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Beautiful distraction, p.19
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       Beautiful Distraction, p.19

           J. C. Reed
 

  Yeah, that’s exactly the kind of story I don’t want to hear.

  I pick up the guitar. “Is this yours?”

  He steps behind me. I expect him to reach out and take it out of my hands, but he doesn’t. “How did you know?”

  My fingers travel over the initials engraved on it. “It says K.B.”

  “My sister bought it for me. It was my first guitar.” He hesitates. There’s something there. I know it. I can feel his unease, so I put the guitar back and turn to look at him.

  “Sounds like she’s great,” I say softly.

  He nods. “When we were young, this was our thing. Friends used to hang out here all the time. The place was packed each weekend. There were parties.” He catches my glance. “Not that kind. The kind where you sit outside, in front of a huge fire, and everyone’s singing and having a great time. God, that was such a long time ago.” His voice is melancholic, his eyes distant, focused on a past far away. “Then, life happened. We grew up. Everyone went their separate ways.”

  I nod, envying him because at least he had all those experiences.

  “And by everyone you mean—” I prompt.

  “Ryder, whom you’ve already met, and Cash.”

  “And your sister?”

  He falls silent, and something flashes across his face.

  I cannot bear it anymore.

  “Who’s the blond woman in the picture on the fireplace?” I ask, even though I asked the same question before and he’s already given an answer.

  He doesn’t blink. “I already told you. That’s my sister. At least…was.” There is a short silence. His face distorts to...something, and then he walks away without another word.

  I give him a minute before I follow after him.

  I find him sitting outside the barn. I kneel down next to him, making sure not to touch him. His posture is rigid, his shoulders tense.

  “I’m sorry I asked,” I start, unsure what else to say.

  “It’s okay.” His voice drops to a whisper. He looks up at the sky, his eyes dark and hooded, but, oh my god—the sadness.

  “What happened to her?” I ask, fighting the urge to touch him.

  There is a short pause, then, “She’s dead, Ava.”

  I turn to him, even though I know he probably doesn’t want my presence. “I’m sorry.”

  “Yeah, me too. She died five weeks ago.”

  I stare at him, shocked. It makes so much sense. The pain is fresh. He’s struggling to come to terms with such a great loss.

  I don’t want to impose, and yet I find myself asking, “What happened? Do you want to talk about it?”

  He takes his time replying. “She died in a bomb blast.”

  “She was the best friend you told me about.”

  He nods. “She was the best of everything you can have. Clara was…” He sighs, and a soft, sad smile tugs at his lips. “She was a good person. Her heart was in the right place. Ever since I can remember, she wanted to help others. If she set her mind to it, she went all the way. When she told our family she wanted to join the military, no one wanted her to. They were all afraid she’d get hurt.” Another pause. He clears his throat, and I sense something huge is coming. “Except me. I told her to go after her dreams, that I’d be proud of her. Back then, I was so sure she’d be okay, because she was strong and she wasn’t scared to get in a fight.” He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. His eyes are cast downward now, focused on a spot at his feet. “I’ve been regretting that for the last five weeks, day and night, even in my dreams. There’s not a single thing I can do to take those words back. If it weren’t for me, she’d still be here. She’d be alive.”

  His eyes are shimmering with moisture. A tear slides down my cheek. His pain radiates from him, every word true and coming from the heart.

  “Kellan,” I whisper his name because I don’t know what else to say.

  He shakes his head. “Don’t. You have no idea what my family went through.” He looks up at me, meeting my glance. “My mother died when I was young. It was my sister who took care of all of us. She wasn’t just the eldest, she was also the one who made sure that my dad didn’t let himself go. She was amazing. I mean it when I say you would have liked her.”

  I can feel his anger. He’s not past that stage in the grieving process yet. Whatever I say won’t help. But I know keeping him talking is good for him.

  “Why do you think that?”

