I never thought I’d find her.
After eight years in the Marines, I’m still looking for the mysterious woman I’ve obsessed over since her first letter. When she shows up in my small town, I’m thrilled.
But when she turns out to be my brother’s best friend—and the girl he’s always loved—I’m caught between the two people who matter to me the most.
I’m a Marine, which means honor and duty run deep. Joanna is off-limits. That would be a whole lot easier if she hadn’t already agreed to help run my brother’s fishing guide business for the summer, forcing me to work side-by-side with the woman I’ve fantasized about for years.
I try to keep her at a distance, push her away, man up. But she draws me in without even trying, and I can’t get enough of how she makes me feel. I’m stealing moments with her, and I know it’s wrong. She may not be my brother’s girlfriend, but I know a landmine when I see one.
How can a good man choose his heart over his honor?
Release date: June 4, 2021
Content advisory: mature, explicit sexual situations, 18+
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Finding You: A small-town brother's best friend romance
Two years ago
The jolt from the blast rattled through the truck, blowing out the front window. All of the doors flew open. Unlatched, I was ejected from the vehicle—thrown onto the open road. I slid before coming to a grunting halt against a nearby building.
I remember every second of it. There’s no way to describe how it feels when you think you’re going to die. No white light, no moment of clarity. The one thing that crossed my mind was that I wanted to kill the motherfuckers who did this.
With so much adrenaline pumping through my veins, I couldn’t feel a thing. The blast from the IED into the truck as we were leaving a neighboring village also meant that I couldn’t hear shit. I knew from his anguished face Duke was screaming, writhing on the ground, but as I stared at him, I heard nothing but a low ringing between my ears.
Smoke swirled around me as I fought to get my bearings. My eyes felt like they were lined with sandpaper, and my lungs couldn’t seem to drag in enough air.
Get up. You’re a sitting duck. Get. The fuck. UP.
Dragging myself to my knees, I patted down my most tender places, and except for my right arm, which hurt like a bitch, I was fine. I looked back at Duke, whose face had gone still. Although I already knew, I checked his vitals, but it was pointless. Fanned out around us were eight or nine other casualties—some Americans, some villagers. One set of little feet in sandals I just couldn’t look at.
Ducking behind another car, I drew my gun and swept the crowd. Come on, motherfucker, show yourself. Civilians were getting up, walking past like nothing had happened. Those affected by the blast were screaming, begging. It was a total clusterfuck. My eyes darted around the area, but I couldn’t find the trigger man. He’d melted into the crowd.
I ran back toward the mangled, smoking remains of our Humvee. Fuck. It was a twisted mess of metal and blood. Crouching around the base of the truck, I moved to find the guys. Lying in the dirt, knocked halfway out of the doorframe was Keith, hanging on by the cables of the radio, his left leg torn at a sickening angle. He was dazed, staring at the pooling blood staining the dirt around him and growing at an alarming rate. Without my med kit, I had to improvise. I ripped his belt from his waist and using that and a piece of metal, successfully made the world's worst tourniquet around his upper thigh.
Over the constant, shrill ringing in my ears I yelled at him, “I got you! FOCUS. Look at me . . . we got this!”
His nod was weak and his color pallid. He probably only had minutes, and that was not going to fucking happen. I grabbed the radio mic. The crackle of the speaker let me know we weren’t totally fucked. Calling in a bird was the only way we were getting out of this shithole.
“This is Corpsman Lincoln Scott. Medevac needed. Multiple down.”
“10-4. This is Chop-4. Extent of injuries.”
“We’ve got a couple hit here. Ah, fuck, Wade took two in the chest. At least four down.”
“Roger that. Let’s get you men onboard.”
Leaning back on the truck, weapon across my legs, I felt warmth spread across my neck and chest. The adrenaline was wearing off and I became aware of the pain in my neck, shooting down my ribs and arm, vibrating through my skull. Reaching up with my left arm, I traced my fingertips along my neckline and felt my shirt stick to my skin. Moving back, I found a hot, hard lump of metal protruding from my shoulder and neck. It had buddies too—shrapnel littering my upper torso, arm, and neck. My fingers grazed the pocket of my uniform, and I held my hand there. I could feel the outline of the letter I kept in my pocket. Its presence vibrated through me. Touching my right forearm, I thought about my tattoo beneath the uniform. Looking down, all I could see were shreds of my uniform and thick, red blood.
Hold steady. Breathe.
My fingers explored. My vest was the only thing that kept the worst of the blast from reaching my vital organs. This neck wound though . . . damn. This wasn’t great.
The cold prick of panic crept up my legs and into my chest.
Calm the fuck down. Stop dumping blood because you can’t keep your shit together. Breathe.
I focused on Keith’s shallow, staccato breathing next to me. I tried to turn my head but that wasn’t fucking happening. “You good man?”
“Shit, Doc. Never better.”
“Hah. Atta boy.”
We sat in labored-breathing silence. Listened for the medevac helicopters. As the scene around us came into focus, I realized how easily the lifeless bodies of the Marines around me could have been mine. I counted six members of my platoon killed or badly wounded. Our machine gun team, Mendez and Tex, had been among the dead. Mendez was only twenty.
Already struggling to breathe, I felt the wind knock out of me. Just last week, in a quiet moment outside our tent, Mendez told me he was afraid. He missed his mom and little sister and just wanted to go home to Chicago. Becoming a Marine was a mistake, he’d said.
“Doc, I don’t wanna die out here, man.”
In that quiet moment, he’d revealed what we all felt, but never spoke aloud. Instead of offering him some comfort, I’d stared out into the blackness of the desert by his side until he turned, stubbed out his cigarette, and walked back inside.
Leaning my head back, I let my own thoughts wander to Finn and Mom. His easy smile, her lilting laugh. I wondered what they were doing back home while I was slowly dying, an imposter in the desert.
* * *
When I walked off the plane, the airport had an eerie feeling of calm. I could smell the familiar summer Montana air over the lingering stale bagels and sweat of the airport. I hoisted my rucksack over my shoulder and began to walk toward the exit when a small voice floated over my right shoulder. “Thank you for your service.”
My whole body shifted, I still couldn’t turn my head quite right and I peered down at a little boy—probably six or seven at most. “Hey, little man. You’re welcome.”
Then he clipped his heels together and saluted, and I thought I’d die right there. He was so fucking cute. I saluted back to him and dropped to my knee.
“You know, they give these to us because we’re strong and brave and love our country.” I peeled the American flag patch off my shoulder, felt its soft Velcro backing run through my fingers. “I think you should have it.”
The little boy’s eyes went wide, and his mother put her hand over her heart, teared up, and mouthed, “Thank you.” I tipped my head to her as I stood.
“Linc! LINCOLN!” I heard Finn yell above the crowd and turned to see my younger brother running through baggage claim. His body slammed into me and we held onto each other for a moment. I ignored the electric pain sizzling down my arm. Over his shoulder, I could see Mom, tears in her eyes, running with a sign.
