Authors: Laura Moore
But it'd be nice if she'd stop looking so outrageously entertained right now at having caught Quinn and Ethan making out.
“Absolutely. She's leaving Bruno in Reid's care. We'll be going in your dad's carâ”
“Naturally.” Her dad had a thing about cars and tractors. He liked them
“Ward's driving us so that we can drink as much champagne at lunch as we want. Departure's at nine o'clock. I'm pretty sure we'll have time to get some Christmas shopping in before lunch. Anna's reserved a table for us at Paradiso and has planned the menu. She and Paradiso's chef go way back.”
“A good thing we have the fitting beforehand.”
“I know. We'll still have waists and functioning brains.”
“I promise I'll be ready at nine sharp.” She sounded as chirpy as a cheerleader, but Tess's joy was infectious. And she was glad to have a chance to pick up some presents. The bridal shop was in Union Square and the restaurant was in Pacific Heights near Fillmore Street. Between those two neighborhoods they would pass a number of stores where she could pick up fun things for her family and not break her new and much-reduced budget. Perhaps she'd get super lucky and find something for Ethan, too. The question was what to give the man who already had her heart, even if he didn't know it.
“Good.” Tess gave her one last twinkling-eyed look and then took pity on her, switching her attention to Ethan, who'd been all cool-guy silent since her arrival. “I hope you'll consider coming to the wedding, Ethanâit's in New York. Ward and I want close family friends celebrating with us.”
At her side Ethan shifted his weight the way Tucker did when he was about to bolt. “Thanks, but with all the Knowleses away, I'm thinking Pete will need an extra hand.”
Quinn recognized a golden opportunity when she saw one. Her mom had told her how anxious his parents were. Remembering what Ethan had looked like when he first arrived, she could well imagine how relieved they would be to see him now. And she'd lay money on the odds of Erin Miller being in New York City as wellâ¦
Pretending she hadn't caught his reluctance to attend Tess and Ward's wedding, she said to Ethan, “No need to worry about Pete and the guys. Josh will be taking up the slack.”
“And the goats? Josh doesn't know Hennie from Maybelle.”
Man, he was grasping at straws, but that didn't stop her heart from swelling at hearing that her nannies had made his list of things worthy of his care. “Mel will milk the does. And I have Lorelei and Francesco lined up to dog-, cat-, and parrot-sit.”
She met his squint with a bland smile.
“And I'm sure Quinn would love to have a date to the wedding,” Tess said brightly.
Yeah, Tess was going to fit right in with her family, each member generous as all get-out but still capable of annoying the pants off her.
“I think I can handle going soloâ” she began, only to fall silent, distracted by the weight of Ethan's arm landing chummily across her shoulder.
“Well, I do like to help Quinn with any problem,” he said, a rumble in his voice now.
He'd picked a fine time to show off his sense of humor. Before Quinn could demonstrate her appreciation by doing something subtle, like poking him in the ribs with her elbow, Tess spoke.
“So you'll come?” At Ethan's nod, she beamed. “That's great. Everyone will be so pleased to see your name in the yes column.”
And that included her, Quinn thought, though she wasn't going to admit just how happy she was at his decision to attend Ward and Tess's New York wedding. The thrill was selfish. With Ethan there, she'd have someone to laugh with because he got her offbeat sense of humor. On the dance floor she'd be able to step into the circle of his arms and feel his strength and the heady arousal that would steal through her veins as they moved together under the chandeliers' lights. And when their gazes met she'd see the glittering light in his gray eyes and know that he, too, was counting the minutes until they could steal away and continue their dance skin to skin.
She wanted that. Even more, she wanted Ethan to face his past, and in New York he wouldn't be able to turn his back on it so easily. But in forcing him to confront his demons, Quinn realized she might be risking losing him forever.
HE NIGHTMARE GRIPPED
Ethan with claws curled long and sharp as a bear's, digging deep until it felt as if he were being rent into bloody strips. He fought it, but the images, the sounds, even the smells, an unholy perfume of gunmetal, oil, and sweat, continued in a relentless onslaught.
He was in the Humvee, behind the passenger seat. Casey Logar was driving, Archie Donovan riding shotgun. Aaron Smith sat behind Casey, sucking hard on a wad of chaw, his dark jaw thrusting and cheek muscles jumping under the dome of his helmet. Rocks, kicked up by the tires' treads, pinged the vehicle's undercarriage in an angry staccato that punctuated the tense hum reverberating inside.
Ethan stared out the dusty window, studiously ignoring the disgruntled vibes emanating from Casey. And that was when he saw it: the red rubber bounce of a child's ball, the pumping of thin arms and legs that matched the determination stamped on a little boy's face as he chased it, a tableau that was the picture of innocence.
