Bound by duty, p.10
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       Bound by Duty, p.10

           Stormy Smith
 
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  Chapter 9

  I should have had happy and restful sleep after the amazing day I had, instead I tossed and turned all night. I still don’t know exactly what it was that I was dreaming, but I heard that same melody as I got ready this morning. It haunted me. I found myself humming it, though the lyrics floated just outside my reach. I couldn’t pin them down and the haze I felt was hard to shake no matter how much coffee I mainlined. It was just another night where it felt like I had been up all night watching movies instead of sleeping.

  Knowing I had lunch with Aidan, I put a little extra effort in; pulling on my favorite dark skinny jeans, zipping up my brown ankle boots, and loving the flowing peasant top Bethany had talked me into during our last shopping trip. I left my hair down and a little wild.

  Classes went by quickly and all too soon I stood in the commons, wondering where it was I was meeting him. I sent a few different texts and even called him once and had yet to receive a response. His phone had gone straight to voice mail, so I assumed it might be off, which was strange.

  I stood off to the side tapping my foot and found myself getting irritated. Really irritated. Before I could pick up my bag and walk away, I saw him running across the grass. He scanned the crowds and finally landed on me. I jutted one hip out, balled my fist on it, and tossed the other hand in the air — making it clear from one-hundred feet that I wasn’t impressed. As he finally skidded to a stop in front of me, actually huffing a bit — which I secretly appreciated since I hadn’t worked out in forever — he tried to explain.

  “Amelia, I am so sorry. I overslept, I missed all of my classes this morning and got here as soon as I could. Am I too late?” He looked around as if to make sure people were indeed still eating lunch. He was rubbing his hand through his hair as he scanned the crowd, looking like he hadn’t fully woken up yet and too adorable for how irritated I wanted to be.

  His clothes were a mess — wrinkled with a few visible stains. I would bet he either slept in them or dove straight into the laundry basket, not caring if they were clean or dirty. His hair went in all directions with a clear cowlick from where his head had been on the pillow. As I really looked at him, I laughed when I saw a sleep line on his right cheek. I could only shake my head and ask how soon we could eat.

  With a bashful smile, he grabbed my hand and led me toward the outdoor food vendors, telling me to make my pick. As we stood in line at the Greek stand — gyros were my absolute favorite — neither of us said much. I couldn’t think past the fact that he still hadn’t let go of my hand and, instead, had interlaced his fingers with my own. His hand was warm and strong. As I stood enjoying the moment, I found myself people-watching and humming that same tune from my dream absentmindedly, not realizing I was doing it out loud. Before I could react, Aidan yanked me out of the line and pushed me backwards away from the crowd.

  “Hey! Aidan! What the hell?” I tried to drop his hand but all that warmth and strength had turned to solid rock. The look in eyes was a little scary — he definitely wasn’t sleepy anymore. Aidan finally stopped as he pulled me into an alcove.

  “Where did you hear that song? How do you know that song?” His face was just inches from mine, his voice was menacing, and his eyes were so dark they looked black in the shadows of where we stood.

  “Aidan, I…I don’t even know. I woke up this morning and it was just there. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. I don’t even know the words, I just keep hearing the music.” I was talking fast, his reactions making me uncomfortable.

  He brought his hand up and pointed his finger in my face, “Amelia, I need the truth. Where did you hear that song?”

  I tried to calm the building hysterics in my own voice as I put my hand on his chest, both my eyes and my words pleading my ignorance. “Aidan, I’m really sorry, but I truly don’t know how I know. I wish I could tell you, but it was just there. Sometimes I dream about things and I have no idea where they come from.”

  I watched him back away slightly, his posture slumping. I instantly felt responsible and kept talking. “Really, Aidan, I’m sorry. I wish I knew. Why? Do you know that song?”

  “Yeah,” he said, his voice laced with sorrow and his eyes pained. “I know that song. It’s the song my mother used to sing to me before she put me to sleep. I haven’t heard it in seventeen years.” He backed away from me until his back hit the cinder block wall. “I haven’t heard it since she died.”

  “Your mom died, too?” I asked quietly. I looked up into his surprised eyes and knew exactly what he was feeling. It was as if we were trading emotions. Or, at least acknowledging that someone else could understand the depths of a loss like that. A hole that permeated not only your heart but the essence of who you are.

  He avoided my question, asking one of his own instead. “Wanna get outta here? I’ve got someplace I want to take you.”

  The look on his face was tired but hopeful. I had worn that look so many times myself, hoping my father would want to play with me or stay in the same room with me for more than two minutes. It was the look that said, “I don’t want you to hurt me, but I’m willing to risk it.” There was no way for me to say no to that.