“Damn, kid. We missed you!” Finn laughed, his sprawling hand connecting with my shoulder. I braced myself, refusing to wince at his touch. But Finn was huge, a solid two inches taller than my six-foot-one-inches. He’d definitely grown up, reminding me that he wasn’t the same gap-toothed fifteen-year-old kid I’d left behind when I enlisted.
“Kid? Don’t forget I’m older and can still beat the shit out of you. Hey, Mom.” I engulfed my mother in a hug. Her tiny frame reminded me why everyone called her Birdie.
“Eight years. Almost a decade and now I get to keep you forever!” We hugged again, her thin arms holding onto me tighter, nails digging into my uniform. Mom was a crier. If we didn’t get this under control now, we’d be here all afternoon with her trying to fuss all over me like I was eleven and just wrecked my dirt bike. But the truth was, while I’d been home for the occasional holiday leave, Chikalu Falls, Montana hadn’t been my home for over a decade.
She finally released the hug, holding me at arm’s length.
“I’m so happy to have you home,” she sighed.
“I’m happy too, Mom.” It was only a small lie, but I had to give it to her. I was happy to see her and Finn, and to put the death and dirt and sand behind me. But I’d planned on at least another tour in the Marines. I was almost through my second enlistment when the IED explosion tore through my body. The punctured lung, torn flesh, and scars were the easy part. It was the nerve damage to my right arm and neck that was the real problem.
Unreliable trigger finger wasn’t something the United States Marine Corps wanted in their ranks. In the end, after the doctors couldn’t get my neck to turn or the pain radiating down my right arm to settle, I’d been honorably discharged.
I glanced down at the poster board that Finn scooped off the ground. “Oh, Great. You Somehow Survived” was written in bubble letters with a haphazard smattering of sequins and glitter. Laughing, I adjusted my pack and looked at Finn, “You’re such a dick.” I had to mumble it under my breath to make sure Mom didn’t hear me, but from the corner of my eye I could see her smirk.
“Let’s go, boys.”
It was a four hour trip from Spokane, Washington to Chikalu Falls, Montana—but only out-of-towners used its full, given name. Saying Chikalu was one way to tell the locals from the tourists.
The drive was filled with Mom’s updates on day-to-day life in our small hometown. Finn eagerly filled me in on his fishing guide business, how he wanted to expand, and how I could help him run it. I listened, occasionally grunting or nodding in agreement, as I stared out the window at the passing pines. Ranches and farmland dotted the landscape as we weaved through the national forest.
I was going home.
“You know, Mr. Bailey’s been asking about you. He heard you were coming home and wants to make sure that you stop in…when you’re settled,” Mom said.
“Of course. I always liked Mr. Bailey. I’m glad to hear he’s still kicking.”
Finn laughed. “Still kicking? That old man’s never gonna die. He’s still sitting out in his creepy old farmhouse, complaining about all the college kids and how they’re ruining all the fishing. I saw him walk into town with a rifle on his shoulder last week like that’s not completely against the law. People straight up scatter when he walks through town. It’s amazing.”
Changing the subject, Mom glanced at me over her shoulder and chimed in with, “The ladies at the Chikalu Woman’s Club are all in a flutter, what with you coming home this week. You make five of our seven boys who’ve come home now.” A heavy silence blanketed the car as her words floated into the air. No one acknowledged that three of the five who’d returned came home in caskets.
Clearing her throat gently, she added, “And you got everyone’s letters?” I nodded. The Chikalu Woman’s Club was known around my platoon for their care packages and letters. Without fail, every birthday, holiday, and sometimes “just because,” I would get a small package. Sometimes because we’d moved around or simply because the mail carrier system was total shit, the packages would be weeks or months late, but inside were drawings from school kids, treats, toiletries, and letters. I’d share the candies and toiletries with the guys. We’d barter over the Girl Scout cookies. A single box of Samoas was worth its weight in gold. For me, the letters became the most important part. Mostly they were from Mom and Finn, young kids or other mothers, college students working on a project, that kind of thing.
But in one package in November, I got the letter that saved my life.
I idly touched the letter in my shirt pocket. Six years. For six years, I’d carried that letter with me. After the bombing, it was torn and stained with my blood, and you could hardly read it now, but it was with me.
“The packages were great. They really helped to boost morale around camp. I tried writing back to the kids who wrote when I could. Some of them didn’t leave a return address,” I said. Mom continued filling the space with anecdotes about life around Chikalu.
My thoughts drifted to the first time I’d opened the package and saw the letter that saved me.
In that package, there had been plenty of treats—trail mix, gum, cookies, beef jerky, cheese and cracker sandwiches. When you’re in Hell, you forget how much you miss something as simple as a cheese and cracker sandwich. Under the treats was a neat stack of envelopes. Most were addressed to “Marine” or “Soldier” or “Our Hero” and a few were addressed directly to me. I always got one from Mom and Finn. When I got the packages, I shared some of the letters with the guys in camp. The ones marked “Soldier” were always given to the grunt we were giving shit to that week. Soldiers were in the Army, but we were Marines.
On the bottom of this particular box was a thick doodled envelope—colored swirls and shapes covering the entire outside. It was addressed directly to me in swirly feminine handwriting. Turning it over in my hands, I felt unsettled. An uncomfortable twinge in my chest had me rattled. I didn’t like not feeling in control, so rather than opening it right away, I stored it in my footlocker.
Rather than opening it right away, I stored it in my footlocker.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that the letter was calling to me. I spent three days obsessing over the doodles on the envelope--was it an art student from the college? The mystery of it was intoxicating. Why was it addressed to me if I had no idea who had written it? When I finally opened it, I was spellbound. The letter wasn’t written like a traditional letter where someone was anonymously writing notes of encouragement or thanks. This letter was haphazard. Different inks, some cursive, some print, quotes on the margins.
It became clear that the letter had been written over the course of several days. The author had heard about the town letter collection and decided to write to me on a whim. It included musings about life in a small mountain town, tidbits of information learned in a college class, facts about the American West, even a knock-knock joke about desert and dessert. I read that letter every day, until a new one came. Similarly decorated envelope, same nonlinear ramblings inside. A voice—her voice—came through in those letters.
There were moments in the dark I could imagine her laughter or imagine feeling her breath on my ear as she whisper-sang the lyrics she’d written. Her letters brought me comfort in those dark moments when I doubted I’d ever have my mom’s buttermilk pie again or hear Finn laugh at a really good joke.
Over the years, she included small pieces of information about who she was. Not anyone I’d known pre-enlistment, but a transplant from Bozeman. She’d gone to college in Chikalu. “The mountains and the river are my home,” she wrote. Her letters were funny, charming, comforting.
The one I carried with me was special. News reports of conflict in the Middle East were everywhere and she’d assumed correctly that I was right in the thick of it. She told me the story of the Valkyrie she’d learned about in one of her courses.
In Norse mythology, Valkyrie were female goddesses who spread their wings and flew over the battlefield, choosing who lived and who died in battle. Warriors chosen by the Valkyrie died with honor and were then taken to the hall of Valhalla in the afterlife. Their souls could finally rest.
