Authors: Raine Miller
stays the same though, and I did change.
A great deal. It’s impossible for life to stand still and of course, it never will. Change is inevitable in all of us.
The year Neil joined the army was also the
same year everything changed at home for my family. Hell, everything changed all over the world.
My father was on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon
building in Washington D.C. during the attacks. He’d been there for business and on his way to Los Angeles when the plane was hijacked and taken down. One of the sixty odd British nationals to lose their lives on that fateful day. My father was ripped away from us and we would never see him again. I guess that was the moment when I passed out of childhood and left it behind me. The innocence of my prior life was gone. Forever.
Time to grow up.
The horribleness of that year was really clouded for me. There are some things I remember clearly that were insignificant at the time, and other things I should have memories of, but are just…gone.
Like Dad’s funeral for instance. I know we had a service for him, I’ve seen the pictures
in an album, but I don’t remember a thing about it or being there, or who came to pay their respects, or if I even spoke to them. I have nothing but blankness about that day. However I do remember stupid things like what shoes I was wearing when we watched the news on television and saw the pictures of fires and wreckage and crashed plane parts that took my gentle and loving father from me.
My red Chuck’s with black laces.
It’s funny how our subconscious can hold onto some memories and not others. Like the letter that Neil sent to me personally, shortly after it happened. I remember that very well, because I still have it safe in a box with all my other precious mementos.
There aren’t pro
per words to express the depth of my sadness for your unbearable loss. I want to be home in England more than
right now, but it is out of the question for the time being. Your father was the best of men. He loved his wife and children and worked hard for you all so you could have a safe and comfortable life. He was a true man in every sense of the word. This mad world we live in could use a great deal more men like George Morrison in it. He will be greatly missed. I wish so badly that I could be there for you and Ian, and your sweet mum right now. Please know that I am thinking about you and sending my love to you all. You are never far from my thoughts, Cherry. Don’t ever forget it.
er was written hastily on military-issue stationary, which spoke to the hectic pace the army was keeping right after the attacks. Neil was busy fighting a war against terrorism and I was busy trying to grow up, and accept the fact that I had only one parent left in my life. Ian was busy at university and his career in law. Our mum was busy drowning her grief in glasses of gin.
We were all
very, very busy getting on with our lives and doing our jobs. Isolated. Alone.
My dad had done well by us though, and there were settlements from his life insurance, the airlines
, and the US government, so money was not the issue. No, it was more so the void and abruptness that we were forced to accept that he was never coming back to us.
I understood the finality of death then and took my newfound knowledge to heart, closing off a little of myself, in an effort to prevent such terrible hurt from ever happening to me again.
, foolish girl.
My mum has always loved to cook. She still does, and just like that very first night when Neil joined our family for dinner, she embraced him as a son whenever he was on leave from the army, with huge home-cooked dinners. It was a given that he would come to see us, but now when Mum cooked in her kitchen, a hi-ball glass of gin and tonic stood at the ready to see her through. I cannot fault my mother. She was still a good mum and devoted to my brother and me with all her heart, she just wasn’t as “present” or aware of my activities following the tragedy, as she normally would have been.
I had the
open road of freedom dumped in my lap at a time when I needed censure.
As a confused and grieving teenager
, I embraced the opportunity. Hell, I grabbed onto it with everything I had and then some.
By the summer I was seventeen
, I had experienced just about everything you wouldn’t want your teenage daughter doing. Yes, that was me. Parties, alcohol, smoking…boys. I sampled just about everything, and came out of my experience a little older, somewhat wiser, and a lot insecure about myself, and with no idea about what I wanted for my life. Well, I knew one thing I wanted.
I still wanted him.
been right about one thing.
all over me as I matured. I think he would have wished I was more selective in who I allowed to be “all over” me. Actually, I
he wished I were more selective. I noticed the hard looks from him whenever he was home on leave, evaluating my boyfriend of the moment, his dark eyes ever watchful. The fact that he paid any attention to me at all was both wonderful
the bane of my existence. He was taken, you see. Neil had a girlfriend that just wouldn’t let her claws out of him.
