Authors: Sara Arden
“Maybe you don’t need us, but we need you.
need you. Okay?” Emotion hung on the last word, making it come out like a question that needed an answer, and he had only one to give her.
He scrubbed his hand over his face. “I’m not a hero. I never was. When you realize that, you’re not going to need me. You’re not even going to like me.”
“Maybe.” She narrowed her eyes. “So start making it up to me now.”
Christ, but she was like a dog with a bone. He cocked his head to the side. “You never give up, do you?”
“Not when it’s something that’s important to me.”
“Okay, Bets. What do you want?” He’d give her anything if he thought it would erase the guilt, if it would stop twisting up his insides.
“This is about more than dinner.”
“I gathered.” He might have been weak and broken, but he wasn’t stupid.
“That you really give life a chance.”
“This again.” She didn’t know what she was asking of him. Not really. She didn’t know what it was like to wake up from a nightmare and find the scenery hadn’t changed, that she was still trapped. She didn’t know what it was like to be missing a piece of herself, literally and figuratively. She’d always known what she wanted and reached out and taken it.
And of course how could she understand? She’d never had to do the things he had done, witnessed the things he’d seen. Not that he’d want her to. He couldn’t imagine what it would do to her, the way it would change her.
“I agreed to dinner. What else do you want?” He always felt torn around her, as if he were two people. Part of him wanted to break that air of innocence around her, sully it, so she couldn’t taunt him with it. The other part of him wanted to wrap her in a glass bubble and protect her from anything that could ever touch her or take that away from her.
He was a twisted bastard, he thought yet again.
“I propose a trade. Like dinner. You asked me to come home with you tonight, and I agreed. For every new thing that you do, with
I will do one thing for you.”
The part of him that wanted to sully her, to make her understand, to break that sweet naïveté, reared to the surface. He smirked. “One thing? You should probably specify your parameters.” He knew just how to make her back off from this. Even though they’d shared something this afternoon, he was sure when he started suggesting sex she’d change her mind. This would be too sordid for her. Earlier had been about some girlhood fantasy for her and this...this was the real world. He wasn’t a hero, or a memory any longer. He was a flesh and blood failure.
“There aren’t any. You want me to clean your house? I’ll do it. You want me to bake you cookies? I’ll do it. You want me to give you one day where I leave you alone? I’ll do it.”
Jack knew she’d do all of those things for him anyway. Except leave him alone. That was the one thing that would be a concession. Although none of those things were what appealed to him most. Even being left alone, which surprised him, but it shouldn’t have.
He’d come over to give her the check because he knew where things were headed and also knew that could only end in a fiery wreckage for both of them.
Yet he forged ahead anyway, his mouth moving, speaking words he had no right to speak. Especially in her mother’s house. If he were Caleb, he’d knock out his teeth and leave him to pick them up with broken fingers for talking to his sister in such a way.
But he wasn’t her brother.
“What if what I want is you in my bed?”
Twin spots of color bloomed on Betsy’s cheeks. “Jack, you could have that anyway.”
Her voice was breathy and soft, all sex. He was hard again. His body’s reaction to her surprised him, but it shouldn’t have. Nothing had ever been able to exorcise his fantasies about her. “No expectations, no strings, and it’s
time. No trying to fix me,” he warned.
“I’m not trying to fix you. I can’t fix you. You have to fix yourself.”
“And I don’t want to, but you’re forcing it on me. So I might as well get something I do want out of it.”
He hadn’t realized how harsh his words sounded until the cycle of expressions played out on her face. First, she’d blushed and a secret smile had curved her lips. It made him remember kissing them and being inside her. Her back straightened and the line of her mouth tightened at the
He expected her to balk then. Although when he told her he might as well get something he wanted, it was almost as if he’d taken a knife and cut her. He’d basically told her he had no use for her but her body, and that wasn’t what he meant at all, but he didn’t know how to fix it without digging the hole deeper.
Maybe this would be what she needed to see that he was beyond help, that all he would do was hurt her.
