Authors: Kaylea Cross
Head up, spine straight, she strode across the asphalt and wove her way between the rows of parked cars to her own. She’d be polite and civil, nothing more. Because she couldn’t afford to be anything more. As she approached she nodded to him. “Hey.”
She hit the keyfob and unlocked the driver’s side door, every cell in her body hyperaware of him standing so close. She struggled to find something to say, something pleasant yet not personal, since she couldn’t just hop in and drive off. Their breakup hadn’t been hostile and it had been her decision so she didn’t hate him or anything. No, unfortunately her feelings ran more in the opposite direction and she couldn’t let him know it. She had to play this casually. If given the chance, she was afraid he might try to change her mind since he’d done that a few times early on in the breakup.
Tossing her purse on the passenger seat, she held the door open and half turned to face him, the gesture letting him know she wasn’t planning on chatting long. “So, how was your first day on the job?”
He tilted his head. “Not bad. I’m more interested in how your day was though.”
“It was…interesting. I’m excited to be working on the taskforce.”
“You’ve been wanting something like this for a long time.”
Despite herself she stalled for something else to say, not quite ready to leave yet. “How long have you known about the taskforce?”
“Four days but we got in last night. I gather Alex sprung it on you this morning?”
“He loves to keep me on my toes.” He’d also known that telling her about Gage beforehand would have caused her more stress than she was under now. In a way he’d done her a favor by not saying anything.
He didn’t nod or make a sound of understanding. The weight of his hidden stare pressed on her, making her want to fidget. “You worried about what Alex told you?” he finally asked.
What, that a terrorist cell might be tracking her? Just the cherry on top of the mountain of shit her life had become over the past six months. “Should I be?”
“I think it wouldn’t hurt for you to take extra precautions.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I plan to.” She’d already increased her vigilance and had a 9 mm in the drawer of her bedside table she wouldn’t hesitate to use if necessary.
When a few beats of silence passed, she opened her mouth to tell him goodbye but he spoke before she could get the words out. “Have you eaten?”
She blinked at the invitation. No. Oh no, she was not going out to eat with him and suffer the torture of watching him across the table while being bombarded the entire time with the reminder that they were over. That wound had barely begun to scab over, she wasn’t about to rip it off and let it bleed all over again.
Facing him now, six-feet-two-inches of mouth watering, protective alpha male, it was hard enough to remind herself of all the reasons why she’d ended things with him in the first place. Reasons that had seemed so strong and logical at the time seemed more like excuses right now. Their dozen year age difference for one—she was thirty and he was forty-two. That he came with the baggage of an ex-wife and a teenage daughter. That she wasn’t ready to be a stepmom to said daughter or give up the idea of ever having kids of her own because he’d had a vasectomy over a decade ago. That she absolutely wouldn’t be in a relationship with someone in his line of work. Not under any circumstances.
She shook her head. “I have to run by Danny’s place, so I’ll grab something later. But thanks.”
“How’s he doing these days?” he asked, giving no reaction whatsoever to her refusal.
“The same.” No point trying to hide it. Gage knew all about her brother’s battles, had seen a few of them firsthand while they were together. “My dad asked me to stop by and check on him on my way home. Guess Danny had a bad night last night.” There’d been a lot more bad nights than good lately. And she already knew that tonight would be no different.
“Sorry to hear that.”
She shrugged, the familiar tightening starting up in her gut whenever she spoke about him. “It is what it is, right? Anyway, I gotta go, so…” She let her words trail off, plastered on a smile that belied just how weary she was and hid how much her chest ached at the sight of him standing there, tormenting her with all she’d given up. “Guess I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Yeah. I’ll follow you to Danny’s place though.”
She stiffened, bracing for an argument. “Not necessary, but thanks.”
“I’d feel better if I followed you there.”
Because of the TTP thing? For a second she thought about asking him what else he knew, but if there really was a credible threat against her she was sure either he or Alex would’ve said so. And talking to Gage any longer was just asking for trouble because he’d made it clear when she’d left him that he wanted her back. Right now she was too mentally exhausted to deal with another attempt to sway her.
Rather than stage a pointless argument about it she simply said, “Fine. See you.” The man wasn’t going to change his mind about following her, so why waste her breath?
Without allowing herself to look at him again she got behind the wheel, started the engine and steered out of the lot. Danny’s place was a twenty-plus minute drive from NSA headquarters in the opposite direction from her house. Gage stayed right behind her the entire way there. She shook her head at his protectiveness, although his actions didn’t surprise her. While she was relieved about not having to talk to him anymore tonight, it still made her heart flutter to know he cared enough to want to watch over her. She just had to be careful not to give him any false signals or allow him to charm his way back into her life, because at the moment she was feeling weak enough to let him do it.
The cheap and slightly rundown apartment building where Danny lived was surrounded by blocks of others just like it. The wooden exterior’s paint was peeling and nothing had been remodelled since it was built in the 60s. Since he lived on government assistance and wouldn’t take any money from her or their father, this was all he could afford.
Claire parked at the curb out front and climbed out as Gage pulled up behind her. She offered him a wave of thanks and he raised his hand in acknowledgement. Then to her surprise, he cut the engine.
She stopped on the sidewalk to look back at him. Was he seriously going to sit there while she checked on her brother and then follow her home afterward? She sighed and headed for the frosted glass door at the apartment’s entry. Yeah it felt nice to know he still cared, but she refused to let that sway her. It wasn’t fair to either of them. She couldn’t live the kind of life he wanted.