He would never look at me
as a woman while she was wrapped around his cock. That was what I believed anyway.
I had run through a slew of guys since he first went off to war, while Neil had stuck with Cora and been her loyal man.
Why, I do not know. I couldn’t stand her and knew she messed around with others blatantly behind his back whenever he was deployed. I often wondered how he couldn’t see right through her. Or if he did see, and didn’t care. I figured his mates had been telling him what she was doing when he wasn’t around. Ian had to know and should be telling him, I reasoned. Was Neil with Cora just for the sex? Ugh. I hated to think about them together, and at the same time I tried to forget about him. Forget that he would never belong to me. Forget that our time could never come. Forget about ever having the man I loved all for myself.
summer after I finished school, was when we crossed over into a new and strange territory together. The “ringing” of our proverbial bell came to pass, as it were. The spark that started a flame, that started a blaze, that started a forest fire, which would leave burns and scorch marks in its wake? This became part of our landscape.
came home on a leave from the army that summer. When I was still eighteen, and he was twenty-five. That was the time when it finally happened for us…
saw Neil in the pub when I went in after classes one evening.
Despite my destructive choices, I’d
somehow managed to escape without too many bumps and bruises along the way. I don’t know how I never got arrested, or pregnant, or worse, but I was very, very grateful for my good fortune. Or mostly, I realized my random luck for the miracle it truly was.
I’d finally gotten my act together enough to figure out what I hoped would be my “calling” in life. It appeared I had been blessed with a knack for languages. And my studies in French and Italian were helping me to figure out what I’d like to do with my skill. I’d applied to go abroad as an
, working my way across Europe, with families who needed care for their young children, while I honed my studies in the local language. First on my list was Italy, then France, and maybe if things worked out, eventually I’d get to work in Spain and Germany too. I desperately wanted away from home and to be on my own. So this was my naïve plan to make that happen.
Neil had been on a leave for nearly three weeks when he showed up at the pub alone one night, looking like a beautiful golden god in his jeans, black T-shirt and black Doc’s. Simply clothed, but perfectly gorgeous in his skin, miles of soldier-hardened muscles filling out the clothes as elegantly as a male model would. Emphasis on the “male.” Neil was all male strength and power, and commanded respect just by how he moved in a room, military service notwithstanding. The size of him didn’t hurt others’ impressions either. He was a large man, tall and muscular where it counted, yet he was noted by all—male and female—both for his physical presence and his strong character. Watching him converse with acquaintances who wanted to catch up and express their admiration for his service in the army, I saw easily how people held him in great esteem and respect. In contrast, his young life had been so very different—so devoid of anything resembling the praise he was receiving from the citizens in the pub—that I was happy for him. It was right and proper that everyone noticed Neil McManus, because he very much deserved it.
The subtle confidence in his manner, the
purposeful movements as he talked to people, the sound of his voice, all made me insane with wanting to be close to him, to put my hands on him. I craved the right to be able to touch him and have it be welcomed. I would have sold my soul to the devil to see him looking at me with something other than big-brother-is-only-here-to-keep-you-from-harm, little girl.
I had been drinking for an hour at least when he pulled up beside me and ordered a beer.
The troubles with my boyfriend of the moment, Denny, had put me in a foul mood. He’d called me earlier, begging me to come down to the pub and meet him so he could “make it up to me.” Whatever that meant, since we were so finished. Yeah, finding Denny shagging some blonde tart in the alley behind the pub, had pretty much put the death knell in our relationship, and I knew I’d never trust him again.
don’t even know what I was thinking by going there to meet him anyway.
Denny was all kinds of trouble and he
’d scratched that itch in me to be a rebel, I suppose. He was a young man with a dad who had a bit of brass. Enough to keep him flush with money and a flashy motorbike, and all things superficial that didn’t really matter at all.
