re talking about the guy who attacked her?” Gary’s voice was awash with surprise. “That wasn’t real?”
I could almost see in my mind Charles’s shrug, appearing casual but actually calculated.
“I can’t say either way,” Charles said carefully. He didn’t want to be caught in an outright lie he couldn’t take back. “I’m just telling you why it was hard to trust her. You don’t want to be the one she goes after next with some ‘me too’ bullshit.”
Before last year, I wouldn’t have lost my cool. I probably would have just walked away and gotten my revenge by piling him with so much administrative work he’d be begging me to take it away. But I didn’t have that option anymore.
I stepped into the room, my umbrella swinging back and forth.
“Let me give both you boys a bit of advice,” I said—my turn to drip sarcasm. Gary had the decency to blush and look away, but Charles just straightened his shoulders and met my gaze defiantly. “If you’re going to talk about someone, do it in one of the soundproof rooms after you’ve checked for bugs. Otherwise, every word you utter here is going to come back at you tenfold.”
I turned, got to the door, and then looked back. “And Charles, I can guarantee you a spot on the list the women of The Hill keep. You know the one I’m talking about, right?”
His eyes widened. He knew exactly what I was talking about: the confidential list shared amongst the staffers who worked for the decent and the dirtbags of Washington. It told people who to stay away from if you didn’t want to be a victim. Being on that list could make both his personal and professional life hell.
“That’s bullshit,” Charles said, stepping toward me.
I raised my umbrella, the point a few inches from his chest. “Consider it my parting gift. One last lesson, just for you.”
I swiveled around and left. I wouldn’t really put him on the list, because it was sacred, but it would at least make him sweat for a while.
Outside, I stood, looking up through the calming blue of the umbrella as the rain showered down around me. The humidity and heat worsening instead of lessening with the downpour made it harder to breathe. As if the weight of everything else wasn’t already crushing me.
Twelve years. I’d worked my ass off for twelve years on The Hill with Senator Matherton and, before that, Senator Ashley. I’d followed my grandad. I’d gathered intel, made deals, and pushed off the worst of the creepers. I’d protected both senators and kept their image positive. It had been incredibly challenging in a world still all about who you knew rather than what you knew. In a world still dominated by the Good Ol’ Boy network. I couldn’t help but wonder if it all would have been different if I’d been a man.
That night in the elevator certainly would have been different. Even with all my workouts and Dad’s trainings, I hadn’t been able to stop one determined weasel from laying his hands on me.
I shoved those thoughts aside and did what I always did these days. I took a step, and then another, and before long, I was stepping into the modern bar full of steel and glass where a crowd of staffers waited. Every single one of them was vying to be my replacement. They didn’t know I’d already given my recommendations to Guy and Granddad weeks ago.
Maddy, one of the least obnoxious of the group, waved at me, shouting out, “I saved you a seat.”
I threaded my way through the crowd, returning comments, congratulations, and good lucks before I ended up perched on a high-top metal stool next to her at a small table. The only thing in the room that wasn’t a neutral gray were the mosaic tabletops and the bottles of liquor streaming with hidden lights behind the bar.
“I can’t believe you’re really leaving,” Maddy said over the rim of her scotch and soda. I could see her trying to hold back the grimace as she took a sip, her perfectly manicured nails clutching the glass tightly. She put it back down, smoothed out the lines of her suit jacket, touched a hand to her tightly coiled blonde mane, and then turned to scan the crowd.
I wanted to laugh at everything she was doing. I wanted to shout at her, “This is why I’m leaving!” Even though it wasn’t that simple.
She hated scotch but drank it because it was the current fad for the up-and-coming on The Hill. If there was a meal involved, they’d switch to wine perfectly coordinated with the entrees. I’d never gone for any of it. I’d drunk what I liked whether it matched the mood, the meal, or the men I was with or not.
Maddy’s desire to fit into the mold the men in D.C. created was one of the things holding her back. It was the reason her name hadn’t been the one I’d given to Grandad. They needed someone willing to stand up against the status quo, not someone riding the wave.
Even with the umbrella, my tweed suit jacket had still gotten wet. I removed it, slinging it over the back of the chair. Thankfully, the teal-and-purple paisley shirt underneath it was dry. The colors were supposed to have been soothing on my last day, serenity and passion mixed together, but they’d failed me.
The waiter came by, and I flagged him down. “I need a pitcher of cosmos, please.”
He nodded and took off. Over his head, I saw two tall, dark-haired bodies approaching: my brother and his gorgeous fiancée. Mac was still in his Navy uniform while Georgie was in a bright-green sundress in deference to the heat sticking around as September wound down. As she got closer, I could see my best friend was wearing her contact lenses that matched the color of the dress. She switched up lenses like most people swapped jewelry.
I felt my wound-up nerves ease just a hair at the sight of them, my body finding extra solace in Mac’s presence these days. My younger brother and I were the closest of our siblings in age, looks, and temperament. With only twelve months between us, a lot of people assumed we were twins, even when we weren’t.
“Gooberpants, how does it feel to be jobless?” Mac asked, greeting me with a hug while I rolled my eyes at the nickname he’d been calling me for as long as I could remember.
Georgie slapped the expansive breadth of his shoulder before giving me a squeeze. “Ignore him.”
“I’ve been ignoring Squirter since he was born; I’m a pro at it,” I responded, tossing back the diarrhea-inspired name he’d earned. “I’ve ordered a pitcher of cosmos.”
Mac’s eyebrows quirked up. “Getting drunk, are we then?”
“Those are…interesting…nicknames,” Maddy said, trying to hide her smirk behind her glass.
I didn’t respond to Maddy in favor of answering Mac. “Seeing as I do not need to be up at five in the morning tomorrow, I didn’t see why not.”
The waiter returned with the pitcher and a handful of shot glasses. I poured four, handing one to Maddy who frowned at it. “You’ll like it better than the scotch,” I told her.
We clanked the glasses together.
“To Dani, starting a new adventure,” Georgie said.
Thank God for new beginnings. It was just too bad the adventure hadn’t found me yet.
We swallowed and banged the glasses down, except Maddy who was still trying to figure out whether to sip or down it. The desire to laugh at her was bubbling through me, but I caught myself just in time.
The restraint―or my lack of it this year―was part of the reason I was quitting. My patience had dwindled away. Not unlike tonight’s little outburst at Charles, the number of times I’d slammed doors up and down the Capitol Building lately were too many to count. I was just tired of the quid pro quo. Tired of the constant bargaining. Tired. Just damn tired.
I refused to think of any of it at the moment. Instead, I intended to celebrate getting out of Dodge before I had to swallow back one more remark. I vowed my next job would be one I could be honest about. I wouldn’t have to sugarcoat every word.