Reading her words, I felt comfort knowing that if I held my head high and fought with honor, she would come for me. I carried her words in my head. Through routine sweeps or high intensity missions, her words would wash over me, motivate me, and steady me. She connected with something inside of my soul—deep and unfamiliar. At my next leave, I’d gotten a tattoo of the Valkyrie wings spread across my right forearm so that I could have a visual reminder of her. I could always keep her with me.
Glancing down now, I slid my sleeve up, revealing the bottom edge of the tattoo. It was marred with fresh, angry scars but it was there. My goddess had been with me in battle, and I’d survived.
Pulling into town, I knew I had to find her—the woman who left every letter signed simply: Joanna.
“Please tell me you’re wearing the slutty one.”
My younger sister, Honey, glanced at me from over her phone as I chewed my lip, looking back and forth between the two dresses hanging and the one I was trying on.
I looked at myself in the mirror from each angle. “I don’t know. This one seems a little more me, ya know?”
“You mean boring.”
I rolled my eyes at her.
“No, just . . . less likely my boobs are going to have a mind of their own and pop out when I reach for the salad. Besides, it’s comfortable.”
Now Honey rolled her eyes at me. “Really? Comfortable? C’mon. You were the one who said that you wanted to look hot. Change it up a little! Isn’t this some big party for Travis’s work? Let him show you off a little.”
“Yeah . . . it’s their annual end-of-tax-season party or something. He says it’s a big deal.” I turned again, frowning at the long, loose dress on my body. It was sort of shapeless now that I was looking at it . . . and brown. Not great. I wanted to be comfortable, to look like me, but Honey was right. I also wanted to look good for Travis and his work friends. Was it the color? Maybe the hem?
Honey crossed her legs, clicked her phone off, and stared right at me. “Look, if you want to get Travis to sit up and beg, you gotta throw him a bone.” She pointed at the green dress, “That one. Trust me.” She went right back to her phone.
I touched the silk green fabric of the dress hanging on the back of the dressing room wall. It was gorgeous—an emerald-green silk wrap dress that had flowy cap sleeves and small flutter hem that landed mid-calf. It wasn’t too revealing but definitely hugged my curves, and between the plunge of the wrap and the slit up the side, it was so far out of my norm that I had to admit, it was pretty perfect.
“Besides the fact that you look smokin’ hot in that, you can’t show up in boots and field pants.”
“I wasn’t going to wear boots . . .” I grumbled. But she wasn’t wrong, my preference leaned toward comfortable hiking boots, field guide pants, and T-shirts. I liked to think it was because they were practical. I was a fishing guide, and that line of work wouldn’t really jive with Honey’s preferred dresses and pencil skirts. Her marketing and public relations job meant she was kicking ass and taking names, all in her Louboutins.
While she was back on her phone texting, I eyed my younger sister. Even though she was only two years younger than me, she definitely always had a leg up when it came to looks and fashion. She had always been polished.
In fact, sometimes I thought she didn’t even realize how different we were. My mind still lingering on all the ways I wasn’t like my sister, I asked her, “Do you remember Michael Drake? From high school?”
“Uhh . . . I guess. Baseball team right? I’m pretty sure we went to a dance together.”
“You did. My prom. When he came up to me after chem class I thought he was going to ask me, did I ever tell you that?”
“Stop it! You did not!” I had her attention now.
“I did—we’d been chem partners and I’d helped him with his labs a few times. We got along and when he came up to me after class looking all nervous, I thought he might ask me to be his date to prom.”
Honey just looked at me, her eyebrows moving up, making her look a little uncomfortable. “Anyway,” I continued, “I was wrong. He was really nervous but it was just because he was afraid to ask me for your number so he could take you to the dance.”
I looked away, not sure why I’d just told her that story. I wasn’t jealous of Honey. Not all the time at least. But there were times when softness and femininity came so easily to her—it was just who she was.
Everything, including her name, exuded sexiness—blond hair, long thin limbs, bright blue eyes . . . she was always put together, but that was just Honey. I, on the other hand, had always felt out of place with my not-really-blond but not-really brown hair, muddled green-gray eyes, and a body that was strong from years of hiking. I was fit but didn’t have any of Honey’s softness. The only thing we seemed to have in common was the inheritance of grandma Nana’s boobs. They were literally the only thing that felt feminine about me and they were mostly in the way.
“Well, now I feel like an asshole,” Honey said as she wrapped her arms around my shoulders and leaned her head against mine.
“You’re not an asshole. Besides, who cares about Michael Drake? He kind of smelled like baby powder anyway.”
That got her. She burst out laughing, “Oh my god, you’re right! I’d totally forgotten about that. Maybe he had sweaty balls . . .”
Scrunching my face, I said, “Ew! Now I can never think about Michael Drake without thinking about his nasty, sweaty balls.” Shaking my head, “So gross . . .”
I looked at Honey through the mirror and squeezed her arms again. She could be my polar opposite, but she was my sister and it never mattered to her how different we were. She never asked me to change, or when I was going finally settle into a routine, move off the couch in her apartment into my own place, have a family, a life. Thinking about all that made me frown.
With a breath, I decided it was too nice of a day to think about the things I wanted but didn’t have, so I brought my attention back to the Big Dress Decision.
“Jesus, do you want Travis to stop treating you like one of the guys or not? Weren’t you saying he wasn’t very adventurous? With that dress,” she pointed at the green dress again, “you’ll be lucky if he doesn’t haul you off into a closet and fuck you right in the middle of dinner.” Honey looked at me and all I could do was grin. The green dress, definitely.
I whipped the brown bag dress off my body, “You’re totally right. A sexy party dress is perfect. I feel really good in it and want him to be excited to have me with him. I think this can do it . . . and I definitely wouldn’t mind a little closet sex.”
“WOO! Get it girl!” We both dissolved into a fit of giggles.
I put back on my jeans and sweater (and fine, boots), so we could finish our girls’ day together.
“Alright, next up, midday margaritas!” Laughing and tossing my newly purchased man-grabbing dress (and the sky-high black stiletto heels Honey insisted I buy to go along with it) over my shoulder, I looped my arm through Honey’s and we set off for an afternoon of tacos and tequila.
* * *
What the hell am I thinking?
In the last week since shopping with Honey, I’d tried on the party dress every day, and every day I became more and more unsure of my choice. Looking at myself with the curve-hugging green dress and heels felt good, really good but . . . I was uneasy. Like an imposter. The nerves building in my stomach fluttered and I put a hand to my belly to calm them.
This soft, feminine side of me wasn’t something I was used to letting peek through for people to see. As the only female fishing guide in the county, I was known for my no-nonsense, shoot-it-straight approach with people. Only a handful that I let in saw the other sides of me. This tits-out, show stopper, while definitely a more fun part of me, was a part I’d had to shove down and hide, keeping it only to myself, in order to have even a small chance of being respected out in the field.
“What do you think, Bud? Can I pull this off?” My red heeler, Bud, cocked his head and looked at me, and his tongue lolled out of his head into a goofy grin.
“You’re right, it’s great, we’re fine,” I smiled, rubbing his fur between the ears.
