©2019 Anne Mercier
This starts just before Jillie and Leo run into one another on the beach…
“You’re up early,” Mom says.
“Yeah. Couldn’t lay there anymore. I’m getting stiff.”
“You should ice and heat, Leo.” Mom worries. It’s nice. Dad worries too, but he also pushes. That can be nice sometimes, but most of the time he pushes when I’m hurting like I am right now.
“I’m going on a run first. Then I think I’ll soak in a tub of ice.”
She clucks her tongue. “You’ll get frostbite, Leo. You need to be careful.”
My dad walks in with a grin. “Leave the boy be, Andi. Damn good game last night, son.”
“Thanks.” That’s nice too.
“Coach needs to talk to your line. You haven’t been this bruised since Freshman year and only then because you were a hell of a lot smaller,” Dad tells me.
“I know it. I can’t take another week like this,” I admit. “The ribs are killer.”
“Do you need to see the doc?” Dad asks.
“Nah,” I shake my head. “I just hope I can heal up enough before next weekend’s game.”
“I’ll dig out the supplies,” Mom yells, leaving the room. By “supplies” she means this ointment she swears by. Honestly, I’m beginning to as well. I’m not sure what it’s made of, but it smells kinda spicy and it eases the ache. The massage she gives me isn’t bad either.
But first… more pain.
I stretch my muscles that ache so fucking bad I want to cry. I got sacked way too many times last night. The bruises riddling my body are proof. But as they say: No pain, no gain.
I don’t even bother putting my shirt on. I just tuck it into the waistband of my shorts. It’ll be more of a towel than clothing anyway.
I’m stoked Jillie isn’t with Ainsley anymore. I don’t know what they were, but I know they were making out pretty hot and heavy a couple times I saw them. Pissed me off… mostly because it made me jealous. I can admit that to myself, but admit it to anyone else? No.
So, when she was with him, I used a few girls to get myself through. If that makes me a dick, then I’m a dick. They like the screw around as much as I do, so why not? We’re safe, single, and both looking to scratch an itch.
The bad part? It wasn’t nearly as satisfying as that one time with Jillie. Just her laugh had me hard. Her breathy voice. Jesus, I need to stop thinking of it or I’ll get hard now.
I set off to jog along the beach. I don’t feel like talking to anyone, so I avoid the paved path. Likely I’d run into one of the guys pushing through the misery, too. Besides, the sand is less jarring than the cement.
I put my earbuds in and crank up the tunes. Metal. Heavy metal to get me through this. Pop or rap just isn’t enough.
There’re a few runners on the beach this morning. Not a surprise. But they don’t talk. They merely nod and keep right on going. Occasionally there’s a dog who tries to knock me on my ass, but I think I’m too early for him today—either that or his owner got lucky. Single dude, early 20s. I had no choice but to stop and chat with him. Either that or have a big furry canine tackling me.
Looking down the beach, I see two figures. The one’s silhouette looks just like Jillie. Couldn’t be. She’s not up this early. Otherwise, I’d have gone to her house first thing to talk to her about the possibility of getting together. I sound stupid. I hope I don’t sound that stupid when I talk to her.
I want the boyfriend/girlfriend thing with her. She’s not like everyone else. She’s straight-up and she’s sexy. She’s funny and she’s the one I want to try a relationship with. I’ll have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m going to try. For her, I’d do just about anything.
I narrow my eyes. Yeah, just about anything but be pals with the fucker heading my way right now. Elan Ainsley.
Sure as shit that was Jillie. Did they meet up this morning? Saying goodbye after a night together? Better not be the second one or I’ll beat the living hell out of him. He was just sucking face with Gianna after the game.
I slow my pace and walk toward him, catching my breath as I do. He narrows his eyes right back at me. I can’t hide my smirk. He’s a cocky fucker.
“Ainsley,” I say by way of greeting.
“That Jillie I see up there?”
He bristles. “Yeah. Give her room to breathe, man, if all you’re going to do is fuck with her head.”
“That’s not my way and you know it.”
“Maybe not purposefully, but with Jillie it seems to be a subconscious thing with you,” he informs me.
“It wasn’t intentional.” I brace my hands on my hips and look down at my sneakers in the sand. I take a deep breath and meet Elan’s gaze. “Are you with Gianna?”
“Yeah, not that it’s any of your business.”
“It kinda is. I needed to know that.”
“Why?” he asks, but from the way his spine straightened, he already knows the answer.
“I want to talk to her. See if we can try.”
“The girlfriend/boyfriend thing. A relationship. If she’s still interested,” I add.