  “I don’t know,” Kellan says. “You’re alike. When Sniper saw you, I knew it. It’s the way he reacts, and the way you talk to him.” He sighs. “She was fierce and stubborn. Always had her own mind about things.”

  “It must have been nice to grow up with brothers,” I say softly.

  “Well, I think it influenced her decision to join the forces.” His eyes go distant again. “I hadn’t seen her in almost a year. Then, out of the blue came, the call she’d be back home the following weekend. I was so happy. I tried to cancel everything, but work came first.” He grimaces, and a nerve begins to pulse beneath his eye. “I told her I couldn’t see her. I didn’t come back home when I had the chance because other things seemed more important. It’s the biggest regret I have. She spent that one last weekend here, and I didn’t come to see her. She told me she was fine, that she’d be back home for Thanksgiving, but she died within a week.”

  “I’m so sorry,” I whisper, wiping at the tears gathering in my eyes.

  He just nods.

  My fingers gingerly reach out to touch his, and he lets me. His fingers intertwine with mine, and I give them a light squeeze in the hope the simple gesture can convey a little bit of just how much my heart is bleeding for him.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

  I don’t know how long we’ve been sitting here, our hands locked, the world around us heavy and hopeless.

  Loss is a strange thing. It comes without a warning. It rips your heart to shreds and lets you learn to live with the pieces. It never lets you heal, but eventually, the memories you carry will help you learn to live with the pain of knowing that you will never see your loved one again.

  So many words unsaid.

  So many smiles turned to tears.

  So many future memories unlived.

  I look at Kellan and I see his pain etched into his features. His green gaze is turned toward the sky, hooded by long, dark eyelashes that cast soft shadows across his cheeks.

  He’s beautiful when he smiles, but he’s even more beautiful when he’s lost in his thoughts, his heart open, his emotions raw.

  “Days have passed. Soon the weeks will turn into years. I’ll always remember you with silent tears.” His words are barely more than a whisper, his voice slightly humming, as though his pain has become a song that needs to rip through his chest.

  Leaning into him, I rest my head against his shoulder and look up. His gaze meets mine, and then he smiles.

  That glorious smile of his that catches the day and the night. That makes my heart both rise and sink.

  The world around us stops for a moment.

  Slowly, his mouth nears mine and his lips brush my lips in a kiss that’s as soft as the beating wings of a butterfly.

  “I want to show you the lake,” he says and pulls me to my feet.

  “What?” I laugh and throw a dubious glance at the shimmering water within walking distance. There’s an old paddleboat secured at a pier that looks just as decrepit. I thought it was just décor. “Water and I aren’t exactly friends. Unless it’s a pool and there’s a bar nearby.”

  “Come on, city girl. You’ll like it,” he says with a wink.

  “Two adults balancing on a bit of old wood? Hmm.”

  I very much doubt the sanity of the idea, but I follow him down the path to the lake. Kellan holds the boat for me as I climb inside—actually, make that crawl inside, because there’s no way I can keep my balance while standing in this thing—and sit down.

  It’s actually much larger than I thought.

  He grabs
the paddles and expertly maneuvers the boat across the lake in long strokes, stopping in the middle of the water. From here, we can see both the barn and the woods.

  I close my eyes and lose myself into the moment. The silence. The warm rays of sun on my face. His presence.

  “You like it,” Kellan remarks.

  I nod and smile.

  When I open my eyes, his gaze is on me. Slowly, he leans forward and presses a kiss on my lips.

  My fingers intertwine at the back of his neck as I lie down on the blanket, the hard wood of the boat pushing into my back. But I’ve never been more comfortable.

  I’ve never felt safer.

  Kellan’s lips are probing mine, his emotions slipping into me.

  I feel the change when his tongue parts my lips to explore the cave of my mouth. His touch is gentle but determined. It’s clear what he wants, and I’m more than willing to give it to him.

  Slowly, I pull my shirt up and unhook my bra. His hands slide up over my breasts, his fingers lingering over my beaded nipples. His eyes drink me in. I can see the hunger in his eyes. I can see his self-restraint, his need to make this special.

