Something’s wrong. I can feel it. There’s a sharp pain in my gut like a gunshot wound, and my ability to stay strong and positive is seeping out through the entry point.
It’s 2 AM. I haven’t been able to sleep, eat, or relax for hours. When I opened my journal, the goal was to write out my feelings, hoping to make it all stop. Conjure up an explanation to talk me off the ledge. But here I am…teetering on the edge about to jump.
I can’t stop begging the universe to send me a sign and pull me back to safety. Something that says he’s safe. Something that proves my instincts wrong and rationalizes what I’m experiencing. But nothing’s come, and the bullet continues to grind through my insides.
Visions of him lying in a ditch, bleeding, and helpless in a foreign country have begun to torture me. Doesn’t help that I can feel him. Feel his pain and fear as though we are together. I’d give anything to make that happen. Even if it meant taking a bullet to the stomach again. Anything to hear his voice and the sweet words of affirmation that roll so poetically off his tongue. Anything to see his deep brown eyes and feel his tender touch on my skin.
Why couldn’t we have met before he signed up for another tour? Why hadn’t our paths crossed at a time that would have allowed us to be together longer? Forever is what I want. But who knows when I’ll get him back. IF I’ll get him back.
Please, God, bring him home to me.
Eight Months Earlier
"Bye, Nora!” I yell to my roommate, propping the front door open with my foot while juggling an armload of books. “I’m meeting my new boyfriend at the library!”
Biting the inside of my cheek, I silently start the countdown for her appearance and the questions that will follow. Three, two—
“Wait,” she calls and jogs into the tiny living room as predicted. “What boyfriend? When did you lower the back-off flag long enough to meet someone? And why wasn’t your best friend there with you?”
I lift the books a smidge, giving her a clue.
“Oh. Got it,” she says slowly and stares at me with wide I-forgot-you-were-crazy eyes. “Book boyfriend. So not the same.”
She shakes her head, surely wondering if I will ever snap out of my dating ban. But it was initiated for a reason, and she knows better than anyone why I enforce it with no exceptions.
“Anyway,” she begins, dismissing my comment. “We’re meeting at Malone’s tonight, right?”
“Yes. Seven o’clock. Text Carlie to remind her, will ya? You know she’ll be late if we don’t.”
“Sure. Do you need help?” She takes in the stack of books.
“Nah. It’s just a few books.”
“No. It’s more like a tower of books. What do you need all those for anyway?”
Lifting my leg, I rest the heavy load on my knee to give my arms a break. “I have an Econ project due soon, and I may have grabbed a few romance novels the last time I was there.”
“Whatever. Just don’t drop those boyfriends or you’ll be marrying them.”
With a wink, I back out, letting the door slam shut behind me. Nora isn’t a reader. She doesn’t understand how one book is rarely enough to get me through the week. Excluding mid-term or final weeks, I usually read a book every two days. It’s what keeps me grounded and my thoughts off my recent breakup with Trevor (A.K.A. The Reason I Only Date Fictional Men Now).
Good men, I’ve concluded, are only found in romance novels. Give me a romantic book boyfriend over any in the flesh.
Climbing down the two flights of stairs, I only juggle the book tower twice—first, when Ms. Stanley’s four-legged reason for everything ran between my feet at the turn between floors, and second when all three hundred pounds of Ms. Stanley huffed by in a tizzy on the last step.
Ms. Stanley’s prize chihuahua escapes almost daily, and she’s never less than frazzled over it. Doesn’t matter that he has yet to leave the grassy area between our complex and the next. He gets too distracted by the bushes and mulch along the brick to get into any real trouble. But by Ms. Stanley’s reaction, you’d think he zipped through multiple lanes of a crowded freeway with every getaway.
“Good luck, Ms. Stanley,” I call when she huffs by.
Upon reaching the sidewalk, I start my hike to the public library three blocks away. By block two, I’m wondering why in the world I didn’t borrow Nora’s car. I could have taken my own if it would start. A mechanic or anything remotely resembling a mechanic, I am not. Don’t even know how to check the pressure in my tires or when to change the oil.
I’m a disgrace to independent women everywhere. Especially since I might have to suck up my pride and ask a man to fix it. I could ask the guy who brings his motorcycle helmet into class for help. He looks like he could figure out what’s wrong with it.
Ugh. But he’ll probably want something in return, and that’s the last thing I need. He’s made no effort to hide his interest when I catch him eyeing me from across the classroom.
Walking isn’t so bad. But men are.
This would be a whole lot easier if my puny arm muscles had more endurance. Maybe I’ll add in a round of push-ups during future reading marathons.
Stopping at the next traffic light, I adjust the load to my left hip and shake out my right arm since it now feels like cooked spaghetti. Then, feeling reenergized, I repeat the feat on the other side.
Who needs a car?