Mac excused himself to go to the restroom, Georgie went to find some food menus, and Maddy’s spot was taken over by Russell who wore his expertly tailored, pinstripe gray suit as if he were born wearing it. It clung to his wide shoulders and fit across the chest he worked hours on to make sure it was as gorgeous as his language skills.
“I can’t believe you’re actually leaving,” Russell said, placing his whiskey down. He’d gotten the taste of it from me, and he’d held onto it long after his taste for me had become a thing of the past. Or my taste for him? A mutual lack of appetite?
“It was time,” I said with a slight, unexpected slur.
He looked down at his glass for a few seconds before glancing back up. In the gray eyes shining behind his black-rimmed glasses, I saw regret. The same regret which entered his eyes every time we talked about anything but bills and lobbying.
“I’m sorry,” he said for at least the thousandth time.
I waved at him. “Don’t. Don’t start this again.”
I didn’t want to think about why he was sorry. I didn’t want to think about any of it ever again, and yet, I couldn’t stop. It drove me mad at times. It drove me mad when I woke in the middle of the night full of panic and sweats. It drove me mad when I stepped in an elevator. And it definitely drove me mad when anyone brought it up. On The Hill, it was brought up all the time. A cautionary tale. A proud #MeToo moment. A word-to-the-wise kind of tale.
“I’d say it in all five languages I know if I thought it would help,” he said, remorse etched across the words.
The waiter dropped off the next pitcher of cosmos, and I downed one before I responded. “I’m tired of you saying it.”
He looked up, surprised.
“It’s in the past, Russell; just leave it there.”
“I would leave it alone if I thought it really was in the past for you. Instead, I’m almost certain it’s one of the reasons you’re leaving.”
Leave it to him and his three bachelors, two masters, and Ph.D. to figure it out. As if it were rocket science and not a normal human reaction.
“I’ve talked about getting out for a long time,” I said, which was the truth.
“You talked about it like everyone talks about retirement. Some far away thing you might be working toward, but you weren’t quite ready to make happen.”
Below the alcohol that had loosened every part of me, my body started to tighten back up. Seeing Russell often did it to me. Letting him speak while avoiding the huge sinkhole behind us always did it to me.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said, the warning obvious.
“Isn’t that the problem?”
That pissed me off. My restraint I’d once been known for was failing me for the second time that evening. I shoved my empty glass in his direction. “You do not get to say that. Ever. Do you understand me?”
Surprise slithered across his face. Russell never saw me like this. Unhinged. Unbalanced. Ruffled. No one did. It wasn’t me.
“Just say it,” he demanded. “It’s my fault.”
“No. Not until I’ve said the things you haven’t let me say for a year.”
“Closure. You’re looking for closure? Now?” I laughed, and it wasn’t a nice laugh. It was harsh. Cold. Bitter.
He tugged his ear. A nervous tell I’d picked up on years ago. A tell which allowed me to beat him every time we played poker together at my family’s gatherings.
“Dani, I made a choice that night. I chose to go see my ex instead of showing up at the hotel. I left you alone. If I hadn’t―”
I was out of the chair and heading in the direction of the bathrooms before I had to hear another word. The real reason my appetite had disappeared was clear. He was back with his ex. Mac met me coming the other way, and his eyes narrowed when he caught sight of Russell at the table I’d just vacated.
“He upset you.” He said it like it was a fact more than a question.
“I’ll get rid of him,” Mac said.
“Don’t. Play nice. I’ll be back in a minute.” I didn’t need him to get rid of Russell for me. It didn’t matter anymore. It was highly unlikely I’d ever see him again after today. Not if I had any say in the matter. Which I did.
In the bathroom stall, I sat on the closed lid and just breathed, in and out, trying to force thoughts of another bathroom from my head. Forcing thoughts of how I’d waited for Mac in a stall much like this one.
The door swung open, and then I saw Georgie’s gold sandals, which I’d all but forced her to buy, stop in front of the stall I was in.
I flushed the toilet I hadn’t used, stood up, turned the lock, and exited. She was waiting on the other side of the door. On days when Georgie wore her blue-colored contact lenses, we could be sisters by more than marriage. Our height and build and coloring were so similar. Except, the slight cleft in my chin defined mine in a way her smooth slender one did not. I went to the sink and turned on the water, focusing on washing my hands and the sensations of the soap and water on my skin. The things that were real.
I looked up in the mirror, almost expecting to see what I’d seen last year. Expecting to see black-ringed eyes, a torn dress, and a ponytail slightly askew. Instead, my makeup looked as expertly applied as it had that morning, my silk top was perfect, and my high bun was tight with not a strand out of place.
“Mac sent Russell away,” Georgie said, her tone musical and light. Beautiful, just like the rest of her.
“I told him not to,” I said, grabbing a handful of paper towels before turning to face her for real instead of in a reflection.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Sometimes, I hate that question,” I told her honestly, and she nodded. She understood. She’d been through enough ordeals in her own life to get what I meant. “I’m ready to put D.C. behind me.”
“The change of venue won’t make it go away,” she said.
“I’m not running from it, Georgie,” I told her, but her eyes said she didn’t entirely believe me.
I tucked my arm through hers.
“Let’s get some food to soak up this alcohol with,” I told her.
She nodded, and we left the restroom together. My future may be up in the air, but there were three things I was certain about: I was done with socializing, I was done with my memories, and I was absolutely done with Washington D.C.
“In youth you'd lay,
Awake at night and scheme,
Of all the things that you would change.
But it was just a dream!”
Performed by Imagine Dragons
Written by Grant / Reynolds / Mosser / Mckee / Platzman / Sermon
I was covered in sand. I’d be finding it in parts of me for days, but that wasn’t what had me stewing in a bottomless pit of anger. I stalked into the locker room behind Dainty. I was barely holding my shit together while I watched his bald head dance to the music he had blaring through his headset loud enough I could hear the beat. I wanted to yank the earbuds out and crush them below my boots. The only thing holding me back was the knowledge that this could be my last chance to get back on a team, and I couldn’t afford to lose it.
I was tired of training undergrads at the Naval Academy. I needed to be back out in the field. I needed to fire my gun at some asshats who continued to wage combat on democracy in the longest war this country had ever seen.
I stripped off my gear in silence, just like the other members of the team. It was the silence I wasn’t used to. Silver Platoon had been full of stupid jokes and laughter. We’d used the time after each mission as a reminder that what we did couldn’t take away the heart beating inside us. We replaced the monstrosities we’d seen and done with humanity. With life.
I tossed my muddy, sandy clothes onto the bench and headed for the shower. I stood there, letting the pounding water and the heat soothe my ruffled feathers. I was having to prove myself again. It sucked. No, it more than sucked. It was worse than the time we’d seen maggots eating through the eyes of a man in Afghanistan.