  “Sure. Let’s do it. I’ve never ditched before,” I answered.

  That got a grin from him and his eyes lit up with mischief. “So, I truly am a bad influence then, huh?”

  I laughed as I rolled my eyes. “Montgomery, you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into with me.”

  As he grabbed my hand again and we walked toward the parking lot, he gave it a small squeeze. “Back atcha, doll.”

   

   

  The drive was actually pretty quiet. Aidan rolled the windows down and the air coming off the coast gushed in, bringing with it the taste of salt and the smell of earth as we got closer to the forest. I was content to put my feet on the dash of his Honda, lean back, and let it all drift past. It felt good — right, even — to have this companionable silence. The strains of a piano filtered through the speakers and I was surprised to realize there were no words. We were listening to classical music. There was still so much to learn about him.

  After maybe an hour, Aidan pulled off. It was a pretty secluded parking area and he warned there would be a little hike to follow. I was glad I had gone with boots and not heels today. Aidan led the way up the thin, worn path, stopping every now and then to offer a hand or hold back branches. Just as I was about to comment on our “little hike”, he pushed some branches out of the way and I was stunned by the view.

  We were high above the water, on a cliff that jutted out and made me feel like I was suspended over the ocean. I didn’t love heights, but the sound of the water bashing against the rocks instantly soothed me. I closed my eyes and heard the far-off barking of sea lions and squawks of the seagulls. The winds were light, seeming to wrap around me, engulfing me in the warm sea air. It occurred to me that he had been listening yesterday. He brought me to a place he knew I’d love.

  “You really are beautiful, you know,” he said. I turned to find him standing back near the tree line, arms crossed, and leaning against a larger tree trunk. Even with emotion still clouding his gray eyes, his gaze was intense and it was as if he could see straight through me.

  I tried to laugh it off. “So you say, player. We’ll just see how long my good looks keep you around.” I gave him a wink of my own, hoping to lighten the mood a little. To stave off the intense reaction I was having at his gesture, both emotionally and in the small explosions that ricocheted around deep inside me.

  He moved toward me, slowly, making me feel as if he were stalking his prey. “Amelia, that’s no line. I don’t have lines. I don’t say things because they’ll make you feel better. I say them because I want to. Or because they’re true. Usually, both.” I could feel the intensity coming from him. It was almost stifling, but made me stand at attention. The fizz of electricity zinged through my system as my power reacted in a way that it only did in Aidan’s presence. I
’ve never reacted to anyone like this, but I wasn’t scared. I wanted him to come closer.

  Just as Aidan closed the last few feet, looking at me like he might kiss me, I lost my nerve. I backed away, losing my footing. I started to stumble and heard my own shriek. Then, I was in his arms and being yanked back into the trees.

  “Holy hell, Amelia - are you okay?!” He was pushing me away as he surveyed my whole body, looking for signs of damage. I couldn’t speak. I just stood there, shaking, my power threatening to lash out in response to my fear and my racing heart. He crushed me against him again, whispering that I was okay as he pulled me back away from the edge, sounding like he was reassuring himself just as much as he was me.

  We finally sat down with our backs against some smoother tree trunks. I continued trying to calm my frenzied power, glad Aidan couldn’t feel the panic I did while he kept rubbing his hands over his face and then through his hair. Finally, with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped, he looked over at me. “Are you really okay? I didn’t mean to scare you. I always seem to make the wrong move with you.”

  I took another deep breath, let it out, and met his gaze, resolved to not let him take this on as well. “No, Aidan, I’m a klutz. These are the things I do. Someday, I’ll introduce you to my brother and he’ll be able to recount all of my best moments. On the other hand, don’t ask him. Some things just don’t need to be shared.”

  I gave him a sideways smile and was happy to have it returned, sort of. “Why don’t you tell me why you brought me to this beautifully dangerous place?” I asked as I looked out over the water, trying to take some of the pressure off of us both.

  That brought a sigh from him as he leaned his head back against the tree. I shouldn’t have been thinking it given the circumstances, but he looked sexy as hell. It was like one of those cologne ads that makes no sense, but has you wondering if the men in them actually exist. They do. They so very much do.

  “I had wanted to bring you here anyway, but after what you said last night, I knew it would be perfect. There are other reasons, but let’s not go into that yet. Let’s just talk about normal stuff,” he said, looking away from me and up toward the sky. “Do you ever cloud watch?”