But Ethan knew what was to come. For this was more than a nightmare. It was his past, relived in horrifying clarity. He remembered the strange prickle at the back of his neck, the way his gut clenched at the sight of that bright, perversely cheerful flash of redâa harbinger of a deeper-hued one spilling from bodies and mixing with the dun-colored earth. When he heard the panicked shout of an adult yelling at the child, he suddenly knew with awful certaintyâ¦
His own agonized scream ripped from his throat. He jackknifed up shuddering, gasping as he drew cool air into his burning lungs.
For a second he didn't know where he was, only that it was night and the air was scented with pine and lavender and that he was alive while four others were gone forever. Three good guys, brave soldiers, sons, brothers, husbandsâ¦beloved. And a little boy, whose simple game ended in mayhem and death.
why? he whispered silently. His breath still coming in raw pants, he bowed his head while tears that stung like acid fell from his eyes.
Disoriented though he was, he recognized the hand that touched his heaving shoulder, the voice, quiet for all its alarm that asked, “Ethan? Are you all right?”
He flinched. “I'm fine.” He forced the words out. “I had a bad dream.”
“Maybe if you talked about itâ”
Tension chilled the sweat on his body until it felt as if he were encased in ice. “Back off, Quinn. You don't understand.”
“I could if you'd let me.”
The guilt he carried bubbled to the surface, thick and toxic. “Not interested.”
Pretending not to hear her soft gasp at his cutting words, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached for his jeans, shoving his feet into them and yanking them up. His flannel shirt was draped over the arm of her chair. He remembered Quinn unbuttoning it mere hours ago and kissing her way down his stomach, making his muscles jump and his blood pump thick and urgent. They'd made slow, sweet love. With a silent curse, he scooped the shirt up and shrugged into it, not bothering with the buttons.
“Where are you going?”
Her voice was guarded. In that moment he despised himself for having hurt her. But he didn't turn around. “I need some air. Go back to sleep.”
The night sky was vast and terrifyingly beautiful. The distant stars sparkled like shards of glass, the space between them obsidian black. Ethan stared up at the cold splendor, his eyes stinging, his right hand clenched around the long neck of a whiskey bottle.
The liquor he'd grabbed from the kitchen cabinet on his way out hadn't done its job. Instead he sucked in the winter night, half of him wishing it would offer some kind of anesthetic, the other half, infected with lingering guilt, wishing it would cut even deeper until he bled out. As he deserved.
Why had he survived when Casey, Archie, and Aaron's last breaths had been among rubble and twisted burning metal?
He had to tell Quinn what happened back there in Afghanistan, even though he knew it would change everything between them. The sharp flash of regret stabbed him as he thought of how he'd hurt her just minutes ago, treating her badly when she'd given him only honesty and generosity, and how he would hurt herâdisappoint her when she saw him for the man he truly was.
Shifting his weight, he rose to his feet and entered the house. Sooner and Bowie looked up from their oval dog beds and then, seeing it was only him, lowered their heads onto their front paws and slipped back into slumber. Silently he pushed open the bedroom door.
Even in the dark he could make out the spill of her long hair over the white of the pillow, the points of her shoulders and hip. Between them, the rigid set of her spine betrayed her wakefulness.
He sat down on the edge of the bed, and when she remained silent and still, refusing to roll over, he knew he deserved no less. He ached to reach out and gather her in his arms, to coax the sweetness out of her until she responded caress for caress, then to lose himself in the haven of her body, the only place where his soul was soothed.
Instead he began talking. Although his eyes were trained on the line of gray that marked the edge of the woven rug on the wooden floor, his mind saw faces, sharp-eyed and wary, as ready to react to any attack as their muscle-honed bodies beneath their fatigues.
“In Camp Nathan Smith I was embedded with a unit of soldiers. They were regular army, not special ops, Marines, elite fightersâmany of them just kids, reallyâwho came from all across America, podunk towns and big depressed cities. Some of them came from a family with a tradition of service. For others, the military was the only chance at advancement they'd get. I hung out with the men; played dumb-ass video games and vicious games of ultimate Frisbee and touch football; ate the crappy food in the mess with them and listened to them bitch about it; accompanied them on patrols; watched them pump iron, train, and clean and inspect their weapons. Through it all I took pictures. While I worked, we often talked. Sometimes they told funny stories. At others they sat around shooting the shit with their buddies. Then there were moments when things would turn on a dime and the talk would be about home, families, loved ones, and the war, the fucking ugly elephant in the room. These soldiers, they started out as subjects for my documentary, but over the course of the months I was with them, some also became my friends.
