Chapter One

 

BACK WHEN I was in the Army, I had a buddy who was always trying to use the exact right words for things. So when in Afghanistan, instead of saying we were headed in the basic direction of Kabul to deliver guns, explosives, and whatever the hell else was in the truck we were driving that day—and ended up taking a detour—he said that this coddiwomple we found ourselves on could not possibly be safe.

I remembered turning and looking at him as he drove, thinking, the hell did that word mean? I never got the chance to ask. We were hit by an RPG and that was the last time I ever saw him.

Since I was the one of us who was allowed to get older, I realized knowing the exact word for something was actually very useful. As a result, I added many words to my otherwise meager vocabulary. At the moment, the word “petrichor” came to mind. The scent of the rain on dry earth—and even though dirt was never actually bone dry where I lived in Benson, on the coast between Brookings and Gold Beach, the smell was what I imagined the word to mean, somewhere between rotting flowers and rain.

As I ran through the woods near my house, I breathed in the cold, moist morning air of early October and tried to recall what I was supposed to do today. It was Saturday, and for once I didn’t have to work until afternoon, but I was relatively certain I was forgetting something I’d committed to. It was dicey even attempting to remember anything without my calendar because my brain didn’t work the way it used to anymore, not after the accident. I normally lived well with my limitations. It wasn’t like I forgot what I was doing in the middle of a task, and at work I stayed on top of my responsibilities with the help of a watch that talked to me and a phone that did the same. Personal stuff was where I usually found myself in the doghouse.

Wanting to get to the coffee shop before all the hipsters in town got up and headed over, I raced down the hill, cutting across the road in intervals, not looking, just darting, knowing I was the only one besides Mal Harel and Preston Garber who lived this far above the town. I sent up the millionth thank-you to my father for having been such a gentle soul that living inside the city proper had been untenable. After my mother passed away, without her happy birdlike chirping that kept people focused on her and off him, the simple energy it took for him to get out of bed in the morning and interact was too much. My company was all he needed, and he held on all the way until I got my contractor license, finally succumbing to the pain of losing the love of his life, peacefully, in his sleep. People said no one could die from a broken heart, but I knew better.

As I popped out of the woods on one side of the main road, someone blew a horn at me. Turning, I saw Gail Turner and her husband, Toby, sitting at a stoplight. I waved back and they both—even the big man—returned the gesture. He’d been a tough nut to crack, but because there was a stillness in him that resonated with me, we’d forged first a tentative acquaintance that blossomed into a true full-blown friendship. Gail and I had been close in high school, but our lives had taken different paths. Unlike others, though, when I came home from serving—broken and alone, filled with snarling, wounded rage—she had not let me run her off. She was, she said, made of stronger stuff. I had to take her at her word, as she’d been on the receiving end of festering bitterness and scalding self-hatred and had given me back only humor and infinite calm.

The day she left her two-year-old daughter with me had been the turning point. There were probably people who could stay jaded and angry and simmering with revulsion of the whole world while having to feed a toddler, watch Sesame Street, and push them on a swing at the park, but I wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t, as it turned out—in me. Alma, who was now nine, had shrieked with happiness at the height I got the swing, and when I told her I had to sit down—my right leg was held together with screws and scar tissue and I could barely stand at that point—she yelled my name as I started for the bench situated twenty or so yards in front of her.

“Hagen!”

I had enough time to turn before she was sailing through the air and down into my arms.

Scrambling to catch her, I had burst into tears when I had her safely clutched to my chest, my hand on her small, fragile back.

“It’s okay,” she soothed me, head on my shoulder as her little hand patted me.

Between the fright and the comfort, I was a goner, bawling loud and ugly, the tears and snot flowing in equal measure. I never stood a chance in the face of the absolute certainty of a two-year-old girl that I was another piece of the safety net in her life. Her mother had told her I was a grown-up and I was strong, so that was her expectation. When Gail found us lying in the grass staring up at the clouds, she took a deep breath.

“Time to start living?” she asked, biting her trembling bottom lip as she poked at me with the toe of her shoe.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

She released a deep breath. “Atta boy.”