He huffs a breath and looks at the sky with a growl. When he looks at me again, I see the turmoil in his eyes. He may not be in love with her, but he’s well on his way.
“She is,” he says.
“Interested. She’s interested in you, no matter how hard she tries not to be.”
I nod, not daring to show the grin fighting to break through.
“She tries real fucking hard, man.”
“You fuck with her head or hurt her in any way, I’ll ruin you. I may not be able to do it because you’re bigger, but I know someone who can.”
That threat? It’s genuine. I can see it in his demeanor, his eyes.
“Look, man, I’ll be honest. I’ve never been in a relationship.”
“Ever?” he interrupts.
“But Ella?” he says, and I laugh.
“She’s got you all saying that. Pisses Ellen off.”
He smirks. “That’s the point.”
“I figured. But, no. Ellen and I were only… casual. Occasional.”
“Fuck buddies,” he deduces.
“Yeah. That.” It sounds so shitty when he says it. “But Jillie’s different. I knew it the minute I saw her at that party.”
“I hate this shit,” he admits. “Just remember, if you hurt her…”
“Not my intent.”
He nods and I nod in return. Then he starts walking away and I start walking toward Jillie who’s standing there in the sun, head tilted back, swaying slightly. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was asleep on her feet. But I know she’s not. She turns when she hears me behind her.
Fuck. I’m nervous as a virgin on prom night.
“Jillie,” I greet when she turns to face me.
“What are you doing out here? Shouldn’t you be icing something after last night instead of out here running?”
Her concern gives me hope that I haven’t ruined everything. It’s so endearing the way she winces at the bruises on my ribs and arms.
“If I don’t get up and move, I get tight. Not a good thing.”
“So, you get up at dawn to torture yourself further? Do your parents know about your masochistic tendencies? I think maybe you need to talk to a professional.”
Now I do laugh and it brings a smile to her lips. Such a beautiful smile. If I didn’t know it was the sun, I’d say she brought the light. And now I’m waxing poetic like a sap. Even I don’t know who I am with the walls down.
“They don’t only know, they encourage it.”
“Sadists,” she teases.
“What are you doing out here?” I ask, already knowing she was here with Ainsley.
“I went for a walk with Elan. It was very short-lived. I don’t do well this early in the morning.”
“I heard he’s seeing Gianna Rothchild.”
She tilts her head to the side. “Yep, he is.”
I just nod, not knowing what to say or how to say it.
“We’re just best friends.”
She opened the door. Thank God it didn’t have to be me.
“It looked like more, more than once.”
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“That, they can.” I look out at the ocean. Don’t I know it. I’ve been deceiving everyone all of my life because everyone wants a piece of me… and, until now, I couldn’t tell who wanted me for real or for who I am. Here goes…“Look, Jillie. I’m sorry for being a dick. I’m just not used to letting people see past the walls I put up to protect myself, and that night on the beach, you saw everything.”
“So what? I’m not going to tell anyone you actually have a heart. That you love your little sister more than anything. That you have a hamster named Fred, or that your parents push you to be the best you can be. I could’ve told everyone everything, but I didn’t. That’s not who I am, Leo.”
I close my eyes a warmth surrounds my heart at the sound of my name on those sexy-as-hell lips. She remembers everything. I open them and meet her gaze.
“I know. It’s just really hard to trust people, and you were new. You showed up and I didn’t know who you were or if you wanted something from me. You were the unknown.”
“And now I’m not?” she asks. Rightfully so.
“Now you’re not.”
“How do you figure?” Her eyes darken and her pulse speeds up. This is a good sign.
“I’ve been watching you, learning things about you,” I tell her honestly.
Curious girl. Beautiful girl. Tenacious girl. My girl.
“You don’t like onions. You eat the same amount of food as me—which I find refreshing. You don’t care to dress up. You love your Chucks. I think you might have fifty pair for as often as you change colors. You don’t like it when someone doesn’t like you. I think it physically hurts you in some way. You hate being put in the spotlight when you’re sober, but when you’re drunk, you turn into Truthful Jillie, who tells it like it is, no matter who’s watching, no matter the cost.”
“Wow. You have been paying attention.” She blushes and looks nervous.
I do a mental fist pump. Yes!
“And that’s just for starters.”
“Well, look at you, Leo. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were interested in me.”
She rubs her hands on her shorts, the way she does when she’s nervous. Her hair is a wild whirlwind of dark strands whipping in the ocean air.
“I am interested in you, Jillie.”
“Leo, I don’t think you’re interested in me the way I’d like you to be interested in me.”