Facing the prospect of dealing with her brother in a few minutes only strengthened her conviction about never getting involved with a military man, let alone one in Spec Ops. Except Gage had slipped past her defenses so effortlessly she hadn’t been able to stop him. She absently rubbed a hand over the dull ache beneath her sternum. Sometimes she thought the pain of being without him would never go away.
The interior of the building was in worse shape than the exterior. A whiff of stale, musty air hit her as the glass front door closed behind her. The ancient elevator always gave her the heebie jeebies so she took the stairs to the fourth floor. Stained and threadbare beige carpeting awaited her in the hallway, the stink of cigarette smoke permanently trapped in the fibers.
At Danny’s door she paused to gather herself before knocking, calling upon her reserves of inner strength that Gage’s unexpected appearance had already depleted that morning. It took over a minute for her brother to open the door and when he did a stab of pain hit her in the heart. He stood there bare chested, wearing a pair of ripped cutoffs that didn’t do up beneath the belly he’d put on from a steady diet of meds, junk and no exercise. His eyes were bleary and bloodshot, a week’s worth of growth on his face.
“Hey,” he grunted and turned away for her to follow, running a hand through his mussed-up dark hair that could use a trim. A mass of scars ran the length of his middle and lower back, some surgical, others from the IED blast that had started this whole catastrophic roller coaster ride. Time had turned them pale pink, yet though his body had knitted itself back together for the most part, it was the damage hidden inside him that couldn’t be cured.
Claire shut the door behind her, steeling herself. Just being here made her feel like the walls were closing in on her, as if the air was harder to breathe. The cracked black faux leather couch in the living room was strewn with fast food containers and of course there were the requisite empty beer cans that littered the coffee table. Beyond that the flat screen TV she’d bought him two Christmases ago was tuned to some god-awful reality show that surely signaled the demise of American society. The kind Danny had railed against when he’d first come home from deployment. How things had changed since then.
Claire wrapped her arms around her waist and followed him, noting the unwashed dishes in sink and on the counter, the pile of dirty laundry spilling out from his open bedroom door down the short hall off the living room. “So, how are you?” Though she could already see for herself.
Danny settled himself back in a reclining position on the couch and gave a sullen shrug, not making eye contact. “Just another day in paradise, like always.”
Claire fought for patience and forced herself to stand still. Mere months ago she would’ve already been running around the place like a one-woman cleaning army, washing the dishes, carting the laundry down to the washing machine in the basement. Anything to stop her big brother from living like a pig, and anything to try to save him from himself or have an excuse to avoid an awkward or confrontational conversation with him. Now that she finally understood that he was the only one who could pull himself out of this black hole, she refused to do any of it even though the state of the place gave the clean freak in her a heart attack. Hence the sullen attitude he was throwing her way, no doubt.
“How’s your back today?” she tried in an even tone. He looked more uncomfortable than normal.
Bad, then. At least, that’s what he told everyone. Claire wasn’t convinced that his physical pain level was the true problem these days. Taking a calming breath, she eyed the array of plastic bottles lined up on the windowsill over the sink. Seven different prescription meds, some for pain, one for anxiety, others for depression and insomnia. Several more to combat the side effects of those. Put together, they represented a toxic chemical crutch that had slowly crippled her brother into the human shell he was now.
She turned back to Danny. “When’s the last time you ate?”
“’Bout an hour ago. Had some pizza with my oxycontin.”
Wonderful, she thought tiredly. And there was the empty pizza box lying open beneath the coffee table as proof. He’d be asleep soon, knocked out by the chemical numbness he’d become increasingly dependent on. “Do you need anything before I go, then? I’ve had a long day, so…”
His head turned. Those gray eyes so similar to her own stared back at her, haunted by waking nightmares he would never talk about. “Dad send you here?”
“He texted me this morning, yeah. You talk to your caseworker today?”
He gave a bitter chuckle. “No. Why would I? They can’t be bothered to do anything that might actually help me. I’m just a spare part they threw away and replaced as soon as I got hit by that IED.”
She’d heard the “spare part” speech many times before. Claire resisted the urge to scrub a hand over her face or maybe pull her hair out. In spite of herself she started tidying up the tiny, cluttered kitchen, needing to give her hands something to do. “What do you want then? Company? Want me to stay and watch a movie with you or something?”
The bleakness in his eyes sent a familiar chill up her spine. “I’m not gonna OD again, if that’s what you’re both worried about. You can go.”
Her eyes went back to the lineup of pill bottles on the windowsill. He’d attempted suicide twice already, almost succeeding the last time before Claire had found him passed out and called 911. The ER staff had been forced to pump his stomach twice to get everything out. If she hadn’t found him when she had, he’d have been dead within the hour.
Once again she was besieged with the sudden, savage urge to walk over and swipe those hateful bottles off the sill with one sweep of her arm, then smash them to pieces all over the kitchen floor. But she knew that wasn’t the answer. Her brother’s problems ran far deeper than addiction.
No psychologist, counsellor or social worker at the VA assigned to Danny’s case had been able to help him. A year of intensive therapy and meds hadn’t helped him; in fact he was getting worse. At this point those pills were an excuse, a reason he didn’t have to deal with the rest of it. They kept him numb, kept him drifting in a haze that was far more comfortable than the hell going on in his body and mind. The familiar wave of anger and resentment rose up fast but she pushed it down, kept her cool.