Proving myself had once been a daily occurrence. It had started with my best friend, Darren, and I withstanding the horrors of training at the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course, only to find out that what we’d done there meant jack. We’d had to prove ourselves all over again in the even more intensive SEAL Qualification Training followed by jump school and sniper school. After that, we’d had to demonstrate our abilities in every training exercise we did to certify the platoon as being mission ready. But once we’d been on several ops with Silver Squad, and I’d demonstrated I was as much of a perfectionist as the other members of the team, it had eased. Executing the mission had become the priority.
Darren had done all of it with a laugh and a smile. He’d been impossible to dislike and had bent over backward for those he respected. He’d been the reason people put up with my dumb ass when I had no filter and no bedside manner. Hence my nickname: Nasty. Nash the Nasty Ass Shitty Human.
I was trying hard not to live up to that nickname on this team. I’d been grateful the brass had finally taken me off the training rotation when this spot on Blue Team came available. I was trying to bring a little of Darren with me and exude it across this group. I was trying to be the better person, and I was failing because laziness, unearned ego, and an entitlement attitude would forever piss me off. As one of the real newbies on this team, Dainty was full of all of that and more.
If Darren had been there, he’d be razzing me to remember what it felt like to be brand new out of training. I was letting him down now just as much as I had on the last op. Thoughts of Darren and the last op closed my windpipe down, causing me to gasp for air. I inhaled water and ended up with my hands on the wall, coughing it out.
The snort next to me had me ripping my eyes open to meet two brown ones.
“How’d you even make it through the prep course?” he griped, rolling his eyes and grabbing for the soap.
Went to show he didn’t know shit about me, because I’d done my prep at the Naval Academy. I’d done all my pre-qualifications there. I’d lived four years of pre-quals, and I’d beat out every other single person in the academy who’d wanted one of the coveted, guaranteed spots at BUD/S. I had beat every person, except Darren.
“How’d you make it out of grade school?” I asked, moving out of the shower toward my waiting towel so I wouldn’t show this tool exactly why I’d earned my nickname.
“It’s no wonder you got your team killed.” He said it quiet enough that I almost didn’t hear it over the sound of the water.
I wished I hadn’t. The flashes of me picking up parts of my best friend to take him home to his wife filled my head. I turned, wrapping my towel around my waist, and said, “Want to say it again to my face, Dainty?”
The scorn dripping as I said his nickname had him spinning to face me, hands in tight fists at his side, barely controlled rage rippling through his expression. It was a fury I returned, but you’d never be able to tell it by looking at me. I knew how to hide my emotions. This kid—because that was what he was, some asswipe barely old enough to drink—didn’t know how to control anything.
Dainty stepped forward. “You’re a disgrace. I’ll never fucking trust you. You shouldn’t even be fucking allowed to keep your budweiser.”
I’d damn well earned my Trident. I’d earned it with my body, my brain, my gun, and my team. My brothers. The brothers I didn’t have anymore. Four buried. Two quitting. That hurt almost as much as the funerals had. The fact that Bull and Runner had quit on me. SEALs weren’t quitters. It was the whole purpose of our training. To ensure the people who lasted would never quit on the mission or their brothers. But mine had.
Nightmares of the bodies we’d brought home draped under American flags had caused Bull and Runner to flee. The human carnage was something our training could never prepare us for. Something that would never leave my head. Pounding my Trident into a coffin would never take away the pain.
I stepped closer to him. “How many missions you been on, Dainty?”
I already knew the answer. None. Half the team was a bunch of greenhorns. I was only there because the squad’s senior chief had torn an Achilles that would never heal. I was only there because I’d refused to give up.
Dainty didn’t like me calling him out on his inexperience, though. His face narrowed, and he stepped closer yet again. If he kept coming, I couldn’t guarantee I’d keep my cool.
“You dropped the boat today,” he smirked.
Short in stature. Short in brains. Short in between the legs. He had too much to prove, and I couldn’t believe he’d passed the final Trident board evaluation. I hadn’t fucking dropped the boat. He’d let go and waited to see what I would do. When I hadn’t let up, he pushed it, and I’d still almost held on. If the wind hadn’t caught it, I would’ve still been standing.
“Bet they were all as weak as you. Bet that’s why they came home in body bags.”
My face didn’t change. My body didn’t move, except for my arm. I swung out and hit his jaw with my closed fist. I saw the surprise in his eyes right before my knuckles collided with his skin. He wasn’t prepared for it, and his feet lost purchase on the slippery tile. He fell back, his head thunking the floor. I hoped it knocked some sense into him.
“What the hell?” Master Chief said from behind me.
I turned and walked back to my locker. While I was getting dressed, there was a commotion in the showers as my new team helped Dainty up. Not one of them asked why I’d hit him, but I wasn’t a rat any more than I was going to take his smack about my brothers. The hushed undertones of their voices crawled over my skin. I shoved my dirty clothes into my duffel, stood up, and walked out.
I already knew what was coming.
But I wasn’t quitting. They’d have to court-martial me and kick me out. I wasn’t fucking quitting.
♫ ♫ ♫
The lights were on as the CarShare pulled up outside the house. The driver was looking at me expectantly in the rearview mirror. I was drunk. Not the best time to show up, but this was where I’d been coming for almost a year now.
I’d driven to Church Beach in a storm of hurt, anger, and frustration, but I’d known better than to show up in that kind of mood. So, I’d parked my car at a bar and drank my way to my current state, trying to stop my brain from analyzing the twenty different steps behind me and ahead of me.
“You going to get out?” the driver asked.
It was past midnight, but I knew she’d still be awake. Like me, she rarely slept.
I fumbled with the door handle and had barely stepped out before the driver drove off, almost taking my toes with him. I crossed the street and rang the doorbell because my key was buried somewhere in a bag I could barely unzip.
Molly barked, and I heard her tell the dog to hush as she reached the door. I knew she was looking through the peephole, wondering if she should let me in at this hour. Probably knowing what state I was in before she could even smell it. The locks clicked, and the door opened a fragment of the way. Her entire being was a shadow from the dim light behind her. I couldn’t make out the expression but was sure it was a frown, graceful eyebrows burrowed brushed together.
“Aren’t you supposed to be working on recert with your team?” she asked. Molly, her toy fox terrier, was whining behind her, ready to hurdle into my arms.
“Just let me in,” I told her. I had a couple of other places I could have landed once I’d left the base. One of them was so foreign to me I wasn’t sure I’d ever belong there again, and the other had a friend who reminded me too much of what I’d lost.
“How drunk are you that you couldn’t unlock the door?” she asked.
“It’s been that kind of day, Tristan.”
She sighed but opened the door wider. “Don’t wake the baby.”
She was saying it to me as much as to Molly who was already jumping at me to pick her up. I did, and she licked my face as I ran my hands over her body.
“Hey, Molly-Molls. Miss me?”
Molly had been a new addition to the household right before our last mission. Puppy training had been the last thing on Tristan’s mind after it, and I’d taken over the job as much to occupy my time as to help. Molly had kept me from drowning in my regrets.
