PRAISE FOR THE CONNECTIONS SERIES
ALSO BY KIM KARR
Zachary Flowers | August
Let’s be honest.
Nightclubs aren’t about dancing. They’re not about drinking. They’re about the chase—about scoring.
So any guy volunteering to wait in line and sweat his balls off to be given the privilege to pay a ridiculous cover, squeeze his way through a jam-packed bar, spend twenty-five dollars on a Red Bull and vodka, and scream over the blaring music—all with no guarantee of getting laid—is out of his fucking mind.
I mean, come on!
The corner joint has just as much potential as any fancy-ass club, if not more, with its far less discriminating patrons and cheaper drinks.
Nate’s mouth stretches into a huge-ass grin. “We’ve arrived.”
“No shit.” If Nate’s a-little-too-excited announcement hasn’t alerted me, the flashing lights of the neon sign that read THE BALLROOM certainly has. Fucking A, the sign nearly blinds me. One glance out the window and I’m ready to turn around and go home. The line is just as I expected—miles and miles long. I consider making a quick exit with a more than friendly “Peace out,” but something makes me stick around.
Nate slows the car to wait in traffic and grips my shoulder. “I almost forgot. Happy birthday, my friend.”
I shrug his hand off me. “Fuck birthdays. I still can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”
The CEO of Skyline Holdings, who also happens to be my best friend, pulls his decked-out Range Rover up to the curb. “Come on, man—it’s not every day that a guy turns a year older.”
Yeah, twenty-seven—what a great fucking year to look forward to.
Generation after generation, several members of my family have died—not all of them, but enough of them to warrant concern—at the age of twenty-seven.
My great-great-great uncle jumped from the roof of a building during the depression; my great-great aunt’s daughter drowned in a lake; my grandfather died in the Vietnam War; and my mother overdosed.
All were twenty-seven.
All died tragically.
Based on those odds, there’s a very good chance I could be next.
So yeah, like I said—great fucking year.
“You know what they say, don’t you, Z?” Nate’s enthusiastic voice brings me out of my sullen disposition.
“I think I do, Nate, but please tell me again.” I try to suppress the sarcastic tone oozing through my words, but it isn’t easy.
Some douche bag wearing a red jacket pulls Nate’s door open and Nate practically howls at the moon, “Live life in the fast lane!”
My door swings wide seconds later. I step out while reaching into my pocket to retrieve a pack of Marlboros, needing a quick one before we enter the nonsmoking zone. “I hope that’s just what you’ve been doing, because I might just kill you after I wait in this line.”
Nate hands the valet a wad of cash and waits for a ticket. “Please, you know me better than that.”
I can’t stop my lips from tilting upward. “I should have guessed you’d have an in,” I mumble while sticking a cig between my lips. “How’d you swing something like this?”
He shrugs. “A friend of mine works close by, and she wanted to introduce me to someone.”
“She?” My brows wiggle in excitement.
Nate just shakes his head at me.
Typically, Nate’s an all business or all play kind of guy; so coming to a club doesn’t fit his MO. Skydiving, the track, a quick trip to the casinos in the Bahamas—that’s more his speed. I was wondering what brought this outing about, and now I know.
Nate and a girl.
My curiosity is piqued. For the five years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him with the same girl twice. In fact, he’s a love-’em-and-leave-’em kind of guy.
Over the flare of the lighter, I study my friend as he circles around the car. Nate Hanson, a freak of nature—a geek and a god all in one. A guy who gets what he wants without even trying. And oddly enough, he just doesn’t take advantage of all the beautiful women at his feet like he should.
I couldn’t even tell you the last time he got laid.
Me—I’m the complete opposite. I take what I can get whenever it’s offered.
With a deep inhale, I let the smoke slowly slide from my lungs. Nate meets up with me on the sidewalk and I can’t help but tell him, “You know, I’m actually looking forward to tonight.”
He looks over at me. “Glad to hear it. Now let’s go inside so we can start celebrating.”
I roll my eyes at that.
Enjoy the beginning of the year I might die?
Hard to do.
The thought of new beginnings strikes a chord somewhere deep within me. I look right at him. “Starting tonight, I have a new motto to try out.”
He raises a brow. “Oh yeah? Let’s hear it.”
“Screw living life in the fast lane. How about: Live like you’re dying?”
I haven’t told Nate what this year means, but I will soon.
Seemingly unfazed by my changing our long-adhered-to motto, he grins at me. “Sounds like a great plan. Let’s get started.”
That’s the problem—I don’t have a plan, but I need one for the first time in my life.
Nate walks toward the entrance, ignoring the fact that the back of the line is miles in the other direction.
Horns blow as a pack of chicks with banging bodies walk by, taking my head with them.
I love women—every single one of them.
God knew what he was doing when he created them.
In fact, I think fucking would be the thing I’d miss the most if something happened to me—if you can actually miss anything after you die, that is.
Nate looks over at me. “What’s the smirk for?”
My head snaps back, and I point behind us. “Didn’t you just see them?”
He raises his shoulders as if he doesn’t have a fucking clue what I’m talking about.
“Never mind. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, and I think this might be the year I finally settle down.”
“You’re fucking nuts. You know that?”
I can’t help but laugh. “Never said I wasn’t.”
“Who knows, Prince Charming? Maybe you’ll meet the love of your life inside.”
My mood having lifted with my outlook on life, I respond, “That’s the problem. How to pick just one when I love them all?”
He picks up the pace. “Come on. Keep up with me, will you?”
I exhale my last puff, looking for a place to put my cig out before catching up to him. A skirt walks by with legs longer than any supermodel. “Fuck, she’s hot.”
Nate shakes his head. “You’re one horny motherfucker. Screw finding your Cinderella. Face it, you could never settle for just one.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. I can’t help it though—there’s nothing like the touch of a woman. And at least I take the time to admire what this beautiful city has to offer, unlike some people I know.”
He shoots me a glance. “Waste of time, man.”
I grab my chest and stumble backwards. “Yeah, so you’ve said many times. Your philosophy on romance always breaks my heart.”
“Well, get used to it. You should just stop searching now because if you do find someone, she’ll only end up breaking your heart in the end.”
The truth is, I’ll only break hers if my fucking legacy ends up fulfilling itself. But I already decided that I can’t live this year thinking that way. Instead of crying the blues, I tell him how I feel about his outlook on love. “You kill me, man, you really do.”
“Gives you something to talk about.”
My cell vibrates, and I pull it out of my pocket. I glance at the screen and can’t hide my grin. It’s a text with a picture attached of my sister next to a chocolate birthday cake. Chocolate because it’s her favorite, and she’ll be the only one eating it.