  I almost snorted. “Cloud watch? The tattooed and mysterious Aidan wants to know if I cloud watch?” He feigned offense and took on a haughty tone. “Yes, Ms. Party Pooper. Cloud watching. Stop your judging and lay down.” He pointed toward a patch of bright green grass and looked at me expectantly.

  We both scooted out so that we were still under the trees but could see out over the water. Watching the giant puffs of clouds wafting through the air, they reminded me of ballerinas gracefully sliding across the sky in an effortless dance. There were a few feet between us and it took all of my self-control not to move closer to him. Before I could even make the middle school move of reaching my hand across the space between us, Aidan rolled on to his side to face me.

  With his palm under his ear and his T-shirt sleeve riding up, I could see even more of his tattoo. Without thinking, I rolled myself toward him and traced the swirling lines. Between the captivating design I could still just partially see and the hardness of his bicep, I kind of lost myself. The fact that I reached out at all occurred to me like a glass of cold water tossed in my face and I snatched my hand away, instantly apologizing. Aidan just laughed, grabbing my hand again. “It’s okay, doll. You’re so skittish. You won’t break me.”

  “But you might break me.” The words slipped off my tongue, the filter between my brain and my mouth gone. The red creep of embarrassment flushed my face and I rolled away from him, throwing my arm over my eyes. Thankfully, he let my words go — but not my hand. Clearing his throat a little, Aidan brought us back to cloud watching.

  “I used to do this when I was younger. I would find a patch of grass and stare at the sky for hours. I would watch the clouds and tell myself stories about the characters I met in the sky. People, animals, you name it, I brought them all into my stories. I… well, I used them to forget. What do you see?”

  I dropped my arm back to my side. Even though every part of me wanted to look at Aidan, to see the pain I felt rolling off of him, I didn’t allow myself to. I stared in the sky and analyzed the giant white puffs. “Uh…a dog?” I was terrible at this game. “No. A horse! That one, that one’s a horse!” I found myself smiling as I turned to him for confirmation and he was smiling in return. “So, what’s the horse’s story?” he asked.

  I looked around at the other clouds in the sky. “Well, there are all those other horses over there,” I pointed to a cluster of clouds off to the right, “and he just wants to go be with them. But, there’s that big fence, just there, so he can’t. He’s trying to find a way to get their attention to come knock it down so they can all run around together.”

  I was proud of my little made-up tale until I turned again to face Aidan. This time, the pain was visible everywhere. His jaw was set, lips in a thin line, brows furrowed. He was looking straight up at the sky but the emotion that invaded the air was thick and dark, angry and desperate. “Aidan? Did I do it wrong?”

  Without looking back at me, he squeezed my hand tightly, his fingers pressing hard into the divots between the bones in my hand. He clutched at my hand as if I could keep him here, pull him away from the memories that overwhelmed him; that threatened to pull him down into a place I could feel he didn’t want to go.

  “You can tell me, but only if you want to.” I put the words between us and let the silence follow. Turning back to stare at the sky, I gave him time to decide. I had no idea what he had been through, what he would say, but I understood what the darkness of truth could do to you if you let it.

  “I don’t know why, but I want to tell you, Amelia. It’s insane because I never tell anyone this stuff. But, I want to tell you. Before this goes any further, I want you to know who I am.” He still wasn’t looking at me so while I saw him in my peripheral, I kept my gaze on the clouds. “Then, tell me,” I said. Taking a deep breath, I finished with a surprising, “Tell me and I’ll tell you.”

  The longer Aidan held my hand, the more I got used to the feel of my nerves being raw and the increased sensations that vibrated from our point of contact throughout the rest of my body. As I lay there, waiting for him to speak, he kept our hands locked, sliding his middle finger up and down in a slow rhythm over the back of my hand. I could feel callouses on his palm and the heat he radiated. It was soothing and, for once, I was truly in control, at least as far as my power was concerned. My heartbeat, however, raced triple time as I had time to realize that I was laying on the forest floor holding hands with Aidan Montgomery, waiting for him to unlock doors I hadn’t known I wanted inside of. Someone I could give some of my truth to and who wanted to give me theirs in return.

  “I don’t remember what happened the night my parents died. I was only two. I remember them. People say I can’t, or that I shouldn’t be able to. That I was too young. But, I do. I remember the sound of her laugh and the smell of cigars and fir trees that would cling to his clothes when he would carry me to bed. It’s harder now to see their faces, but I have a picture that I look at every day to make sure I don’t forget. And the song, the one you were humming, it’s one of the few true memories I still hold. Every single night my dad would carry me to bed and my mom would come in and sing that song. I would fall asleep to the sound of her voice.”