I followed Tristan into the tiny living space which was littered with baby stuff. A swing, a bouncy chair, toys, and a pile of baby clothes needing to be folded on an overstuffed, turquoise couch. I’d been with them when Tristan and Darren had bought the couch down in Tampa. They’d argued over the color until Darren had smiled and just let her buy it.
I turned back to my best friend’s widow to find her standing with her arms across her chest, glaring at me.
Her blonde hair was up in a messy bun—pretty much the only way I’d seen her for almost a year. The shadows under her eyes were more pronounced because of the one lamp she had on. Everything was shadowed. Even her golden eyes, normally as golden as her hair, were a dark outline in her pale face. They’d all been golden. Darren. Her. The baby.
Now, there was only a specter left and a baby who giggled like pure light.
Tristan’s feet were bare, and she had on leggings with holes in them. Ones she never would have worn before…back when she cared what she looked like for Darren. But what made my breath get caught in my chest was the SEAL team T-shirt she wore.
The hell I was living? It wasn’t anything compared to hers. I’d lost my brother. The one person I probably loved most on this whole planet, and yet, I still hadn’t loved him as she had. Body, soul, mind. They’d been the epitome of America’s heartland. Bulletin board cutouts of what America was supposed to be.
She sank onto the couch, pulling at the laundry pile and folding a shirt so small it barely fit her hand. Molly squiggled to be put down. I complied, and she ran, jumping into the pile of clean clothes.
“Get off, you wild dog,” Tristan said, pushing her away.
“I’m going to get some water. Do you want anything?” I asked.
She shook her head, and I made my way to the kitchen. Molly came scrabbling after me. Their home had always been my home. Even when I’d basically lived with Angie for a few months, Darren and Tristan’s place had still felt like the only spot I could truly be me. Truly take off my body armor and let down my guard.
I knew this house better than my own these days. The kitchen and living area were on the ground floor with two bedrooms upstairs. The basement was furnished with a sleeper couch and Darren’s unopened boxes. Whenever I was here, that was my place. It wasn’t a punishment, even when it felt that way, staring at the boxes with his shit in it, but the second bedroom upstairs was Tristan’s studio. The baby shared the main bedroom with her mama.
I handed Molly a treat from the container Tristan kept on the counter before I grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and returned to the living room. My eyes caught on a set of pictures which had been hung on the wall below the staircase since I’d been gone. The first was a picture of their wedding day. Darren and I both in our dress uniforms, Tristan in a dress so full it would have made Cinderella jealous. The other pictures showcased their life together as teens and our life together since I’d become a secondary member of their family. Every picture stabbed at me.
I looked over to find Tristan watching me.
“My mom hung them. I couldn’t…” She shook her head against the tremble of tears and emotion. “I don’t think I ever would have put them up. But now that she’s done it, I can’t make myself take them down.”
I swallowed the majority of the water bottle before finding a seat in the armchair with Molly. The armchair had always been my spot, even when Darren was still alive. They’d sat cuddled together on the couch like they were one creature instead of two.
“Why are you here?” she asked again, a baby’s sleeper left unfolded in her lap.
“You know why I’m here,” I said.
“I don’t need you to take care of me.”
“Need or not, I owe it to―”
“Don’t you dare say it,” she cut me off, dropping the clothes back in the pile, standing, and marching toward the stairs. “You don’t. Whatever he asked you…he wouldn’t want it to be this. He’d want you to find your own life. Your own person.”
She was crying. I’d made her cry, and the guilt hit me hard. Drunk, I wasn’t as good at holding back the guilt or the emotions I normally held behind my blank mask.
“It should have been me,” I croaked out.
“No. It shouldn’t have been anyone,” she said, tears running down her face. “But it was. We lost all of them, Nash, for some stupid political power move. It can’t be taken back. It can’t be fixed. We don’t get those kinds of do-overs in life.”
She finished her way up the stairs, and I leaned back in the chair, closing my eyes. Molly let out a little whimper and rested her head on my thigh.
Things that couldn’t be fixed. No do-overs.
It was exactly what the commander had said when I asked if he wanted me to apologize for hitting Dainty. I hadn’t realized the kid was so well connected. No wonder he’d made the SEALs with a broken ego. Someone hadn’t wanted to piss off the general.
I was well and truly screwed.
“Out of the ashes, I'm burning like a fire,
You can save your apologies, you're nothing but a liar,
I've got shame, I've got scars,
That I will never show.”
Performed by Demi Lovato
Written by Lovato / Goldstein / Kiriakou / Robbins
I woke covered in sweat. Another dream. A nightmare. Ever since the ride in the elevator a week ago, I hadn’t been able to escape it on a nightly basis. It hadn’t been this bad in a while. I’d mostly had it under control. But maybe it was the overall change in my life that was cueing it up like a string of horror movies for my nightly review.
Initially, reliving what had happened with Fenway during the police investigation and the talks with the district attorney had made me feel powerful in a way his attack had taken from me. It wasn’t until later―after he’d taken the plea deal and the news had died down―that the reminders of how helpless I’d been began haunting me.
Had sent me to a therapist.
Like the therapist had told me to do, I tried to push aside the sense of panic and remember that I had gotten the elevator doors to open. I’d escaped, even though the nightmares caused my brain to go to places reality hadn’t. In those dark moments, I couldn’t run at all, and I’d never made it to the bathroom where Mac had found me.
I threw the covers off my bed.
I wouldn’t lie there, allowing my thoughts to spiral. Not again.
I donned my exercise gear, grabbed my phone and my keys, and headed out of the house to the tennis club my family had belonged to since the beginning of time. I’d spend my morning in the fitness room, building my body up and not tearing it down.
Since I’d retreated to my childhood home in Delaware from D.C., I’d spent every morning at the clubhouse. I usually did an hour or two of spin class and weights followed by a round or two of tennis with anyone willing to play. Sometimes it was just me and the ball machine, but it got me up and moving.
I was trying to think of my time at home as a vacation. I was using it to unwind. But the truth was, I was already bored. It was what I got for quitting before I had something lined up to jump into. I just hadn’t been able to stomach another fall at the Capitol.
When I returned home from the club, Mom found me drinking water in the kitchen. I knew almost verbatim what she was going to say, and I couldn’t help the smirk that hit my face when she asked, “Want me to make you something to eat?”
I shook my head.
She’d asked me the same thing every day I’d been home. She knew I couldn’t cook much more than mac and cheese from a box. It had never been my strong suit. That was all Bee. My middle sister was like the offspring of Martha Stewart and Reese Witherspoon combined. Perfect in ways that seemed almost comical. The only thing not perfect about her life was her weasel of a husband.
“You barely eat anything,” Mom said. It wasn’t true. I was eating. I loved to eat. It was more like she felt the need to cook for me, as if mothering me was going to fix all the pieces of my life that were still bouncing around. She took out the cornmeal. “I’m making cornbread for dinner, but I can whip up some cornmeal pancakes if you want.”