Things that made Denny the polar opposite of Neil
in terms of character.
hung with a cycle gang of sorts that dabbled in the illicit and illegal. I’d simply pretended to be unaware, but I was pretty sure Denny was dealing drugs as a side business of his main one—that of being a spoilt prick. If my father were still alive, I wouldn’t have ever hooked up with Denny, or probably with any guy for that matter.
I’d most likely
still be a virgin. An innocent. A pang of guilt and sadness washed over me at the thought of my dad. I missed him still…so very much, and knew he would be sorely disappointed in me if he could see where I was, and what I had been doing.
If I was honest, Denny’s betrayal didn’t really hurt me as much as I let on with him. I hoped to have a place in Italy by summer’s end, and
if everything worked out, Denny Tompkins would be just another memory from my rebellious past, that could fade away with very little bother to me.
I wanted out of England and to forget about all of the things I couldn’t have
, and all of the things I’d done.
Right now I had
Neil sitting on the barstool just beside me but nowhere close enough for what I desired.
I took a huge gulp from my glass.
“Don’t you think you need to slow it down, Cherry?”
he asked in his quiet way, managing to sound direct even though he spoke softly.
“Why should I? I’m not bothering anybody.” I gave him a thorough look and inhaled, catching a whiff of his manly scent that did more to hasten my drunkenn
ess than the wine I kept pouring down my throat.
“That’s not true.”
“Why, whatever do you mean, Neil?” I stared and watched him for a reaction, my curiosity piqued.
It bothers me seeing you unhappy and getting drunk at the bar. It bothers me a lot.” He narrowed his eyes a little and swept those nearly black beauties back and forth in an effort to read me.
“What makes you think I’m unhappy?”
He swept a hand in front of me. “This is supposed to look like happiness?” He gave his head a shake and took a drink off his beer. “I don’t think so, Cherry.”
“I was waiting for Denny to show up
and apologize,” I confessed, mimicking his hand gesture toward my own body, “but he’s probably off shagging the same twit from last time behind my back. Who am I kidding? These things happen.” I shrugged at Neil, hoping he was getting my veiled reference to his totally unsuitable girlfriend Cora, loud and clear.
“You need to lose that fool.
I don’t like him. Why even let him near you? You’re better than that piece of news, Cherry.”
Don’t call me that anymore.” I pegged him with a hard look. “Why do you allow your piece of news near you?”
“Cora?” He looked surprised
at my question, a slight smile reaching his mouth.
My stomach in knots, I grew reckless with my tongue and let it all out.
“I can’t have the one I want, so I guess I settle for sloppy seconds and get pissed in the pub when even that doesn’t work out.” I let my ugly words sink in for a moment and then delivered the sucker punch. “Your turn,
He stared at me then. His eyes moving slow and
purposeful, like a caress. It was as if he was trying to bring more confessions out of me by force of will. It nearly worked too. His beautiful dark eyes held the power to make it happen when he looked at me like he was right now.
Does he know how I feel about him? Has he always known? How could he not know?
Those soulful eyes
just about managed to pull the dreaded trifecta of emotion from my lips—just, but not quite. I only thought the words in my head.
I love you.
I was drunk and he was right here with me acting as if he really cared.
I love you.
And then, I was left with the unbelievable idea that Neil
know. How could he be that unaware? How could he not know how I felt about him?
I love YOU, you idiot man.
’m guessing he truly didn’t know after all, because he didn’t take my bait.
“Cherry, I know all
about what Cora’s been up—”
, don’t call me that anymore. I hate it now!” I spat angrily, signaling the bartender for a refill. I felt immediately guilty for lashing out at him, but it hurt too much to want him to see me as a woman instead of merely as a little sister who needed protecting.
Neil stood up and waved the bartender off, tossing down some notes to pay. “You’re done her
e. I’m taking you home.”
“Oh, you think so
, do you?” I crossed my arms beneath my breasts and stared him down as best I could. I suddenly felt hot and more than a little dizzy.