  We both continued to stare at the sky and he maintained the steady pace of running his finger up and down the top of my hand. “They tell me there was a break-in. That someone killed them during a burglary. Somehow, the burglars never found my room, and I never woke up. They told me how lucky I was to survive.”

  He laughed. It was dark and dry and held no humor. “Lucky. I was lucky to have no one who would come forward to take me. My parents had no records of their family and the state couldn’t find anyone. I was lucky to spend my entire life bouncing from one foster home to the next. I was lucky enough to h
ave a string of people constantly deciding I wasn’t the kid for them and passing me on to the next person.”

  I couldn’t help but squeeze his hand then. It was all I could do to stop myself from vaulting across the small space between us and pulling him into a hug. I knew what he was saying. What that kind of hurt did to a person. The blackness that leached into your soul and told you every day that no one loved you, no one wanted you… that you weren’t good enough to make them stay. I knew he didn’t want my pity, so instead I spoke my own truth and tried to show him that I understood.

  “My mom died while having me. I never even knew her,” I said. “I’ve seen pictures and my brother has told me about her, but she died minutes after I was born and my dad went crazy. Like, literally. He wouldn’t come out of his office for days at a time. We had a nanny and she’s the only reason I was fed or taken care of. When my dad would come out, he’d barely speak to me unless it was to yell at me for not following his rules and then lock me in my room again. My brother moved out when he turned eighteen, I was ten. He couldn’t take it anymore. He…well, he had to. I get it, but he just left. And…and I have nightmares. I wake up crying, sometimes screaming. It seems like every night I dream terrible dreams that I can never remember, but still don’t fully forget.”

  My own words were quiet. They seemed to float away on the breeze as I said them, making it easier to speak out loud about things I hadn’t even shared with Bethany. Things that, until that moment, I didn’t know I wanted to share with Aidan. But, he was right. I wanted him to know me, too.

  He slowly slipped his fingers from mine and I instantly missed the connection. It only took a second before he moved behind me and pulled me back between his legs, my back leaning against his chest. There was a moment of panic as his arms slipped around me but it calmed as my power reacted with a sigh instead of a rebellion.

  We sat there for a few minutes, nothing but the sounds of our breath and crash of the ocean waves below us. Then, Aidan leaned down and whispered, “I guess we’re all a little broken, aren’t we, doll?”

  I could only nod as ill-timed tears filled my eyes. He wasn’t supposed to do this. He wasn’t supposed to see directly to the core of me and address my worst fears in one afternoon. He wasn’t supposed to fill me with unspoken words and unknown emotions. I hadn’t realized that making this choice to not walk away from him would literally change everything, but in the course of twenty-four hours, it had.

  We sat there for a little while longer, but as the sun started to set, it was time to go. The drive back was just as quiet but Aidan never let go of my hand. As he dropped me at my car, I turned and asked, “Why do you call me doll?”

  He tilted his head and I could tell he hadn’t thought about it himself. “I don’t know. Probably because that’s what my dad called my mom. I have some of their old letters and he always called her doll.”

  I couldn’t stop the blush that crept across my cheeks and the nerves that fluttered in my belly. It was both a compliment and a little too real to have our…situation…compared to the iconic love he saw in his parents. “Okay, then. See ya.” I tripped over the words, shyness taking over.

  As I went to push myself out the door, Aidan pulled me back toward him, my face stopping dangerously close to his. I looked from his eyes to his lips and back. They were swirling silver and projected exactly what he was feeling. He leaned in until our foreheads were touching.

  “I’m not going to do it because I can tell you’re still scared, but I want you to know that I want to kiss you, Amelia. I really want to.” He so rarely said my name that, in that moment, his voice husky and deep, I wanted to let him. I wanted to move the extra half-inch to do it myself. But, it would take us somewhere that I shouldn’t go.

  I closed my eyes and took a deep breath as I nodded ever so slightly. “Okay.” It was a tiny word. The same word that started everything, but now I used it to neither agree or disagree. “Okay,” he replied, assuming my consent that the time would eventually come. “I’ll be in touch, doll, you can count on it,” he whispered. Again, I tried to smile, but I know it didn’t go further than my lips. He looked confused as I fumbled my way out of the car and into my own.

  I waved as he pulled away, trying to look as happy as I’d been just minutes before. As soon as he turned out of the parking lot, I burst into tears. I had made a selfish choice, thinking only about myself and the relationship I wanted. But, now I had fallen for someone. A human. A tortured yet amazing human who already saw too much of the person so few people had ever tried to know. And, I still didn’t know what my final choice would be when the time came. There were just too many unanswered questions.

 
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