It was close to lunchtime, but cornmeal pancakes were comfort food, and I was tempted to let her do it. Then, I shook my head. “Honestly, I’m good. Gabi and Bee have the entire day planned. I wouldn’t want to ruin my appetite for whatever it is they have on deck.”
“I forgot you were spending the day with your sisters. I’m glad.”
What she didn’t add on was that she was glad to see me emerge from the house for something besides working out. What I really wanted to do was lie in bed with my computer and finish binge-watching the new season of Fighting for the Stars that I’d missed while wrapping up things on The Hill. But I’d promised Gabi a girls’ night.
I kissed Mom on the cheek and headed upstairs to shower and get ready.
I stared into my closet, trying to find an outfit that would not only go from the nail salon to shopping to Friday night out but was also in a color that would ward off Bee and her criticisms. It was a lot to expect of one outfit. My phone buzzed.
MAC: Have you heard from Tristan?
ME: Not today, why?
Tristan had come back to Delaware last year after losing her husband, Darren, on a black op with his SEAL team. Even though I hadn’t known her well, I’d given her my number so she wouldn’t feel quite so alone. Having her parents in the same town as her was a blessing and a curse, because sometimes you just couldn’t tell your parents what you were really feeling. Like me with my mom. I would never tell her about my nightmares because I couldn’t put her through the same what-ifs that I lived with daily.
MAC: Nash almost got court-martialed.
My brain stalled, as it always did, on Nash’s name. Thoughts of the dark-haired, green-eyed SEAL were good at raising goosebumps on my flesh. His square jaw and hooded gaze had burned themselves into my brain from the very first moment we’d met. It was completely and absolutely the wrong reaction because, as Mac’s friend, there was no way I could justify a night of hot and heavy with him. Even when a night of steam was exactly what I needed.
I shook my head clear of the tan-skinned warrior’s image in order to focus on the court-martial.
ME: What happened?
MAC: He hit one of his new team members yesterday.
The SEALs were Nash’s life, and if they kicked him out after everything he’d gone through since losing his best friend and teammate, he’d really be a mess.
ME: Did they discharge him?
MAC: No. He has to see a psychiatrist to sign off on his mental state, and they put him back on training duty until a new spot comes open on a team.
ME: Nash actually told you all this?
MAC: No! HE DIDN’T. I’ve been trying to get hold of him, but he hasn’t responded to any of my texts or calls.
The only place Nash would be was with Tristan.
ME: I’ll text her and let you know what I hear.
I sat down on my bed, thumbing out the message.
ME: Hey, lady. Did you wind up with an unwanted guest last night?
TRISTAN: ** Eyeroll GIF ** How did you know?
ME: Mac is worried about him.
TRISTAN: Tell Mac he can have him.
I knew she didn’t mean it. She loved Nash in her own way. As much as she wouldn’t admit it, I thought he and the baby were the only reasons she’d survived the last year.
ME: Tell him to call my brother before Mac loses his shit.
TRISTAN: Who’s going to keep me from losing my shit?
If she came out with my sisters and me, it would give her a momentary escape from the broody man. Plus, I’d have an excuse to bail when Bee pushed all my buttons.
ME: Is he in any shape to watch Hannah? Or can you get your mom to watch her?
TRISTAN: My parents are in Florida with my sister. I don’t know about Nash, why?
ME: My sisters are dragging me out to a girls’ night.
TRISTAN: Aw. Good. You need to let loose.
ME: Um. You’ve met my sisters. It’s hardly going to be a stand-on-the-bar-and-shake-your-butt-in-a-guy’s-face kind of night.
TRISTAN: ** Falling on the floor laughing GIF ** I can’t imagine you doing any of that.
ME: Come meet up with us. Pleeeeasssseee.
TRISTAN: I don’t really feel up to a night out.
Like this was anything new. I wasn’t sure she’d done anything for herself in the year since Darren had been gone. But I could also, one hundred percent, empathize with it.
ME: Me either! This is why I need you! We can bail early.
TRISTAN: I don’t think it’s a good idea.
ME: I promise I’ll have you home before ten.
No response. I didn’t want to push, but I’d be happy to have her along. She’d be enough of a distraction to keep Bee from harping on me, and that would keep me from saying something I couldn’t take back.
I was in and out of the shower before the response came.
TRISTAN: Okay. But why don’t you come home with me? I want to finish your portrait.
I grimaced. It felt like a steep price—not going home with her, but sitting for a portrait I hadn’t even known she’d started. But I’d do it if it meant getting her out of the house with me. I shot a message to her, agreeing, and one to Mac, confirming the whereabouts of his misplaced friend.
Six hours later, I was on the dance floor with my sisters and Tristan. Gabi and I had dragged the other two with us when our favorite Rihanna song had come on. The dance space wasn’t huge, nor was it overly crowded like the clubs in D.C. It was low-key enough that the four of us, dancing wildly, were drawing a bit of unwanted attention from the locals.
“I need a drink,” I said as the song ended. We made our way back to the table we’d been monopolizing in the corner.
I ordered another round of drinks along with more appetizers to help absorb the alcohol we’d all been consuming with the exception of Tristan. She’d stuck to soda all night. As the waiter walked away, I couldn’t help but stare at his tight jeans, thinking just how nicely they fit his perfectly shaped derriere.
Bee slapped my arm. “Stop staring,” she said with a hiss.
Gabi’s and my eyes locked, and we started laughing.
“He’s got a really nice ass. It’s kind of hard not to stare,” Gabi said.
“You never act this way when Dani isn’t with us,” Bee pouted.
“You never used to be so prudish,” Gabi tossed back. “Do you remember the time you and Zane went skinny-dipping in the pool, and Dani found you?”
“We don’t talk about it, Cheetos Breath,” Bee said, but her lips were quirking slightly, the age-old nickname for Gabi, who’d eaten the snack ‘til she puked, coming easily to her mouth.
“God, Zane had a nice butt,” I said, but it was the wrong thing to say, because Bee’s smile turned into a frown.
“You used to drool all over him,” Bee said drily.
I shrugged. “He was the only one of your friends who was nice to me. Everyone else treated me like a leper.”
“They did not. You were just uncomfortable with your gangly self. You hadn’t grown into your legs, and you’d had to chop off your hair after the whole gum incident,” Bee said with an eye-roll.
It was partly true. I had been uncomfortable with myself in high school. A true ugly duckling waiting to turn into a swan. But most of Bee’s friends had been cruel about it, calling me names like “dorky giraffe,” or “bookish giraffe,” or “giraffe girl.” I hadn’t realized how much of an inner versus outer journey the transition to swan was until after high school. It was part of the reason I hated how the incident with Fenway made me feel. Like I was no longer in control of myself or how people perceived me when I’d fought so hard to create the image I presented to the world.
