When Fall Fades (The Girl Next Door Series Book 1) (33 page)

BOOK: When Fall Fades (The Girl Next Door Series Book 1)
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There was still a lot to sort out, but he couldn’t imagine giving up before even giving it a chance.

Sadie wasn’t answering her phone and neither was Sal. Feeling like a caged animal, he paced his office and dialed Sadie again.

When the voicemail prompt started he was tempted to chuck the phone across the room at his prison door. “Sadie, I really need to talk to you. Please just give me a chance. I never meant to hurt you, I—” Archer stopped himself midsentence realizing what he was about to say. Elated and terrified, the words in his throat begged to taste the air.

But this was the worst time for them—like they were some consolation prize birthed out of desperation. “I don’t want to scare you but I’m gonna come by later, when I’m released from my office. Please call me back.”

Another forty minutes crawled by until Sal waltzed back into Archer’s office. “What did she say?” he pounced.  

“Nothing really, man. She was pretty upset. I don’t know what happened, so I didn’t know how to defend you. Sorry.” Sal shrugged.

“Ahh, this sucks.” Archer crammed his hands through his hair—raking in a sharp breath when reminded his hand was indeed broken.

“What happened? When I came in before, it looked like I’d interrupted something
good.
” Sal said with a devious wag of his brows.

“Yeah it was good, until Agent Mackenzie slithered in here and rubbed up against me, acting as if—” He blew out a sigh. “Well, you know what. And then she announced that I ran non-case-related personal info on Sadie and the Camaro, making it look like I totally violated her trust.”

“Ouch. Well you could understand how that’d come off. Plus, it’s really sad about her friend Ryan with the car. Still missing after five years. Army medic, just starting out, and then poof, went into a rough zone I guess and they never found a body, nothing. Just MIA. At least that’s what the file said.” He shrugged. “You know that’s really gotta mess with a person, not knowing what happened, and always wondering if they’re gonna show up one day.” A knot formed between Sal’s midnight eyebrows about the same time a noose tied around Archer’s airway. “How long do they wait before declaring a person dead anyways?”

Archer hung his head.

Sure, he’d felt a little guilty about it at the time, but he hadn’t realized how significant his betrayal had been until now. Sadie’s words echoed back in his head.
I very seldom let my guard down for people …

The hurt on her beautiful face seared into his memory. And maybe it wasn’t just from his underhanded deception, but from the pain she still carried in her heart from Ryan.

Oh, Sadie.
He didn’t know the whole story, but he didn’t need a badge to figure out her isolation, leaving medical school, her departed dreams all hinged around her traumatic and lingering loss.

Maybe the blurred boundaries of his job made this whole thing acceptable—in some regard. But the sharp pang in his gut told him that he’d missed his chance to be the man she would trust enough to bare her scars.

Sal touched Archer’s arm. “You didn’t know, did you?”

Chapter 35

Sadie Carson

“T
hanks for letting me stay the night, Finny. I didn’t want to be alone after everything that happened.”

Finn crossed the room and handed off a steaming cup of coffee before easing down beside her, draping a fleece blanket and his arm around her shoulders. “I just can’t believe that happened to you—
my
baby sister.” He shook his head, giving her arm a slight squeeze. “Thank God the cops got there in time. I’d be chilling in a concrete cell as we speak if anything had happened to you.”

Hot coffee, a familiar embrace, Sadie felt another layer of stress peel away and leaned her head against her big brother’s shoulder.

“So, I’ve got some options. We have the always hilarious Mike Myers in
So I Married an Axe Murderer
or
Scrubs
on DVD. You know what? Anything with murder should be out for tonight. How about some Turk and J.D., eh?” He ruffled her hair like she was eight years old.

He was making a valiant effort to cheer her up, so she forced a chuckle to show her appreciation. “Not really feeling it tonight. I’ll probably just crash. But I might take you up on some crackers or something? Haven’t eaten all day, and my stomach’s a little funny.”

“Sure. My selection is limited, but I’m sure we can scrounge up something.”

Sadie cocooned herself in the blanket and followed Finn to the kitchen. Her tender joints and countless bruises balked at her every move, a persistent reminder of images she couldn’t shake.

Don’t think about it. Don’t let yourself feel. Stuff it down like everything else.

Try as she might, the mind-over-matter efforts were futile. Nothing could obliterate those moments flashing before her eyes like her own slide show of horror.

I can’t do it. I can’t carry this one on my own.
Everything inside her shook with the manifest power of her lingering fears.

You were never meant to carry any of them.

“How about some scrambled eggs and toast?”

Finn’s question broke through the silent admonition. And for a moment she couldn’t speak. A hand touched her shoulder, and she looked up through a wash of tears. “Cakes, are you all right?”

Nodding, she shrugged away his hand so he wouldn’t feel her trembling. “Brinner sounds great. Thanks.” Breakfast for dinner was a Carson family tradition. She wasn’t sure how much she would be able to keep down—the thought of eggs making her stomach a little queasy—but it was likely all he had in his little bachelor kitchen.