She’s got to be kidding. She can’t really believe that, can she?
She tilts her head again. Another thing I’ve noticed. She does this when she has a point to make, one she’s certain of.
“Because every time I see you, I see you with a different girl—or Ella. That doesn’t instill confidence in your interest in me.”
“Again, looks can be deceiving, Jillie. I may be out with people in group situations, but I haven’t been on a date since I met you.”
She rolls her eyes. “Give me a break. I saw you at the burger joint with what’s her face and at the movies with the other one.”
“What you saw is what you’ll always see: someone wanting a piece of me whether I’m interested or not.” And me putting on a show for her, trying to make her as jealous as I am—was.
“Why do you allow that? I don’t understand why you would let people crawl all over you if you’re not interested.”
“I’ve never had a reason not to.”
I smile at her confusion. I admit, I’m not an easy guy to understand.
“I’ve never had a reason to care what it looked like, whether people were using me, whether people were invading my personal space. It’s just something I’ve gotten used to, something I’ve learned to live with. But I don’t want to do that anymore.” I take a step closer to her.
“You don’t?” Her voice comes out a squeak and I can’t hide my grin.
“No, I don’t.” I can’t see her through all that wild hair, so I gather it in my hands. I need to see her eyes, her true reaction when I tell her. “You see, Jillie, you got to me that night, too. I told you I wanted more from you, and I do.”
“You want more. From me. Like… what?”
More wiping of the hands on her shorts. When she teeters a bit off balance, those hands find my bare chest. Heaven.
“Like, you and me going on dates. Texting like people who are interested in one another do.”
She starts to say something, but I stop her with a finger against those lips I want to devour.
“I want to be exclusive, Jillie. I don’t want to have a sexual relationship until you’re ready for it. I know you’re not. Not yet.”
Her eyes go wide, then… dreamy.
“I want a real relationship with you. It’s something I’ve never had before with anyone. It’s likely I’m going to screw it up, so I’m going to ask you to be patient with me. I need you to be open and honest with me about everything. If I was too close to the girl at the soda machine, tell me. If you don’t like the way Ellen clings, tell me.”
She holds up a finger and I laugh.
“I already know that. But I don’t want you to be afraid to tell me, okay? I don’t know what I’m doing. At all.”
I take my finger from her lips. I want to kiss those lips, but I don’t.
She lifts a brow in true Jillian fashion. “Can I talk now?”
I nod and smile. I wouldn’t say she’s perfect. No one is. But she’s the one I want.
“You, here, right now… you’re Jack. I want nothing more than to believe you, Leo, are Jack, and that you want all the things we had that night. I’m leery. I’m really afraid.”
“Because, Leo, you have the power to destroy me if I let you get any closer. Please don’t use that truth against me. Ever. I beg of you. I may seem like I’ve got it all together and I can handle things without a problem, but that’s false bravado. The Jill you met that night? That’s me. The real me. The rude drunk Jillie? She’s a bitch and I really don’t like her, but if you hurt me, I think that’s who I’ll become.” She’s only ever been honest.
“And if you hurt me, I’m afraid I’ll never let anyone behind these walls ever again.” I return the honesty.
“Yeah,” I whisper. “Oh boy.”
“Ella’s going to go psycho.”
“I already told her.” I admit.
Her jaw drops, her eyes go wide. I want to laugh, but I don’t.
“Well, that explains her little show at the game last night.” She watches me closely. “You really told her?” Another squeak.
“I really told her.”
“At some point, we’ll have to talk about your weird relationship with her.”
That pulls the smile from my face. I don’t want to talk about Ellen. Ellen doesn’t matter. For her I will. “We will. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
“Wow. Tell me, am I dreaming? Because it would suck if I opened my eyes right now and I was in my bed and none of this was happening.”
“It’s not a dream. It’s real.”
“Leo,” she whispers.
I can’t hold off anymore. I need to feel her. I pull her into my arms, hugging her to me, kissing her forehead as I do. When her arms wrap around me, I release a shaky breath. I was worried I might have been too late.
But I know now, I was just in time as we just stand here, holding one another. A rare perfect moment.
A seagull flies too close to us, she steps back but I grasp her hands in mine.
“Let me give you a ride home?” I ask.
She nods. “That’d be great. I walked here. I’m not sure what I was thinking.”
“That it was only seven blocks?”
We both smile. I live two blocks away. I suppose even that’s too much for her, but it’s better than the seven, I’m guessing.
We walk to my house and I grab a clean shirt.