  But today, it’s not about stilling that carnal need in us. He’s so much more to me. He’s the one thorn in my rose garden. He’s the one mistake that has ruined me for everyone else.

  I want to kiss him like I’ve never kissed anyone else before.

  I want to let him claim my body like it’s his to possess.

  Come tomorrow, I’ll be his sweet memory, and he’ll be my one scar that will never heal.

  “Kellan.” I unbutton his jeans and help him do the same to mine.

  “Ava.” His tone matches mine, heavy and meaningful.

  Our clothes are on the floor of the boat within seconds. His skin is bare against mine. The breeze makes my burning skin shiver.

  He levers himself between my legs, his shaft hard, ready for me. His fingertips brush down my abdomen, between my wet folds, and his breath catches, the air trapped in his heaving chest.

  His desire for me is my ruin.

  “I need you inside me. Now,” I whisper, my gaze locked with his, my eyes silently speaking all the words I cannot say.

  “Are you sure? I don’t want to—”

  “Hurt me? You won’t.” Smiling, I push up to press a gentle kiss on his mouth in the hope that it’ll scatter his worries.

  I need this.

  I need us.

  Raw.

  Our bodies and souls bare.

  His mouth descends upon mine. His kiss takes my heart, sucks it inside his until his breathing becomes mine. I feel him rubbing his hardness in the dampness between my legs a moment before his erection fills me, his movements controlled. Gentle.

  I lay my hand against his chest, where the muscles are flexing beneath his taut skin.

  “Are you okay?” Kellan’s voice against my mouth makes me smile.

  “I’ve never been better.”

  Which is a lie. I was better when he wasn’t in my life. But back then, I didn’t know what I was missing.

  I didn’t know that the way he’d touch me would change my world.

  My legs lock at his back, pulling him deeper inside me. His shaft is filling me, rendering me breathless. He begins to move again and his thumb rubs that one spot that intensifies the fire within.

  His hands grab my waist to direct me, and I embrace his cadence. The first burn is gone, replaced by waves of intensity that rock my core. His thrusts deepen, his breath on my mouth hot and heavy. The pressure inside me is growing, racing through my veins.

  The light of the sun slowly fades behind my closed lids, and my moans become choked—lost—as the pleasure he causes me rides up to new heights.

  His name is on my lips as I come with our mouths locked in a kiss. I can feel him stirring inside me a moment before he finds his own release.

  Afterwards, we lay still. Kellan’s eyes are shut, his ragged breathing slowly coming down. I watch him, enchanted and strangely nostalgic.

  This is it.

  I got what I wanted the first time I set my eyes upon him. A night with him. Only, our night together turned into a week and more moments that I ever dreamed of.

  And nowhere near enough.

  Even though we’re barely inches away, I know Kellan’s beyond my reach.

  His arms pull me close, until my head rests in the hollow of his shoulder. With the sun on my face, I close my eyes, enjoying the moment together, not knowing how many more we might have left.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

  A few minutes later, after I’ve come down from my orgasm, the world seems a little less surreal. Beautiful with the lake around us, but still less surreal. We’re not the only people in the world, but for a few moments, it sure felt like it.

  “I’ll need to take care of some business. Will you be okay on your own?” Kellan says and disentangles himself from our embrace. I don’t look at him getting dressed while I squeeze into my own clothes.

  “Sure,” I say, infusing as much casualness into my voice as I can muster. “When will you be back?”

  “Probably after the weekend.”

  My heart drops.

  Today is Friday. He’ll return on Monday, and I’m leaving tomorrow. Our little fuck didn’t mean anything. He made that clear right from the beginning. What I didn’t expect was for him to want to leave so abruptly.

  A little warning would have been nice.

  “So… I won’t see you again, will I?” I ask breathlessly.

  He says nothing, but he doesn’t have to.

  What is there to say?

  A wave of disappointment—fast and all-consuming—sweeps through me, and a strange pang of pain settles in my chest.