The sympathy in his eyes, a perfect reflection of her own Irish aquamarines, scraped at her overwrought nerves. She didn’t want sympathy. She wanted to be strong and resilient. Frankly, she was sick of being some tragic victim.

She cleared her throat, grated away the suffocating emotions.
Be strong. Shake it off.

Maybe a distraction would help.
“Hey what’s in this box over here? It looks like the ones Mom has been trying to foist on me.”

“Yeah, she’s cleaning out the attic. I don’t know what to do with all the stuff she saved. Probably pitch most of it. I think it’s just a bunch of old yearbooks.”

She ambled toward the box, nearly groaning as she lowered her achy bones to the floor. “Let’s find out. Ooo, look what we have here …” Sadie held up a picture very obviously from the eighties. “The stone wash was a good look for you.” The scent of sizzling butter drifted from the kitchen. Her stomach perked up and grumbled. Progress.

“I totally rocked ’em. Can you believe some of the stuff we wore back then? You were a big fan of those stirrup leggings.”

A laugh tumbled out. It tasted like the sweetest medicine. “Maybe not with stirrups, but I still love leggings.”

“Leggings, vintage T-shirts, old vinyls, and movies—you always were trapped in the past.” He immediately winced and turned back to the eggs. “Oh hey, Mom said she shoved those old VHS tapes in there—the ones of the fake TV shows we used to put on in the basement. Remember the
Wayne’s World
episode? That oughta be good for a laugh.”

It was a fond trip down memory lane. She allowed herself a smile despite the double entendre of Finn’s slip. “Yearbooks, your varsity baseball jersey …” Sadie ticked off the items she unearthed from the box. But what she saw next made her heart crash into her ribcage. “Finn … where did you get this?” Sadie cradled a filthy and well-worn Cardinals hat in her hands.

Her brother looked up from the stove, glanced at it without recognition, and shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think I had a blue one, all mine were red.”

Her mouth hung open, her breaths shallow and dizzying as she stared at the beloved canvas in her grip.

“Trying to catch some flies? What is it?”

“This … this is Ryan’s. I thought I lost it all these years.” Happy tears filled her eyes. She rubbed her thumbs over the faded fabric in benediction. “He was so mad at me when I set out to prove his superstition wrong and wash this nasty thing. And then I guess I lost it before I got the chance.” Tears and laughter released in harmony. It was such an inconsequential thing—finding an old hat—but with it some small shard of pain dislodged from her chest. “He never let me live it down, held it over my head for years.”

Finn’s expression sobered. He removed the skillet from the heat and came to her side. “That’s not the only thing hanging over your head, Cakes.” He paused, easing out a careful breath. “Now I don’t want to sound like Mom, but in a way she’s right. You have to keep living your life. Summer eventually ends. Fall will fade. Life moves on, whether you’re ready or not. And after today, you should be reminded that it’s a gift. It may not be exactly like you planned, but somehow that makes it even better than you can imagine. Because it’s real. It’s yours. And no matter what you’re dealt, how you play your hand is entirely up to you.”

He swiped a renegade tear cliff-hanging from her chin. “I’m still waiting for my time, too. And I’m not exactly where I thought I’d be, but there is no script. No perfect blue print. And you don’t always get a do-over, so you’d better not waste it. Sometimes you have to fight your way through, bandage up the wounds as they come, and take the rest on faith.”

“But I—”

“You’re strong, little one. You had to be to put up with Jay and me picking on you your whole life. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Gee, thanks.” She tried for flippant, but the words hiccupped out half-laugh/half-sob.

He forced her to meet his eyes, his faith in her so clear she felt more tears brewing. “You can do this. Don’t stay on the bench. I’ve got your back. And if you stumble, you better believe I’ll be right there to kick your butt back in the game.”

He gathered her to his chest, whispering against her hair. “It’s okay to miss him, Sadie. We all do. But you’re still here. And if you’re brave enough to look for it, I guarantee there’s something beautiful to be found. Might even be right in front of that stubborn nose.”

A sudden knock at the door startled a yelp from Sadie’s heart in her throat.

Finn gently levered her away. “Sorry, I’ll take care of that.” After the door opened she heard him utter an oath. “What are
you
doing here?”

Oh, boy
. Finn was growling. That meant it could only be one person.

Sure enough, Joselyn pushed right past him with a none-too-subtle shoulder check and rushed to Sadie.

“Sure,
Snow Whyte
, come on in.” Finn bit out, not bothering to hide his distaste for Sadie’s best friend, the sole heiress to the Whyte Empire. Why her wealth bothered Finn, Sadie still didn’t know.

