I moved to the edge of the rocks and looked down. “Did you ever jump off of here? It looks like a long ways down.” A whisper of an idea and the spark of a challenge started to skirt across my skin, and it made my blood pump harder and faster through my veins.
Quaid put his arm around my midsection and pulled me back so that I was pressed against his chest and not leaning precariously over the edge.
“Yeah, my brother, Harrison, and I used to dare each other to jump. Most of the time it’s fine if you hit the water right but when the weather changes the surface ices up pretty fast and the runoff is always really fucking cold. Harrison leaped without looking once when we were teenagers and ended up with a broken arm.” I felt him stiffen behind me and his arm locked like a vice across my stomach. “My folks refused to take him to the hospital. My dad tried to set the break himself and my mom made a sling out of aspen branches and a torn sheet. It never healed right and Harrison never had full use of his hand again.”
I put my hand over his and rubbed my fingers over the tension-laden fingers that were digging into my side. “Harrison and Quaid. You guys ended up with some pretty uppity names for kids that grew up off the land in the middle of nowhere.” I was trying to ease some of the rigidity that was coursing through the big body hovering behind mine, but he stiffened even more and laughed without an ounce of humor. In fact, the noise that escaped him almost made him sound like he was in soul-deep pain.
“Quaid isn’t even my actual first name. My mom had a thing for ’80s movie stars and her two favorites were Harrison Ford and Dennis Quaid.” His tenor dropped a little. “I never really felt like a Dennis, so I’ve always been a Quaid.”
I could tell he was struggling with the past and the way it was piling on top of his present, but I couldn’t hold back the giggle that bubbled up when he told me how he had ended up with his unusual moniker. “Dennis? You don’t really look like a Dennis, but I can be persuaded to try it out the next time we’re in bed.”
He cut me a hard look and didn’t respond at all to my gentle teasing. “I don’t know what a Dennis is supposed to look like, but I know that a Quaid is a lot harder to forget. It was always about trying to be more than I was, even with my name.”
I leaned back into him and wiggled my backside against the front of his jeans. “Well, regardless if you’re a Dennis or a Quaid, I like you just the way you are, too.” I felt him exhale a deep breath behind me and his iron grip finally loosened around my middle. Once I had room to squirm free, I moved back to the edge of the rocks and turned to look at Quaid expectantly over my shoulder. “I think we should jump.” The idea floated around with all the clarity and lightness the brisk outside air brought with it. I started to pull off my borrowed leather jacket as I looked at Quaid expectantly.
His pale eyes widened and his mouth dropped open as he shook his head firmly in the negative. “No way. It’s been too long since the last time I did that. Who knows if the water is deep enough? If something goes wrong we’re out in the middle of nowhere, with no help. It’s too risky, and I brought you here to keep you safe.”
I dropped the leather jacket on the rocks by my feet and bent to pull the laces on my boots. “I want to jump. You wanted to come back for a reason, to remember the good with the bad, and I want to give you that.” I wanted to give us both that, because somewhere deep inside of me, I knew that I was a lot like this place and his memories of it. With me, there was also a lot of good, somewhere in there buried under piles and piles of bad. If I could give him this good back, maybe he would remember the good in me the same way when the storm that raged between us passed.
I hopped around on one foot as I got one boot off and went to work on the other. He watched me with disbelief stamped clearly all over his handsome face. “I can have the memories without risking my neck. Stop pulling your clothes off, Avett. This is ridiculous.” I was popping the button on my jeans and wiggling the denim down my legs when his hands landed heavily on my shoulders. “You need to stop. This is foolish and unbelievably reckless. I’m not that kid anymore.”
I unbuttoned my shirt and let it fall open so that I was exposed to both his probing gaze and the wilderness that surrounded us. “No, you’re not, but no matter how hard you try and deny him, that kid is somewhere down deep inside of you and he wants to jump with me.” I cocked an eyebrow at him and told him matter-of-factly, “You’re also not the guy that needs all the things in order to prove his worth. You are someone spectacular, with or without the things, Quaid.”
His brow furrowed, and before he could argue with me further, I slipped out of my shirt so that I was clad in only my underwear and a lot of bluster. His eyes dropped to my practically naked chest and then dipped lower. I saw his Adam’s apple bob up and down as his hands curled into loose fists at his sides.
“And you’re someone beyond all the careless moves you make, Avett.” Was I? Had I finally outgrown the girl that was always trying to punish herself? Had the girl that felt like she had to suffer endlessly for her poor choices made it to a place where forgiveness seemed possible and obtainable? Had I finally, after mistake upon mistake, learned that redemption was possible if you allowed yourself to be forgiven? Had I reached the point where instead of doing nothing or the wrong thing, I could do the right thing without thought, because even though he looked like he wanted to strangle me, I knew taking this leap was the right thing for me to do. It wasn’t a leap of faith; it was a leap of life. I was taking my life back from blame and guilt, one step at a time. This step just happened to be off the edge of the cliff where young Quaid had lived wild and rough.
I shifted my gaze from his burning blue one to the serene azure below. I took a deep breath and looked back at the man staring at me like I had lost my ever-loving mind. I smiled at him with every ounce of lucidity and illumination that was now alive and viable inside of me. I felt like I had woken up from a deep slumber and for the first time in a long time was seeing things the way they really were, without the taint of all my faults and failure coloring them.
“Those risks have led to the worst and the best stories, Quaid. And right at this moment, I’m kind of in love with the fact that I’m here to tell them, because they’re mine and I earned every single one of them.” I wriggled my fingers at him in a little wave before I turned and hurled myself off the side of the ledge. My name ripped from his lungs, echoed across the hills, and slammed against my own shriek as the wind rushed around and out of me as I dropped towards the water. Everything whirled around me in a green and blue blur as I plummeted faster and faster through the air. It was a thrill unlike any other. The weightlessness, the freedom, the rush of the water in my ears, and the sting of the breeze against my bare skin was exhilarating in a way that I could only compare to the best sex I’d ever had. That would be the sex I had with the man standing at the edge of the rocks, watching me as I fell. I could hear him cursing me and the pounding of my heart as the water got closer and closer. I barely had time to suck in a breath and clamp my nose closed with my fingers before I hit.