Only he’d underestimated her again. “Okay.” Her whisper was barely audible.
His displeasure must have shown on his face, because she spoke again. “What, you didn’t want me to agree? Why ask for it if it isn’t what you actually want?”
He closed the distance between them. “Oh I want it, all right. But I think about another man saying these things to you and the way you just said yes...I’d kill him, Bets. So would Caleb.”
“It’s not Caleb’s business, is it? Not yours, either. You said so yourself. No strings, no expectations. That goes both ways, cowboy.”
He scowled. She’d changed since he was gone. He knew that, but seeing it here in front of him, it startled him somehow. She’d always been headstrong, but this was more than that. This was steel in her spine and more nerve than sense. “Maybe we should set some ground rules.”
“You want rules now? I’ve got some of my own. You will give me until Thanksgiving. You will dedicate yourself wholly to every task. If you refuse a task, then you don’t get your night.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I thought you said I could have you in my bed anyway.”
said no strings. With ground rules, those are strings.”
She had him there. “Fair enough, but if I’m dedicated wholly to this, then so must you be.”
“I am.” Her eyes narrowed.
“No, you’re not. There’s a picture of another man on your mirror.” He felt small and jealous by demanding she take it down, but it was still in his head. He didn’t like knowing that picture was part of a room of memories that should’ve belonged to him. Once upon a time, that mirror had been covered with pictures of him. He realized he’d taken her devotion for granted.
“Oh for the love of—” She rolled her eyes. “He’s just a memory.”
“So am I.” That was all she was to him, and that was what he wanted her to remember, that he wasn’t that Jack anymore. Only seeing evidence that she’d moved on, that someone else had taken his place—no, not his, the place that could’ve been his in her life—stirred up his guts like a stick in a rotten stew.
“Really?” She pursed her lips. “Marcel Babineaux has more right to that space on my mirror than you do. When I offered him my V-card, he didn’t say no.”
He knew that she was right, but being right only fueled his rage. Jack pushed her up against the door, and even though he was angry her arms still twined around his neck. “I’m the one that’s here,” he snarled.
“Are you?” she whispered against his mouth. “Are you really?” Betsy kissed him hard and fast. “Then I guess it’s you who’d best remember that when you’re talking about living and dying, huh?”
“And you should remember I’m not the same man who said no.”
When he would’ve slammed his mouth back down for another punishing kiss, the gentle touch of her cool fingers on his cheek stayed him.
“That’s not something that I’ll ever forget.” As if it was a good thing.
His anger dissipated like mist and he found he couldn’t even look at her. Jack tried to turn his face away, but she wouldn’t let him. Suddenly all of his sins were under a spotlight and he couldn’t hide them, but she continued to meet his eyes, unflinching and unafraid of anything she saw there.
“How did you get to be so strong?”
“You,” she said simply, and kissed him again. Her mouth was tender and reverent as it moved over his lips. The caress was everything he’d wanted to drive out of her. But he couldn’t. Not when she said he’d made her that way.
“Am I interrupting something?” Caleb asked, pushing the door open.
“Yes, and you obviously know you are and don’t care,” Betsy pointed out, slipping from Jack’s arms.
Caleb shrugged. “You’re right. Kick rocks, little sister.”
“Don’t you dare give him the big brother speech.”
“Wasn’t going to. We already did that Saturday morning.” Jack’s friend smirked.
“Oh really?” She scowled and put a hand on her hip.
“Yes, really.” He was unfazed.
“I don’t need you to fight any battles for me, Caleb.” Color rose in her cheeks.
“Who said we were fighting? Did you forget that Jack and I are friends, too? Go play dolls with India.”
“I’m going to tell her you said that.” Betsy and Jack shared a grin. He knew that if India thought he’d actually said any such thing, the consequences would be dire. He didn’t know how she did that—switched subjects and emotions so easily. She let each one roll through her—pass over her—just like a storm.
“You do that.” Caleb smirked again.
“I know that’s just a ploy to get rid of me, but I’m going along with it because I want to see her hand you your hind parts on a platter.”
