Authors: Diana Gardin
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To all the veterans who risked their lives for our freedom, and the women and men who love them. Thank you so much for your service.
he cool, blue Atlantic sprays my face as I sit in the sand. My eyes are fixated on the breaking waves. My good buddiesâmy brothersâare taking advantage of the larger-than-normal swells while they cut in and out of the waves on their boards. I lay back on my elbows and watchâ¦the same way I've been watching for the past month and a halfâthe time it took for me to muster up the balls and the strength to get back to the beach.
I glance at the board lying beside me. If I can do it, today will be my first time back in the ocean. It's
to be my first day back. I just haven't been able to get off my ass and into the water just yet.
It's early; the sun just broke over the horizon about half an hour ago, and the morning is flawless. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, letting the morning's rays touch my face.
I'm utterly relaxed on the beach, but I'm also at home when I'm working, when I'm strategizing, planning, or embarking on a mission with my team. Working in the mission field is about as far from the dream my father laid out for me as possible, and this is one of the reasons I love it so damn much. He pulled all the strings he could so that, as an officer graduating from the Naval Academy a couple of years ago, I'd be placed behind a desk and rise quickly through the ranks without ever touching a battlefield.
He didn't anticipate that I had my own plans for my life, my own goals and ambitions. I wasn't going to be just a douche in a uniform telling other guys what to do, never having lived it myself. If I was going to order other men around, it was going to be while I was risking my life right there beside them.
And my father, Admiral Michael Abbot, would just have to deal with it.
Lawson Snyder disturbs the sand beside me as he dives into place and sprawls out. He places his hands behind his head and closes his eyes. His wet suit is hanging out down around his waist, and his tattoo-covered torso is on display.
“Dude.” I slap him on the chest. “That was awesome out there. You've been practicing.”
He chuckles. “Thanks, man. That's high praise coming from a beachcomber like you. Us corn-fed Nebraskan boys don't grow up riding the waves. Took me a while to learn.”
True. But now that Lawson has found surfing, he'll never quit. There's something about getting lost in the sea and letting the waves guide you back to shore that's addictive.
We sit, the quiet stretching around us, while Lawson catches his breath, and before long our other surfing buddy and team member, Ben McBride, joins us. We don't call him Ben, though.
“Get your ass up, Abbot!” yells Ben as he runs out of the waves. “You said today was the day!”
I watch him approach. “Did I say that? I meant today was the day I'm keeping my ass planted in the sand. Tomorrow's the day I get back on the board.”
“Bullshit!” Ben runs at me, feinting like he's going to land right on top of me. I dodge left, laughing as he ends up on his face.
“Still too fast for your ass.” I gloat. Grinning at Lawson, we high-five.
“Too slow, Cowboy.” Lawson sounds ashamed of Ben as he shakes his head. “Even missing a limb, Abbot's got you beat every single time.”
“That's why he's team leader. That, and the fact that he's an officer and I'm not. I don't give a shit. Can we go grab some waffles now if you ain't surfing today?”
I nod, dusting off my hands. “I'll be there in a minute.”
They grab their boards and take off toward the steps that lead to the parking lot. I have my own car; I'll meet them at the Waffle King in a few minutes. They'll probably be scarfing down their piles of food by then. I just need another minute with the ocean.
Just months ago, I was still stuck in a place with no ocean. I was in that faraway desert for four months before I was flown to a naval hospital in Germany, only two weeks shy of my assigned homecoming. I let my mind temporarily drift back to that last fateful day in Syria. The things I remember with vivid recall are the smells.
The smell of gasoline. The smell of burning rubber and plastic. The smell of hot, dry air as the darkness exploded with orange light. The smell of blood. Your own blood smells really fucking distinct. It's a scent you can never erase from your memory.
Yeah, the smells are still with me every single day.
I'm torn from my thoughts when I hear the scream. It was short and staccato, possibly cut off by the waves.