“The first time I had the dreamânightmareâwas at the hospital after I refused the sedatives and sleep meds they were pumping into my system. I had a few bad nights when I first got here at Silver Creek, then it went away for a few blessed weeks. I don't know what made it come backâ”
He could guess at the trigger, however. His editor's repeated calls and voice messages, Erin's persistence more than a match for his stubborn refusal. Her determination to have him complete his project burrowed like a chigger, going deep until it reached the memories he'd tried to bury.
With his elbows digging into the muscles above his knees, he clasped his hands together until his fingers hurt. This was the hard part. “The dream I have is of that last day. I was wrapping up my project, had taken hundreds of pictures. But one of the things that happens when you're photographing people and talking to them is that new topics to record inevitably spring up. I couldn't stop myself from thinking about one of the questions all the guys kept coming back to when they spoke about the war and their role in it.
“Every one of them wondered what the army would be leaving behind when the U.S. ended combat operations and the Afghan forces took over. Were the effort and risk worth it if Afghanistan descended into even greater chaos and violence? So I got this idea to finish my project with portraits of some of the professors and students from the University of Kandahar. I wanted to show the people back home the faces of the individuals who'd be carrying on the effort to promote education in this hellish pocket of misery, show them that there was something in this part of the world besides rocket launchers, bombs, grenades, hatred, and fear. My grand idea ended up costing four lives, three of them men I'd come to think of as friends.”
His chest hurt when he inhaled and he faltered, hanging his head. Continuing, saying the words, reliving those terrible minutes was too damned hard.
Suddenly there was a warmth against his back. He closed his eyes at the well of emotion that rose up inside him as Quinn wrapped her arms about his middle and pressed her cheek against his shoulder.
“Please tell me what happened.”
He kept his eyes closed, concentrating on the warm press of her body. “I'd contacted the university and explained my wish to finish the project with the faces of Afghan students and academics. After I'd provided my credentials to him, the vice chancellor, Omar Hasan, was delighted to have me come to the campus. He was even open to my photographing female students. As we were setting up a time and date, Hasan suddenly got excited. If I could arrange to come the following day at two o'clock, there was going to be an award ceremony for students who'd distinguished themselves in the civil engineering department. Afterward he'd personally give me a tour of the campus. I told him I'd check with the major at the camp to see whether he could provide an escort into the city but that I'd get back to him if there was a problem.
“Major Burrell assigned a detail to me. Corporal Aaron Smith, Specialist Casey Logar, and Specialist Archie Donovan. Good guys. Real good guys. He also said I could have the services of an interpreter, Ahmad Zadran, in case I wanted to interview anyoneâby that point everyone at the base knew my technique. I liked to talk to my subjects whenever I could. The major said he'd arrange to have Zadran come to the base and that he'd instruct Corporal Smith to plan our departure at thirteen hundred hours.”
It was time to quit being a weak-assed shit, Ethan thought. Enough with the stalling and filling in the picture with as many details as he could remember, all to avoid talking about that fateful decision, that deathly ride.
He forced the words out. “One o'clock the next day, the four of usâAaron, Casey, Archie, and Iâare waiting beside the Humvee for Zadran to arrive. Only he's a no-show. Five minutes pass, then ten minutes. I've got my camera bag stowed in the backâand every minute now feels like an hour. At fifteen past I turn to Smith, the senior officer, and say, âLet's leave without him, Corporal. The vice chancellor at the university spoke decent English. He can provide any translating I need.'
“Casey Logan speaks up. âCorporal, sir. I submit we wait for the translator the major assigned our detail.'
“I knew Casey was up for a promotion, a big fucking deal for him, and that he probably figured following protocol was the way to go in the run-up to his review. Maybe he was already envisioning what the rank of corporal would feel like. Me, I only cared about getting to the university and not insulting the administrator who'd invited me there by showing up late, so I reply with, âCome on, Corporal Smith, the translator's not going to show, and it's nearly thirteen hundred thirty. If we delay any longer, I'm going to be late. Damned if I want to be the disrespectful American who interrupts a university ceremony.'
“What the hell was I doing second-guessing any of these soldiers, throwing my weight around? I knew the men had all gotten into my project, were excited to be part of it, and I used that to sway Smith. We got into the Humvee, and just before Casey started the engine, he looked back and shot me a pissed-off look. I remember thinking I wished I'd had my camera out and captured that scowl to razz him with it when we returned to camp.
“It was a little over a ten-mile ride into Kandahar. The GPS put the university at a quarter of a mile farther, which meant we'd be cutting it close. Casey was driving, like I said, and though he still radiated his disapproval, he was driving at a good speed, aware I'd be cutting it close. I was staring out the window. The immediate environs of the camp were desolate. Then we drove past a small orchard. Pomegranate trees.” He paused. “You know the myth of Persephone?”