More than I’ve ever needed anyone. Anyone.
I close my eyes and pray a silent prayer, beseeching and begging. For another chance to do it right. To relive every second with her, to treat her with the reverence she always deserved.
To cherish her.
And when I open my eyes, I have to believe that God heard me. Because I see her in the distance—hair whipping, stumbling in the wind and on those four-inch goddamn heels. My first thought is: thank fuck she’s safe. My second thought is: I’m going to strangle her.
I drive up quick and the truck screeches as I hit the brakes a few feet from where she stands. The wind pushes and the hail pours down as I climb out of the truck, tearing my way to her. It bounces off the truck, pelts my face and shoulders in icy shards.
My voice booms louder than the wind. “Which part of the cattle are clusterin’ did you not fuckin’ hear me say?”
And then I’ve got her. She’s in my arms, against my chest, warm and alive, being squeezed so hard she might not be able to breathe. But I can’t let go.
“Don’t ever do that again,” I pant harshly against her ear.
She looks up at me, wide eyed and so goddamn beautiful it makes me tremble.
“Don’t do what again?”
I push her hair back, holding her face. And my voice cracks. “Leave.”
I press her against me, clasping her to me, sheltering her with my own flesh and blood. My body sighs, my bones slacken with relief that she’s here and whole and safe.
But safety, like so many other things we think we can control, is an illusion. Because when I turn around to open the truck door and get her inside, keeping Sofia shielded behind me, a sharp, piercing pain explodes against my temple . . .
And the world goes dark and silent.
It’s funny, the things you remember. The moments that are branded in our minds, the minutes you wish you could forget. I don’t remember being afraid during that childhood plane crash, though I’m sure I was. I don’t recall the pain when my side was sliced open. The shock, the adrenaline probably left me numb.
What I can still hear though, even after all these years . . . is the sound. The crash of the impact. The roar as we slid across the runway. It was thunderous and inescapable. I remember reaching up to cover my ears, when I should have been holding on for dear life.
And this sound—right now—is almost the same. The shrill screech of wind.
So loud. Deafening.
But that’s not what stands out the most this time. The image that will haunt me from this moment on is Stanton, unmoving, on the ground. Eyes closed, his body slack and terribly still.
It’s funny, how quickly clarity comes when life or death is at stake. When whipping, dirty, cold hell swirls all around you, bending the trees, flinging scraps of wood and metal through the air. And you realize—suddenly so absolutely sure—how deeply you feel for someone, how much they mean to you, when you’re faced with the possibility of having already lost them.
“Stanton, wake up!”
I was so angry when I walked out of the house, just a short while ago.
“Can you hear me? Baby, please wake up!”
No, that’s bullshit. Time to put on the big girl panties.
I wasn’t angry—I was hurt.
“Oh God, stay with me, Stanton. Don’t you dare leave me!”
When I heard Jenny’s admission, it felt like a steel poker had been plunged into my stomach. Because what had happened between us at the river last night—the way he looked at me, touched me, held me—seemed like more, felt like it meant more, than all the other moments we’d shared. And deep inside me, I’d hoped that it was the same for Stanton.
Apparently I’m a dummy after all.
And all the mental excuses I’ve made over the last days—the explanations, justifications, defenses—were just lies I told myself, feelings I pushed away and ignored.
Because I didn’t want to admit it. Didn’t want to face the complicated truth.
“I love you,” I whisper.
It’s horrifying. A mess. And the most true, pure thing I’ve ever felt in my life.
“I love you, you big, stupid idiot!”
If I was thinking clearly, I’d recall all the reasons I shouldn’t: his story about Rebecca, the pedestal he has Jenny on, and how to him we’re nothing more than “friends who fuck.” These feelings are the last thing a guy like him would want to deal with.