Authors: Julie Ann Walker
She squinted up at him. “Shouldn’t I be asking
“I’m fine,” he assured her.
“You keep sayin’ that and I’ll stop believin’ you. Methinks he doth protest too much and whatnot.” She wiped the back of one hand over her forehead. It came away damp with sweat and a smear of Bran’s blood.
“Anyone ever tell you when you wear that particular expression, your nose and face all scrunched up, you look like a raisin with eyes?”
She blinked at him, mouth open. “Do you really think it’s wise to insult a woman who’s holdin’ a needle this far away”—she held her fingers an inch apart—“from your Grand Master of Ceremonies?”
His white teeth glowed against the dark whiskers on his cheeks and chin when he flashed a smile. Bran seemed to sport a perpetual five-o’clock shadow. And his twinkling dark eyes, swarthy complexion, and shaggy hair made her realize once again how much he resembled a pirate of old. All he needed was a gold hoop earring and parrot.
He lifted a brow. “That’s a good one. Maybe we should invite her over the next time we have our Who Can Come Up with the Best Euphemisms Contest. What’d’ya say, Mason?”
Bran had a way of making contractions out of multiple words at once. Maddy figured it was because he was an East Coaster and they did everything fast, including talking. Not that she didn’t have her own linguistic idiosyncrasies. She did a pretty mean
. Not to mention she usually dropped the
’s off the end of her words, but that was mostly because the
sound wasn’t soft on the ear. And as anyone from Texas would tell you, the rounder and longer and softer words were, the better they sounded.
“And when I said you looked like a raisin with eyes,” Bran continued, turning back to her, “I meant you looked like a really adorable raisin with really beautiful, gray, sea-after-a-storm eyes.”
Maddy gaped at him. Now there was no denying it. He
coming on to her. Right?
Despite the direness of their situation, her inner Maddy let loose with an enthusiastic happy dance complete with hip shakes, finger guns, and maybe a few leaping heel clicks.
But before she could come back with some clever reply à la Joey Tribbiani—
How YOU doin’?
—Bran cupped her chin in his hand.
Gone was the smile. Gone was the twinkling light in his eyes. Now his expression was serious as death. Just
As if he had some sort of internal switch that could change him from Teasing Bran to Terrifying Bran.
“Hey.” His palm was warm and dry against her clammy skin, his calluses a gentle abrasion. “You’re doing great. Just keep stitching and talking, and it’ll be over before you know it.”
Now she got his game. He wasn’t coming on to her so much as trying to distract her from the gruesomeness of her task.
“I think I can accomplish the first,” she admitted, swallowing the bile that climbed up the back of her throat when she pushed the two halves of his wound together before threading the needle and string through the flesh on the opposite side. “But the second might be askin’ too much.”
The new-penny smell of blood hung thick in the humid air. She ignored it, breathing out of her mouth as she tied off the first stitch. She tilted her chin, admiring her handiwork.
Not too shabby, even if I do say so myself. Grandma Bettie would be so proud.
“So, you sew,” he said. “I’ll talk.”
“Deal,” she agreed, going to work on the next suture. If she didn’t think about what she was doing, she could pretend she was just stitching together two pieces of really tough, really leaky fabric.
“I’m sorry I didn’t respond to your email,” he said. Just like that.
She thought about herding him toward the end of the conversation the way a cattle dog herds a cow toward an open gate, with a bark and a few nips at his heels. But then she thought,
Why the hell not?
If he was willing to air their private business in front of two audience members, by God, so was she.
After she finished the third stitch, she lifted her eyes to his face. “I was wondering about that. And a little…
, I guess.”
The word rolled over Bran’s heart like an Abrams tank, smashing the organ beneath its steel tracks.
“Maddy…” He whispered her name. “I…” He stopped himself from saying,
I woulda answered if the satellite dish hadn’t blown down.
Because he wasn’t sure that was the truth. And he was many things. But a liar wasn’t one of them.
The muscles in the back of his neck tensed, and he ran his hand over them before blurting, “The truth is, I didn’t decide to come ’til the last minute.”
” She blinked up at him, her stormy eyes searching his face.
He didn’t say anything, simply raised a brow and waited. Maddy was a smart cookie, so it didn’t take her long to figure it out. He saw the moment shock and realization struck.
“Oh.” She shook her head, frowning. “Sorry… I thought maybe we were… Because there was that thing on my father’s yacht. And then the last three months we’ve… But…never mind. Doesn’t matter. My bad.”
Bran didn’t know which he regretted more. Seeing that look on her face, or the burning mothersucker of a gash across his thigh.
On second thought, I
It was definitely her expression. His thigh would heal with time. But he’d never forget that he’d hurt Maddy. Hurt her, mislead her, and…embarrassed her in front of Mason and the park ranger.
“Maddy.” He cupped her chin in his hand again. Partly to make her meet his eyes, and partly because he couldn’t stop himself from touching her. Her skin was so soft and warm.
“Sure, I get it.” She jerked her chin from his hand.
“Well, I sure as shit don’t,” said the park ranger whose embroidered name read “Rick.”