“I’ll be back later,” I yell to the parentals.
We get into my car, ignoring my parents’ curious looks.
“If you hadn’t bumped into me on the beach, when were you going to tell me all of this?”
I hold her hand as I drive. I don’t want to let go. Is that her hand sweating or mine? Maybe both?
“I was going to stop over later today. I know you’re not a morning person.”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
“I know. You told me that night.” I squeeze her hand gently.
Are those men in uniform getting out of that car? I slow down a bit because if I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing Jillian’s world is going to shift. Please, no.
She sees them too. Her entire body goes rigid.
“No.” Her whisper echoes my thoughts.
She’s stiff, her hands shaking. Her eyes are wide and she’s pale—so damn pale.
“Jillie. Wait for me.” I hurry to help her out of the car because she looks as if a light wind would blow her over.
“Let’s see what’s going on. It might be nothing.”
Maybe he just got hurt. Hurt is better than dead, isn’t it?
She’s mumbling beneath her voice about it being bad, so bad it’s going to destroy her. I’m not one for praying, but I am now.
Jillie’s aunt opens the door to the uniformed Marines as we’re making our way to the door.
“No,” Jillie whimpers. I hold her tight to my side.
“Jillian Fox?” they ask her aunt. Her expression is one of sorrow and horror. Her aunt says something then points to Jillie.
“Jillian?” they ask.
She nods. Her entire body is shaking. I’m so worried about her I miss the first part of what he said—who he is, or who they are.
“They were out on patrol when an IED went off.”
“No,” she whispers.
“Colonel Ezra Fox was among the caravan. At this point in time, it is believed there were no survivors.”
“No!” she cries.
“Jillie,” I say as she begins to sink to her knees. She’s crying so hard, her body’s convulsing with it. She lets out an anguished cry and I swear, in that moment, I can hear her heart shatter.
“At this point…?” Jillie’s aunt leads.
He nods, this Marine with horrifying news. I wonder how many times he’s had to deliver this news. How many times he’s seen people fall apart. I wouldn’t want that job. Not for all the money in the world.
Jillie’s starting to hyperventilate now. I pull her into my lap and rock her as I listen.
“We’re unsure if all of the bodies were Marines or if there were civilian casualties.”
And I can tell by his tone that’s all he’s going to say about that.
“But if some are civilian, where are the others?” Jillie’s aunt asks but gets no answer.
The men turn to Jillie.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Miss Fox. The chaplain will be stopping by…”
I tone him out now, too.
Jillie’s gasping for breath.
“Breathe, Jillie,” her aunt instructs, bending down and rubbing her back while I hold her and rock her..
“Can’t,” she gasps again. Then, my sweet girl turns to me with such anguish in her eyes. “No. Please… no. Not my daddy,” she cries.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” the other one says.
“No,” Jillie tells him.
He may be sorry, but I doubt he’s sorry enough.
“What… what am I going to do without my dad, Leo?”
“Oh, sweet baby, I’m so sorry. Let’s go inside.” I guide her into the house and sit next to her on the sofa. She’s crying so hard and it’s making me want to cry and I’m a hard dude to sell on a cry.
“There’s… there’s so much to do,” she says on a wheeze.
I look at her aunt. She’s got some sort of bag.
“Hi, Leo. I’m Jillie’s Aunt Ruthie. So you don’t worry, I’m a psychiatrist and Jillie needs a little something or she’s going to end up in the hospital,” she tells me.
I just nod. She can do what she’s got to do to make Jillie calm down.
“Are you… are you going to… sedate me? Because I… I can’t…” Jillie questions.
Her aunt nods. “I am. Just a little something to calm you down. I’ll find out what’s going on. I’ll call your Aunt Leah and notify her. We’ll talk more about things after you have a good rest, okay?”
Jillie gives a jerky nod then looks at me. “Are you leaving?”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Not unless she tells me to go.
“I guess I’m going to sleep. If you don’t want to stay…”
“Baby, I’ll stay. I’ll call your friends if you want?”
She nods again, this time drowsily. Damn, that stuff works fast.
I lift her into my arms. She’s so light. She needs to eat more.
“Where?” I ask her aunt.
“Down the hall. Second door on the right,” she answers.
“My daddy…” Jillie cries, tucking her face into my neck.
“I know, baby. I’m so sorry.” After laying her on the bed, I climb in next to her, holding her, soothing her, wishing like hell I could do more.
“Shh,” I whisper. “It’s okay.”
I just hold on tightly to her.
She gives up the fight against the medication with a whispered, “No,” and it tears me in half.