Chapter One – Remy
I don’t know how to start this letter, or if I should even be writing you one. You just lost your husband, and I… lost one of my best friends. I don’t think any of us will know what’s the right thing to do. Not for a long time. What I know is that I can’t imagine the pain you must be feeling. Knowing Danny won’t be there for the birth of your son. Or his son’s first day of school. Or any of those things that you’ve dreamed of since you were a little girl.
I can’t make this right, and I know me writing to tell you that is practically useless.
But I’m here.
Tearing up the weather-worn letter I’ve been working on for a month and a half in the middle of the desert during my deployment suddenly seems like a great idea. Until I glance over my shoulder to see Lincoln Hayes, my best friend, staring out at the desert with a defeated expression on his face. Like the entire world is gone. For him, though, it practically is.
“Fuck,” I mutter once more.
Rather than tear up the letter I can’t even bring myself to finish, I fold it into the same tight square as before and slip it back into the pocket over my left breast, closing my eyes briefly as its negligible weight returns to my chest. Suddenly, I feel like I can breathe again.
“One more month, Remy. One more month.” Linc’s voice hits me like a freight train. Since the accident, I don’t think I’ve heard more than one word from him at a time. “Then we’re out of this hell.”
His eyes never leave the anchor he’s been staring at every single day since the accident.
“Do you think you’re going to go home?” I cough, trying to cover the heavy emotions I feel digging into my chest. “To see your mom. Parker.” Even saying her name sends a chill down my spine.
Stop. The order is useless, though. I’ll never not think about Parker Hayes. I haven’t before, and I won’t now. She’s always been the perfect contradiction, wrapped in sass and fire. Everything that makes the wet dreams of a teenager come to life.
Linc’s shoulders tense, and then he sighs, slumping into something that doesn’t resemble my best friend in the slightest. “No. I can’t see her. Not yet. Not until I have something to tell her.”
But he isn’t talking about Parker. Nor is he talking about his mom. I can tell that much by the way his eyes dart over my face, almost afraid of what I’ll say next.
Hell, I’d be afraid too, honestly.
“Kennedy’ll wait for you.” I take the high road, and deserve a fuckin’ trophy for it. “She’ll be hurt, and no doubt will give you all sorts of shit about it. But you lost your brother, Linc. You deserve some time to figure out your life, to salvage what’s left of your happiness.”
“She’s your sister, man.” Linc closes his eyes, wrapping his hands around his face. His pain filters through the short distance between us, bringing me into the circle of his grief and desolation.
“Yeah.” I shrug. “But Kennedy knew exactly what she was getting into. There’s a reason I didn’t go after my heart.” Flashes of Parker fill my mind, and I’m powerless to stop them.
Her, dancing under a sky full of stars when we went camping during high school.
Her, running around the field next to the elementary school in eighth grade, trying to get away from something in a distant memory.
Her, on the first day of school, walking in and knocking me on my six-year-old ass, without even knowing it.
Her, never knowing that she owned me.
And she never will.
“I’m sorry.” The words feel wrong, like acid pouring out of my throat, and I wish like hell that I could take them back. That I never had to utter them in the first place.
“They got the debris cleaned up.” Linc’s emotionless eyes shift back to the familiar desert. “Where Danny’s chopper went down. You can’t even tell anymore.”
“Let’s go.” I grab my rifle, sitting against the Humvee that Linc has taken up an almost permanent position against.
Linc doesn’t follow, at least not at first. A few seconds later, though, he pushes himself away from the truck and comes with me. Every step seems hesitant, forced out of him.
I can’t blame him. Hell, with every step, I am thrust back to that day. The one when we all lost Danny. Linc? He lost more than the rest of us. He lost his brother—his twin. When he came back from emergency leave, he did so with a piece of his soul missing.
Silence falls between us, where it never would have before, as we approach the scene of Danny’s accident.
“He’s not gone,” I tell him bluntly. “You think he’s gone. But he’s not. He’s here. Watching over you, watching her. Making sure you’re covered.”
I stand in silence, with my eyes on anything but Linc, while he grieves. That, and I didn’t clear it with anyone for us to head out through the gate. Honestly, though, I don’t give a fuck anymore. Not when this godforsaken place has stolen so much from us. I don’t want to die, though, so I keep an eye on our surroundings and pray that a firefight doesn’t come raining down on top of our heads.
“Thank you, Remy.” Linc clears his throat, and we both ignore the obvious signs that he’s been crying.
“No problem. Now, let’s get back before they notice we vanished for ten minutes.”
Linc laughs bitterly. “You kiddin’ me? No one will even look at me right now. I doubt they’ll even notice we’re gone.”
I know it’s completely ridiculous, but I swear to every god in the sky that in this moment, I feel Danny here with us. Walking back to the gate as we cross the border back into camp, he vanishes.
A month later, Linc and I are headed in two distinctly separate directions, two different stations. Another unit was short a man, and Linc volunteered. He won’t be going home any time soon, I know that. But then again, neither am I. Time and space are two things I need far away from Birch County. That, and I’m not man enough to admit the truth.
“You gonna keep the promise?” Linc’s question catches me off guard and I almost trip as we step off the plane.
