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Hearts Under Siege
By Natalie J. Damschroder, Nina Bruhns
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Natalie J. Damschroder
All rights reserved.
"You missed the turn."
"Dammit." Dragging himself out of his own head, Brady Fitzpatrick scowled at his best friend. Molly Byrnes smirked back at him and shoved her feet up onto the dashboard, her fingers dancing across her knees like they were a keyboard. He checked behind him and did a U-ie in the middle of the empty street. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"Because when I said something two turns ago, you growled at me." She pointed to the left. "There."
Brady made the turn and tried to remember what they'd been talking about, before he'd gotten lost in his thoughts. Right. True love. She'd razzed him for believing in it and said it wouldn't make a good pickup line. For who-knew-how-many miles, he'd brooded about the job offer from SIEGE, and how true love fit into it.
He cast another glance at Molly, who was now humming something unfamiliar. Probably an assignment for the composition class she hated, judging by the dark look on her face. That explained why she'd let him brood for so long.
"Check that, would you?" He motioned at the crumpled directions stuffed into the cup holder between them. "I thought we'd be at the station by now."
Molly heaved a sigh, dropped her feet, and pulled out the paper, comparing it to their location. "Couple more miles on the right, looks like." She went back to playing her knees. "So anyway, women aren't going to fall all over a guy just because he walks up and tells her he believes in true love."
"I'm not talking about picking up chicks," he protested. "I'm talking about relationships like my parents'." He squinted against the glare of the sun off a sign, trying to see if it was for the train station. His parents had moved from Massachusetts to Connecticut a few months ago, while he was at school, and he didn't know the area yet.
"Your parents are, like, the exception that proves the rule."
"Well, yeah, my parents are awesome." Molly's parents couldn't go five minutes without sniping, a whole day without a knockdown, drag-out fight. That was why she'd come down here with him for Thanksgiving instead of going home. "And they're not the only ones."
Molly snorted. "Name another couple you know who's been together longer than three years."
"There's —" He stopped. No, Sheri and Dave had been married less than two years. His aunt and uncle had just separated. Who else did he know? He couldn't believe he was going to lose this debate when it had barely started. Though it kind of answered his question about love versus work. "Anyway —" His phone rang, and he snatched it off his belt, ignoring Molly's derisive laugh. "Hello?"
"Did you get her yet? Where are you? Why didn't you call me?"
His brother. The reason he and Molly had ended up on this topic in the first place. "Geez, Chris. Chill. Her train's not due for another half hour."
"Dad said the trains are early sometimes." There was a tiny snap, and Brady knew his brother was biting his nails. He was really gone over this girl. "Make sure she knows I would have gotten her if Mom hadn't —"
"Don't worry, I know the story." Brady rolled his eyes. "I'll make her feel so welcome she won't even miss you."
"Okay, good. Hey, wait!"
Laughing, Brady shut the phone and dropped it into the console. "Chris is freaking out that we're going to miss the train."
Molly shook her head. "He really wanted to be the one to pick her up. What's her name again?"
Spotting the station parking lot up ahead, Brady flipped his turn signal and slowed the car. "Jessica. Sounds like a princess. Just his type."
"Yeah." She snorted again. "True love."
"Maybe." He parked and they stepped out into the sharp November air. Brady threw an arm around Molly when she shivered and hunched into her denim jacket. The sun was warm, but the wind, light as it was, still bit. They bickered as usual, crossing the lot and climbing the steps to the train platform. Brady glanced at his watch. Still a good twenty minutes until the train was supposed to arrive. He scanned the nearly empty platform almost automatically.
And then he saw her.
His gaze touched the woman, and an invisible fist slammed into his solar plexus, knocking every atom of oxygen out of his lungs. His vision narrowed, the edges fluttery and thin, and all he could see was ...
She sat on the bench against the wall of the ticket office, bent over what looked like a hardbound journal. Sleek blond hair hid her face, but as he watched she swept it back behind a perfectly shaped ear with a long-fingered, graceful hand. Her cheek curved sweetly, a lush pink mouth pursed in a bow, and when she blinked, her eyelashes glided through the air in slow motion.
True love whispered through his mind, and he knew, without a flicker of doubt, that she belonged to him.
Molly elbowed him, and the world came rushing back. The roar and clang of a train entering the station, the cold breeze in his face, the buzz of his phone at his waist. But still, he couldn't take his eyes off her.
She looked up. Bluish-hazel eyes, full of sparkling humor, met his. It filled him with euphoria and a sense of rightness. He had to meet her. Now.
"Fitzpatrick!" Molly yanked at his arm. "What's wrong with you?"
He ignored her and stepped forward, trying on a smile. The cold made it stiff. God, he probably looked like a dork. "Um, hi."
She beamed, her perfect lips seemingly unaffected by the temperature. "Hi. Brady?"