Thinking of Fenway made me reach for my drink. I deserved to forget him for a few hours.
I turned to Tristan, who’d been watching us all quietly, a small smile on her lips.
“Sorry,” I told her with a shrug.
“Don’t be sorry. My sister, Bailey, and I are the same way when we get together,” Tristan replied. “Right now, she’s no fun because she just had triplets.”
“Oh my God,” Bee breathed out. “How is she even alive? I have one and don’t know how I stay sane.”
It was a lie. Bee was as perfect of a mother as she was at everything else in her life.
“Dani says you’ve been doing a lot of painting?” Gabi asked, turning the focus away from Bee, who would monopolize every conversation if she was allowed.
Tristan nodded. “Yeah. I’m slowly getting back into the swing of it while Hannah is asleep.”
“You should let me promote it on social media for you,” I told her. I had nothing better to do these days.
“I’m not sure I’m ready for that,” Tristan replied just as Bee snorted and said, “That’s not a job, Dani.”
I bit my tongue and my urge to flip her off. Bee would never understand why I’d walked away from D.C. In her opinion, Whittakers didn’t quit; they only moved upward and onward.
“There’s a position open in marketing at DuPont,” Gabi said to me. “If you give me your résumé, I can make sure it gets to the right people.”
My stomach revolted. I had no desire to work with my sisters at DuPont. It would be high school all over again. Me following in their perfect footsteps. No, thank you. I was shaking my head no, but Bee was already all over it.
“I forgot about that position. It’s not entry-level, so I don’t know if they’d take you, but it doesn’t hurt to try,” Bee said.
I just stared at her. She thought I was only qualified for an entry-level position? I was the most senior staff member on Senator Matherton’s team, other than Granddad. I’d helped coordinate his staff, his campaign, and his legislative proposals. I’d juggled speech writers, secretaries, and even the volunteers during the election year. I’d hand-delivered key votes to his bills with my negotiation skills and nothing else.
“I’ll think about it, but it isn’t really what I’m looking for,” I said, biting my cheek because fighting with Bee was useless. My years of saying what I didn’t feel on The Hill paying off when I really wanted to give her a discourse on how much more I’d done than she probably ever would in her job in the DuPont legal department.
“You need something,” Bee insisted.
“I do, but it isn’t like I have to jump at the first job that comes my way,” I responded, getting more irritated as she wouldn’t let it drop.
“Leave her alone, Bee. Dani’s just regrouping herself,” Gabi said gently.
“Wait, is this about the attack?” Bee’s face slackened in surprise as my body cringed inwardly at her words. “Oh my God, that happened a year ago. None of you would let me sit around wallowing in it.”
Every inch of my body tightened. All the joints that had been loosening themselves up since coming home and doing nothing more than working out and watching TV were back on high alert. She was right and wrong. It wasn’t about Fenway. Fenway had just been the final card to bring the stack down.
“Jesus, Bee,” Gabi swore. “Finish your drink before you say something you’ll really regret.”
Bee flushed again. She didn’t even see what she’d said or done wrong. In her mind, she was just helping her little sister. It had been the way of things my entire life. In the end, I’d be the one feeling guilty even though it was her words that had started it all.
I took a deep breath, in and out. Calming myself. Feeling the smooth surface of the wood table. Feeling the press of my heels into the floor. Holding my tongue. Wanting to storm off. Wanting to tell Bee to go to hell. But I didn’t. Instead, I did what I was good at. I was flippant and sarcastic, and I made peace with a tease.
“Yeah, Bee, drink up. I need to get some new pictures of you singing George Michael’s “I Want Your―”
Bee reached up and covered my mouth. “We don’t talk about that either, Gooberpants.”
Gabi laughed, Tristan smiled, and the tightness in my chest eased. For better or worse, they were my sisters. They loved me, and in their hearts, they were looking out for me—even Bee, in her own twisted way.
“When you're at the end of the road,
And you lost all sense of control,
And your thoughts have taken their toll.
When your mind breaks the spirit of your soul,
Your faith walks on broken glass.”
Performed by Green Day
Written by Armstrong / Dirnt / Cool / Phillips / Jones
Hannah was cooing at me from her high chair. All smiles, babbling with the half words, half nonsense she was good at these days. She had two pigtails sticking out from the sides of her head with soft curls spiraling out of them. Add in her golden eyes and shiny hair, and she was the prettiest damn baby I’d ever seen. Not that I’d seen many. I’d certainly never been around them as much as I’d been around this little lady.
When I’d first started helping Tristan with the baby, I’d been all bumbles and mistakes, which had made me feel like an idiot. Give me a gun and a target, and I could hit my mark every single time, but getting one wiggling baby to stop long enough to close the tabs on a diaper had been nearly impossible. The pride I’d felt when I’d finally gotten her to take a bottle from me instead of only Tristan? That had been almost as big as the day I’d gotten my brown shirt at BUD/S.
Molly squirmed, tail wagging as she sat below the high chair’s tray, waiting expectantly for the next morsel to drop. She started to jump up, I gave her a look, and she sat her butt back on the ground. If only dealing with humans was as easy as training the dog had been.
Hannah, covered in spaghetti sauce and pasta, stuck her hand out to share the noodle which had just been in her mouth. “NaNa. You.”
Her name for me hit me in the heart every single time she said it. “I have my own, see,” I said, lifting my fork and scooping spaghetti into my mouth.
She shook her head. “No. You.”
I was not eating her spaghetti drool.
“Hannah, eat,” I told her, folding her tiny clenched fist with the gooshy noodle back toward her face.
She giggled but ate it, and I sighed with relief. Trying to get this girl off of a topic was nearly impossible until she changed it herself. She was focused. Like her dad. My heart clenched.
I took my plate to the sink, rinsed it, and stacked it in the dishwasher before turning back to the eighteen-month-old. Molly was dancing on her hind legs as Hannah dropped food at the dog who caught every piece.
“No more for Molly,” I said, smiling, and Hannah smiled back. She had Darren’s smile. I wasn’t sure how Tristan could deal with looking at it every day. Sadness hit me at how much Darren was missing. He’d loved this kid like nothing else. He’d loved her so much he probably would have eaten her spaghetti drool.
I cleaned up Hannah’s plate and tray before unbuckling her from the seat she was pushing herself out of regardless of the safety contraption. Once I had her in my arms, I couldn’t help smiling at the mess she was. Covered in sauce from her forehead to her belly button. “I think you need a bath, Bo Peep.”
She smiled and patted my face, leaving a trail of wetness that had me wiping it off with a shoulder. She squeezed my T-shirt with her sauce-covered hands, and I wondered if the stain would ever come out. Another shirt to toss in the rag pile.
