Until We FlyCourtney Cole
For hearts that are aching, for souls that are broken.
Fluctuat nec mergitur
(She is tossed by the waves, but she does not sink)
Choose not to sink.
When I first planned the Beautifully Broken series, I planned it as three books. Pax’s story, Gabriel’s story and Dominic’s story. But, as characters often do, Brand Killien wove his way into my heart, and yours, and he demanded that his voice be heard.
I received SO MANY E-MAILS from readers asking for more Brand, to hear his background, to see him get his Happily Ever After.
This story is for you.
Because you asked.
I’m dreaming of bullets and blood. Like always.
There are the screams, of course, because there are always screams. High-pitched and shrill, low and keening. They’re full of pain, full of anguish, full of torment. It’s a torturous sound and I twist and turn, trying to get away from it.
That’s when I realize something.
Outside of my dream, out where the silence is thick and heavy, there’s a sound.
A real sound.
The ring of a phone is breaking the silence apart, splintering the night into a million pieces. My eyes snap open, staring blearily at the clock.
A call at this hour is never anything good.
Old training kicks in and my senses numb, detaching me from the situation as I fumble for my phone. Whatever it is, I’ll be calm and ready. That’s who I am and what I’m trained to be.
Punching a button, I hold the device to my ear. I wait, expecting to hear my best friend, Gabe, his sister Jacey, or any number of our friends. I’m always the go-to person to bail someone out of trouble, mostly because I am calm and unflustered. I don’t judge people for their shit. For these reasons, I’m used to these calls.
But I’m not used to the voice who speaks in the darkness.
A thin, frail voice I haven’t heard in years.
The voice is like a punch to my gut and I’m instantly still, every nerve ending frozen.
“Mom,” I utter, the word foreign on my tongue.
She doesn’t acknowledge that I even spoke. She sighs, a shaky sound in the dark.
“It’s your dad. He had a heart attack tonight.”
She pauses and I say nothing, although my heart begins to pound, filling my ears with a rush, rush, rushing sound. My blood is ice being pumped through my veins, chilling my fingers and my toes, deadening every emotion.
I don’t answer her.
A silent beat passes.
Finally she speaks again, her voice tired and rough.
“He’s gone, Brand.”
I remain silent and frozen, unable to move, although my palms immediately grow sweaty, my breath rapid in my throat. I’m afraid if I speak, this won’t be real. It will be part of my dream, and when I wake, it will all go away.
So I don’t say a word.
“I need you to come home,” my mother adds.
Her call to action frees me and I’m able to move again. I nod, once, curtly.
“I’ll be there.”
Because this is real.
I hang up without another word, my hands shaky.
I stare at my left hand, at my fingers, thick and long. I’m a grown man. Yet the mere thought of my father instinctively causes my hands to shake, like the scared boy I once was. I allow myself to feel the impotent emotion for only one moment, before I channel the fear into rage, a blinding hot rage that I have every right to feel.
My father is dead.
I should be upset, devastated even. A normal person would be.
But in addition to my rage, there’s only one thing I feel.
“Nora, are you listening?”
I turn my attention away from the cars driving slowly by on the small town’s Main Street to look at my father. Maxwell Greene’s piercing eyes are trained on me now, the silver at his temples glinting in the sun, and I gulp.
“Yes, of course,” I lie.
He nods, pacified.
“Good. I know this last year of law school was difficult, but it’s over now. I want you to take the summer off, rest here in Angel Bay with your mother, then in the Fall, you’ll take over the legal team at Green Corp as planned.”
He’s ecstatic, of course, because it’s everything he’s ever wanted. It’s always been the plan, since the moment I started elementary school. Probably, actually, since before I was born.
“What about Peter?” I ask him hesitantly, picturing the middle-aged attorney who until now has been the Vice President of Legal Affairs for our company. He’s always been nice to me, always showed me pictures of his pretty wife and four daughters.
My father rolls his eyes. “He’ll be cut loose. He’s known this was coming for a while, I’m sure. Everyone knew you were at Stanford studying law. They can connect dots, Nora.”
He’s so blasé about ruining someone’s life. I swallow hard, fiddling with the straw in my glass of lemonade. The umbrella from our little bistro table on the wide sidewalk casts a shadow across my shoulders, and I almost shiver. I’m not sure if it’s from the chilly lake breeze, or if it’s from my father’s cold attitude.
He stares harshly at me now.
“Nora, you’ve got to grow a set of balls. There’s no pussy-footing around corporate law. You have to kill or be killed. I need you to be a Greene and do what it takes. Be who I need you to be.”
His voice is even colder than his stare. I shirk away from it out of old habit.
“Okay,” I whisper.
My mother pipes up finally, from across the table, smiling a magnificent smile. Out of all of us, she’s always been the kindest. The sweetest. And she knows I need rescuing right now. I see it in her soft blue eyes.
“Ma belle fille,” she sings, reaching over and grasping my hand. “We’ll have a glorious summer. You can ride Rebel, you can rest on the beach, we’ll get manicures and pedicures… we’ll have tea and croissants. It will be lovely. You need the rest.”
My beautiful daughter. My mother’s French accent is as strong as ever, even though she’s lived in the states since she married my father twenty-five years ago. It charms everyone who hears it.