He blinked. She knew his name?
"Uh ... yeah. I'm —"
"Chris's brother, I know. He texted me that you were coming." She marked her page with the ribbon attached to the book, twisted her pen closed, and slid both into her bag before standing. She was the perfect height, a couple of inches below his.
Brady didn't know what to say. His brain wasn't processing this. She knew him? She couldn't. He'd remember if he'd met her before. Unless she'd been, like, fat or something. He squinted at her, and she laughed. No, he'd definitely remember that dancing trill. He'd remember thinking ridiculous words like "dancing trill."
Molly shoved him aside and took over.
"I'm Molly Byrnes. Sorry we made you wait. Brady didn't believe the train would be early." She held out her hand, and Brady's destiny shook it. The two women turned to walk toward the steps, Molly taking the handle of a small rolling suitcase he hadn't noticed. They were talking animatedly, as if they —
The second punch in the gut didn't have the same sense of wonder and joy. This one brought depressed understanding. This was Jessica. Chris's girlfriend. His brother's girlfriend. Fuck!
Molly glared at him over her shoulder, motioned toward the parking lot with her head. But Brady's feet felt cemented to the platform. How could this be happening? Everything lined up. They'd been talking about true love, and there she was. And he'd been struck, just as his father had always described feeling when he saw Brady's mother for the first time.
Okay, not everything lined up. There was that decision he had to make by the end of the year, the one that would dictate the direction of his entire life. The job offer from SIEGE — Strategic Infiltration of Enemy Group Enterprise — was one any guy would frickin' die for. The chance to do real good in the world. To fight terrorism in the information age. Protect his family. Be a hero. But he wouldn't be able to tell anyone about it. That was the part holding him back. He'd have to lie to his family, to Molly, for the rest of his life. He wasn't sure he was capable of that. But his original plans looked stable, responsible, and positively coma-inducing in comparison. He'd been weighing the options for weeks.
But shit, now instead of two paths in front of him, he had, like, ten. Okay, half of them were blocked, but there were always ways around obstacles, if you looked hard enough. He just had to look. Hard.
He blinked again. Molly stood at the top of the steps, this time frowning in concern. "You okay?"
"Yeah. Fine." He shook off his inertia. Maybe it's not serious, her and Chris. The thought galvanized him enough to follow the women to the car, but he still reeled internally, from the dual shock of finding his soul mate, and literally five seconds later losing her to his brother. But those two hadn't known each other that long. Chris had never had a long-term girlfriend. Three months was his record, as far as Brady could remember. Maybe he still had a chance.
"Is it a long drive to the house?" Jessica asked as they reached the car, and a buzz went down Brady's spine. He closed his eyes for a second, but of course she didn't keep talking. She'd asked a question. He realized Molly was staring at him from the back end of the car, Jessica standing next to her, waiting for him to answer. Also, probably, to open the trunk. Sheepish, he hit the button on the remote key and hurried to lift the suitcase into the empty space. Jessica thanked him, and this time the sensation down his spine was more like warm honey. He suppressed a shudder and slammed the trunk, testing to be sure it was latched, and hoped Jessica hadn't noticed his reactions. He peeked and found both women looking at him from the side of the car now. Crap. He still hadn't answered her question.
"About half an hour," he managed as he moved to the driver's door, and cursed when the key missed the lock and nicked the paint. Dad would notice that. He managed on his second try, and then, as he opened his door and reached for the unlock button, realized he should have opened the other side first, held the door for Jessica. Too late now. She'd already climbed into the back seat.
Pull it together, man. He leaned his forearms on the car roof for a moment. He sucked in a deep breath, letting the cold air clear his mind. He was acting like a doofus. Even if Chris wasn't serious about Jessica, even if they broke up soon and Brady had a clear field ... well, she wasn't going to want to have anything to do with her ex's dweeb little brother.
The phone buzzed again and Brady snatched it up. "What?"
"Did you get her?"
He blew out a breath. "Yes. We got her. We're on our way."
"Let me talk to her."
Brady hesitated. "Doesn't she have her own phone?"
"Don't be an ass, Brady, just give her the phone."
Brady lowered his arm but didn't open his car door. Handing over the phone was like handing over her. But that was stupid, she wasn't his to hand over. God, his stomach hurt.
The window slid down, and Molly, leaning across the seats, scowled up at him. "What's the deal?"
Brady handed her the phone. "It's Chris. For ... Jessica." His voice practically cracked on her name, and he stayed where he was until Molly handed the phone back a few moments later. He swallowed hard a few times and sucked in lots of air, trying to clear his head enough to drive. Nice start to a relationship, killing the woman he loved. Not.
Finally, he was in control — mostly — and they were on the road. Molly kept a constant stream of conversation going, twisted to face Jessica in the back seat and digging her bony knees into Brady's side. He thought she was doing it on purpose, but any time he looked at her, she seemed oblivious, totally focused on Jessica.