“I heard what happened on the news, and I tried to call you but your phone was turned off, so I called your parents’ house and they said that you were here, and I can’t believe this happened I was so freaked out, and you know I don’t pray but I thanked God the whole way here. Did they arrest the guy? Are you hurt? Tell me what happened!” Joselyn’s frantic words tumbled out without a breath.

Releasing a bubble of laugher, Sadie sniffled back tears and smiled. “Slow down, sweetie, deep breath.” She inhaled and exhaled in demonstration. “Atta girl. Now, if you promise not to hyperventilate I’ll tell you everything.”

“Actually, you’re kind of interrupting. And I don’t remember inviting you here, so maybe you two can get together tomorrow—preferably while I’m at work.” Finn set Sadie’s plate of eggs on the counter, then crossed his arms and glared at Joselyn.

Joss sneered back at him, hot pink flaring in her pale cheeks.

Here we go.
With a sigh,
Sadie tuned out their bickering and ate. By the time she finished they were all up in each other’s faces, slinging the dirtiest barbs they had. “All right you two. That’s enough!
Ho-ly
smokes, someone call the CDC because the sexual tension in here is nearly toxic!”

Ha!
Now she’d done it.

Their anger found a new target. Each one of them blistering red and hurling sputtering protests of denial. Interesting. Well, at least they could agree on something.

Sadie snorted. “Really? Yelling at a woman who was just kidnapped and assaulted? Cool it, or I’ll put you both in time-out. Together.”

In unison, they crossed their arms—their eyes like repelling magnets.

“Better. Now, if you two can put your qualms aside for a few minutes, I’ll explain. Then I’ll put in some earplugs, and you can go at it all night if you want.”

“Oh-ho-no! I’d rather be burned alive than stay here with
him
all night!” Joselyn narrowed her eyes at Finn. The flash of rage in his eyes signaled a hasty countdown to his retaliation.

Sadie flung her arms out and separated them. “Wow, you guys. I don’t remember it being this bad. What happened?”

Crickets.
Hmm
.

Sadie took the small sliver of silence to start in on her harrowing tale. It didn’t seem possible but somehow it already seemed lighter, each heavy memory unloading from her heart like disease draining from her body. As if, after years of harboring old wounds, she was finally ready to heal.

After Joss left and Finn retired to the couch giving Sadie his room, she lay awake staring at the shadows on the ceiling. Cars would pass on Kirkwood Road, prisms of light causing the shapes to shift before snapping back to form. Even in the dark, there was something new to see.

She’d been hiding in darkness for five years, smothering any speck of light, refusing to bend for fear she might not bounce back. Or maybe she wouldn’t like what emerged from the shadows if she tried to escape them.

Rolling over, she bunched Finn’s pancake pillow beneath her head, closed her eyes, and tried to focus on counting sheep instead of stretching shadows. She was exhausted, just plain wrecked, so sleep should have been effortless. Instead there was this deep restlessness. And surprisingly not from the attack, but from finding Ryan’s hat.

Was it a sign? Would he ever be found, too? And was it naive to hold on to hope all these years that someday she’d come home from work to find him standing on her doorstep, ready to fulfill his promise of a life together?

It was terrible, but some days she wished that Ryan had died instead of disappeared. The circumstance as it was left closure just out of reach.

The day she’d received that call from Ryan’s mom, her world had stopped turning. And then when the letter from Ryan arrived a week later, Sadie had downshifted into autopilot, losing the drive to live out her dreams. Barely breathing for fear the fragile promise of his last words wouldn’t survive unless she kept pressure on the wound.

She couldn’t finish med school because every patient she saw was Ryan with a broken ankle in the woods. She couldn’t date because every man was a potential husband that would never be him.

What if she fell in love and got married, and then Ryan came back? How long was too long to wait for the love of your life? One year turned to three and then five in a blink of misery and crumbling hopes. The uncertainty chained her legs to the past, locking her heart behind all the what-ifs. Because if she moved on and Ryan was found, she couldn’t possibly go back and undo the choices she’d made without him.

And as much as she would always love him, his memory had become a phantom, haunting her with the constant reminder of all that could’ve been.

It was the worst kind of regret. Unfinished business, a lingering ellipsis. One kiss, one embrace, one I love you … was all they got.

One fleeting moment.

Curling her knees to her chest, she folded her tender arms over her head, retreating into herself, desperate to find shelter.

She’d thought she’d been standing still, waiting to pick up where they’d left off, but maybe she’d actually been running from the possibilities, and in turn letting the past fester like a gaping hole in her chest. That maybe if she remained broken and alone, that meant Ryan was still out there somewhere, trying to find his way home.

“God,” Sadie whispered, “is it time to let go? Is there something more for me?” When she lowered her arms, her heart gave way, surrendering all of her hurt and fear and shattered dreams to the one who loved her the most. And as she began to drift to sleep, she felt a healing hand knit together the first piece of her broken heart.

BOOK: When Fall Fades (The Girl Next Door Series Book 1)
8.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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