Nate glances over. “Your booty call for the night?”
I glare at him. “No, it’s my sister wishing me happy birthday.”
Zoey has called me about five times today. I usually go home for my birthday, but running the gallery full-time means I just can’t swing it this year.
He grabs my phone to look at the photo. “Why is it she’s never come to visit in all the years I’ve known you?”
I shrug. “Mimi was sick most of the time, so it was just easier for me to go home.”
Zoey is the single most important person in my life. She’s the ray of sunshine you can see through the clouds. She’s the light at the end of the tunnel. She has always believed in me when no one else has. She has also always kept me moving forward when there were times I thought I might not be able to.
I owe her everything.
All I want is for her to be happy.
She deserves it.
I’m hoping she’ll find happiness as soon as all the shit she’s had to worry about is taken care of; then she can finish her schooling. I need to find a way to help her—soon. No matter what, her name will have the abbreviation “Dr.” before it.
I’ll make sure of it—no matter what. I’ve let her down too many times already in my life not to come through this time.
“The birthday cake is sweet, but it’s time to put sweet away and celebrate for real,” Nate says.
I fire back with a little sarcasm. “The anticipation is fucking killing me.”
“You know what, Flowers? You’re a piece of work,” he laughs.
I laugh along and allow my gaze to wander. Nate patiently waits for the chick in front of him wearing a very short skirt and sky-high heels to pay her fifty-dollar cover. I give her a once-over; but when she turns around and I see her buttoned-up blouse, I look elsewhere.
She’s hot but not my type.
We’re in the heart of South Beach on Miami’s colorful Washington Avenue. The Ballroom has to be the most insane club around. This crowd is unreal. There are hundreds of people anxiously waiting outside to get in, and we get to walk right in. But the chicks here, they might not be for me. Pretentious, bitchy women are the only type I can’t stand. And I can spot them a mile away.
When we finally reach the front, the velvet rope blocks us from going any farther. “Tell Jeremy McQueen I’m here,” Nate says in a stern and even voice.
The giant muscled man looks him up and down. “Your name would be?”
The man’s head snaps up. “Sir, nice to meet you.”
Sir? I’m impressed.
Nate pulls out his wallet.
The bouncer dismisses him with the wave of his hand. “Your money isn’t welcome here.”
Nate’s chin dips. “Appreciated, but not necessary.”
Before the bouncer unhooks the velvet rope, he looks right at me and grunts, “Next time wear a tie.”
I ignore him. Do I look like I’ve ever worn a tie? When he doesn’t let us pass, I give in and nod.
The dude finally opens the rope and I quickly move inside. I look over to Nate, who’s dressed in a black button-down and expensive black slacks. “You’re not wearing a fucking tie.”
He shrugs. “Just forget it and have fun.”
I let it go and look around, actually feeling like coming here is just what I need to kick off this new year of mine—the one that just might be my last.
The vibe inside is nothing like I’ve ever seen. There’s a lobby of sorts, with an old-fashioned, huge-ass chandelier. The archways into the bar area are covered in mirrored glass panels with LED lights. There’s a towering ceiling over the dance floor and the area beside it is filled with leather couches and ornate fireplaces.
“Nice! Right?” Nate scans the crowd.
“Yeah. This place is swarming with chicks, and not just pretentious ones.” The club is wall-to-wall tits and legs. Deep-cut dresses, short skirts, and high heels surround me.
It’s fucking heaven.
He lifts a brow. “Knew you’d like it. I’ll grab us a drink. What are you feeling?”
“Beer for now. Thanks, man. I’ll just be here checking out the scene, waiting for my chance to blow out a candle or two.”
He shakes his head before walking away. His stride is full of confidence and, as always, he’s in no hurry. We both stand over six feet but I’m much bulkier. However, don’t let that fool you. I might lift weights, but Nate has trained in martial arts his whole life. Although I’d never admit it, he could kick the shit out of me.
The music booms as I take in the competition—guys in suits, most of them clean-cut like Nate. I stick out like a sore thumb in my jeans, work boots, and black T-shirt.
Like I care.
A group of cute girls are standing together. I zero in on them until I notice one is wearing a crown or some shit like that.
Way too girly for me.
My gaze shifts to a trio of chicks.
One is dressed in leather.
More my speed.
I’m just establishing eye contact when a raspy feminine voice whispers in my ear, “You new here?”
My neck whips around. A vision of utter splendor is standing next to me—an exotic woman with dark hair, dark eyes, and an olive complexion that practically glows. She has ruby red lips and high cheekbones and looks like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Mimi made me watch that movie at least fifty times—it was her favorite.
I can’t move.
I can’t talk.
I’m completely taken—bewitched.
“Ummm . . . yeah, it’s my first time,” I manage to say.
“I can always tell a new face.”
The knockout that I can’t believe is still talking to me is wearing a low-cut blouse and a hip-hugging skirt.
Hot. Totally fucking hot.
Pulsing, searing heat goes straight to my cock.
My dick is throbbing and my heart is beating at double speed. “Do you come here often?”
Holy shit! Did I just use the oldest line in the book?
She laughs. “I’m here a lot and I’ve never seen anyone quite like you in here before.”
My headshake is subtle. If she were anybody else I’d have responded by talking shit or walking away.
“I didn’t mean that how it came out.”
I shrug. “I get it.”
She pulls her hair to one side.
It’s then I notice her nametag.
It has THE STYLIST printed on it.
“So tell me—do you work here?”
Her smile wanes as she fumbles to remove the name tag. “No, but I work close by. I forgot I was wearing this.”
“Oh yeah? What do you do?”
Her eyes catch mine. “It’s complicated.”
My brows draw together. “Mysterious.”
“It can be.”
She bites her lip in contemplation, but before she can respond a beer is shoved in my face and the person holding that beer wraps his arm around my girl’s shoulder and kisses her.
Every instinct in my body goes live wire and the urge to punch, to kill the motherfucker, roars loud in my ears until I hear a deep, familiar voice.
“I see you’ve met Gisele.” Nate grins at me.
Fuck, he knows her!
“Z, this is Gisele. Gisele, this is my friend Z, and tonight is his birthday.”
“Happy birthday.” She smiles at me, and I know immediately what I want for my wish.
Gisele better not be Nate’s girl.
I extend my hand, but when she places hers in mine, I have an urge to kiss it rather than shake it. So I do.
My lips against her skin ignite a fire within me.
Gisele gives Nate a knowing glance. “Jeremy is at the bar. Over there.” She points. “Leather jacket. Tall.”