I sit up straight, my eyes scanning the ocean for the source of the scream. Without even realizing it's happening, adrenaline surges through my body in a way I haven't felt in months. My muscles tighten, alert. My senses kick into overdrive as my eyes continue to search the blue-green sea and my ears strain for foreign sounds.
This is a private spot on the beach, usually occupied only by surfers. At seven-fifteen on a Wednesday morning, it's nearly deserted. I scan the sand and notice there's a beach bag and towel about twenty feet to my left and behind me. I'm not sure when that person got into the water, maybe when my eyes were closed. Maybe when I was thinking about the desert.
When I turn my eyes back toward the ocean, I see it. There's an orange and pink surfboard drifting in the waves, minus its rider. I'm up from the sand in seconds, raising a hand to my eyes to scan the water for the missing surfer. I don't need to search the small stretch of beach behind me to see there's no lifeguard stand here. There's a sign on the old, twisty steps leading down to the shore that this is a private stretch and there's no lifeguard on duty.
I step forward, and the foamy sea rolls over my foot. I stare down at it. It's been so long since I've felt it; I'm having a weird reaction. Blood pumps in my ears, and a thin sheen of sweat breaks out all over my skin that has nothing to do with the sun and the heat.
Then, out past the breaking point, a small figure surfaces, floating on top of the rising and falling swells. I watch for movement and don't see any.
I don't think. I react.
Taking two running steps, I rush into the waves and dive headfirst into the ocean. I use my arms to pull my body through the rolling waves, kicking out hard behind me. I'm a skilled swimmer; it's kind of mandatory in my job description, but I've been a good swimmer for my entire life. Even though this is my first time in the ocean since the accident, it doesn't take long at all for me to reach the girl floating facedown in the water. Her raven-colored hair floats around her. My eyes scan her, noting her surfboard still floating feet away, attached to her slender ankle. Without a second look, I flip her on her back, pulling her under one of my arms. Then I use the other to cut through the saltwater once more, this time with the beach set in my sights.
I'm winded when I reach the sand, but I stumble up onto the beach carrying the still girl in my arms. Her head lolls against my chest, her limbs hanging limply from my hold. She's a rag doll, and fear courses through my blood, heating it until it feels like it's bubbling in my veins. I fall to my knees, laying her gently on the sand. My hands are steady as I unstrap the surfboard from her foot, but my heart crashes against my ribs. Then, still running on autopilot, I brush her hair back so that I can assess her.
As soon as her face is clear of her long, dark mane, I suck in a breath as recognition slams into me like a jacked-up truck.
“Holy shit,” I murmur. “Greta? Come on, girl, you gotta wake up for me.”
She doesn't move.
Breathe for her.
Her gorgeous face is turning blue. I use my fingers to tilt her chin back, and then I lean in and breathe into her mouth twice.
My hands are centered on her chest, and I'm riveted to her face as I press down again and again, counting aloud each time I pump. After thirty compressions, I return to her mouth, pinching her nose closed and breathing in twice.
I repeat the process, pushing all fear out of my head. “Come on, Greta! Berkeley will kill me if I let you die. Wake up, dammit!”
Suddenly, she splutters, takes a huge, gasping breath, and ocean water pours out of her mouth. Lightning fast, I turn her on her side, and she retches, coughing again and again. When she's finished, I help her sit up on the sand, and I brush her hair out of her face as her crystal blue eyes finally focus on me.
“There you are.” I breathe. “Hey, beautiful. You're okay. You're okay.”
I repeat the phrase again and again, rubbing her back with one hand while she gains her bearings. She blinks rapidly a few times, and then croaks out in a hoarse voice.
“Grisham? Grisham Abbot?”
I smile, grateful to hear my name falling from her mouth right now. “It's me. Been a while, huh?”
She nods, coughing again. She raises a hand to her head and winces. That's when I see the blood, nearly hidden in her hair at the top of her forehead.
“Damn. That's a nasty cut. That probably happened when you fell off your board. Let me take you to the hospital, okay?”
She shakes her head. “I hate hospitals. I was just there with my little sister a few days ago. I'll go to urgent care.”
