“This” —I gestured with my hand to indicate the sad space around us— “is why I have two thousand dollar sheets and ugly but expensive artwork on the walls. When you have nothing your entire childhood, when you don’t get to eat unless you can kill dinner, and when you don’t get to be warm unless you’ve chopped a stack of firewood as tall as you were, you want things. You want comfort and ease. You want luxury and extravagance. You want to be the kid that doesn’t get made fun of for being dirt poor. You want to be the guy that gets the girl you should never be able to get. You want to be the kid that gets to see a doctor when you slice your side open chopping wood, not sewn together on the kitchen table and told to toughen up because you cried each time the needle dug into your skin. You want so many things when this is how you live. You want everything, and even that’s not enough, because there is always more. So you work your ass off to get those things, and even though you realize that it’ll never be enough, you keep working and you keep acquiring. My entire adult life has been about getting enough things to cover all of this up and to show my parents that I made the right choice by leaving and getting out, even though they’ve never seen and wouldn’t appreciate anything about the man I am now.”
Avett pulled her hand free, and I thought she was going to make some smart remark about the outhouse or about the fact that I had basically grown up Little House on the Prairie style, but all she did was wrap her arms around me from behind and press herself into my back. I felt her cheek rest between my shoulder blades and her voice, even though she spoke quietly, echoed loudly in the desolate space.
“It’s so much easier to see you here than it is when you’re surrounded by all those things, Quaid.”
I sighed and put my hands over hers. “That’s because there’s nowhere to hide here.”
I was done hiding, from her and from the rest of the world.
It was becoming disgustingly obvious that reaching for the remote and running after the wrong kind of men was not adequate exercise as I huffed and puffed to keep up with Quaid’s long-legged stride as he wound his way through the forest surrounding the cabin. Apparently, even the acrobatic and endless amounts of breathless sex I’d been having with the right kind of man wasn’t enough in the cardio department because I felt like I was going to die, and we’d only been hiking through the woods for an hour or so. Quaid wanted to show me something on the property. A place that he insisted was worth the burning thighs and collapsed lungs I was sure I was going to have by the time we got there. I couldn’t deny the wistful sparkle that lightened his pale eyes even more as he told me about spending hours with his younger brother, climbing on the rocks and jumping off the outcropping into the small mountain lake below. He promised the sound of the waterfall that fed the pool of frigid water was soothing and relaxing, and even though nature was not necessarily my thing, there was no way I was going to deny him this trip down memory lane that he obviously needed to take.
I groaned as I stumbled over a root I didn’t see and slammed into his broad back. The noise turned into a soft sigh as one of his arms reached around blindly to steady me. He was always doing that … steadying me. It made my heart flutter and the part deep down inside of me that always hurt, that forever pulsed with regret and pain, felt less vast and infinite.
“You okay back there?” Humor tinted his deep voice and pulled at his mouth as he looked over his shoulder at me.
I wrinkled my nose at him. “I’ll make it, but you might have to carry me back to the cabin.”
He laughed and lifted one of his golden eyebrows at me. “You’ve got years and years ahead of you before you’ll need someone to carry you back, Avett.”
I poked him between his shoulder blades and sidestepped something that looked like a pile of wild animal droppings. I still couldn’t believe this forest was his backyard and that he knew his way around the rugged terrain like it had only been yesterday when he was running through the trees. It didn’t fit with the flawless suits and the meticulously decorated loft. He had a lot going on beneath those silk ties he liked to wear.
“Thirty-something isn’t exactly three thousand, and I think it’s obvious which one of us needs to spend some time in the gym. Spoiler alert—it isn’t the guy with the perfect ass who hasn’t even broken a sweat.”
He chuckled again, and let his gaze sweep over me from the messy pink topknot to the dusty tips of my combat boots. “I like you just the way you are.”
They were simple words, but they mattered so much. The only other person in my entire life that had liked me just the way I happened to be was my dad. I didn’t even like me just the way I was most of the time.
He cocked his head a little to the side and we stared at each other for a long moment before he nodded sharply and muttered, “You’re welcome.”
We walked in silence for a few more minutes until the trees thinned out and we were suddenly in a clearing at the top of a soaring embankment. The rocks were stacked on top of one another as rushing water spilled over the natural sculpture. It was beautiful, majestic, and so stunning that the last of the breath I had in my lungs was sucked away in awe.
The sound of the water falling and splashing into the pool below was so loud I could hardly hear Quaid as he told me, “This is it. This was my favorite place in the whole world to spend time when I was growing up. When I was deployed and I spent day after day seeing nothing but sand and desert, I used to dream about this spot at night.”
He grabbed my hand and tugged me towards the edge of the rocks that jutted out over the crystal clear mountain water. It was probably a forty-to fifty-foot drop and the water was so clear I could see all the way to the bottom of the pond.
“It’s beautiful here. I can see why you kept the memories of this place with you when you were trying to forget the rest of this life.”
When he turned his head to look at me, he was frowning and his jaw was hard. I wanted to lift my fingers and stroke them across the dark blond scruff but he turned his face back towards the impressive vista and muttered, “I forgot. I spend so much time pretending this life never happened and denying that I was ever the kid that came from here that I forgot that there was this kind of good here, too.”
I moved so that I was standing next to his side and inhaled so deeply that it felt like there wasn’t any room left inside of me for the guilt and shame that I always breathed in and out, because the clean mountain air invaded every part of me that it touched. It was cleansing and startlingly eye-opening.