He looks over his shoulder. “Thanks. Excuse me a minute.”
I take a sip of my beer. “Let’s grab a table.”
She nods. “Follow me. It’s quieter in the back.”
Her walk is just as captivating as everything else about her.
Through the crowd of people, she makes her way easily to a high-top table over in the corner. When we sit, she crosses her stocking-covered legs in such a way that I catch a glimpse of her bare skin and the garter just above it.
My eyes widen.
I have an urge to reach over and stroke her there.
I can barely stop myself.
I redirect my gaze up to her face. “You were saying?”
She laughs, obviously having noticed my distraction. “How about we start with you?”
“Okay. What do you want to know?”
“What’s your real name?”
“Zachary Flowers, but my friends call me Z.”
“Z? Not Zach?”
She giggles. “I like Zach better. Do you mind if I call you that?”
“Nope. Call me whatever you want. Only my sister has ever called me Zach.”
She smiles. “So, Zach, what do you do for a living?”
I smile back, loving the shape of her lips and the sound of her voice. “Right now I’m managing Nate’s father’s gallery.”
She takes a sip of her drink, then licks her lips, allowing her tongue to slip out and lick off the alcohol. “So, are you an artist?”
I nod, too absorbed in what she’s doing to speak.
I’m staring—I know I am.
But once again, I can’t help it. Her lips are like a perfect kiss left on a napkin—heart shaped, red, and beautiful. Her body moves with a confidence I’ve never seen in a woman.
The cocktail waitress arrives with a tray of shots and sets them in the center of the table.
“We didn’t order these,” I let the waitress know.
She shrugs. “That guy did.” She points to Nate. “So do you want them or not?”
“Yes,” Gisele answers before I can. The cocktail waitress scurries away, and Gisele picks up one of the shots.
I do the same. “To new friends.”
She holds a finger up. “No, wait.”
I pause my glass in midair.
She clinks my glass. “Happy birthday.”
I give her a slow nod, drinking her in, every inch of her, and slam my shot back, realizing that when she said happy birthday, I didn’t think about my legacy, my destiny, or the club.
All I thought about was her.
“It’s your turn. Tell me what your name tag means,” I insist.
“Hmmm. . . . That’s not easy.”
“Let me put it this way. If you worked with me, a good name for you would be the Artist.”
The Artist. I like the sound of that.
I move closer. “Tell me more.”
“What do you want to know?”
My new motto rings in my ears—live like you’re dying.
And I decide to do just that.
“Everything,” I whisper.
Dr. Julia Raymond | Late May of the following year
Try not to be naive.
In terms of phobia development, we know that phobias are either caught or taught.
If caught, it’s typically due to something happening that the person couldn’t cope with at the time. Whatever it was plants itself into the subconscious.
If taught, it’s usually due to conditioning or receiving misinformation. For example a child may be told, “Stay away from dogs. They can bite and kill you.” If the child already has a tendency to be fearful or anxious, the child will more than likely be afraid of dogs.
Zoey Flowers suffers from thanatophobia—the fear of death—or at least, that was my initial diagnosis when she came to see me five weeks ago.
I’m not so sure anymore.
From the minute she stepped into my office, I was intrigued. Something was different about her. I’d seen her as a patient years ago when she was trying to work out her feelings for her mother. Now a woman, she is still polite, intelligent, and nicely dressed, but when she came in, she wore the type of sadness on her face that only evolves from despair.
“So, Zoey, what brings you to see me today?” I asked once she’d settled into her seat.
She didn’t fidget or make excuses like most of my patients. She looked me in the eye and said, “There’s a very good chance I’m going to die within the next year, and I’m scared. Some days I’m so angry about it, but others I just feel lost. I’m here because I want you to help me accept my destiny so I can find some direction.”
I settled into my seat, selected a pen from the holder on my desk, and set it next to my pad of paper. In my head I had already diagnosed her—classic case of thanatophobia. “What makes you think you’re going to die?”
“My brother died a few weeks ago.”
I said nothing and waited patiently.
“Before you think I have thanatophobia, I want to tell you my fear is not irrational.”
Typical response, I thought. “Go ahead.”
A tear leaked from her eye, and I handed her a Kleenex. “Years ago my great-aunt told my brother and me that our family was cursed, that generation after generation of family members have died young and tragically at the age of twenty-seven. She called it the Twenty-Seven Club and she told us her daughter had joined it along with many other relatives. My brother and I thought she was crazy. Although we were aware that our grandfather had died at twenty-seven—he died in the line of duty—and our mother had died at twenty-seven—she overdosed—we didn’t give much credence to her statement. It just sounded absurd.”
Phobia—taught, I thought to myself.
I scribbled on my notepad the number—27.
“You said your brother recently passed. How old was he?”
She averted her gaze this time. “He was twenty-seven.”
Phobia—caught, I jotted down.
“And last week was my birthday—I turned twenty-seven.”
This got my attention.
“Well, it certainly does seem very coincidental. Let’s back up a little. You said your great-aunt first brought your attention to this . . . phenomenon. Did she give you any more information—family history, mental health issues, anything that could shed some light?”
A small frown presented on her face as she thought back. “No, I was just a teenager then. And like I said, I thought she was crazy. In fact, I never paid any attention to what she had told us until my brother died.”
Not a classic case by any definition.
Since Zoey’s return to my office, I’ve spent session after session discussing this incapacitating syndrome that has prevented her from completing the simplest of tasks, like planning what to make for dinner the next day, to the more complex ones like completing her application for her doctorate or even going to Miami to clean out her brother’s things.
On my own, I’ve spent countless hours researching her condition and discussing it with my colleagues in roundtable discussions. From everything she’s told me, we all agree—her fear is not irrational.
As crazy as it sounds, based on predictability, her fear is logical.
The prescribed courses of treatment were not working though.
She continued to remain adrift.
Her dreams were also getting worse. She dreamed of dying in the simplest of ways. They were always a product of what she did the previous day. This was one of the obstacles preventing her from planning. I’d given her exercises to relax her body and free her mind from getting trapped in her thoughts. Yet, after three weeks, her dreams were still occurring.
I had to change my treatment plan and use unconventional methods.
Rather than focus on what might occur in the future, I decided to go with the accept-your-destiny route. Not in terms of dying, but rather in terms of living.
I fear all this did was manifest resoluteness within this young woman though. Her fear seems to have subsided, and what has evolved is resignation.
Not what I had hoped.
My course of treatment changed yet again when I realized this, and we went to work on getting her life back on track. We started by setting small goals—what she wants to accomplish tomorrow, next week, and even in the fall. Daily sessions did get her to the point where she’s now planning her meals, agreeing to appointments beyond the next day, and returning to her job at the summer’s end.