“Bloodthirsty, isn’t she?” Caleb said casually as Betsy went inside the house.
“That’s tame compared to what’s going to happen if India thinks she’s serious,” Jack warned his friend.
“I know, but it’ll be worth it. I love that look of incredulity India gets when I say those things. It just completes my day.” Caleb laughed. “You should’ve seen her last week when we were watching the game and I told her to go get me a sandwich and a beer.”
“You live to annoy her.”
“I do. It’s brought me untold joy since we were kids.” Caleb shrugged again.
Silence reigned for a moment that stretched on forever. Jack got the impression that Caleb was waiting for him to fill it with something, but he didn’t know what to say.
“So, you wanted to get rid of Betsy. I assume to talk about her?”
“No, I just wanted to rile her up, too. It’s a spectator sport.”
“No, living dangerously would be to have a few more beers and challenge the girls to a round of Ghost in the Graveyard after dinner.” Ghost in the Graveyard was essentially a mashup of tag and hide-and-seek played in the dark.
“Oh yeah, that’ll be fun,” Jack said in a tone that indicated it would be anything but fun.
“It’ll be like old times. Except Betsy’s old enough to play.”
Jack cut a sharp glance at his friend, wondering if he meant the double entendre the way it sounded. “Man, if you want to chase India around in the dark, you don’t need a game of Ghost in the Graveyard. You should just tell her. That way I don’t have to fall and break a hip just so you can get into her fatigues.”
“You’re a crappy wingman.” Caleb took another pull off his beer.
Jack was surprised Caleb hadn’t argued with him about wanting to be with India. He’d refuted it so many times when they were growing up, his protestation had started to sound like a scratched CD.
“I’m crappy at a lot of things.” Jack would be the first to admit it.
“Did you really tell Betsy that we should go play with our
” India stood like a raging Valkyrie in the arch of the door, eyes narrowed and cheeks flushed.
Caleb smirked at Jack. “See what I mean?”
For the first time, Jack looked at India and really saw her. She wasn’t the tomboy kid who always had a dirty shirt, tangled hair and a scowl on her face any longer. India George was a woman—a beautiful woman. Not as beautiful as Betsy, but Jack could see the appeal and knew why Caleb liked to bring that flush to her cheeks.
“Yeah, I think I do.” Jack nodded.
“Oh do you?” India turned on him. “And just what is it that Mr. Soon to Be Dead meant?”
“That you’re hot when you’re angry.” Jack didn’t hesitate to dump his friend from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.
Then Caleb did what any sane person would do when faced with the wrath of India George.
Caleb took off toward the property line and the tree house that had once offered him protection against her fury, but India launched herself at him the way she would have a perp and took him down.
“They’re like puppies,” Betsy said, laughing.
“He thinks it’s a good idea to play Ghost in the Graveyard after dinner and a few more beers.”
“He’s still twelve.” Betsy shook her head. “It could be fun.”
Jack couldn’t help wondering if things had been different, if he’d come back whole, whether he’d be chasing Betsy through the grass right now. If he’d be thinking about a few more beers and stalking her in the dark until she was breathless and wanting underneath him.
Instead he had to worry about navigating unfamiliar and unsteady terrain—the very real possibility that he could fall and break something vital that would further impede his mobility. He couldn’t think like he was twelve, or seventeen, or even twenty-four. He had to think like an old man who was at the end of his life and whose body had started to fail him.
The sensation that his skin was too tight washed over him again and he wanted to rip it off, along with the mask that told the world everything was okay. It wasn’t.
It never would be.
He needed a bottle of whiskey, but he’d have to settle for another beer.
“Come on. Don’t you want to chase me? I’ve been chasing you since we were kids. It’s your turn.”
“Bets, I can’t.” He gritted his teeth as he spoke. Damn her for making him say it.
“Yes, you can.”
“Don’t make me say it again.”
“What? Because of your prosthesis? People do triathlons, cross-country and all manner of things. You just have to do it.”
“And how do you know so much about it, huh? You go missing anything vital lately?” he snarled.