When the light changes, I cross the street with a new pep in my step. At this rate, I’ll have time to return the books and peruse the romance section before my shift. But in taking the turn at the bank where I work, I didn’t expect the sun to reflect off the large shiny art structure out front. It blinds me and I don’t see the distracted mound of muscle taking selfies in my path until it is too late.
We crash—my spaghetti arms to his massive chest, which is way too big for his shmedium T-shirt—and all thirteen books fall to the concrete.
I jump back in time to save my toes, but Muscles doesn’t follow my lead. Instead, he fumbles for his precious phone as it tumbles to the ground with the books.
“Oww!” he screeches at a level reminiscent of Ms. Stanley’s tiny dog when someone steps on his tiny paw. “What was that?”
“Books. Ever see one before?” I shouldn’t have been so snarky, but Muscles is staring at me as if this disaster is all my fault. It’s not like he’ll have to pay for the harm done to this crumbled lot.
He lets out a sigh as he crouches and begins tossing said damaged books aside in a frantic search for his phone. When he locates it at the bottom of the pile, he brushes off a few harmless specs of dust before stomping past me, muttering a few choice insults under his breath.
“Right back at you,” I growl, tucking away the incident as another blatant example of why I’m never dating again.
With a huff and a turn of my wrist, I check my watch. This reinforcement exercise has cut a chunk out of my book perusing time, which means I can’t waste another minute with useless sulking. Plopping down to the sidewalk, I get busy reassembling the tower.
Hurried professionals in suits, sweaty joggers, and families of all sizes veer around me—all too busy to be bothered to help. Not that I need it. I can handle this little inconvenience on my own, I silently remind the universe, while examining the fresh scratches on the cover of the spicy rom-com I finished last night. Well, if I’m going to marry this book boyfriend soon, at least he knows how to treat a woman.
“You look like you could use a hand,” someone says, and just my luck…a man.
“I’ve got it.” After placing the last book on top of the stack, I push to my feet. But in straightening, the stack wobbles and lands in the arms of the one good Samaritan in this city.
“Doesn’t seem like it,” he says in an empathetic tone when I finally raise my eyes.
Damn. Why does he have to be good-looking and so…hot? Hotter than any fictional man I’ve ever conjured up in my overactive imagination. His brown eyes are dark, kind, and gazing into mine like I’m the first woman he’s ever seen. It’s intense and renders my self-preservation instincts null and void, as if I had no reason for them in the first place. But it isn’t until the sun peeks through the clouds, highlighting his red shirt, that I recognize the warning signal. Red—as in slam on the mental brakes and stop these ridiculous thoughts of attraction.
“Well,” I begin, snapping out of my trance and reaching for the books. “I carried them two blocks already, so…”
But he ignores my stubbornness and tosses a thumb over his impeccably toned and broad shoulder. “Can you believe that guy?”
“The guy in the cut-off T-shirt that bowled you over.”
“Oh, right. Muscles.” I huff out my frustration, and a chuckle blips out from between his lips. But he didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed by it.
“Yeah, I guess so,” he says almost as a question. “Who wears shirts like that? This isn’t an 80’s workout video.”
“Right?” This guy is adorable. No. No, he isn’t. He’s still a man, and all men are to be avoided.
“So, where are you going with this library?”
I stare up at him and wait.
“Stupid question. Forget I said that.”
He laughs again, hearty and smooth this time, and my stomach flutters. Traitor!
“I’m Will, by the way,” he says and smiles. Not a full toothy smile, but a smug half grin like he was amused by something.
Is there salad in my teeth? Am I drooling at the large, tan bicep bulging under his sleeve from holding my books?
I shake out of the ogling. “What?”
“I said, I’m Will. Will Mason. What’s your name?”
“Oh. Sydney Norman.”
“Nice to meet you, Sydney. Can I carry this library to the library for you?”
“Sure,” my mouth says before my brain has a chance to process a proper response. I look away, shocked that I’m allowing this little meeting to continue. As we set off down the sidewalk together, an inner dialogue of scolding and cursing is in full force.
“Which one was your favorite?” he says, pulling my attention back to him.
“Why? Are you looking for a recommendation?”
He twists his arm to scan the spines. “Not sure we have the same taste in books, but I’m interested in learning more about you.”
“More? That implies that you already know something about me.”
“I do.” He flashes me a proud smile, and my stomach does that traitorous flutter again.
But as we come to my favorite fudge and milkshake shop, basic instinct has my eyes closing to properly take in the intoxicating scents before turning to face him. “All right, enlighten me,” I challenge.
“Well, you obviously like fudge or at least the smell of it.”
“You like to read, and by the size of this pile, a lot. And…” he continues before I can interject, “you like to give people silly nicknames. That tells me you have a sense of humor. Do you have a nickname, Sydney?”
“Nope.” Well, that’s a lie. But since Trevor gave it to me, I’d prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist.