That was a stride worth celebrating.
Yet, there is a darkness in her I can’t seem to get to. A sadness that has manifested itself so deep, she won’t let it come to the surface. I fear this is a combination of events that occurred in her childhood and her most recent tragedies.
Still, yesterday we had our most significant breakthrough.
“I booked my ticket to Miami this morning,” she said.
I clasped my hands together. “How do you feel about that?”
She took a deep breath. “I feel good about it. I want to see where my brother lived and what his life was like.”
“Let’s discuss your trip. What do you hope to accomplish while you’re there?”
“This might sound weird, but I want to prove to myself that what he lived of his life was worth it. I think it will help me move forward.”
Pride shone through in my smile. I couldn’t help it. “So do I,” I told her.
However, at the same time, I was fearful that taking on too much at once might threaten her emotional state. She’s not delusional, but she is fragile. She feels she has nothing to live for, and that concerns me the most. Unless she latches on to a reason to live, her fear concerning the Twenty-Seven Club might just become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Thank you, Dr. Raymond, for everything.”
She pulled me from my dark thoughts. “You don’t have to thank me, but please call me if you should need me for anything. I have you scheduled to be back in my office in ten days.”
This beautiful young girl had somehow become very special to me, and I was hopeful this next step would be the breakthrough she needed to look past what might be and concentrate on the present. She needed to live her life and not dwell on the maybes.
“Don’t forget to focus on your inner voice,” I reminded her as she opened the door.
She smiled. “I won’t.”
Your inner voice—it can be a source of amazing strength, wisdom, and guidance if you can hear it.
Luckily for Zoey, she can.
In the darkness, it looks more like Pandora’s Box than a place where an artist once lived. Nestled between two houses, each the size of an arena and both lit up like football fields, this much smaller home sits dark and alone—no movement from within, no cars in the driveway, no one living inside.
The picture that appears through the rain doesn’t seem to reflect any part of him. But something of my brother has to be here. Even just a small piece left behind for me to catch a glimpse of.
A rush of melancholy hits fast.
My throat tightens.
I can’t breathe.
Sweat forms on my brow, even though the car is cool.
This isn’t one of my asthma attacks—this is grief rearing its ugly head. The grief I tried to deal with at home in all those therapy sessions. The grief I know I have to accept. But just like accepting my destiny—I’m having a hard time doing this.
Destiny—that hidden power that controls fate. Even though it’s a path I don’t want to be on, I’m not certain I can stray from it.
It owns me—I don’t own it.
My fate might very well be inevitable, just as my brother’s was.
I’ve almost come to accept that.
Taking a deep, calming breath, I close my eyes, demanding my fear stay at bay.
I’m stronger than this.
Yet in the darkness, I don’t feel stronger.
My mind swirls with sadness and I quickly snap my eyes open, hoping to eradicate this feeling of dread. My eyes flutter for a moment before I’m finally able to lean forward and take a closer look.
With the illumination of the car’s headlights, I stare through the windshield at the house I’ve stayed away from for far too long.
And in this moment, everything about the property comes to life. It’s a work of art—as if my brother painted the picture for me to help ease my fears, like he did when we were kids.
It’s there, the small part of him left behind for me to see. Not his body turned to ash, not the marker at the cemetery bearing his name, but a piece of who he was during the life he led here.
The green bricks of the driveway show his funky edge; the triangle-shaped sailcloth carport demonstrates his love for the abstract; and the house’s tropical-modern design with its Spanish-style roof is in itself a work of art worthy of being hung on a gallery wall.
Yes, I can see it now.
I can see him living here.
Happy with the life he led before he died.
Just what I was hoping for.
As I sink back down, the worn leather seat seems to swallow me whole as sorrow mixes with relief and rivets through every vein in my body.
Not what I imagined, but the longer I look, the more I can see him living here.
Suddenly, I’m stuck between the dreamlike state I’ve been in, refusing to accept the truth, and the reality of my situation. The finality renders me immobile—I’m here but he’s not, and all I can do is sit motionless.
“You did say 302 South Coconut Lane?” the driver asks over his shoulder.
My eyes meet his in the mirror. “Yes, this is the right place. Just give me a moment, please.”
With trembling fingers, I reach for the handle and attempt to gather the courage to at least open the door. I just don’t know if I can do this. I’d have thought the passing of time would have made it easier, but maybe it hasn’t been long enough.
The driver clears his throat, sensing my apprehension. “Do you want me to take you somewhere else?”
I hand him my credit card. “No, this is what I came to Miami for.”
With a signature on the driver’s iPhone, I’m ready. I pull the strap of my overnight bag onto my shoulder and step out. Water sloshes everywhere, but I stop for a minute and look up to the heavens.
I have no idea.
Once I’ve gathered my courage and strength, I shift my gaze back down and notice the balcony. It’s too dark for me to tell, but I can’t imagine it wasn’t built for framing some kind of beautiful picture, something worth looking at.
Water fills my eyes and my tears mix with the rain, as the idea of Zach sketching from there comes to mind.
The driver hands me my suitcase and shuts my door before hopping back in the car.
At that moment, the sky seems to open up, and before I can button my coat, I’m soaked.
Hurrying forward, I stop at the white metal gate. With a slight push, I’m walking into a tropical paradise. Trees line the walkway and a natural stone wall protects the area. The pathway leads to a few stairs with a glass door at the top of them.
Walking slowly, very slowly now that I’ve shielded myself from the rain, I’m at the bottom of the stairs way too soon.
I’m not ready for this.
Feeling like a lost girl, one who is waiting for her brother to take her hand and guide her to the playground to swing, I can’t help but wish that he were here beside me.
With a breath in and out, the smell of salt in the air assaults my senses. The ocean must be very close. I wonder if the sand that surrounds it is anything like the sand at the beach Mimi took Zach and me to every summer.
God, how we loved going there.
We’d walk on the pier, swim in the lake, ride the carousel, and eat Abbott’s famous custard. There was a beach closer to where we lived in Canandaigua, New York, but it didn’t have an Abbott’s. Zach loved the black raspberry ice cream so much that he’d get two.
“I need to stock up until next year,” he’d say.
It was so rare that anything made him happy, and I bet Mimi would have bought him a hundred ice-cream cones if only his happiness would have lasted.
Tires squealing onto the main road jar me from my memories.
On shaky legs, I take the stairs slowly. I reach for the keys Zach accidentally left at home when he visited at Christmas. He left his whole keychain. I would have mailed it, but I didn’t find it for months and by then he had had new keys made.