I shake my head. “Not by yourself. I'll take you.”
She looks reluctant, but nods her head. “Okay.”
I stand, holding out my hand to her. “Do you think you can stand and walk? If not, I'll carry you.”
She allows me to help her up. She's a little unsteady on her feet, but she seems like she'll be able to make it up the steps and to my four-door Jeep Wrangler.
“Wait!” she cries, turning toward the ocean. “My board!”
“Shhh, I got it,” I reply, pointing to where it's lying on the beach. “We towed it in on your ankle.”
She nods in relief.
“Let me get you to the car, and then I'll come back for our boards. Okay?”
Her eyes stray down to my leg, following the metal trail to my prosthetic foot. I've almost forgotten about it. It usually doesn't take people this long, but I'm going to give Greta credit because she was unconscious for part of the time we've been together today.
“Oh, Grisham,” she whispers. Her eyes fill with tears.
“Hush,” I admonish her. “I'm used to it by now. Hey, I'm good as new, Greta. I got out there to pull you in, didn't I?”
She nods and rewards me with a small smile. My heart stutters, remembering what it was like when I really saw that smile for the first time.
I met Greta well over two years ago when she and my best friend, Berkeley, became roommates. But Berkeley wasn't just my best friend; I'd also been secretly in love with her since we were kids. When Berkeley moved in with her, I didn't pay Greta much attention. But after Berkeley got together with her boyfriend, Dare, my heart took a beating. There was one morning when I was at their apartment, giving Dare the business, when Greta walked into the room wearing really tiny pajama shorts complete with a thin tank top.
The image is still burned into my mind.
I couldn't help but follow the trail of her long legs, past her little shorts, pausing at the small patch of skin exposed on her stomach. Then, when I made eye contact and saw those baby blues, clear as the fucking sky above and filled with desire, I almost lost my mind.
I left, because my head wasn't in a place to deal with feelings for another girl.
But right now, connecting with her again like thisâ¦something inside of me is pulling me toward her like a magnet. I can get lost in eyes as big and as blue as hers.
I think I might even want to.
“I'm sorry, Grisham,” she says sincerely as she blinks.
I'm distracted as she pulls her soft, plump bottom lip into her mouth and bites down. I'm mesmerized as the nipped skin turns pale.
“I said I'm sorry? About the explosion that caused you to lose part of your leg. I heard about itâ¦” She trails off, her eyes closing briefly as if she's in pain.
I reach out and grab her chin, causing her eyes to fly open and lock with mine once more. A stirring in my suit grabs my attention, but I push my physical reaction to this girl out of my head so I can finish this conversation. Her eyes stay locked on mine, instead of straying back down to my foot.
This surprises the shit out of me, because usually I can't keep anyone's attention for more than a few seconds before they're looking at it again.
“I can do everything I did before,” I tell her, my voice soft. “Except lead my boys out into the damn desert again, that is. My career focus has shifted a bit, that's all. But I'm okay, Greta. Thanks for worrying about me.”
She nods, giving me a real smile for the first time.
I'm floored. Two rows of perfect white teeth and plump, full lips form a smile that's just a little bit crooked. She's like seeing the sun again after months in the dark. Holy shit. I'm screwed. I'm not ready for this right now. I'm in no better state of mind than I was a year ago. In some ways, I'm worse. So I'm going to chalk whatever I'm feeling right now up to residual attraction from two years ago and from the high I get from saving someone's life.
“Let's get you to the car.” I take her elbow and steer her toward the steps.
It's slow going, but we make it to the little parking lot. Her forehead wrinkles in confusion as we approach my Jeep.
“Where's your little sports car? The Audi?”
“Kind of hard to haul my board and my bikes around on that thing. I like to do shit outsideâ¦a lot. My Jeep is better for that type of stuff.”
And my father bought me that Audi. After I graduated from school, I decided there was no way I was going to let him keep paying my way.
But I kept that thought to myself.
She raises her hands to the top of her wet suit, but I notice them trembling as she attempts to pull it down. Then I'm touching her shoulders without thinking.