  That’s it.

  The end of my vacation.

  The end of us.

  We’re not going to spend the last night together. Nor the day after.

  I’ll leave and I’ll go back to my boring, old life, and he’ll remain the mystery he is. We’ll both move on. I didn’t expect it to be over so soon, and yet it is.

  “Feel free to stay as long as you want. When you’re ready to leave, just leave the keys under the flowerpot on the porch,” Kellan continues, oblivious to my thoughts. It seems so easy for him, as if he’s talking about a short trip, not the fact that he won’t ever see me again. “The mechanic finished all repairs on your car early this morning. You have new headlights, the engine’s running, and he’s even done a paint job. You’ll get back home safely.”

  He’s paying me off.

  I can’t believe it.

  What he’s done is so much worse than throwing a pity check at me.

  I swallow the lump in my throat.

  “You didn’t have to,” I say, my voice strangely choked.

  He shrugs. “I wanted to. It’s the least I can do after bumping your car.”

  God.

  That feels like an eternity ago.

  “Mandy should be back tomorrow, right?” Kellan asks, breaking the awkward silence.

  “Yeah. I’ll be busy packing up tonight.” I let out a forced laugh, the effort making my chest hurt. Everything makes me hurt. My entire body feels like a truck slammed into it. “She has so much stuff, and because her suitcase was too small, she crammed it all in mine.”

  His hands trail around my waist, and there’s another short, awkward silence. “I enjoyed my time with you very much.”

  His words sound so final, detached and resolute. He might as well have said, “I enjoyed fucking you,” and it would have made no difference.

  “So did I,” I whisper and look up to meet his questioning gaze. I know I shouldn’t ask, and yet I have to know. “Will you visit me in New York?”

  He regards me, hesitating. “I don’t think I’ll leave Montana for a while, but when I do, I’ll make sure you’re the first on my list.”

  His list.

  Yeah, the stupid list of women he’s fucked and wouldn’t mind a second helping of.

/>   My eyes feel moist. I break off his embrace and avert my gaze so that he won’t see the turmoil that I’m sure is written across my face.

  I’ve always hated saying goodbye. It feels too final, too heavy. But I knew this day would come after all. Kellan never made a secret out of it. I just didn’t expect it so soon. I just never expected that I’d enjoy my time with him so much.

  Kellan’s lips brush my neck, and as he kisses me, he whispers against my skin, “I’ll see you soon.”

  I want to believe him, but I can’t because I’m not stupid. All men say the same thing to make leaving easier. Maybe they believe it’ll soften the blow that it’s over.

  Or maybe they’re just liars and would rather feed a woman’s hope than deal with the drama that often accompanies honesty.

  Well, there won’t be any drama.

  “Yeah.” My body goes rigid as I force a cold smile to my lips. “We’ll stay in touch.”

  I close my eyes. He kisses my cheek before he turns and leaves. I don’t follow him back to the house. Instead, I lie down and close my eyes, barely able to hold back the tears I cannot allow myself to shed.

  When I head back inside, the house is depressingly empty and quiet.

  Kellan’s gone.

  Gone from my life, with no intention of coming back.

  Leaving behind memories that I know will hurt for a long time.

  ***

  “Ava!”

  Mandy’s screech reaches me through the fog inside my brain. I look up from washing the dishes and flinch at the pain shooting up my back. I’m so not used to working on the farm. My arms ache and my legs feel like they’re about to fall off.

  Kellan left last night.

  I was so immersed in my work and dark thoughts that I completely forgot the time.

  “In here!” I yell.

  The door bursts open and Mandy’s head pops in, a huge smile on her lips.

  “Howdy!” Dressed in a blue shirt and brown cowboy boots, she looks like she’s just stepped out of a western movie. Her hair’s curled into waves, which can only mean one thing: she’s found a hair stylist and shops.

  “What are you doing here?” I wipe my wet hands on a towel before Mandy engulfs me in a tight hug.

 
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