Glancing at the clock, I realized Travis was already nine minutes late . . . no text either. A cold prickle ran up my arms and I rubbed them, chasing away the thought, This isn’t like him.
A sharp rap at the door to the apartment had Bud jumping to attention and snapped me out of my nerves. I crossed the living room and opened the door.
Travis stood, looking down, as I moved aside, inviting him in. He stepped in without even looking at me. “Hey!” I said, arms open, ready for our typical greeting hug.
Travis leaned forward, gave me a quick peck on the cheek and a side hug. Bud stood alert at my side and eyed him with a low, throaty growl.
What the fuck?
“Bud, enough.” My dog looked at me and sighed as he curled back up in his bed by the couch.
Travis ran a hand through his neatly styled blond hair and breathed out. He was dressed in a simple but excellently tailored black suit, light blue shirt, black tie. The thought that he looked exactly like the accountant he was flipped through my mind. Simple, safe.
“Um, everything all good?” I asked, trying not to feel hurt that he still hadn’t noticed my outfit.
“Yeah . . .” He looked up, surprise taking over the stressed expression on his face. “Wow.”
Giddy over the small approval, I gave a little twirl to show off the dress, but it was short lived. His shoulders hung and his head was down, but his eyes shot over to me as he simply said, “Nice.”
I could feel my good mood slowly deflating. “What’s up? You seem . . .off. Are you sure everything’s ok?”
Rubbing the back of his neck he finally looked at me. “Yeah . . . Jo, I think we need to talk. Can we sit down?” As he sighed, I smelled a hint of booze. Probably vodka—he wasn’t usually a big drinker and vodka martinis or cranberry vodkas were the only hard liquor I’d ever seen him drink.
Panic crept up my spine. Talk? We need to talk? Is there a worse phrase in the history of the world? Nothing ever good comes from “we need to talk” especially if the someone you have to talk to has also been drinking.
I stared at Travis blankly. He stood in front of me, his lean arms at his sides.
In the six months that we’d been dating, I was surprised that things hadn’t really gotten any more serious. Sure, our relationship wasn’t exactly exciting, but he was kind, sort of funny, and we’d gotten along just fine.
Just fine. That was the problem. Honey would have DIED if I told her that’s how I was describing my current relationship.
She felt like any relationship, especially someone who’s seeing you naked, shouldn’t be anything less than live-wire electric. Sure, a fun and spontaneous relationship was something I would love in my life, but that hadn’t been my experience. I’m not the girl a guy thinks of when he wants to spend an afternoon with his face between someone’s legs. Certainly not Travis. He’d never even tried to go down on me.
Our relationship included rounds of planned Thursday or Saturday night sex, if I happened to be in town. Even then, that meant some small kisses, him on top for a few minutes, finishing, and rolling off before he gave a second thought to whether or not I was close to enjoying it too. I liked sex, I really did, and I hated to admit that even though I was dating Travis, my vibrator was getting just as much use as before we met. With him, it never was the mind-blowing, multiple orgasm sex that Honey claimed was every woman’s god-given right.
“Alright, then let’s talk,” I said, crossing my arms and lifting my chin. I could feel my walls going up and I needed to cover myself in this ridiculous dress. I felt my right eyebrow tip up, my unintentional Resting Bitch Face on full display.
“I just think that maybe we’re better off as friends.”
“Friends? We are friends. I don’t think I understand,” I offered.
“JoJo, we are. But I think that’s maybe ALL we are, you know?” He offered a sheepish smile, looking down at me like I was his little sister, and he hadn’t seen my tits the night before last.
It slowly occurred to me that he was more uncomfortable than normal standing in my living room. I didn’t think I’d ever seen him entirely self-assured, but the nervous energy rolling off him was filling my apartment. He was hiding something. I should have been sympathetic, but all I could feel was anger.
“Are you kidding me right now? I wouldn’t say we’re JUST friends . . . We had sex twice this week! This is just occurring to you now? What about the party tonight?” The words tumbled out of me as I word vomited all over him.
“Well, yeah. I have to get to the event, but I think it’s best if I go alone tonight. You understand.” He wasn’t asking, just a simple statement of fact. Well, fuck that.
“Help me out here Travis. What changed? This seems really out of the blue for me.” He looked around and started rattling his car keys between two fingers. Instead of rambling more, I pinned him with my gaze, unwilling to let him leave me hanging.
“Fine. I met someone . . .” He breathed out a breath I didn’t realize he’d been holding. A weight seemed to lift from his hunched shoulders as he straightened. “Her name is Heather. We met at the coffee shop on Park and Main and we’re in love.”
No words. A thousand questions ran through my head, but no words came out. I opened my mouth to speak but he cut me off. “Besides, you don’t really have time for me. You’re always gone looking for new places to take people hunting or fishing. I don’t understand your need to be gone all of the time. You spend all of your free time dreaming of a business that’s never going to happen.”
That was it. Gloves off, I was done. Uncontrolled annoyance radiated through me and I ground my teeth together. This asshole was breaking up with me, telling me he’s been seeing “Heather” long enough to fall in love, and then had the balls to act like me wanting a fulfilling life was the reason we couldn’t be together? Well, fuck that.
“You mean my career?! Yes, I’m busy, but you knew that when we met. I have to work twice as hard as any man in this business to get half the respect. Do you know how hard it is to get someone to sign up and pay for a woman to guide them? Plus, I invite you to come with me ALL the time. I’m sorry that you didn’t want to go with me, but—”
He held up his hand, cutting me off, making my eyes flare with fury.
Bud immediately tensed at our loud voices. His hackles raised as he stalked forward, putting himself between Travis and me. I put my hand down to calm him.
That’s right pal, fuck this guy.
“Look, you’re a nice girl, beautiful and driven, and I thought we had enough in common to make this work, but the truth is, we’re twenty-six already and I just need someone more . . . girly. You know what I mean,” gesturing toward me.
Out of steam, I sighed, rubbed my eyes, “Yeah, sure.”
I choked back tears because I knew exactly what he meant. Travis had always been looking for me to be more soft, feminine, polished. A woman who “lunches” with other women, who he could bring to all of his corporate events and show off on his arm. A woman who didn’t prefer to sleep in a tent rather than her sister’s apartment. My ears burned with embarrassment, but I’d heard it all before.
JoJo you’re such a tomboy. Jo, you’re one of the guys. It’s so cool—you’re like a dude with great tits!
Clearing my throat, I just looked at him. I refused to cry in front of him. If he didn’t think I was feminine enough, I damn sure wasn’t going to prove him wrong by crying all over him.
He reached out, placed his hand softly on my shoulder, “I’m sorry JoJo. I mean it—we can be friends. But we’re almost thirty, I need a woman I can see myself marrying.” And with that he turned, as I stared at his shiny black shoes, and left my apartment with a soft click of the door’s latch.
I stood like an idiot in the middle of my own living room for longer than I’m proud of. Bud sat at my feet, looking up at me with those sweet, brown eyes of his. I tried to get a handle on what the fuck just happened. Travis dumped me. Travis, who Honey said was “blander than a banana,” dumped me.