Molly tagged along at my heels as we made our way upstairs to the bath in the main bedroom. Tristan had a baby seat that suctioned into the tub, and I got it set up with one arm. The whole while, Hannah was garbling at me and Molly. She kicked her feet and her hands, excited in a way that always took me by surprise. When was the last time I’d seen anyone full of that much joy? Never. No one past the age of three seemed to have this amount of uncontained love for everything in their life. Probably because, by then, they’d already had too many disappointments.
I got the warm water running, added some bubbles, and then tossed Hannah’s diaper in the trash before sitting her in the bath seat. I added a few toys and watched her push the rubber ducky around while I got the spray nozzle warmed up. Tristan said we were supposed to talk to her a lot because the pediatrician had said her speech was a little delayed. But what did you say to a child who could barely understand the concept of bubbles?
The silence in the house had been large enough to be its own being this year. Tristan was lost in her head as much as I was. Even when I was here, the words we spoke to each other were few. I wasn’t a babbler. I hadn’t ever been much of a talker unless I was smooth-talking a female into coming home with me. It was one of the reasons Angie had broken up with me. She said it wasn’t just the missions, or me being gone for months at a time with no correspondence, but the fact that when I was home, I still didn’t speak.
Out of my peripheral, I saw Molly make a lunge, and as I turned to catch her, she slipped by me into the tub with the baby. Hannah laughed, and the giggle settled itself into my veins like a tranquilizer. The dog licked her face, and Hannah shoved the stupid duck at the mutt. With all my heart, I wanted to give this moment, this image, back to my dead friend.
In the process of getting the dog and Hannah dried off, I got drenched myself. I tossed the sauce- and water-covered T-shirt in the hamper and picked up the baby from the changing table. I stopped at the sight of myself in the mirror. My dark hair, even as short as it was, was sticking up at weird angles. My green eyes were almost black from exhaustion, and the baby in my arms looked fragile against my muscled chest covered with tattoos and scars. It was like one of those “which of these things doesn’t belong” pictures. It was easy to see I was the odd man out.
I turned away from the stranger in the mirror, taking the baby downstairs to read her a book before putting her to bed. If I knew Tristan, she’d be home not long after Hannah’s bedtime, if not before. She could hardly keep away from the baby. In taking care of Hannah, she could forget everything but the basics of survival—Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at its simplest.
That was exactly why Tristan needed the night out. She actually needed a vacation from parenting all together just so she could figure out her own emotions. I certainly didn’t begrudge her the time. I wished I was around even more so I could force her out the door regularly.
Unfortunately, knowing she was out on the town with Dani had my body stirring a response that certainly wasn’t directed at Tristan. Mac would kill me for the thoughts I’d had over his sister ever since meeting her the very first time.
Dani was a force of nature all her own. A tornado. A hurricane. A gale-force wind blowing in and out wherever she showed up. The thought of her and Tristan out shaking their bodies together on some dance floor made me want to follow them. Made me want to give the stink eye to every man in the place who was looking at them. And, by God, there would be a lot of staring, because Dani was a knockout, and Tristan was damn cute.
Telling Tristan she was cute had only been the first of my mistakes before she’d gone out.
“Cute? Really? Cute is what you say about the dog,” Tristan had huffed. “This is ridiculous. I shouldn’t even be going out.”
She’d started back up the stairs when I’d caught her by the arm.
“Don’t,” I’d said, stopping her. She’d looked at my hand on her arm with shock, as if the human touch was something she didn’t understand anymore. “You look good, Tristan. I…I just don’t know how to say that to you when Darren would have put me in a headlock if I’d uttered it before.”
Mistake number two—because I’d said his name. Her eyes had welled up with tears as she’d pulled her arm from me. She’d sat on the step and put her head in her hands. “What am I doing?” she’d mumbled.
“Going out. Having a drink. Letting your hair down.”
She did have her hair down, and she was wearing makeup and had clothes on without holes. She’d looked almost like the Tristan from before we’d lost Darren. Except for the dark shadows that still existed below her eyes. I wasn’t sure those would ever go away.
“I…I don’t know how to do any of that anymore,” she’d said.
“He’d want you to,” I’d said quietly.
She hadn’t responded. Referring to him was all but forbidden, and now, I’d done it twice in the same conversation. When she didn’t respond, I pushed.
“Go. Hang with Dani. Let yourself forget for a few hours.”
Which was mistake number three. But instead of shouting that she’d never forget, she’d straightened her back and stood. She’d grabbed her purse from the hook by the door before turning back to me.
“Don’t forget the spaghetti.”
Then the door had shut with a bang behind her.
I hoped she was drinking herself into forgetfulness the way I did, but I knew she wouldn’t. She’d taken the SUV, and she’d never drink and drive. She hadn’t let any of the team get behind the wheel for as long as I’d known her. I’d be surprised if she let herself even have one drink.
I sank into the armchair with Molly curled up next to me and Hannah resting her head on my chest. It was another visual I was sure no one who knew me would expect. Nasty with a kid and a dog, reading from a stack of books I almost knew by heart because I’d read them—or heard Tristan read them—too many times to count.
The baby fell asleep, and I just sat there, watching her little chest go up and down, her frog security blanket clutched tight in her arms. I didn’t have enough energy to get up and put her in her crib in Tristan’s room. I didn’t want to disturb the dog or walk back up the stairs. I just wanted to sit and take in the smell of the baby shampoo that clung to everything, even the stupid mutt.
I laid my head back against the cushion of the armchair and stared at the ceiling. The crown molding along the edges reminded me of the crown molding in my bedroom growing up. That ceiling seemed miles away, just like the memories of a warm arm holding me and a gentle voice reading to me were. Mom. I let my eyes close, and I let the memories of her follow me into my dreams.
♫ ♫ ♫
There was something about having survived everything I’d been through―the missions and the trainings―which meant a part of my brain and my body rarely shut off unless I knew one of my brothers was watching my back. So, the fact I was out hard enough for Tristan to pull Hannah from my grasp without me having heard her come in made my entire body tighten reflexively. Brain and senses on alert to danger before I realized who it was. Tristan looked the same as when she’d left the house, as if hours hadn’t passed. She flinched as if I was going to attack her.
“Sorry,” I said in a hushed tone. Whether it was for falling asleep with the baby or for scaring her with a look, I wasn’t sure.
She gave me a weak smile in response, and my heart unclenched a little. Sometimes I thought she’d forgotten how to smile. As soon as she walked toward the stairs, my heart tightened right back up because behind her stood Dani.
Her tall, lean body was encased in a pair of jeans that accented every delightful curve. The spiked heels she had on made her legs seem even longer than usual. The top she wore barely covered anything. Sparkling, shimmering, tantalizing me with softly tinted skin peeking out everywhere. When my gaze finally made it back up to her face, she was smiling at me. A sardonic smile that was all Dani. She was done up in her normal way with makeup accenting those deep-blue eyes and her dark hair twisted up into some kind of hairdo that spoke of the forties and yet the twenty-first century all at the same time. Only her outfit was different than her norm. It was more casual than anything I’d seen her in—except the time I’d seen her in her bathing suit and almost lost it like a pubescent teen.