Seriously? Ranger Rick?
He was once again in front of the kitchenette’s counter. But he wasn’t leaning against the Formica countertop. He was pacing back and forth. Back and forth. “I don’t get anything about this.” There was a slightly hysterical edge to his voice. “Who are those men? What are they doing here? And who in God’s name are
Bran stared down at the golden crown of Maddy’s head glinting brightly in the dim light. His fingers itched to run through the strands of her short, silky hair. Then his fingers weren’t itching to do anything but curl into fists. She no longer hesitated on his stitches, instead going after them like a dollar-a-day factory seamstress. He had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from sucking in a harsh breath when the needle punctured fresh flesh.
He thought about asking her to take it easy, but she
made that comment about his Grand Master of Ceremonies—which he’d like to keep fully intact and sporting just the one hole. So he decided to keep his mouth shut and endure. And besides, he probably deserved it after the way he’d bungled things between them.
“I can’t answer the first question,” he told Ranger Rick, his eyes nearly crossing when Maddy hit a particularly tender spot. Sweat broke out across his brow and the back of his neck. “But if I had to guess, I’d say the answer to the second question is ransom. Maddy’s family is beyond rich—we’re talking Daddy Warbucks—and whoever these assholes are, they probably thought it’d be easy to snatch her from a remote island in the middle of the Gulf.”
an article that ran in the
about me and the scholarship girls and this trip,” Maddy said consideringly. “Anyone with an eye toward kidnapping could’ve seen it. I should’ve thought about that. I should’ve—”
“This isn’t your fault,” Bran assured her before turning back to Rick. “As for who
are…” He wagged a finger between himself and Mason.
He jumped. He couldn’t help it. And instead of looking contrite, Maddy scowled at him.
“What did I tell you about that tough-guy, don’t-cry crap?” she demanded. “Am I hurtin’ you?”
She narrowed her eyes, daring him to say
one more time.
He cleared his throat and motioned with a hand toward his half-stitched wound. “Please continue.”
She hesitated, turning her head to view him from the corner of her eye as if that might help her see through his bullshit. She must’ve been satisfied with what she saw—confirming he could have had a job on the stage—because after a second, she bent back to her work.
He blew out a covert breath and curled one hand around the edge of his chair, gripping the wood so hard he was surprised he didn’t splinter it. “We’re your neighbors,” he told Ranger Rick through his clenched jaw.
“Huh?” Rick’s youthful face scrunched up.
“We live on Wayfarer Island.”
“Ah, the six retired Navy SEALs who are looking for the lost treasure of the
Bran lifted a brow.
“News travels fast in the Keys,” Rick clarified.
Ain’t that the truth?
Every time Bran made a supply run to Key West, some new stranger walked up to him and asked how the hunt was going. The Florida Keys were unique in that a person could disappear in them, just fall off the edge of the map as long as they kept a low profile. But keeping a low profile was damn near impossible when searching for a legendary treasure.
“But I don’t understand,” Ranger Rick said. He’d moved over to take Bran’s position by the front window, but he wasn’t watching the fort. He was eyeing Bran. “Why are you
With machine guns? Killing people?” The young ranger had turned a milky shade of white at that last question. “I-I mean, that man out there…” Rick swallowed, and the sound his throat made was strangely loud inside the tight confines of the cottage despite the low rumble of the generator outside that supplied juice to the few electronics. “He
“Graveyard dead,” Bran admitted without a hint of remorse.
“Oh, forgive us,” Rick murmured, crossing himself.
“Forgiveness is between him and God,” Bran insisted. “It was my job to arrange the meeting.”
Man on Fire
,” Maddy blurted.
Despite everything, Bran felt himself smiling.
was their thing. Intoxicating physical chemistry, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings aside, they shared a mad love for the cinema.
“Huh?” Rick blinked, his face doing that scrunchy thing again.
“They’re here because I invited them,” Maddy said, forgoing an explanation for their brief tangent.
The blood loss was making Bran a little light-headed. And when he dragged in a steadying breath, Maddy’s sweet scent—that intoxicating aroma of fruit and berries he remembered so well—invaded his nostrils, making him grip the seat for a whole new reason.
did he have such a reaction to her? And how was he supposed to continue to fight it?
By remembering what the alternative is.
Annnnnddddd…there was that.
“I was hopin’ they’d stop by tonight and regale the girls with stories of the
,” Maddy added.
Mention of the teenagers had her swallowing what Bran knew was a lump in her throat. But that’s all she allowed. Just that tiny indication she wasn’t as fine as she seemed.
“As for the machine guns…” she continued, only to trail off and bite her bottom lip when a particular stitch caused her trouble. She finally managed to tie off the thread—much to Bran’s relief—and finished with, “You got me.” She turned inquisitive eyes up to him. “Why
you guys run around Rambo-style all the time?”
“Old habits are hard to break,” he allowed.
That seemed to be explanation enough because she nodded and turned back to finish the last two stitches.
“We were about two miles out when we heard the gunshots,” Bran told Rick. “And we decided we better drop anchor, swim over, and investigate.”