I remember the day Zach told me he had bought a house. I was so glad he was doing well, that he was happy.
Finally, I had thought.
It takes me a few more seconds to gather the courage to unlock the door. The first key I insert doesn’t work; neither does the second, nor the third.
A gust of warm wind whips around my black raincoat and blows up the nylon like a tent—a sign of the impending tropical storm that the driver mentioned before I tuned everything else out.
Nervousness and impatience blend as I wonder who I’ll call if I can’t get in. Zach’s friend Nate would be a good start. Over the years, we’ve talked on the phone if he was around when I’d call my brother. He also called me right after Zach’s death. He told me he would take care of everything until I could make it down here. And we’ve e-mailed quite a few times over the past seven weeks. In fact, I e-mailed him just before I boarded the plane this afternoon, telling him I was coming. But last I checked he hadn’t responded yet.
He’s always responded immediately to my previous messages. It may seem odd, but I feel like I know him well, even though we’ve never met.
The rain comes down harder and I look around for where my brother might have hidden a spare.
The terra cotta planter off to the right seems like the perfect location, but when I try to lift it, I can’t. The palm tree inside is much heavier than I thought.
With nowhere else popping out as a place to hide an extra, I wonder if I should call and ask the driver to return. But before I do, I try the keys again—this time turning a few of them the other way.
To my shock and surprise one finally works. My stomach flips as the door easily swings open and I’m launched into darkness and the loud sound of beeping.
Shit, the alarm. I hadn’t thought of that.
Should I try the same code Zach used on all his accounts?
That should work.
With the flip of a switch, a long narrow hallway presents itself. I find the alarm pad behind the door and press 0515, my birthday.
It doesn’t work.
I press 0815, his birthday.
It doesn’t work either.
The name of the gallery he worked for maybe? Nate’s father’s gallery.
What was it? Yes, Wanderlust.
I type the numbers corresponding to the letters and holy shit, the beeping ceases. I can’t believe it. After all this drama, my nerves are finally starting to settle.
Once my bags are tucked inside the door, I glance down the hall.
Hardwood floors seem to run for miles until they end at the underside of an open-air staircase. With small steps I walk until I’ve reached the end and I’m standing at the perimeter of a large living room. My attention goes immediately to the windows and doors—they are everywhere. The entire back of the house is sliding doors with windows above them.
The night and the rain don’t allow me to see anything beyond five feet, but I can make out palm trees, lots and lots of them. They sway back and forth through all the glass.
A beautiful picture.
Looking up, the high ceilings and large glass windows make the palms feel like they are part of the room. The two sparkling crystal chandeliers catch my eye—they are beautiful, but so unlike my brother. He always went for the shabby chic look. Modernism was never his thing.
Another hallway across the way mimics the one I’m standing in, and a fireplace sits in the corner. A large black leather couch, glass coffee table, and giant TV complete the room. I’m actually surprised by the sparse décor. It doesn’t seem to be Zach’s style at all, but maybe it came furnished.
I circle around the stairs to the landing and come face-to-face with a black plaster, life-size statue of a woman. It’s definitely something Zach would have been drawn to—mysterious, sad.
It seems out of place in this space.
Surveying the rest of the room, I see a square kitchen in the center of the living area that separates the two hallways. The high-gloss black countertops match the stairs. Walking around them, I notice the kitchen looks perfect—like it’s never been used. I quickly walk in and open the refrigerator—water, beer, wine, and nothing else. I guess Nate cleaned it out.
Following the hallway of windows that ends with a closed door, I turn the knob and squeeze my eyes shut, not opening them for what seems like hours. When I do, I’m standing in the entrance of what must have been his office. Computers, printers, and papers cover a large desk. Odd—I would have expected an easel and art supplies. And the walls should be covered with his sketches, not watercolors in ornate frames.
His studio must be elsewhere in the house.
I shut the door knowing I’ll be spending time in there later going through all his papers.
Another door opens into the garage. I glance around—a few fishing poles, a basketball, football, and Frisbee, nothing else. The thought of Zach fishing or playing ball makes me smile, because aside from our yearly beach trip, he very rarely spent time outdoors—it just wasn’t his thing.
Across from the garage is another door. When I open it, the switch on the wall does nothing. The brightness of the hall casts a sliver of light, and all I can see is an empty room with a bed in the middle of it.
With a turn of my flip-flops, I head back to the living area and the stairs. The entire space lacks anything personal, except the statue. Something about the statue speaks to me, but why I have no idea. It doesn’t feel like it belongs, but it does—like the way Zach always felt.
With each step, I increasingly start to wonder if I should have just hired someone to do this and had the boxes shipped home.
This is so much harder than I imagined.
The stairs are sleek, so I take them slowly. When I reach the top, I pause and look around. It’s an empty loft with two doors; one must go to the balcony, the other is open and leads to a huge bedroom. It too is white, no color at all.
In the middle of the room is a large mattress with a wooden bedframe and metal bars inset in the headboard. The sheets are rumpled—the only evidence in the entire house that someone lives here—no, lived here.
With my hands clenched to my heart, I draw in a breath and attempt to push away my tears. I’ve cried for far too many weeks already. I’m trying to be strong. That is what he would have wanted.
I find myself once more searching for a piece of my brother, but again there’s nothing. But then a small crystal dish on the dresser draws my attention.
Once I see what it holds, I can’t stop the flow of tears from my eyes as I approach it. With wavy vision I pinch the small diamond that Zach wore so proudly in his ear.
Memories flood me once again.
“Please, Mimi, please. I really want one,” Zach begged over and over.
“No, Zachary. There’s nothing but trouble that can come out of that,” Mimi would say.
It felt like the conversation took place every day for almost a year. But Zach didn’t let up. He begged our grandmother to let him get an earring. She always refused. Over and over and over he asked and she said no. Then on his fifteenth birthday he came home from being out with Mimi sporting this very diamond. My grandmother finally gave in, probably feeling it was better than the fights, the drugs, and his all-encompassing need to rebel against everything.
The other metal in the bowl belonged to him as well—all his forms of self-expression. His lip ring, ear gauges, the circles with a ball hanging from them, most of which he acquired after he turned eighteen and no longer needed Mimi’s permission.
These things in my hand were all a part of my brother.
He was a rebel.
Funny thing is that I always thought he was a rebel without a cause. I used to laugh about that, but today it makes me sad.
I remove my wet coat and shoes, circling around the rest of the room looking for pieces of him.
Nothing that was any part of him, not anything to define who he was.
But I know who he was.