Luckily, the back roads of Connecticut weren't as busy as the highway. Otherwise, he'd have crashed them for sure during one of his peeks into the rearview mirror. The watery sunlight cast Jessica in a kind of glow that made his chest hurt. When she laughed at something Molly said, her teeth flashed, straight and perfect, no overbite or crooked canines. He had no idea what they were discussing. All he could think about was the sweet perfume filling the car, how soft her skin had to be, what she'd taste like when they kissed.
She's your brother's girlfriend, he told himself sternly when his fantasies dug beneath her off-white wool coat and cashmere scarf, wondering what kind of body they hid. Even if she and his brother weren't a serious couple, he couldn't make a move on Chris's girl!
Not until they broke up.
That would be too late, though. She'd be back at grad school in New York, and Brady would be up at UMass again, with almost an entire year of college left. He could transfer. He'd do it in an instant. He loved New York. But it was his senior year, and what if all his credits didn't transfer? That would be stupid. He couldn't damage his future over her. Then what would he have to offer? Plus, she and Chris might not break up before the end of the year. How would he tell SIEGE his decision with that still up in the air? If he said yes to their job offer, he'd have a hard time combining that kind of work and a new relationship. He didn't even know what their rules were about that kind of thing. He wasn't sure he could handle it. Too many secrets to keep track of. Too easy to make mistakes when you were new at both.
But so what? It would be worth it. He could always quit the stupid job, five-year minimum commitment be damned.
His thoughts spun on and on, counterpart to Molly and Jessica's barely heard conversation, until he suddenly realized they were on his parents' street. He'd retraced his route without even realizing it. He pulled in behind Chris's old Nissan and shut off the car.
"I'll let them know we're here." Molly leapt out and dashed up the walkway.
Brady's heart pounded as he met Jessica at the trunk. "I've, uh, got it." He raised the lid and reached for her bag.
"Thanks." She brushed a few strands of hair off her face. "You've been awfully quiet. I'm sorry if we —"
"It's Molly," he interrupted, then felt himself blush at his rudeness. Blush, for cripes sake! "She never shuts up. It was nice to be able to tune her out for a few minutes, let someone else pick up the slack." When she laughed, his shoulders dropped a fraction and he felt looser, less tense. "Seriously, she's my best friend, but she knows how to keep a conversation going. I didn't have anything to add." Since I wasn't paying attention.
"Thanks for picking me up and everything." She looked toward the house, then back at him, her smile blinding him to anything else again. "I'm a little nervous about meeting your folks."
"Don't be, they're cool." He lifted his eyes to meet hers as she brushed at her hair again, blown back into her face by the breeze. Her light fragrance wafted toward him. It was something Brady couldn't identify, but it made him think of hunger. Heat swelled in his chest, reminding him of fifteen years ago, when he'd been five and begging his parents for one of the puppies their neighbor was selling. Longing. That's what it was.
Jessica didn't look away immediately, but paused, and her eyes seemed to refocus, really seeing him.
She looked startled, then scared, then nothing, her expression a pleasant mask. But a thrill of excitement went through Brady. She'd felt it, too.
She spun, and the connection disappeared. Disappointment replaced thrill. Brady shut the trunk and picked up the suitcase, stopping to watch Chris engulf Jessica in a hug, then kiss her as if they hadn't seen each other in a month instead of three days. Jessica accepted the kiss, no hesitation, and Brady wondered if he'd imagined the moment of connection. If he'd just wanted it so badly he'd projected it onto her.
But no, as he followed them across the yard and up the steps of the old colonial that was Rick and Donna Fitzpatrick's new home, Jessica glanced over her shoulder, then quickly back to where his mother stood in the doorway, beaming at them all. He wasn't imagining the wariness that was now in Jessica's expression.
Hope took root, a tiny glimmer deep in his heart. He couldn't betray his brother, for God's sake. He could not go after Jessica. But if she wanted him ... well, nothing he could do about that, right?
A few minutes later, he'd escaped the annoying greetings in the foyer to bring Jessica's suitcase upstairs. He was standing next to the guest room bed, telling himself he had no right to even think about opening the case, when Molly appeared in the doorway.
"What the hell are you doing?" she hissed in a loud whisper, glancing down the hallway before coming in and grabbing his arm. "Get out of here."
"What?" But Brady let her pull him down the hall into the bedroom they were sharing, the one with his and Chris's old twin beds. His parents were letting Chris and Jessica use the double bed in the guest room, and Brady fought a surge of jealousy, thinking about it.
"Will you get a grip?" Molly let go of him and shut the door. "I can't believe you."
Excerpted from Hearts Under Siege by Natalie J. Damschroder, Nina Bruhns. Copyright © 2014 Natalie J. Damschroder. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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