Charged, p.20
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       Charged, p.20

           Jay Crownover
slower 1  faster

  She didn’t ask about court. She didn’t ask about the mountains. She didn’t demand attention or validation. She took what I had to offer and snuggled into my side as she traced the wings tattooed on my chest in a lazy caress. She was content to simply be here with me, and what I offered seemed to be enough for her. I liked a lot of things about this young woman, but the fact that she wasn’t asking for more than I had to give was at the top of the list. Her unassuming and undemanding nature made me want to dig deep into a well that I was sure had run dry, in order to provide her with more than the bare bones of the emotions I had left. I wanted to give to Avett, as much as I wanted to take from her.

  I fell asleep with her head on my shoulder and her hand resting over my heart. I woke up with the sun hitting me in the face and Avett’s sassy mouth wrapped around my dick, while her small hand played with my balls. It was the nicest wake-up call that I had ever gotten, and it had me smiling all morning long. I did my best to put a similar smile on her face, and by the time we were done destroying my bed and each other, it was well past time for us to get on the road. The bike was fast, but the drive up to the mountains was still over treacherous passes and the weather was always unpredictable in late fall. I was trying to get the girl out of danger, not put her in more of it.

  I had a leather jacket and a helmet that I bought for Lottie and had never been used. Avett made a face when I told her where the gear came from, but she still put it on and climbed on the back of the bike behind me, like a pro. A street bike was nothing like a Harley, but the basics of how to ride on the back of one were the same. That meant she got to wrap herself around me, that I got to have her hands pressed low and tight across my middle, with her legs squeezing me tightly as we moved together around each of the switchbacks that led up to the mountain. She moved like she had been born on the back of a bike, which I guess she kind of had been. But she also moved so in sync and so perfectly with me that all I wanted to do was find a place to pull over so I could bend her over the bike and bury myself inside her, so deeply and fully that she wouldn’t be able to remember what it was like to not have me inside of her.

  It took several hours as we passed through small mountain town after small mountain town, each one more exclusive and more elite than the last. The tourists were out in force, making their way into the mountains to watch the leaves change and for a last-minute getaway before the snow moved in. We rode hard and fast, zipping around traffic and chasing the wind higher and higher up in elevation, the leaves turning from leafy green to vivid yellow and red the farther away from the city we got. It had been years since I’d been here and I’d spent so much time blocking out the memories that I almost passed the outcropping of rocks that led to the small turnoff where I knew there was a small, flat area where I could park the bike.

  I pulled off the road, parked behind the boulders. I waited until Avett climbed off from her perch behind me and then swung my leg over the bike. We pulled our helmets off at the same time, and I loved the way her candy-colored hair floated around her face and down around her shoulders. She looked around the densely wooded area that surrounded us with trepidation and awe stamped clearly on her face. We’d left behind the glitz and polish of the nearest designer ski town miles and miles ago.

  “Where are we?”

  I rubbed my hand through my hair and pocketed the keys to the bike. “This is the back side of the White River National Forest.”

  She laughed a little and reached out to put her helmet on the bike next to mine. “Okay. It’s really pretty and clearly no gun-toting bad guys are going to follow us all the way up here, but we didn’t pack anything to camp with in those backpacks. So I’m officially confused as to where we’re going and what we’re doing.”

  I took her hand in mine and started for the trees. There used to be a path worn in the brush, a path I made as I walked over a mile each way every single day through these very woods to get to the bus stop, regardless of the weather outside. The path had long since grown over but suppressed memory and ancient instinct made my steps sure as I pulled Avett deeper and deeper into the thick foliage.

  “I told you I was taking you somewhere safe, somewhere you can relax and not worry for a few days. That’s exactly what I’m doing. No one knows this place exists.”

  She was panting a little as she trudged along behind me, doing her best to keep up with my longer stride and to step carefully over fallen logs and hidden rocks.

  “If no one knows that it exists, how do you know about it?” That was a valid question and after forty-five minutes of trudging through rough and unforgiving terrain we came into the clearing where my entire past and childhood rested.

  I looked at Avett as she came to a stumbling halt next to me. Her pretty eyes widened until they took up half of her face as she turned her head to look at me with questions overflowing in her gaze.

  “Quaid?”

  I pointed to the cabin and shrugged as I told her, “That’s where I grew up.”

  She breathed out a disbelieving little laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

  I grunted and took a few hesitant steps towards the building as memory upon memory assaulted me, making my steps falter and unsteady. “I’m not. My dad bought this land and a few surrounding acres when he was about your age. He and my mom had a dream of being modern day homesteaders, of living off the land and off the grid. But even when you live strictly off the land, you still have to pay the government for that privilege. My folks owed thousands and thousands of dollars in back taxes on the property. When I got out of the army, I found out that they had pulled up stakes and moved with my brother to some godforsaken part of Alaska, to live on a lake in a roughly constructed houseboat. It sounds like a made-up story, but it’s one hundred percent true. They are as off grid as anyone can get, in a place it takes dogsleds and snowmobiles to get to. I haven’t spoken to them or my little brother in years. I don’t even know if they know about my divorce.”