He was my older brother.
He was my best friend.
He was a good man who didn’t always make the right choices but had the best intentions.
Sadness lingers, as I think that I no longer have to wonder about him or worry about him. Now all that’s left is for me to miss him, but I already miss him so much.
Growing up, we only had each other—and our grandmother too. Our grandfather died before my grandmother gave birth to our mother, so Mimi knew single parenting well. She was amazing. She taught us everything she could, told us anything we wanted to know, but she refused to talk about the club. Mimi said she didn’t believe in that old family legend.
Too bad destiny isn’t something you can choose to believe in—it just happens.
Now, it’s become more than a legend. It took him dying for me to believe. My constant reminder is the fact that Zach is also dead—he, like my grandfather and my mother, will forever be twenty-seven.
The question is: will I be joining my ancestors at the same young age?
Is that my destiny?
I hope not—but how could it not be?
I set the dish down and emotion overtakes me, the magnitude of my losses and my short life becoming all too real.
I collapse on the bed.
If I die at twenty-seven, will I have even lived a small part of my life?
Did my grandfather? Did my mother? Did my brother?
My head spins and I find myself back at that place I can’t seem to crawl out of—I feel like screaming, but I can’t because the idea of yelling seems like too much work when all I can think about is myself being next.
I yank off my wet T-shirt and shorts and bury my head under his pillow, wanting to block out that small voice telling me to push through this. I thought coming here would give me hope that life is worth the chance of what might or might not happen, but the sterility of my brother’s home, the lack of anything he was surrounding me, stirs an uneasiness I can’t seem to shake.
I feel like I’m already dying.
I’ve felt like this for many weeks.
Validation of a life worth living and dying young for was what I hoped to find by coming here. But instead all there is is a reflection of what I see when I look in the mirror—emptiness.
I close my eyes, wishing for all of this to be nothing more than a dream. But I know my first impression was right—I’ve opened Pandora’s box.
The wind howls and the palm trees whip against the windows as the storm seems to make its way closer to landfall. Thunder booms and lightning lights up the room, startling me. No, not lightning—a lamp.
“Hello, Zoey.” The voice is deep and husky.
As the sound registers, I scream. I quickly sit up and scan my unfamiliar surroundings. My eyes immediately land on the silhouette of a man standing beside me, and I scream again, this time scrambling off the bed in terror.
In this moment, my heart stops beating, my lungs stop breathing, and my brain stops thinking. I’m petrified.
The man raises his palms up in surrender. “Zoey, I’m Nate, Z’s friend. You don’t have to be scared. I’m not going to hurt you.”
My fear must be evident. I stare at him for a few long moments, both alarmed and trembling. Only once realization sets in, that yes, this is Nate, my brother’s best friend, do I attempt to calm my ragged breaths.
He takes a cautious step back. “Just cover up with something so we can talk.”
Oh my God, my clothes.
Tangled sheets catch on my limbs as I climb back onto the bed and unsuccessfully try to pull the covers over my practically naked body. Before humiliation grabs complete hold of me, I give up and dive for my soaking wet shirt lying on the floor.
Sliding the cold fabric over my head, I pull it down to cover my panties and stand up, quickly crossing my arms over my chest to shield any signs of the chill I’m feeling.
Not great, but better. At least I can look at him with a little dignity.
Finally, I glance up and my gaze catches his. As soon as it does, he drops his eyes.
The photos I’ve seen of him over the years, when my brother would text me a funny shot—a selfie of him and Nate at some top chef restaurant, at the beach, or at a coffee house—didn’t nearly do him justice. Those shots were goofy poses with baseball caps turned backwards and funny faces. Not that I didn’t think he was good looking in them, because I did, but there’s just something different about him.
I blink and focus on the matter at hand. “You scared the shit out of me. What are you doing here?”
Staring at the ground, he leans against the doorjamb. “You beat me to the punch. I was just about to ask you the same question.”
“Why would you ask me that?”
He raises a brow. “I guess I’m just curious.”
I sigh, feeling confused.
His gaze lifts, and those eyes, those bewitching emerald green eyes, stare back at me. “Not that I mind that you’re here. It’s just—a little warning would have been nice. That’s all.”
His tone is more bemused than apologetic.
I’m not sure what to think.
With a straight and confident stance, I clear my throat. “I e-mailed you earlier today to let you know that I was coming for the weekend. I’m really sorry about the late notice, but I decided at the last minute.”
He reaches into the pocket of his low-slung jeans and pulls out his phone. After a few taps and scrolls he looks up at me. “I guess you did. Here it is. I’m usually on top of my e-mails but today my . . . schedule was full. Had I seen your message, I would have tried to rearrange my plans.”
“That’s fine really. I managed. It’s not a big deal.”
I steal a glance at my reliable Timex—just after midnight. What is he doing in my brother’s house in the middle of the night? Just as I’m about to ask him, my eyes catch sight of the way he predatorily walks around the room and I’m momentarily distracted. He moves like a panther—slowly circling his prey, keeping his distance, not too close, but close enough to pounce if he feels the urge. He settles back against the wall, just a little closer now. “Zoey, did you hear me?”
I swallow. “Sorry, what?”
His tone grows more insistent. “I said I would have at least sent a car for you. You shouldn’t be out in this weather on your own.”
My brow furrows. Why is he still talking about the airport?
When I don’t respond, he crosses his arms over his chest like he owns the place.
It’s then that reality sinks in. And as cliché as this sounds, I am not going to let Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome intimidate me. It’s time to take charge. “There was no need. I managed just fine. But if you didn’t know I was coming, can I ask what you’re doing here?”
Confusion seems to have taken over his thoughts as he steps even closer—moving with a lethal grace that makes my body start to hum. I can’t help but study him as his features come into clear focus. His body is long and lean. His hair is dark, the most unusual shade of brown, maybe like the color of expensive chocolate, but not exactly. His eyes are languid, watchful, and the most beautiful shade I’ve ever seen—darker than emeralds or the deepest of forest greens. His lips look full and soft. He is handsome in a way that is unlike anyone I’ve ever seen.
My mind is going haywire.
“Nate, why are you at my brother’s house in the middle of the night?” I ask him again.
A look of realization seems to cross his face as he stares at me. With a smirk, he ignores my question. Instead of answering me, he opens the door beside him. It’s a closet, Zach’s closet to be exact, and he steps right in, again like he owns the place.
“What are you doing?” I ask impatiently.
He comes back into the bedroom with a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt in his hand. “You’re trembling. How about you get changed and we sit down to talk?”
The audacity of this man is beyond comprehension. From his e-mails he seemed nice, but then again, you never can tell what lurks behind the words on a computer screen.