I groaned, and she laughed and then cried as Alma rolled over and slipped her chubby little arm around my neck.

“Stop,” I pleaded with my friend.

She just shook her head, and after she finally recovered enough to first pick up her kid and then give me a hand up, we joined her husband in the minivan with her one-year-old and their brand-new baby.

“You guys maybe need a hobby,” I told Toby.

His grin, the first I’d ever gotten, was wide. “You can babysit them all, smartass.”

And that was it. We were family, and I was blessed and cursed because along with the love came close tabs on my life—which included my love life. Gail needed to mother me as much as she did her children, so when she flipped the illegal youie in the middle of street so she could roll the minivan up beside me where I stood on the sidewalk, it was not a surprise that the first words out of her mouth were about me.

“Are you okay?” she asked frantically.

I leaned sideways to look at Toby, who had one hand splayed on the dashboard, bracing himself, and the other clutching the Jesus handle of the passenger seat of the Honda Odyssey.

“Tobe,” I greeted him, stepping off the curb and into the street so I could put both hands on the window frame.

“Hage,” he barely got out.

I scowled at Gail, shaking my head.

She waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t judge me.”

“You’re gonna give your husband a heart attack.”

“He’s fine,” she assured me with a distracted gesture toward his side of the van. “The question is, how are you?”

“What do you mean?”

Her eyes widened. “Didn’t you hear?”

“Hear what?”

She took a breath before delivering the news: “Mitch is back.”

I took a second to process. If I was being honest, there’d been a point in my life when hearing Mitchell Thayer was in town would have made my knees weak, my heart pound, my pulse race… and my cock hard.

I remembered, when I was sixteen and he was seventeen, the year before he’d left for college, he got hurt in the Homecoming game and his doctor told him specifically to not do anything that might aggravate the injury. I was on my way home from studying at the library when I saw him… I nearly had a heart attack. It took everything in me to not make a scene, and as I stood there on the side of the field, watching, I was furious and terrified and sure that both were all over my face.

“Hey Hagen,” Ellie Sawyer—who had always wanted Mitch and never liked me—said, forcing a smile. “Mitchie looks good out there, doesn’t he?”

“No,” I said tightly, not turning to look at her, instead keeping my eyes fixed on the guy who did a quick pump fake before throwing the football. He wasn’t even a quarterback, for fuck’s sake. He was a goddamn wide receiver. Why the hell was he out there throwing the ball in the park? Coach Reed would have killed him right there if he’d caught him.

“You never let him have any fun or—”

“And I suppose him getting hurt so he can’t go to college is your concept of a good idea?” I berated her, annoyed and hurt and taking it out on the closest available target.

“He’s not going to get hurt, just—”

“How do you know?” I barked, getting more pissed off by the second. “What if somebody hurts him on accident?”

“Well, you know what, Hage,” she said, shortening my name—not in a friendly way, but in a nasty, bitchy, condescending way that told me by her tone exactly what she thought of me, “I think Mitch knows his own body a lot better’n you do.”

I bristled, clenching my fists and narrowing my eyes. “Don’t kid yourself, Ellie,” I answered, her name sounding just as hateful coming out of my mouth as mine had bitten off from hers. “I know all about his body.”

She gasped and practically ran to get away from me, retreating over to where some of Mitch’s other teammates and their girlfriends stood.

I knew I made most of the other guys nervous. It had been a big deal when the new kid in class who’d moved with his family from Portland to Benson ended up not only being the star wide receiver for Schrader High, but also, like me, openly gay. He played on the varsity team as a freshman, had been All-State that same year, and All-American for his junior and senior years. All his plans for life centered around football, and now he was putting that in jeopardy with this simple game he’d made himself a part of. It was the stupidest thing he’d ever done. I could barely breathe as I watched him run backward once the ball was snapped. I felt my jaw tighten.

There was no way, with my feet planted, arms crossed, and chewing on my bottom lip, that anyone could miss that I was not happy. I hoped I was making every single person around uncomfortable.