I didn’t love Travis, not even close, but it still cut deeply to feel rejected. I wasn’t woman enough for him. He had found someone else that could be. I wasn’t someone you brought home to meet your mom. I wasn’t marriage material. I was just one of the guys. Again.
Gathering my resolve, I slipped off my black heels and threw them across the living room with a raw yell. They smacked the back wall, rattling a frame from the shelf, sending it crashing to the floor. I let the tears fall in the quiet safety of the apartment as I tore at my green dress. It felt like every hidden part of myself that I was trying to share but couldn’t. The moment I opened myself up and let someone in, my femininity was thrown back in my face. The soft silk against my skin was more than I could stand. Balling the remains of the torn dress, I tossed it away.
Was Travis right about me?
Grabbing my phone, I considered texting Honey and catching her up on the drama that was my life, but just didn’t have the energy. Besides, she was probably working late at her PR firm. We could be angry together over her amazing pancakes in the morning.
I fiddled with the phone, I didn’t want to sulk alone, but calling my mother also seemed like a bad idea. Against my better judgement, I tapped her name and my fingernail toyed with the skin on my thumb.
“Hi, who is this?” Seriously?
“Mom, It’s Jo. Do you have a minute?” I sniffed and she didn’t seem to notice.
“I suppose, dear. Daddy and I are about to leave for book club.” It wasn’t surprising that Friday night book club took precedence over a phone call from me.
I cleared my throat, trying to clear the lump that had formed there. “I’m just having a bad day. Travis broke up with me.”
The phone was quiet for a moment and then she started with a hmm. “That’s a shame, JoJo. He was a catch. Did you do something to upset him?”
“He met someone else.” The words burned in my throat as I fought back tears of embarrassment.
“Well, hun, to be honest, I’m not sure you two were a great match. Travis was looking to settle down and you’re always bopping around from place to place. You spend all of your time with other men in the middle of the woods. I’m actually surprised he didn’t have an issue with it earlier.”
I was stunned into silence. The only sound that escaped me was a small croak. I knew what she meant—and that made the burn in my chest so much worse. I was on the back half of my twenties and spent a lot of time traveling the state, sometimes even further west, taking groups hiking and fishing on public lands most weeks in the year.
“Wow,” I said, anger and disbelief bubbling up to the surface. But why should I make the effort to change when it seems everyone has already made up their minds about me? “I am not spending time with other men. You know that guiding is my job, Mother.”
The work it took to build trust with the farmers, landowners, and other outfitters was hard. I just couldn’t imagine giving up my dream of finding a great piece of property and transforming it into a full-service resort that helped people connect with nature. I’d take them to the best spots, feed them amazing food, teach them about the land, the animals—help them see the beauty in all of it. But that dream left very little time for things like romance, weddings, and babies.
“I’m sorry, dear, I guess I just don’t understand why you feel the need to traipse around the state—”
“You know that in order to get on Forest Service land I would have to buy out another outfitter or be given the land!” Yelling at my mother was rare, but I was steaming. “I have been saving every penny. You know this is my dream and if that means that I have to scour public lands for spots that aren’t already overrun or overfished, then so be it!”
“Joanna!” My mother’s voice was laced with indignation. “Young lady, you will not raise your voice at me. You chose this life for yourself. Daddy and I wanted you to go to MSU but you wasted your time at a community college in Chikalu Falls.”
In my anger, I burned a path across my living room floor. Pacing, my eye landed on the fallen frame. An ache formed behind my eyes and I pinched my nose to keep from crying. Losing steam, I slid down to sit against the wall, I sighed as Bud nestled his head on my lap.
“I know, Mother. But me being a teacher was your dream, not mine.”
In the cracked frame, Pop’s thick arm was around a nine-year-year old me as I held up a fishing pole and my first “big bass.” I couldn’t help but laugh through my tears as I touched Pop’s proud grin.
“I miss Pop,” my voice thickened in my throat.
Pop had been gone since my freshman year of college and his absence stung every single day. He was my rock. Visits to Pop and Gram in Chikalu Falls were the happiest moments of my childhood.
“I know you do, sweetheart. You two were bonded. He understood you in ways I never will.”
It was a sad truth that stung to hear aloud. I suddenly wanted nothing more than to get off the phone with her. I was looking for comfort that she couldn’t give.
“I’ll let you go, Mom. I’m sorry I called and upset you. I’ll be fine.”
“Ok dear. Let’s talk soon.”
The phone disconnected and I sat in silence.
Pop was the only person who never treated me like I was just a girl—like I couldn’t do everything the boys in town could. He taught me to fish, hike, trap, hunt. I’d shot my first rifle with him when I was eight. It took me six shots before I even hit the old pumpkin, but he wouldn’t let me give up.
When Honey and I would visit, she would peel off with Gram, learning to sew and bake and garden, and my lessons were shockingly similar. Pop showed me how to patch a tent, different ways to cook the fish we’d caught along the river, and which plants were safe to eat. He never once made me feel like I was lesser, just because I was a girl.
I traced a fingertip over the fading photo and felt the void his absence created.
In high school, I’d spend entire summers with him and Gram in their rural home near the base of the Kootenai National Forest. Their land stretched across ninety acres with access to streams for fishing, mountains for hiking, and valleys for glassing animals from across the ridge. I grew comfortable in my own skin in the silence that stretched between us—he’d encouraged me to sit and just listen. I could lay my head against his shoulder and breathe in the mountain air. I never had to be anyone other than myself in those moments.
After deciding on the community college, I took my car to visit Pop and when he’d heard the news, he patted my leg and simply said, “Good girl. You can do this. You can do anything you set that mind to. Don’t ever let anyone tell you, even your parents, that your dreams aren’t good enough. You’re special, little one.”
Thinking back on the man that shaped so much of my life, I gently placed the cracked frame back on the shelf. I was not a wallower. I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself.
With a deep breath, I gathered my messy emotions and stuffed them back down a little. I might not be someone’s arm candy tonight, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to sit alone in my apartment in my underwear and cry about it.
I resigned myself to Netflix, grabbed a bottle of the expensive Syrah that Honey always bought, and curled up on the couch. I tossed a dirty look to the rumpled heap of green silk. With a pat, Bud hopped up, plopping his stocky body right next to mine with a deep, hearty sigh.
“I hear ya,” I said to him, smoothing his fur back behind his ears. More disappointed than sad, I tried not to think about whether any man would ever see me as more than just one of the guys.
“So let me get this straight, you broke up with the bland banana? That’s fantastic news!” Honey’s excitement radiated through her as she flipped a pancake. It smelled sweet, with a hint of vanilla, and my mouth watered. As she stirred the fresh blueberry topping, I dipped my finger in for a taste.
“First of all, Travis broke up with me . . .” I licked the tart blueberries off my finger.
“Irrelevant. You were never going to end up with him anyway,” she breathed. She brushed the thought away with the flick of her hand.
For Honey, it was just that easy—turn the page, relationship over, you’re dead to me. She poured another circle of batter onto the griddle. Honey worked at a successful PR firm in Butte and we shared an apartment downtown. It started off as her apartment and in between guide jobs I would crash at her place, most times I slept on the couch. But after nearly a year of that, she said she couldn’t stand the thought of a “homeless sister” and claimed the apartment as ours.