“Did you give me a nickname?” he asks, all smooth and sensual, and I can’t decide if I want to smack that smile off his face or smother him with kisses. Both sound quite satisfying.
“We just met,” I say with a pop of my brow.
“You didn’t know Muscles before, did you?”
“No, but his nickname was obvious.”
I shift my weight to get my legs working, but all they want to do is stand here so my eyes can continue taking in this hunk of—nope. Not doing that.
He touches a long forefinger to his chin and sets his face to serious. “So, tell me. Which book was your favorite?”
Sydney’s looking up at me like I asked about the type of underwear she’s wearing, and all I can think about is the color of her eyes. I’ve never seen that shade of green anywhere outside of the forest in springtime. They’re brilliant, magical, expressive. I’m lost in their bottomless depths until someone steps out of the fudge shop and Sydney moves to let them pass.
“Is it a secret?” I finally ask so she’ll refocus those eyes on me.
Her spontaneous laughter vibrates through the air, rippling over my skin as though she reached out and touched me. If only she had, so I could stop imagining what her soft skin might feel like on mine.
Her eyes take a quick roll. “It’s not a secret.”
“Or a difficult question. So you must be waiting to tell me later.”
“What makes you think there will be a later?”
“You’re still here, letting me carry your books.”
She opens her mouth to say something. Then, her eyes narrow slightly like she’s trying to figure me out. Shouldn’t be hard. I’m an open book (pun intended).
I smile at my unspoken joke, but when she stays silent, I tilt my head to get us moving again toward our destination.
I’m intrigued to see how much longer she can continue disregarding me. It doesn’t happen often—although now that I think about it, it’s never happened—and she’s pricked my competitive side. Doesn’t hurt that she’s easy to look at. Her thick red hair falls in waves down her back and almost shimmers in the sun. She’s petite, but not where it counts and her skin is like milk, smooth and flawless. I’ve never seen skin like hers, and the longer I’m with her, the more my hands itch to reach out. But those eyes of hers. There aren’t words in the dictionary to describe them and what they do to me.
“If you won’t tell me your favorite book from these, I’ll just guess,” I propose, hoping to keep her talking and my hands from misbehaving.
“Sure. But you only get three tries.”
“Who says?” I protest, loving the banter and challenge. Rarely does a woman stimulate me as Sydney does. She’s like a thousand-piece puzzle—fascinating, complicated, colorful.
“Time’s running out. I can see the library from here.”
“Damn.” I bend to review the spines. “A Light From You?”
“Beautiful and sweet historical fiction by Ellison Lane. Great guess, but no cigar. Second guess?”
I peruse the titles again and roll my lips together at the irony. “Oh. I like the sound of this one. Misbehaving?”
“That’s not a book about doing stupid or unlawful things.”
“It’s an economics book and really quite fascinating,” she informs me, ignoring my comment. “But if you want to waste your turn with school-related books, that’s—”
The next book to draw my attention is hot pink, and the title is interesting since it’s probably how Sydney is feeling about me right now. “My Own Best Enemy?” I blurt out.
“Loved it and the author. Wasn’t my favorite of this group. You lose.”
She pokes out her bottom lip and gives me sad puppy eyes with a few dramatic blinks. I don’t care how she looks at me so long as she keeps doing it.
“My favorite is Meant To Be Us,” she finally answers and points to the black cover with bright green lettering.
“It had a little bit of everything—romance, adventure, intrigue, spice.”
“Spice?” I ask, confused.
“Steamy as in…”
“Sex.” She says the word with such ease and a hint of an Irish accent that I almost drop the aforementioned spicy books.
“What’s the matter? Did I make you uncomfortable with the S-word?”
Regaining my composure, I look over my shoulder and find her smirking, challenging me again. And that’s when I notice our walk has slowed to a stroll. Interesting. “Nothing makes me uncomfortable,” I inform her.
“Oh, really? Have a heart of steel? Lava in your veins? Wooden stomach?”
I laugh, which seems to happen a lot around her. “Not exactly. Marine. I’m trained to be unaffected by every situation.” Except when I look into those deep emerald eyes of hers. No amount of training could prevent the chemical reaction that shoots off inside me like fireworks when I do.
“Military, huh? Active?”
“Yes. We’re on leave for a long weekend.”
“Are you based nearby?” she asks.
“Yeah, in Quantico, Virginia. But we’re being deployed again soon.”
“I heard troops were being sent overseas. How much longer do you have in the States?”
“Probably four to six months. But my buddy Jackson, our squad’s sergeant, he’s itching to get back. I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds a way to get us shipped out tomorrow.”
We stop in front of the library. Even at our turtle speed, we still reached our destination quicker than I would have preferred. She looks up at the building behind me. Here it comes—the goodbye—and my gut clenches. What the hell? I don’t get anxious, especially in this type of situation. Usually, the goodbye is my favorite part.