The only thing that keeps me from tumbling down the airplane steps like a fuckin’ kid is the fact that I have a tight grip on the handrail.
“The promise you made that night after the wedding. To watch out for Parker.”
When I turn around, there is a glint in Linc’s eye. The same one he always gets when we’re on patrol and something is about to go sideways.
I try to keep my mouth shut. Really I do. And then he goes and drives a knife through my chest without even trying.
“If you love her, the way you had to in order to give her up, then you’ll be there for her.” His eyes cut straight through every barrier I’ve kept up for the last two years. The same ones I’ve constructed to keep her out.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I lie. He knows it too. I see the way his left eye ticks, when he struggles to keep himself under control.
We finally make it off the tarmac and into the airport’s lobby, trying to blend in as well as two Marines in uniform can. Even blending in as well as we can doesn’t give me a break from Linc’s continued glare. If anything, it becomes even more obvious, when we take our seats in the same fuckin’ terminal.
I can’t catch a break.
“I’m waiting for an answer, Remy.” He doesn’t wait for my answer, though, when he sees the coffee shop open across the lobby.
With a sharp glance, he leaves me alone at least for a moment. When he returns with two cups of black coffee, I almost groan. It’s been so long since I had a decent cup that I’m not sure my body will know what to do with it.
“Here.” Linc hands the second coffee over, and I don’t care about the heat. I drink that bitch straight down.
“I’ll do it,” I practically snarl. “I’ll keep an eye on her. But that’s it.”
Linc opens his mouth to give me some sort of smart-ass retort, no doubt. Before he can, though, the PA system turns on and his plane starts loading.
That doesn’t stop him from pointing a threatening finger at me and narrowing his eyes.
“This isn’t over, shithead. I know you love her. So did Danny, otherwise he would have never asked you to take care of her if anything happened to him.”
I don’t call him out on his bullshit, even though I want to more than anything. Him and Kennedy are different than Parker and me. He’s been in love with my sister forever, and she knows it. She’s given him a chance. Parker doesn’t have a clue how I feel, and she never will.
Still, when the terminal empties and I have nothing left but time as I wait the twelve hours for my flight, all I can do is think about that night. Reliving the haunting memories that I’ll never be able to forget.
Needing to breathe, I go to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face. While I clutch either side of the porcelain sink in front of the metal mirror, I hardly recognize the man staring back at me.
Dark circles have taken up permanent residence under my eyes, and with them the now-familiar haunted expression that I’ll never escape. I close my eyes, hoping to escape the nightmare that follows me everywhere.
“Thank you,” Danny slurred drunkenly. “For pushing her away.”
“I didn’t do anything.” The lie slipped out easily enough when we were at Lucy’s Bar, drinking before we left Birch the next day. “She chose you.”
Danny snorted, and his eyes went to the woman he’d married that morning, with me and his brother as witnesses.
“She’s not mine, and we both know it. I fucked up. And this is the only way to fix it. For now. We’ll fix it, though, and right now the baby is enough.”
I cringed at his words and bit my tongue, wanting to remind him that a baby was never a good reason to get married. But I didn’t. It wasn’t my place. It would never be my place, no matter what he said.
Suddenly sounding very much sober, Danny grabbed my shoulder. He waited until I glanced up from the bottle of beer I’d been nursing half the night as I tried not to stare at Parker. She was sitting across the bar with a group of her friends, my sisters among them.
“I didn’t mean to take her.” His voice broke. “Love her. Any of it. But if something happens to me. My family wouldn’t forgive me if I left her pregnant.”
Bristling, I tried to shrug him off, but he held tight. “Come on, Danny. Nothing’s gonna happen.”
“I didn’t mean to, Remy. You gotta know that. You’re my best friend, and I know.” He hiccupped. “I know you love her. I’ll do my best.”
“It’s fine,” I hedged. Nothing is ever going to be okay again. Not when he’s got her. “She’s having your baby. She’s got your ring on her finger.” Even though I wanted to scream from a mountain that I’d always protect her, if she were mine. I didn’t. She wasn’t mine. She’d never be mine. He made sure of it.
“No.” Danny shook his head somberly. “I know you say it’s fine.” He swallowed another gulp from the beer in his hand. “It’s not. I didn’t want her, Remy. Not really. But you …” He looked around, making sure no one was close enough to eavesdrop. “You’re the only one who deserves her love. The only one who deserves to love her.”
I swallowed hard at his words, trying to figure out how to lie to one of my best friends.
In the end, I didn’t have to. He got up, stumbling over himself, and I was saved from myself.
Until my eyes caught her. Where Parker should have had the biggest smile on her face, she looked almost sad.
If she were mine, I’d protect her.
And right there, more sober than I’d ever been in my entire life… I make a promise to the woman I pushed away.
A silent, broken, ruinous promise that I knew will destroy me one day.
“I’ve got your six, Parker.” The whisper leaves my lips, and I swear I feel the world shift on its axis.
“I’m sorry.” I open my eyes, feeling once more like he’s standing right next to me. “I don’t think I can keep my promise.”
“Yeah you can.” Danny’s voice echoes in my head, a faint memory of words he never said. “Let yourself love her.”
“One day,” I whisper to my best friend’s ghost. “Maybe one day.”
I walk away, refusing to admit I’m lying yet again.