“So if you don’t mind me asking,” Rick said, “how is it that two Navy SEALs living on a remote island happen to know an oil heiress from Houston?”
The young park ranger’s expression was a little… Was that jealousy Bran was seeing? Narrowing his eyes, he decided,
Yeah. It’s jealousy.
Which was sort of funny. Ranger Rick had probably only been legal for a couple of years. And to think Maddy would have any interest in a wet-behind-the-ears—
been the sweet smile she’d given the guy while they’d shared that whispered exchange a couple minutes ago. Not to mention the familiar way she’d squeezed his arm. And chicks were suckers for dimples, weren’t they? Ranger Rick had the kind of dimples that could hold an ounce of liquid when he smiled.
So maybe Maddy
interested in the young stud and—
Red edged into Bran’s vision at the idea of Maddy in the ranger’s arms. He could picture Rick kissing the soft skin on Maddy’s throat. Imagine Maddy wrapping her arms around Rick’s shoulders and arching into his caresses. And suddenly, the monster inside Bran roared to life, bringing with it a memory that snarled and snapped, nipping at the heels of his mind…
“Bran, baby,” his mother whispered as she shoved him into the coat closet. “Be quiet, okay? And no matter what you hear, you don’t come out.” Her big, dark eyes
were frantic, the soft skin around them showing fading
“Yes, Momma.” He nodded, his lower lip quivering.
“You fuckin’ bitch!” His father’s voice boomed from the front of the house. “I saw the way you were looking at him!”
Bran burrowed back against the wall when his mother closed him in just as she had countless times before. Just as she surely would countless times to come. Darkness filled the closet. Only a thin sliver of light showed around the edges of the door, and the smell of old wool drifted down from the coats overhead to mix with the faint aroma of pee that lingered from the last time he was in here.
He’d tried to hold it. He’d pinched himself until he was bruised, bit his lip until he tasted blood, but eventually he hadn’t been able to stand it. It had hurt so bad. And he’d had an accident all over the wood floor.
have an accident this time. He would
make Momma clean him up when all he wanted her to do was lie on the sofa and watch
Little House on the Prairie.
when she watched
Little House on the Prairie.
He figured it was because Pa Ingalls was always so nice. Pa Ingalls never screamed and hit. Pa Ingalls never pushed or shoved or called anyone bad names.
When Bran grew up, he was going to be just like Pa. Not like Daddy. Never like Daddy…
“Donny.” Momma’s voice was soft and low. “Calm down, my love. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“What’s wrong? What’s
?” Daddy thundered, and Bran closed his eyes when Momma cried out at something Daddy did to her. “I
the look you gave the mailman!”
“Donny, I swear I didn’t—”
A sickening sound, a
sound, like the one Bran’s basketball made when he tossed it against the side of the house, blasted through the door of the closet, followed closely by Momma’s cries.
Bran curled into a ball on the floor. His legs to his chest. A terrible ache clutched at his belly until he thought he might throw up the macaroni and cheese Momma had made him for lunch. He covered his ears and willed himself not to be sick.
“Donny, please!” Momma begged. “I swear I didn’t do anything! I love you! Only you!”
“You don’t want the mailman?” Daddy demanded.
“Of course not, Donny! I don’t know what you think you saw, but I promise you it was nothing. You’re the only man for me.”
For a long time everything was quiet. Bran could hear each of his breaths. They sounded funny. Like when he ran really fast for a really long time.
Then Daddy said, “Oh, Loraine!” And his voice was no longer raised. Instead it was kind of muffled like he’d taken a big bite of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “I didn’t hurt you, did I? I didn’t mean to hurt you. When I see you with another man, it just makes me so—”
“I know, Donny.” Momma was using her
voice. The same one Bran heard when he fell down and scraped his knee. “I know you didn’t mean it.”
Bran could hear the sound of kissing coming through the door. That meant Daddy was done. He wouldn’t hit Momma anymore.
“You won’t open the door to that man ever again,” Daddy said between kisses. “You hear me, Loraine? You let him drop the letters in the box.”
“Of course, Donny,” Momma said.
For a long time, no sound breached the quiet except for the smack of kisses, the rustle of clothes, and Bran’s catching breaths. Then Momma gasped, “Donny, we can’t.”
“Why not?” Daddy asked. “You got your period or something?”
“No.” Momma’s voice was halting, careful. “R-remember you told me I could take Bran to see a rerun o
at that theater in the South Ward?”
“Yes, that’s tonight. You could come with us, Donny,” Momma said, and Bran shook his head even though no one could see him.
“To a ridiculous cartoon about a bunch of silly animals? I’m a full-grown man, Loraine. I ain’t got time for that kiddie shit.” Bran blew out a relieved breath, wrinkling his nose because it smelled bad, like sour milk.
“But it’s Bran’s birthday and—”
“And I’ll start celebrating with him when he’s old enough to drink a beer and tell a good joke,” Daddy said. “You go, Loraine.” Then the sound of his work boots on the floor carried toward the front of the house. “I’ll head down to the pub and raise a toast to Bran’s birthday with the boys.”