Her blue eyes repeated my slow gaze, taking me in from head to toe and back again, and damn if that didn’t cause my body to go on high alert in a different way, a way that made it difficult to move. As her appraisal stalled on my chest, covered in tattoos and scars, I realized I’d never put a T-shirt back on. My skin was on display, revealing my secrets to her. The marks on my body spoke more than I ever did of my past or my future.
I sat up, running a hand over the rough stubble on my face and then up through my hair.
“You always make yourself this comfortable in someone else’s home?” Dani finally spoke, and even her voice cut through my thick skin, layering itself over my veins and bringing them to life.
I stood and stretched, and she watched me. She didn’t look away or duck her eyes in embarrassment when I met her gaze like some people would if you caught them staring. Not Dani. She just returned the stare.
“You don’t seem to mind,” I said, lifting an eyebrow.
“Don’t let it go to your head, Otter. I’ve had a few drinks; my alcohol goggles would probably take in a Blobfish if it were here,” she sassed back, using the cute and cuddly sea creature nickname that she’d used since we first met as a teasing contradiction of what I really was. All SEAL. All Nasty.
She dropped down onto the couch, where she proceeded to unstrap her heels. I watched, wondering what she’d do if I took over the job for her before kissing the graceful curve of each arch.
I shook myself out of my thoughts and moved farther away, going to the door to the basement stairs where I’d left my duffel. I took out a T-shirt and pulled it on. When I turned back, Dani had picked up one of the books I’d been reading to Hannah and was looking through the pages.
“I didn’t know you were coming back with Tristan,” I told her.
“So, the naked chest thing was for her benefit?”
God, no, but I couldn’t help a tease. “Why? Would it bother you?”
She snorted. “What have you been drinking tonight?”
I didn’t reply. Instead, I moved to the kitchen to finish cleaning the mess Bo Peep had left before I’d taken her up for her bath. To my surprise, Dani followed me. She jumped on the counter, watching me wash things and put them away.
“What happened at Little Creek?” she asked.
It didn’t surprise me Dani had heard that things had gone down. Mac had his ear to the ground for every tidbit he got about me and the SEALs these days. It was his way of trying to make up for what we’d lost.
“An asshole happened,” I said, catching myself before I said more. There was something about Dani that had me wanting to tell her my truths. The truths I didn’t tell anyone. Not even Darren had known some of them.
“Do you mean yourself or someone else equally asshole-ish?” she teased.
I turned toward her, arms crossed over my chest. “I’m not an asshole.”
She didn’t bat an eye, gazing at me. “You’re right. I take it back. You’re a flirt. Player. Egomaniac and an otter. But you’re not usually an ass, even if that is Mac’s favorite nickname for you.”
“Why’d you decide to leave D.C.?” I asked just to even the playing field. To let her know I’d heard about her walking away from Matherton’s team just like she’d heard about me. To let her know I didn’t want to talk about my departure any more than she wanted to talk about hers.
She didn’t get a chance to respond before Tristan came in, flustered with a worried energy pouring off of her. My body automatically responded to it, ready to move where needed.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My grandma took a bad spill, cracked her hip. They’re going to do surgery on her tomorrow.”
“Oh no!” Dani said.
“Mom’s upset,” Tristan said, waving at her phone before sliding it in her back pocket. She turned to the cupboard and started grabbing things and throwing them into an oversized diaper bag. “She can’t leave Bailey while her husband is in South America building that stupid bridge. There’s no way my sister will survive the triplets on her own. She’s barely recovering from her C-section.”
“So, you’re going?” I asked, trying to keep my voice calm to counter her nerves.
“How long are you going to be gone?” I asked.
“I don’t know. A couple of weeks at least. When Ted gets home from South America, Mom can join me in New York.”
“New York?” Dani asked, surprised. Tristan’s parents lived a few blocks over from Tristan’s rental, so it was easy to assume her grandma was close by. I’d met the woman only a handful of times, but she was the spriest eighty-nine-year-old I’d ever met. She wouldn’t let you forget it, either.
Tristan took in the items in the diaper bag with a frown. “Yeah, Grandma lives in a small town upstate.”
She looked up from the bag to Dani before turning to me. “Can you look after Molls for us? I don’t want to take her. I don’t know what my schedule will be like with Grandma at the hospital, and you know how she gets if she’s left alone too long. I don’t want her to destroy Gram’s house.”
My heart rocketed to a stop. Shit. The one fucking time she actually asked me for help, and I couldn’t say yes.
“You know I would, but I’ve got to be on base on Monday.” Her crushed face had me backtracking. “Let me see if I can make arrangements to bring her with me.”
It wouldn’t have been the first time a SEAL team had a dog with them.
Dani snorted. “The therapist will love that. Bringing Darren’s dog to your first session.”
Tristan’s hand holding another can of baby formula dropped, and she looked at me with huge eyes. “What’s she talking about?”
The question was delivered to me, but I didn’t know how to answer it. I didn’t want to acknowledge how bad I’d fucked up before I’d landed on her doorstep Friday night.
“You didn’t tell her?” Dani’s voice was full of reproach.
“Tell me what? What the hell is going on, Nash?”
“I punched Dainty,” I told Tristan. I’d talked about the new team with her some, enough for her to know the guy had been driving me completely batty before Friday’s debacle.
“Why?” Tristan asked.
I shrugged. “Does it really matter why?”
“Yes, it matters. It’s going to matter even more when they put you in front of the review board.” It was Dani talking. Dani, who knew the ins and outs of the military because she’d grown up in a military family.
Tristan just stared at me, tears welling up in her eyes before she brushed at them, got up, and continued shoving things in the already bulging bag. “He’d be so mad at you,” she said so quietly it was hardly a whisper, and my heart about jumped from my chest because I’d made her cry several times in the last two days. She was right. Darren would have skinned me alive for so many reasons, but losing my cool with Dainty was one of the biggest ones.
“You need to get yourself together, Nash. Before it’s too late,” Tristan said, zipping the bag, heading toward the stairs.
“Me? I need to get myself together?” I said, moving two steps in her direction. She was the last one to talk. She didn’t sleep, barely ate, and was functioning only enough to take care of Hannah. She was a walking zombie without emotion unless she was looking at her little girl.
Dani jumped off the counter and stepped in between us. “Whoa. Just stop before one of you says something you’ll regret. Tristan, I got this. I’ll stay and take care of Molly. Nash can go deal with the consequences of his dumbass male ego.”
Silence settled down over all of us. Guilt hit me like a thousand-ton brick because I couldn’t help Tristan with either of her problems. I couldn’t go with her to New York or take care of Molly. I had to drag my fucked-up ass back to Virginia Beach, see the shrink, and hope to God I hadn’t screwed up my Navy career beyond repair.
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