His mouth quirked up at the side and then branched out into a cocky grin. “I
I’m taking you out of here, sweetheart.” He took me by the hand and pulled.
“No, Neil!” I dug my feet in and balked against the force of him. It wasn’t easy resisting his size and strength.
I think inappropriate things at terrible times and was suddenly desperate to know what he would feel like on top of me. He was huge and I was on the small side. Would he swallow me up with his big body? I’d be very willing to find out, of that I was certain.
His eyes flared at me
when he turned back to stare. If I wasn’t mistaken, Neil was really looking at me for once. He swallowed hard, making his Adam’s apple slide along his throat. I wished I could put my lips on his throat and keep them there. I was annoyed with him and secretly intrigued by his attentions at the same time.
Hell, he was so damned gorgeous.
“You’re so beautiful when you’re spitting mad,
.” He emphasized his nickname for me with a confident smirk, his eyes owning me. “Beautiful and utterly perfect.”
You’re utterly perfect
I’d heard him say those words about me before. I wondered…was it even possible for him to believe such a thing? No way, right?
“You’re beautiful too, but
you’re an immensely arrogant arsehole right now.”
“Is that so?”
He leaned forward just a bit, putting himself into my space.
I hiccupped and nodded, feeling
dizzier than I had a moment ago, instantly intimidated.
ou’re out in the pub at night pissing drunk.” His jaw ticked. “I’m not leaving you here, Cherry.”
, he said it again, so I just lost it. “And, I told you
to call me that anymore!” I took a step, stumbled on the chair rail, right into his hard chest. He steadied me against him and I resisted the urge to bury my face in his shirt. It was damn hard not to. I really
my nose buried in his shirt so I could memorize his scent.
okay, settle down, girl. I won’t call you Cherry anymore if you hate it so much, but only if you let me take you home. You need your bed.”
He brought a hand up to the back of my
head and stroked down my hair. And he could’ve called me by the name of any fruit in the world right now…apple, grape, kumquat, banana…and I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have even noticed, because he was touching me. Neil had his hands on me.
No, I need
I lifted my eyes to his, my palms were flat on his chest, and I felt his heart thumping under my fingers. He focused on my mouth, and for a moment I got the feeling he was thinking about kissing me. My heart pounded so hard I’m sure my body must be moving from the force of it.
“Who do you want that you cannot have?” he whispered carefully, his eyes searing and dark
, begging me to say. If I wasn’t so stubborn I might have spilled my guts right then and there, telling him every single detail of every nice thing he’d ever done for me growing up, and how I didn’t remember a time when I didn’t love him.
I shook my head at him, feeling tears
beginning to wet my eyes.
I inhaled quick
ly and turned my head away, just in time to see Denny step into the pub and lock eyes on me. “Oh God,” I moaned.
Baby, you came,” he said, rushing over and trying to pull me into his arms. Denny’s relief at seeing me waiting at the bar for him was clearly apparent on his arrogant face.
“No, Denny, don’t.” I
had just put my hand out to keep him off me when Neil stepped up.
t want to talk to you anymore, Tompkins. Leave off her.” Neil glowered down at my ex with a look of such loathing that Denny wasn’t the only one surprised by the open hostility. Neil looked like he could make Denny bleed and would enjoy the hell out of ensuring that there was a big puddle of the stuff once he was done. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Neil was behaving as if he were jealous of Denny.
I had to be incredibly drunk and my thought processes impaired.
Why would Neil act like that over me and some bloke I’d already dumped?
Elaina? Please baby, just listen. That tart meant nothing to me—” Denny ignored Neil’s directive and tried to reach for me again.
I realized then
, that my former boyfriend was as incredibly stupid as I was drunk.
“Obviously your life doesn’t either, you ignorant prick.” Neil blocked Denny’s attempted grab for me
, stopping him cold. “You’re not a very good listener, Tompkins. I told you she doesn’t want to talk to you anymore. Get. Lost.”