  She blinked at me as she tried to process all the information I was giving to her.

  “They’re like those people on that show Ice Lake Rebels?”

  I snorted out a surprised laugh that she even kind of knew what I was talking about. “Yeah, something like that.”

  “You’re right, that doesn’t sound like a real story, but it also sounds … sad? Don’t you miss them? How can they not miss you?” She sounded worried as I tugged on her hand and pulled her towards the rustic, wooden structure. “And if they’re in Alaska, doesn’t that mean we’re trespassing right now? I probably shouldn’t get arrested again now that I’m finally figuring out how to do the right thing once in a while.”

  “We’re not trespassing. After I started working for the firm, I contacted the man that purchased the land at auction. He was using the cabin as a hunting lodge. I offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse and told him he could continue to use the property during hunting season, so he sold it back to me.” I cut her a sideways look. “I think I thought my folks would move back if they knew they could have the land with no governmental strings attached to it, but they never did. They like their life the way it is too much to come back, and I think they wrote me off the minute I told them I was joining the military. They never understood why I wanted out, or why I wanted more than the land could provide for me. I haven’t been here since the day I left for boot camp.”

  She whistled softly and squeezed the hand that was still gripping hers. “That has to sting.”

  I pushed the door open and froze in place at the sight of the barren walls and dusty floorboards. It looked so much like it had when I was growing up. Four walls dotted with cracked windows, a minimal kitchen, a loft with a thin mattress and another one on a cot in the corner. There was a threadbare couch in front of an old wood burning stove and a table made from one of the pines that surrounded the cabin. There wasn’t even a bathroom in the cabin. That meant every night I would sprint across the forest floor to the makeshift house that was nothing more than som
e plywood and a hole in the ground, taking care of business while wondering if I was going to run across a bear or a mountain lion.

  “It did sting. It still does when I allow myself to think about it now. When I first shipped out and I had no clue what to expect, no idea where I would end up or if the risk I took in enlisting would pay off or end up getting me killed, it sucked that I didn’t have their support or encouragement. My girlfriend at the time, who is now my ex-wife, really seemed like the only person I had in the world. I think that’s why I was so oblivious when our marriage started to fall apart. She was my only tie to this life, and she was the only one that didn’t leave me when I was my most uncertain. It was all an act, but it was an act that kept me going when I was a terrified and lonely kid headed to war.”

  The cabin was empty, modest, and bucolic. This was what having only what you needed to survive was all about, and it was so different from the way I lived now I had no idea how either man lived within the same body.

  I looked at the girl that had brought me back here, the girl that had made it impossible to pretend anymore. I wanted her to see that we weren’t as different as she thought we were, that we didn’t come from the same place, but that was because the place I came from was this vacant, humble existence. I came from nothing, and she didn’t.

  “This” —I gestured with my hand to indicate the sad space around us— “is why I have two thousand dollar sheets and ugly but expensive artwork on the walls. When you have nothing your entire childhood, when you don’t get to eat unless you can kill dinner, and when you don’t get to be warm unless you’ve chopped a stack of firewood as tall as you were, you want things. You want comfort and ease. You want luxury and extravagance. You want to be the kid that doesn’t get made fun of for being dirt poor. You want to be the guy that gets the girl you should never be able to get. You want to be the kid that gets to see a doctor when you slice your side open chopping wood, not sewn together on the kitchen table and told to toughen up because you cried each time the needle dug into your skin. You want so many things when this is how you live. You want everything, and even that’s not enough, because there is always more. So you work your ass off to get those things, and even though you realize that it’ll never be enough, you keep working and you keep acquiring. My entire adult life has been about getting enough things to cover all of this up and to show my parents that I made the right choice by leaving and getting out, even though they’ve never seen and wouldn’t appreciate anything about the man I am now.”

  Avett pulled her hand free, and I thought she was going to make some smart remark about the outhouse or about the fact that I had basically grown up Little House on the Prairie style, but all she did was wrap her arms around me from behind and press herself into my back. I felt her cheek rest between my shoulder blades and her voice, even though she spoke quietly, echoed loudly in the desolate space.

  “It’s so much easier to see you here than it is when you’re surrounded by all those things, Quaid.”

  I sighed and put my hands over hers. “That’s because there’s nowhere to hide here.”

  I was done hiding, from her and from the rest of the world.

  CHAPTER 13

  Avett

  It was becoming disgustingly obvious that reaching for the remote and running after the wrong kind of men was not adequate exercise as I huffed and puffed to keep up with Quaid’s long-legged stride as he wound his way through the forest surrounding the cabin. Apparently, even the acrobatic and endless amounts of breathless sex I’d been having with the right kind of man wasn’t enough in the cardio department because I felt like I was going to die, and we’d only been hiking through the woods for an hour or so. Quaid wanted to show me something on the property. A place that he insisted was worth the burning thighs and collapsed lungs I was sure I was going to have by the time we got there. I couldn’t deny the wistful sparkle that lightened his pale eyes even more as he told me about spending hours with his younger brother, climbing on the rocks and jumping off the outcropping into the small mountain lake below. He promised the sound of the waterfall that fed the pool of frigid water was soothing and relaxing, and even though nature was not necessarily my thing, there was no way I was going to deny him this trip down memory lane that he obviously needed to take.