I paid rent and we split the bills, but the truth was that I didn’t spend most nights there, but rather camping along rivers and in small town hotels, scouting new locations. One of the biggest perks of living with Honey, however, was that she was an amazing baker.
Whenever I was home and she wasn’t rushing off to work, she’d make the most amazing baked treats—scones, cinnamon buns, pancakes, crullers—all from scratch. When I’d asked her once why she never followed her dream to open a shop, she’d dismissed it with, “I gotta make bread, not just bread, ya know?”
I laughed, because she was sort of right. If she was going to support her expensive lifestyle, the fancy job at the PR firm definitely made more money than a baker probably would.
“Well, you can always cook for me. These are amazing,” I said.
“I know,” she winked. I swear, that girl never ran out of confidence. “So tell me,” she continued, “Did you give that dipshit a piece of your mind? God, I’m so pissed I didn’t get to see that!”
I snuck another lick of blueberries and replied, “Well, I didn’t let him walk away without an explanation. But I don’t know, it is what it is . . . maybe he’s got a point.”
Honey looked at me with a stare only a sister can do. Part of me hated that she knew everything about me, so she knew this was total bullshit.
“Do you think he’s right, though?” I asked, unable to look at her, “Is it time for me to change and give up the guide stuff? Find something different?”
“Don’t even,” she pointed her spatula at me. “I’ve had to hear about your dream resort since we were kids. You’re not giving that shit up. If he can’t get with the program, then fuck him. He’s a cheating asshole. I swear if I ever see him downtown, I’ll tear his balls off.” The sparkling gleam in her eye was slightly terrifying. Honey always seemed ready to raise hell in the name of loyalty.
Smiling sweetly, her intensity flipped off instantly, “Pancakes?” and we both grinned.
Later that day Honey invited me shopping with some of her friends but I was still tending to my sour mood. Instead, I drove to the edge of the county to check out a piece of public land that offered access to a bend in the river.
I couldn’t shake my crabbiness and seeing the crowd didn’t help matters. Right now, all I wanted was a little quiet. I hiked deeper into the trail, trying to find some space from the six or so anglers I’d passed on my way in. Most of them knew me, and we offered a nod in greeting, but some were newer faces. Not a girl among them, and at that I smiled a little to myself. I may be different, but Honey was right, I was never one to back down and a little thing like a breakup wasn’t going to be enough to shake me.
My mood lifted as I got into the easy rhythm of casting, walking, and feeling the early summer sunshine on my face. Hours passed and it wasn’t until I heard the familiar ding of my phone, that I looked around to see the sun starting to dip below the tree line. I glanced down, surprised I still had service.
A wide smile took over my face when I saw that one of my favorite people, Finn Scott, had texted me.
Finn: Joanna Banana!! How was the hot date??
Me: Change of plans. You can be my hot date.
Finn: Sorry gorgeous, you’re not my type.
Finn: I kid, I kid! Lincoln and I are at The Pidge if you want us to save you a seat—the band’s supposed to be good tonight.
A sharp pang splintered my chest at the mention of Finn’s brother, Lincoln—desire mixed with a hint of sadness.
Me: I’m ass deep in the Wise River right now. Fish are biting. Raincheck?
Finn: For you, always. And hey—save some fish for the rest of the poor sacks of shit out there.
Finn: Atta girl. Also, call me tomorrow. Linc and I need your help filling in for a guide this week. I’ll shoot you the details. Pretty please?
Me: Kinda busy this season but send me the details and I’ll let you know.
Frowning at my phone, I felt the tug of guilt at my lie. I loved Finn from the moment we met in college—he was hilarious, a great guy, and one of my best friends. I hated lying to him that I was busy but until I knew the details of what he was asking, I couldn’t just say yes.
For the past three years, I’d successfully avoided his brother, Lincoln.
Looking around The Dirty Pidgeon, I was still surprised to see that our friend Colin McCoy had turned a rundown townie bar into a legitimate dance hall in the three years he’d owned it. It still had the small-town, local bar feel but he’d expanded it out the back to include a stage and dance floor. Based on the crowd, it was still pretty popular in town.
After coming home, I’d learned that Wednesday night was Ladies’ Night where people could come early and learn how to line dance and two-step, which also meant all the college guys were out in droves, hoping to get laid. Almost everyone that night was the dancing crowd. I’d decided Wednesday nights at The Pidge were not my thing. If it were up to me, I’d be sitting in my cabin, nursing a scotch, alone.
For a Friday night, there was a healthy mix of college students and locals—all of whom seemed to get along and enjoy the local bands. I couldn't help but scan the exits. Old habits die hard, and I felt better knowing I had at least five options for getting out if I needed to. The thrum of the guitars and laughter of a few drunks at the bar suddenly made my skin feel tight. My ears pricked and the roof of my mouth felt like sandpaper. Someone dropped a beer bottle and with a low “BOOOOO!” from the crowd. I watched in slow motion as it rolled back, the scrape of the glass against the floor intensified in my ears until it hit my stool.
“Dude, you alright?”
Finn’s hand on my shoulder and look of concern made me realize I’d jumped out of my seat, wild-eyed and ready to fight. My heart was pumping, ears ringing, and I felt like everyone was looking at me. Finn squeezed my shoulder and I listened to my ragged breathing vibrate through my ears.
“Hey,” he said, “relax man. Someone just dropped a bottle.”
“Yeah . . .” I exhaled, but the tension stayed lodged in my chest and back. This was why I preferred to stay at home, I couldn’t last five minutes without acting like a psycho.
Hearing the bottle and seeing me leap to my feet, Colin left the band he was talking with to head over to us.
“Finn. Linc. Any trouble?”
Colin and I were the same age, friends from high school, and we’d always been close. His no-bullshit attitude was one of my favorite things about him. On and off the football field he was always ready to throw down at the first sign of trouble. He was a solid dude with a lopsided grin he’d had since he was sixteen.
“‘Course not, man. We are all goooood.” Finn drawled it out and downed a shot of whiskey lined up on the small high-top table.
Colin turned to me and grinned, “Glad you made it out. Tonight’s a great band, some pretty girls in here . . .”
At that, Finn draped his arm around my neck and winked at Colin, “Oooooohhhhweeee, boys. Maybe Lincoln will get a pretty little thing to dance with tonight.”
I shrugged his arm off my back.
I took a drag of my beer and looked around. I may have kept to myself but coming into town when I needed a quick fuck was the simplest part of my week. In this town there was no shortage of women who didn’t need to know the details, just that you were a Marine, and they were ready to jump in the back of your truck. I preferred it that way. No strings, no bullshit. Fuck, sometimes they didn’t even ask me what my name was.
Could she be here? Would I even know it if I saw her?
My hand dropped to my pocket. I still couldn’t get out of the habit of carrying her letter with me on the hard days. I was fully aware that made me creepy as fuck, but I didn’t care.