It was physically painful to watch. He’d promised me he’d be careful, he’d sworn he would follow his doctor’s orders and never risk irreparable damage to play a game with his friends. When everything started to melt suddenly, I realized I had started to cry.

Fuck him and fuck his promises and… we had a plan. We were supposed to go away. He was a year older than me, so he’d get a scholarship, go away to school, and as soon as I was done, I’d follow him. That was the plan: we were going to get out of Benson and he’d be a huge star in the NFL and I’d have my own construction business because I loved to build things more than anything else, and now… he was risking throwing that all away because, clearly, fucking around with his football buddies meant more to him than me and our shared dreams.

Turning away, I realized that even through my top coat, fleece hoodie, scarf, and beanie, I was freezing. But it was February in Oregon, so really, there should have been no cause for surprise.

“Hey guys, that’s it for the day,” Mitch rumbled good-naturedly.

“Oh, c’mon, Thayer, just until we break for halftime.”

“Nope.” I heard the guy I loved laugh behind me as I stalked around the edge of the field. “That’s all I can do. Pushing it will cripple me for days.”

Or for his whole damn life! But hey, who the hell cared?

“Hage!”

I started walking faster.

“Hagen!”

Jogging was just the natural progression of things.

“Hagen Wylie, you better stop right there!”

Flying forward, I ran as fast as I could. Tears were streaming down my face, and I would absolutely not let him see me like that. Unfortunately, I had my fur-lined rain boots on, which were not the greatest for sprinting. Although really, against an All-American superstar wide receiver, I was maybe giving myself a little too much credit for speed.

He wasn’t expecting the veering, though, and I ducked under a low branch, ran as nimbly as I could manage over the exposed tree roots, up and over a picnic table, around the back of the bathrooms, and reached the chain-link fence near the gate.

I was grabbed tight by my right shoulder, spun around, and thrown into it. The fence gave just enough for me to bounce back into him.

“Where the hell are you going?”

I looked down, not wanting to see his face, heaving for breath not because I was winded, but because I was crying and had been running and that was a crappy combination.

“Look at me.”

I lifted my chin and my breath hitched, my vision blurred, and I started shaking.

“What the hell?” he snapped, hands cupping my face, thumbs smoothing away my tears as he stepped closer so our legs pressed together.

I took a shuddering breath.

“Really? All this?”

I tried to pull free, but he had me, pinning me to the chain link. He moved his right hand from my face so he could pull the knit cap off my head.

“What did you think, that I was out there for hours?”

I had been passing the park and spotted him. Mitchell Thayer was impossible to not see wherever he was, even in a crowd.

He had dark blond hair to account for that, as well as fluid, athletic grace, the power of his body in his muscles, and a year-round golden tan. When I got close, I quickly noticed his eyes, the turquoise blue such a gorgeous color, and his sharp-angled features and square jaw. Finally he smiled, his lips curling effortlessly, and the effect, all of it together, just him, left me breathless.

“Baby?”

I shook my head and closed my eyes so I wouldn’t need to look at him anymore.

He leaned in and kissed my forehead, then my nose, each closed eyelid, and finally, tipping my head back, my mouth.

I shivered with the contact that was so slight and yet so scalding at the same time. His tongue pushed for entrance, and I opened my lips, parting to receive him. When I heard the deep, rumbling chuckle as I wrapped my arms around his neck, pulling him down to me, I tried to untangle myself and push him away, but he wouldn’t let me go until I broke the kiss. His lips found my throat, and he planted one kiss after another until I was boneless in his arms.

“You have to take care of yourself,” I whispered, the air thick and hot between us. “You promised me your life already, and I want it—I want it to be you and me forever.”

“It will be,” he swore, hands burrowing under my jacket to my sweater and T-shirt, finally sliding over my bare skin. “You’re the only one for me, you know that.”

I’d believed him because he was seventeen and I was sixteen, me a junior, him a senior, and everything had been possible then. Promises from the person you loved, adored, were things to believe in, never to doubt.

But that was a long, long time ago.