  I groaned as I stumbled over a root I didn’t see and slammed into his broad back. The noise turned into a soft sigh as one of his arms reached around blindly to steady me. He was always doing that … steadying me. It made my heart flutter and the part deep down inside of me that always hurt, that forever pulsed with regret and pain, felt less vast and infinite.

  “You okay back there?” Humor tinted his deep voice and pulled at his mouth as he looked over his shoulder at me.

  I wrinkled my nose at him. “I’ll make it, but you might have to carry me back to the cabin.”

  He laughed and lifted one of his golden eyebrows at me. “You’ve got years and years ahead of you before you’ll need someone to carry you back, Avett.”

  I poked him between his shoulder blades and sidestepped something that looked like a pile of wild animal droppings. I still couldn’t believe this forest was his backyard and that he knew his way around the rugged terrain like it had only been yesterday when he was running through the trees. It didn’t fit with the flawless suits and the meticulously decorated loft. He had a lot going on beneath those silk ties he liked to wear.

  “Thirty-something isn’t exactly three thousand, and I think it’s obvious which one of us needs to spend some time in the gym. Spoiler alert—it isn’t the guy with the perfect ass who hasn’t even broken a sweat.”

  He chuckled again, and let his gaze sweep over me from the messy pink topknot to the dusty tips of my combat boots. “I like you just the way you are.”

  They were simple words, but they mattered so much. The only other person in my entire life that had liked me just the way I happened to be was my dad. I didn’t even like me just the way I was most of the time.

  “Thank you.”

  He cocked his head a little to the side and we stared at each other for a long moment before he nodded sharply and muttered, “You’re welcome.”

  We walked in silence for a few more minutes until the trees thinned out and we were suddenly in a clearing at the top of a soaring embankment. The rocks were stacked on top of one another as rushing water spilled over the natural sculpture. It was beautiful, majestic, and so stunning that the last of the breath I had in my lungs was sucked away in awe.

  The sound of the water falling and splashing into the pool below was so loud I could hardly hear Quaid as he told me, “This is it. This was my favorite place in the whole world to spend time when I was growing up. When I was deployed and I spent day after day seeing nothing but sand and desert, I used to dream about this spot at night.”

  He grabbed my hand and tugged me towards the edge of the rocks that jutted out over the crystal clear mountain water. It was probably a forty-to fifty-foot drop and the water was so clear I could see all the way to the bottom of the pond.

  “It’s beautiful here. I can see why you kept the memories of this place with you when you were trying to forget the rest of this life.”

  When he turned his head to look at me, he was frowning and his jaw was hard. I wanted to lift my fingers and stroke them across the dark blond scruff but he turned his face back towards the impressive vista and muttered, “I forgot. I spend so much time pretending this life never happened and denying that I was ever the kid that came from here that I forgot that there was this kind of good here, too.”

  I moved so that I was standing next to his side and inhaled so deeply that it felt like there wasn’t any room left inside of me for the guilt and shame that I always breathed in and out, because the clean mountain air invaded every part of me that it touched. It was cleansing and startlingly eye-opening.

  I moved to the edge of the rocks and looked down. “Did you ever jump off of here? It looks like a long ways down.” A
whisper of an idea and the spark of a challenge started to skirt across my skin, and it made my blood pump harder and faster through my veins.

  Quaid put his arm around my midsection and pulled me back so that I was pressed against his chest and not leaning precariously over the edge.

  “Yeah, my brother, Harrison, and I used to dare each other to jump. Most of the time it’s fine if you hit the water right but when the weather changes the surface ices up pretty fast and the runoff is always really fucking cold. Harrison leaped without looking once when we were teenagers and ended up with a broken arm.” I felt him stiffen behind me and his arm locked like a vice across my stomach. “My folks refused to take him to the hospital. My dad tried to set the break himself and my mom made a sling out of aspen branches and a torn sheet. It never healed right and Harrison never had full use of his hand again.”

  I put my hand over his and rubbed my fingers over the tension-laden fingers that were digging into my side. “Harrison and Quaid. You guys ended up with some pretty uppity names for kids that grew up off the land in the middle of nowhere.” I was trying to ease some of the rigidity that was coursing through the big body hovering behind mine, but he stiffened even more and laughed without an ounce of humor. In fact, the noise that escaped him almost made him sound like he was in soul-deep pain.

  “Quaid isn’t even my actual first name. My mom had a thing for ’80s movie stars and her two favorites were Harrison Ford and Dennis Quaid.” His tenor dropped a little. “I never really felt like a Dennis, so I’ve always been a Quaid.”

  I could tell he was struggling with the past and the way it was piling on top of his present, but I couldn’t hold back the giggle that bubbled up when he told me how he had ended up with his unusual moniker. “Dennis? You don’t really look like a Dennis, but I can be persuaded to try it out the next time we’re in bed.”

 
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JAY CROWNOVER SERIES:

Marked Men

 

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