When I moved back to Chikalu after the service, I’d looked for her. I asked around if anyone knew a Joanna. There were a couple of Jos, a Josephine, a JoBeth, but no Joanna. A last name would be helpful. But for all my asking around the college, library searches, and late-night Google searches, nothing.
She was a ghost.
Colin added, “Well, it’s Friday night so I’m sure you two’ll have your pick. We’re really tight with IDs so everyone’s over twenty-one,” he winked.
I noticed his eyes squinted fractionally at Finn who’d suddenly looked away uncomfortably. Finn was looking over at the main bar, at no one in particular, completely ignoring Colin’s comment.
When I turned my shoulders to face Finn, he shifted back to the conversation and smiled. The kid's dimples made him a charmer with the ladies, I was sure of it, and the gleam in his eyes was either mischief or a little too much booze. Probably both.
“Well, I gotta get back to it. If you’re around later, let’s have another. Deck should be coming by after his shift.”
In addition to Finn and Colin, Cole Decker was my closest friend. As much as I tried to avoid other people, our monthly poker games helped to keep me from drowning in my thoughts or living too long in my darkest places.
Colin drained his beer and landed a loud smack on the table, “Good to see you out, Linc. Drinks are on me tonight.” He pointed at us as he walked back behind the bar.
A song later, a pretty blond waitress dropped off another two beers and looked at Finn and me. She held my gaze just long enough to let me know that she liked what she saw.
“Hey there, I’m Marissa. I’m taking over for Kris, so I’ll be serving you the rest of tonight.”
She licked her shiny pink lips and smiled back and forth between the two of us. I’d been on leave in enough places to know the international signals for “I’m down to fuck,” and she was putting off some major DTF vibes. Finn’s face was in his phone so he was completely fucking oblivious to what was happening right now.
“Colin said drinks are on the house and to take care of you boys, so if there’s anything,” she paused, leaning her elbows on the table, tits on full display, “anything at all you need, just holler.”
I looked at what she was offering, not caring that I was staring. She giggled, turned, and did that strange girl finger-wave over her shoulder. She must’ve thought it was cute and it probably worked for her most nights, but I couldn’t get myself interested tonight. When you spend eight years in the Marines you learn pretty quickly that sex, let alone a good fuck, is few and far between. Some of the guys on leave took whatever they could get, but that was never my style. Unless you’re up for the worst STD test on the planet—a bore punch, which trust me, you are not—you were better off keeping your dick in your pants. There wasn’t an itch I had to scratch tonight so I was going to have to disappoint this one.
Still in his phone, Finn clearly wasn’t helping me out here, so I just called to her, “Thanks, we’ll let you know,” and turned my attention back to the band, which was midway through a song about Voodoo lady down in Louisiana. I scanned the crowd again, letting my thoughts drift back to Joanna.
What does she look like?
What if she’s married?
Fuck, what if she’s really Nana’s age?
I’d had to imagine all sorts of details about Joanna’s life. While her letters included some things, a lot of it was a mystery and I’d had to fill in the gaps with my own imagination. I knew that she worked hard in college when she’d gone. She’d taken all sorts of classes from Medieval Lit to Agriculture.
She liked poetry and music. I knew that she loved being outdoors, she’d mentioned it in some way in every letter. She talked about her family, but never by name, and I got the feeling that they weren’t really close. She was closest with her grandpa, but he’d died a year into her letters. That was a strange one, feeling deep sadness for someone you’d never actually met.
I kept every letter in my footlocker and read most of them until the edges were crinkled and torn. At night I’d lay awake, staring at the green ceiling of our tents and think about meeting her. I wanted her to know that her letters kept me sane. Connected me to the outside world and helped keep me from losing myself when I was faced with what needed to be done.
Nights were also when I could imagine what life could be like after we met. I’d fantasize about her lips on my skin, dragging her tongue lower down my body as she grabbed my cock. I could never clearly see her, but in the lonely nights, I tried to feel her against my skin. A few times on leave, random hookups became poor substitutes for Joanna but they left me feeling shittier than I had before, so I’d given up trying. Thinking about the fact that I could finally meet her in my very hometown had my blood pumping hard through my veins. I could feel my cock twitch and had to shift uncomfortably so I didn’t end up with a raging boner in the middle of the bar.
The worst of it was that I’d never written her back. I’d wanted to—I'd even written a few drafts to send to the Women's Club in hopes she'd get them, but I never sent a single one. I didn’t want her to freak out and stop writing. Didn’t want her to know how fucked up I was or that I didn’t deserve her kindness. When the letters kept coming despite my lack of reply, I’d let it go and told myself that if I ever made it home, I’d find her and tell her how much her letters had meant to me.
I gave the side-eye to Finn as he smiled into his phone. “Your latest conquest?” I teased.
“Uh, not exactly,” he smirked. “Jo may be able to help us with the guide next week.”
I hadn’t met Jo but I knew she was a pretty big part of Finn’s life. I’d asked him about her once, given her name, but he said she was from Butte. Not my Joanna. They had worked together and spent a lot of time outside of the guide service with each other. Based on how much he went on about her, I was pretty sure the poor guy had been holding a torch for this chick.
It was surprising he wasn’t able to close the deal with this girl. Finn was a good-looking guy—tall and fit, plus he was always making someone laugh. The thought that he didn’t have his pick of women in this small college town was mind blowing to me. Maybe this girl was bat-shit crazy.
“So what’s the deal with you two?” I asked, curious to know why he wasn’t going for her.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, are you just friends or what?”
Finn eyed me suspiciously but went on. “Jo’s amazing. No asshole in this town will ever be good enough for her. She’s tough as nails too.”
Yeah, he definitely had it bad.
“And you fish with her? She working with another outfitter or something?” I asked.
“No, Linc. Jo’s a solo guide.” His voice full of reverence. “In fact, she’s the only female fishing guide in the whole fucking county, how do you not know this? This girl knows her shit—when the fish are biting, what bait to use, where they’ll be based on the weather. You’d think that she’d have every asshole in town lining up to camp with her, because she’s also hot as fuck.”
He shook his head in disbelief and downed another gulp of beer.
“Ok . . .so what’s the deal?” I couldn’t see what the problem was here.
“This county is old-school, you know that. None of the good-ol’ boys want to admit that they’ve got a woman showing them the ropes, let alone one who’ll outfish them.”
“Mmm,” I grunted. That sounded about right for around here. While we’d grown up with plenty of strong women who could handle their own, including Mom, it wasn’t really typical for them to go hunt and fish alone. Our small town had certainly never been progressive. But when it came to our business, I trusted Finn’s instincts, if he said Jo was the best, then she was the best, and we needed the help.
“Alright, set up the meeting and we can work out the details,” I said. Still feeling pissy, I drained my beer and walked out to my truck without saying goodbye.
Over a week later, Finn had finally set up a meeting with his contact, Jo. I wasn’t sure what took her so long. Normally I’d fully vet any guest guides we took on our trips, but we were short staffed this season and I was getting desperate. When he said we’d meet back at The Pidge for a few drinks, I wasn’t thrilled.