He stares and his small smirk really irritates me. “Take these, they’re mine. I’ll wait downstairs while you get changed.”
If I weren’t standing here, chilled and in my underwear, I might just tell him to go to hell.
But instead I reach for the clothes, and as I do, I start to wonder if he’s been squatting in my brother’s house. Once the clothes are in my hands, his mouth spreads into a slow, easy grin.
Annoyance grabs hold of me as I pivot on my bare feet and head toward the bathroom, making sure not to glance over my shoulder. When I hear heavy footsteps, I let my body fall back and shut everything out of my mind for a few short seconds.
What is going on?
When I’ve gathered my composure, I quickly strip out of my wet clothes and redress. Then I make the mistake of looking in the mirror. A wet dog would look better than I do right now. In an effort to improve the image, I grab a towel and wipe the black mascara from under my eyes. Then I use my fingers to comb through my mass of curls and try to calm them, but that’s nearly impossible.
Okay, better—but not great.
Who cares anyway?
It’s not like I’m trying to impress him. In fact, I’ve never tried to impress a man.
Time to get down to business. I stomp out of the bedroom and down the stairs. The TV is on and I can hear the weatherman announcing the same info the driver relayed to me. “Tropical Storm Angela seemingly having stalled out once it passed over Cuba is picking up wind speed as it makes its way toward the Florida Keys.”
The rain is still beating down, but there are no calls for evacuations so I can only assume I am fine staying here.
Determined to get this conversation over with, I’m stopped dead in my own tracks.
Nate is standing in front of a built-in coffeemaker, waving his hand frantically up and down, cursing under his breath, “Motherfucking piece of shit.”
“What happened? Did the Miele not do what you told her to do?”
I feel like I’m watching him in slow motion.
Without warning, the air crackles.
He’s momentarily taken aback, but then a look of amusement crosses his face. “Zoey Flowers, you are . . .”
Words pop into my head—sexy, beautiful, hot as hell, fuckable.
Where did those come from?
That grin lingers on his mouth. “Your brother’s sister, without a fucking doubt.”
Tears prick my eyes. Not the words I hoped to hear, but so much more meaningful.
His face contorts, the glow of amusement gone from his eyes, shadowed by something darker. He sets two cups of coffee on the counter that separates us. “Hey, I’m really not good at this stuff. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
I swipe the drops away. “No, really, it’s okay. I just miss him. That’s all.”
Nate’s hands grip the counter and his head falls. “Yeah, me too.”
Silence sweeps the vastness of the space, but strangely it’s not uncomfortable.
His gaze lifts. “Zoey, it’s nice to finally meet you.”
I can’t help but be charmed. “It’s nice to finally meet you too, Nate.”
He clears his throat and a bit of shyness seems to cross his face.
I fear I might be staring, so I avert my gaze to look down at the counter and it lands on the two cups. “Are those lattés?”
His head lifts at the same time mine does. The connection is immediate—a jolt of electricity travels between us and I swear I see a little smile—not a smirk, but an actual smile on his face.
The most adorable boyish grin.
My belly flutters and I can’t help but return the smile, feeling a little shy myself.
“Yeah, well, that’s what they’re supposed to be. I didn’t know what you drank, but thought I’d try these.”
I move closer, close enough that my hipbones nudge the edge of the counter. “Lucky for you, I’ll drink anything made with coffee beans.”
Then it hits me that his hair is the color of the finest imported coffee beans.
“Yeah, lucky for me,” he repeats.
Taking a seat on one of the barstools, I blow on the top of the latté. The froth is not exactly froth-like, more like big soap bubbles or maybe clumps of soured whipped cream.
“You’re a schoolteacher, right?” he asks.
“Something like that,” I say. “I’m employed by the University of Rochester. You’re a landlord, right?”
His lips tip up a fraction. “Something like that.”
I laugh. “Just kidding. I know all about you—big successful CEO of an up-and-coming development company, who buys unprofitable businesses, turns them around, and then sells them. Zach said you are very business savvy.”
This is true, but what I fail to mention is Zach told me so much more about him.
He raises one brow in the sexiest way. “You’re going to make me blush if you keep talking like that. But it sounds to me like you’re leaving some crucial things out. I’m sure your brother must have given you some dirt on me.”
How does he know Zach told me all about his inability to commit, his obsession with work, and his need to always be in control? He never spoke of him in a demeaning way though. No, rather Zach seemed to idolize this man. The words integrity, hard working, and respectful always followed anything that might have been construed as negative. Zach once mentioned that he thought something must have happened that triggered Nate’s extreme behavior.
He could understand that.
Honestly, so could I.
“Z never could give a compliment without making sure to put a little bite in it. My guess is he would have said something like this: “Big-shot asshole of some rising development company.”
I shrug. He did have my brother pegged. “Maybe it did go more like that.”
He smirks, and God help me, I have to look away.
I try to tuck my emotion aside by sipping on my latté. It tastes more like water, but the coffee lover in me is far too distracted by the trouble that’s watching me to care.
His eyes seem to darken as they follow the liquid into my mouth and then down my throat. His breath seemingly goes shallow as if he’s picturing my mouth on something else.
My imagination must be in overdrive. I shake it off and point to my cup. “Not bad.”
He takes a sip of his and practically spits it out. “Not bad! It tastes like shit.”
I can feel my lips turning upward again. I swear I haven’t smiled in so long that I snap and just let the laughter roll through me—my body quaking, my hair bouncing like a lion’s mane.
Nate stares flabbergasted, and I can see his body tensing.
Once I’m finally able to speak, I manage to say, “Really, it doesn’t taste terrible. You just have your timing and ratios off, that’s all. Steam the milk a little longer, and add more beans.”
He sets his cup down and gives me a skeptical look.
“I used to work at a coffee shop when I was in college. I can show you if you like?”
Our gazes lock.
When he doesn’t respond, reality crashes down around me. I can’t let this become flirtatious.
I clear my throat. “Well, anyway, can we get back to why you’re here in the middle of the night? You can be honest with me—have you been staying here?”
A muscle twitches along Nate’s jaw, but he doesn’t answer me. Instead, he picks up his cup and turns to the sink, dumps his full latté down the drain, and then walks to the back of the house in the darkness.
My head twists so my eyes can track him.
He flicks a light switch on and twists his own head.
I know he must have caught my stare, and God knows what possessed look I might have had on my face. I quickly turn back.
“Zoey, I think we need to talk.”
“I know we do. And Nate, it’s okay. Really. I don’t mind that you’ve been staying here,” I reassure him as I turn back around.