I smile at her, genuine now.
“Thanks, maman. I’m looking forward to spending time with you. I’ve missed you.”
That’s not a lie.
What I haven’t missed is my father. And the constant lectures about being “a good Greene” and how I need to do what I can for the greater good of the family and our business.
No matter the personal cost.
And my personal cost has been great.
Not that anyone cares.
But the bitterness is welling up again and if I don’t tamp it down, it will overwhelm me. That won’t help anything.
She doesn’t know, I remind myself.
“How’s Rebel?” I ask my mother, purposely changing the subject to that of my old horse. I haven’t seen him since last summer. My mom chatters about him, about how fat he’s getting and I turn away again.
To make my resentment recede, I look at the clouds, at the cars, at the quaint little shops, at the intersection. Anything to distract me, anything to make the bitter taste of what happened to me go away.
She doesn’t know.
But my father does. I glance at him, and the anger rears its head again. Yes, he knows. Do what it takes, Nora.
I grit my teeth. It’s over now. It’s
over. No one can fix it anyway. All I can do now is be a good Greene.
With a hard stare, I focus on the intersection again, willing myself to find interest in something else.
A red car comes to a stop, then goes through. Angel Bay is so small that there’s only one major intersection and it’s right here in front of the cafe. There’s not even a light, just a four-way stop.
If you want to people watch, this is the best place to do it.
My mother chats in her charming voice, and I absently stare as a white suburban turns left. A yellow Beetle then lets a young mother pushing a stroller cross the street before he goes. He waves as he passes, a friendly stranger.
I smile. Angel Bay is full of friendly strangers. They’re used to summer tourists, and they’re friendly to each of them, happy to have their tourist dollars, happy to share their little town by Lake Michigan.
Down the road, a faded white bus coasts down the road. Signs are fastened to the sides and I can just make one out.
Honk for the Annual Troop 52 Camping Trip.
I smile again at the little cub scouts who have their faces pressed to the windows. They’re probably headed for Warren Dunes State Park… so they’re almost there, and as little boys often are, they’re getting antsy.
Behind the bus, a huge navy blue pick-up truck follows at a respectable distance. The windows are tinted, but I see a glimpse of sunny blonde hair. I stare a bit harder, out of idle curiosity. People watching has always been a hobby. Watching other people’s lives distracts me from my own.
It’s pathetic, but true.
As the truck draws closer and I get a better view of the driver’s face, I almost gasp aloud.
It can’t be.
I peer closer, my eyes narrowed behind my sunglasses. The driver of the truck is also wearing sunglasses, which makes it harder to see for sure.
But that blond hair… honey blond hair that it looks like it has been kissed by the sun. The chiseled cheekbones, cleft in the chin, the strong jawline, the proud nose. I would recognize that profile anywhere, even through a heavily tinted windshield, even though the last time I’d seen it was almost ten years ago.
I realize that I’m holding my breath and I inhale, still staring at him.
He still looks like a Norse god, still like the boy I had fallen in love with so many years ago. He didn’t know, of course, because I’m four years younger. I was so not on his radar. But he was always on mine…for a couple of reasons.
One, because he’s always been the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Two, and even more importantly, he makes me feel good. Safe and sound. Like when I’m with him, nothing can hurt me, nothing can touch me.
I fantasized about him every single summer, and then one year, I came back to Angel Bay after a long winter, only to find that Brand wasn’t here. He’d gone away to college and then joined the Army.
Every summer after that, I watched for him to come home.
Every summer after that, he wasn’t here.
People chattered, of course, because Angel Bay is so small and that’s what small town people do. In the tiny grocery, I heard that he became some badass special ops soldier, that he was in the Rangers in Afghanistan. In the café, I heard that something terrible happened to him there, that he’d come home after that.
But much to my disappointment, he never came back to Angel Bay.
Butterflies explode in my stomach, their wings tickling my ribs, their writhing velvety bodies pressed against my diaphragm, making it hard to breathe. It’s like even they know the reverence of this moment, the absolute miracle that it is.
Brand Killien is here.
A farm truck pulling a flat-bed trailer lurches forward at the intersection, blocking my view momentarily. I lean forward, trying to subtly find Brand again, just to make sure he’s there, that I hadn’t just imagined him.
That’s when I see the problem, and even though it happens too quickly for me to even scream, it seems to happen in slow motion at the same time.
A dump truck barrels through the intersection from the other side, slamming into the ammonia tank on the farm truck’s trailer.
The explosion is immediate and severe.
I feel the intense rush of heat before I hear the boom. But when the boom comes, it splits apart the sky. It’s so loud that it reverberates in my chest, rattling each of my ribs and setting the butterflies free. Suddenly, I’m in the air. My legs dangle like a pitiful rag doll and the breeze is all around me. I’m in the breeze. I am the breeze.
Things come in visceral snippets now as I fly.
My flight is short and I slam into something hard, my head cracking against the floor. The floor?
When I open my eyes, I’m not sure how much time has passed, only that my head feels heavy, a splitting pain coming from the back of it. With shaking fingers, I touch it, and my fingertips come back covered in blood.
I look up.
The heat is from fire. And the fire is all around.