All week I’d been nagged by a bad feeling. Fuck if I knew what it meant, but if the nightmares kept up, I’d go fucking crazy. They still dogged me at least once a week, but this week it was relentless. Every fucking night I woke up, dripping with sweat and panicked. Only bits and pieces would come back to me. Usually I was chasing someone, or they were chasing me, and I was always in my combat gear.
In one dream last week, I’d been running, my boots feeling like lead. Finally, I’d caught up to them and when I grabbed whoever I was chasing—when I caught the person’s arm, they turned, and I realized I’d been chasing a woman. A beautiful woman with dark blond hair and the most intense green-gray eyes I’d ever seen. Her hair tumbled around her shoulders as the wind whipped past us. I tried to reach for her again, when she brought a finger to her mouth. Shhh. She smiled as massive wings unfolded from her back. In an instant, she was gone.
I was losing my goddamned mind.
After my third beer and ready to get the fuck home, I looked back at Finn in time to see his head lift and his eyes light up. I turned to follow his gaze to a woman who walked through the heavy wood door. The warm summer air swept in with her, cutting through the cologne and sweat of the dance floor. Her hair billowed slightly, and a coal burned in my chest.
She started toward us, her dark blond hair swirling around her shoulders and a heat started to spread through me, not exactly panic, but something close. I looked around—could anyone else see her? Was I losing my shit?
I turned to Finn, “Who is that?”
He looked at me like I was an idiot. “It’s her. Jo. I asked her to meet us here.”
“Where’d you meet her again?” I asked, not believing my eyes.
“Dude, are you ok? We met in college. She lived in Chikalu for like, six years.”
With a buzzing in my ears, I let my gaze wander down to see she wore a simple fitted T-shirt but it did nothing to hide a pair of knockout tits. As Finn stood up, my mouth went dry and my dick immediately paid attention. I could appreciate beautiful women of all shapes and sizes, but there was something so understated about the way she dressed in nothing more than a black shirt and tight jeans with a tear in the knee.
She moved through the people milling at the end of the bar. Silently, she slipped through the crowd, occasionally stopping to shake hands with some of the men at the bar, giving a smile and a nod to a couple at another table.
As she approached our table, I was hit with the full force of her smile. I stood—Mom would have been proud I remembered my manners.
I had never seen a woman so naturally gorgeous in all of my life. I felt a hot pull straight in my groin and had to adjust my hips to hide my growing attraction.
Finn scooped her up and spun in a circle, earning him a quick and genuine laugh. It took actual effort to tear my eyes away from her. Her tight jeans spread across a full, firm ass. Goddamn, she had a nice ass. As if my dick wasn’t on full alert already, I could feel the blood rushing between my legs and I shifted against the stool to hide my obvious arousal.
“My girl Jo! You made it!” Gently setting her down and earning him a hip check, Finn opened his body and turned to me. “Linc, Joanna—Jo, my big brother, Lincoln. I can’t believe you two have never met!” His dimpled grin spread wide across his face.
Holy shit. Jo. Jo . . . no fucking way. Is this Joanna? She lived here for six years —went to college with Finn. Finn’s girlfriend is Joanna?! Fuck. FUCK!
My thoughts shattered in my brain, no hope of forming a cohesive thought. I couldn’t stand the uncomfortable feeling growing in my chest.
“Hey,” I said.
Real fucking smooth. I sat, elbows on the table, and all I could focus on was my beer in front of me and the fact that the woman I hadn’t been able to shake for the last seven years was not only possibly standing right in front of me but clearly the object of my little brother’s major crush.
“Uh . . . ok,” Finn looked at me suspiciously but turned toward Jo. “Alright, honey, let’s get you a drink. Beer?”
Glancing at the table, she grabbed a shot full of dark liquid and slung it back, without answering.
“Uggh. Shit . . . whiskey?” She let out a small cough.
Clapping a hand down on her back, “Hell yeah!” Finn said, pumping both fists in the air.
“Let’s get you a chaser.”
With a head nod, Finn caught the eye of the waitress, Misty? Mandy? And she winked as he held up his beer and three fingers.
“Hi, Lincoln, it’s nice to finally meet you. Finn’s told me a lot about you.”
Her easy smile lit up her eyes and for a moment I was lost in them. Were they green? Gray? It was hard to tell in the dim lighting of the bar but in that moment, I wanted to drown in their familiarity. Instead of responding like a normal human, I just nodded and looked back out over the dancers on the floor. I had to stop thinking about what that tight body would feel like underneath mine. I was being such a tool.
Finn pulled out the stool between us and she slipped onto it, her knee gently grazing my thigh. I couldn’t stop thinking about whether Jo had written the letters and I touched my hand to what remained of the tattered wings tattooed on my forearm. They were barely recognizable, shredded from my injuries, but they were there. The movement of my hand caught her eye, and I took my arm off the table.
Finn kept his hand casually on the back of her chair and they turned their attention to the dance floor. He leaned in close and whispered something in her ear and she laughed, shaking her head. It was bubbly and light against the heavy bass of the music. Irrational jealousy flared in my chest. I didn’t even know this girl and I couldn’t stand the overprotective way I was feeling right now.
Rubbing my damp hands down my thighs, I stood again to stretch my legs and try to get a grip on myself when Finn grabbed Jo by the hand and pulled her toward the crowded dance floor. She pulled back slightly, laughing, but let him lead her out onto the floor and they swayed to a slow, country song. Finn dramatically twirled her and ended with a dip. She laughed again.
Taking a deep pull of my beer, I let my eyes travel down her body and across her curves. I felt the familiar rush of arousal and couldn’t stop myself from appreciating the feminine dip of her waist, the swell of her hips and thighs.
I couldn’t help but wonder how her body would feel against me if I cut into their dance. Wrapped my arms around her waist. Took a deep inhale of her hair, my nose grazing her neck, and letting her scent overtake me. Let my hands glide down over her ass. Or the warmth of her skin under her shirt as my hand moved up her back, pulling her in closer to me. The things I could do to this girl if she were mine.
“Got those beers for ya, handsome.” Interrupting my thoughts, the waitress set the beers at the table with a hard rattle. She followed my eyes to Finn and Jo.
“Well they look cozy,” she smirked. “She’s a lucky woman, that one. Everyone’s been dying to get a piece of Finn but he doesn’t seem to have eyes for any of the women around here . . .”
She walked away, her words filling me with a sickening sense of dread as a cold sweat pricked the base of my neck. Even if she was Joanna, which I still didn’t know for sure, and the sexiest woman I’d ever laid eyes on, I could see she was already Finn’s. I could feel my arousal shift back to the uncomfortable tightness in my chest.
This is wrong. You’re better than this. You couldn’t do that to your brother, Marine. Get that shit on lock.
Throwing cash on the table, I grabbed my jacket from my stool and headed for the door. I might have promised Finn we’d hang out tonight and figure out our work shit, but I was damn sure not going to torture myself.
Instead, I’d go home, take a cold shower, and get some rest. I had no idea that I’d lay awake in the dark for hours, staring at the black ceiling, thinking about the woman in the letters, Jo, if they were one in the same, and wonder if I’d spent the last seven years attached to a woman who was going home tonight with my brother.
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