He opens one of the many sliding glass doors and the sound of the storm gets louder. “Come over here. I want to show you something.”
Something draws me toward him.
He’s a man of authority. I can tell he’s used to getting his way, but I’m not usually one to submit to dominance. I’ve been around it enough at work—male professors are the poster children for authoritative personalities.
But still I move forward, approaching him with caution.
The sound of the waves crashing against the shore is beautiful. With the door open the smell in the air is pungent in the most delicious way, or maybe that’s Nate—clean, fresh, manly.
Without realizing it, I’m standing right in front of him. I get lost in the wind, the air, the sound—and him. I tilt my head back to look at him. I’m tall, but he’s almost a head taller than I am—he must be six-two. Something about his proximity makes my body feel possessed.
It’s nothing like I’ve felt before.
He steps out the door and onto a covered deck, scrubbing his stubbled jaw. “I told you I’m shit at this kind of stuff so I’m just going to get this over with.”
Relief takes over.
Here it comes.
He’s finally going to admit he’s been crashing here. God, what if he has nowhere else to go? I never thought of that. Maybe he’s not as successful as my brother thought he was. What am I going to do if that’s the case? It’s not like I’d throw him out of my bed—shit, I mean out on the street.
I move forward and stand beside him. “Yes, that would probably be best.”
“Look, Zoey, I think there’s been a misunderstanding. Can you see over there?”
I take a step out even further, and the force of the wind travels underneath my thin T-shirt. “Just barely.”
He points to something, but I can’t make out what it is. “It’s a boathouse that sits on the edge of the property. Zoey, Z lived there, not here.”
I twirl around and my words come out as forceful as the storm. “That’s not true. He told me he lived here, in a house, that he owned.”
“It is true, Zoey. Are you sure he told you he lived here?”
“Yes, I’m sure. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
His face seems to pale. “Maybe you misunderstood him?”
“No!” I shake my head.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea he told you that. I just thought you got the locations confused.”
“No, I’m not confused. God, I wouldn’t have fallen asleep in your bed! Zach told me he bought a house that he lived in on the water.”
“He did live in a house on the water. But he didn’t own it, and it isn’t this one.”
I can feel the blood rush to my face. I swallow hard. “No! That can’t be true. I’m not sure what kind of game you’re playing, but don’t try to take advantage of my brother now that he’s dead. Tell me the truth—you’ve been living here since he died. Haven’t you? I’m going to find out anyway.”
He grabs my arms, stepping closer. “Zoey, I’m telling you the truth. I wouldn’t lie about something like that. I wouldn’t do that to my friend.”
I push him away. “So you’re saying that my brother lied to me? He wouldn’t have done that. We told each other the truth. Always.”
“He moved in when I did. I had an empty place back there, and he needed a cheaper place to live.”
I shake my head, still finding it hard to believe him.
“Why does it matter which house he fucking lived in? The address is the same.” His voice rises, his control now lost as his anger comes to the surface.
The floor seems to tilt—my world spinning on its axis. “It does matter. It matters that he lied. He just wouldn’t do that.”
Tears stream down my cheeks as I realize that Zach did lie.
The look in Nate’s eyes tells me so.
This is his house—not Zach’s.
I know it is; now the space makes sense.
And with that sudden realization, I seem to lose my mind. With my world crashing down around me even more than it already has, I run out into the rain, across the wet grass, toward the dark boathouse.
Nate shouts, “Zoey, come back inside! We’re in the middle of a fucking storm.”
The thunder is so loud my ears are ringing. The lightning is so bright that I can see the boathouse with its solid wooden door right in front of me.
Ignoring his plea, I turn the knob and jerk on it.
It’s locked, but I keep twisting it over and over.
When I can’t get it open, I pound on the door. I pound until I swear my knuckles are bleeding. I don’t even know what I’m doing.
Suddenly, the wind picks up and I can feel the forcefulness as it rocks the boathouse.
I lift my head toward the rain.
“Why did you have to die?” I yell.
“Why did destiny take you?” I scream.
“Why did you lie?” I whisper.
Big, strong hands grip me and turn me around. “Shhh . . . it’s okay, Zoey. We’ll figure this out.”
I look at him. “No, no, we won’t.”
“We will. Let’s just go back inside.”
“Why would he lie?” I yell.
“I don’t know!” he shouts back. “I don’t know,” he repeats more quietly.
“I have to see for myself,” I scream over the noise of the storm.
“Not now. We have to get back inside. You can see tomorrow.”
Tree branches tumble to the ground. I can’t see the water but I can hear it slamming into the shore.
“Why did he have to die?” I cry. They’re the same words I’ve been crying for weeks.
“I don’t know,” Nate whispers in my ear and it’s the first time someone has answered my cries.
“He was all I had left,” I mumble.
The sky lights up, flashing over and over, but I don’t move. Then a long boom, another flash, and suddenly complete darkness. Gone are the lights from the house that allowed me to see Nate’s face. Everything is gone.
“Fuck! The power went out.”
A tree branch smashes against the side of the boathouse.
Nate looks at me. “We have to get back inside . . . now.”
A moment of sheer fear strikes me as I search for the stars, the moon; anything to shed light on the darkness. But my quest is fruitless. I feel completely lost, and my sobs grow louder.
They’re all I can feel, and I can’t move.
Strong arms scoop me up and carry me across the grass. In those arms, I allow myself to find comfort—a comfort I never expected to feel in the arms of my brother’s best friend and a comfort I didn’t realize I needed so very much.
The wind fights against his long strides but he moves like a warrior during battle—swiftly and in precise movements. His boots don’t even sink into the wet, soaked grass that my bare feet must have left pocked.
His body is covering mine. When I try to lift my head from the safety of his neck, his head tucks down to force mine back in place. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’s trying to protect me from the harsh rain. But after the accusations I just threw at him, I can’t imagine that to be the case.
My mind is filled with scattered thoughts, blown apart by the bomb he dropped, and yet the panting sound coming from his mouth oddly eases the destruction I’m feeling.
The wind and rain stop their assault the minute he crosses the threshold into the house. Both of us soaked to the bone, he sets me down. His hands on my hips steady me while I find my footing, but they linger in place even after I’ve gained my stability.
Again I find comfort in his touch.
I tilt my head to try to see him, but I can’t. It’s just too dark.
The feel of his touch and the sound of his breath are the only evidence that he’s standing there in front of me.
When his grasp is suddenly gone, my sense of direction seems to go with it. “Nate?” I reach out terrified and grab onto him—his biceps, I think. “Don’t leave me alone.”