I know I’ve been quiet, but it’s because I’ve had my head down, writing the next novel. This one’s a second chance romance (my fave, I think), about a wildlands firefighter… grrr.
Ahem. Sorry. Sometimes my personal preferences come out in the stuff I write 😉
It’s still untitled, though I’m about 95% sure what I’m going to call it. I just need to see what it looks like on the cover.
Enough chatter, it’s time for an excerpt. Totally raw, unfiltered, and probably dotted with typos. Enjoy!
“What is it I’m looking at again?” Hunter says, looking carefully through the telescope. It’s set up for someone about two-thirds his height, so he’s crouched down and looking up, which is a pretty awkward position.
“The bright blob with stuff around it,” I say. “If you really look close, you can make out the rings, though not the individual ones.”
It’s an hour later, and most of the kids are gone. Just a few are left, including the eleven-year-old who got so excited about Saturn’s rings. He’s been quizzing one of the volunteers about the asteroid belt for about ten minutes now, and before that, he talked my ear off about the differences between Mars’s two moons. His dad is standing nearby, looking tired and ready to leave.
Hunter’s quiet for a long time, peering into the telescope. Then he backs away, blinks and shakes his head.
“Maybe I should look at another planet so I can see the difference,” he says.
“That one’s got Jupiter,” I say, pointing at a different setup.
Hunter walks to another huge telescope, crouches down, and looks up.
“Which one is it?” he asks.
“The big, bright one,” I say.
“There’s two of those.”
“Let me look,” I tell him, and he steps aside, but not quite far enough. I bump into him as I crouch and look up through the telescope, and I can almost feel the warmth from his hard, solid body through both our heavy jackets.
I have to fight the urge to reach out and put one hand on him to steady myself. My body refuses to listen to my brain when I’m around him, because I keep telling my body it’s over and it’s been over for ages, but I still have the urge to reach out and hold his hand, touch his arm, lean into him.
I know better than to kiss him, but all those little, intimate touches between couples? Those are what I can barely keep myself from doing out of sheer habit.
It doesn’t help that I’ve got a very, very clear memory of everything else we did. Half-clothed fooling around in the back seat of a car? Check. Getting eaten out int he basement of my parents’ house while they were watching TV upstairs, holding a pillow over my own face so I wouldn’t scream? Check.
Fucking in the back of his pickup truck, parked behind the barn, underneath the stars on a warm summer night, my nails raking down his back? Definitely check.
Sudden arousal prickles through me at those memories, and I wonder if I remember a little too well. Obviously I’m just remembering my first through rose-colored glasses, right?
“You can’t tell either, huh?” Hunter says, his slow voice coming from above me.
“It’s on the left,” I say, and stand.
As I do I can feel his hand brush my back, his fingertips running from my shoulder to my hip. It’s casual, almost automatic, and I wonder if he even meant to do it.
Hunter bends down and looks back through the telescope again. I shove my hands into the pockets of my jacket and step away so I’m not tempted to touch him again.
“Okay, got it,” he says, after a moment. Then he walks to the other telescope and looks up.
The excitable kid is finally being walked off by his dad, even though I can still hear his excited yelping from where I stand. I wave to Albert, the last volunteer who’s still around.
“You want help putting the telescopes back?” he calls.
I glance at Hunter, still folded in half and staring up through the telescope.
“Go home,” I call back. “We’ve got it.”
“See you around,” he calls, and walks toward the parking lot.
Just like that, it’s me and Hunter alone in a circle of big, powerful telescopes. I wander back to where he is and look up at the stars, mentally ticking through the constellations.
“I think I can see them,” he says. “They’re real faint, but there they are.”
He stands up straight and then squints at the sky.
“You can’t see them without the telescope,” I say.
Hunter just looks at me with a no shit, Sherlock look on his face, and I laugh.
“Sorry,” I say. “I explain a lot of things to eight-year-olds.”
“I assumed that was why I was looking through a telescope,” he says, a smile in his voice.
He’s standing up straight, his hands in his pockets, gazing intently at the horizon. After a while he points.
“It’s one of those, right?” he says.
He’s pointing at a sky full of stars on a dark night. It’s hard to tell which one he thinks it is.
“It’s sort of down there,” I say. “See Mars?”
I point. He moves in, closer to me. My stomach flips and I swallow.
“It’s the one that a little bit red,” I say. “Right near the horizon, right above the branches of that tall tree that got struck by lightning a couple years ago.”
“Because I know which tree got struck by lightning.”
“It’s the one without leaves on top,” I tease. “I thought one of the Canyon Country hotshots might know what a struck tree looked like.”
“It’s full dark with no moon, you know,” he says.
He moves closer, standing behind me. We’re not touching, but it’s just a technicality, because he’s leaning over my shoulder and so close I can feel his body heat.
Then, after a moment: “Okay, I think I’ve got it. That one?”
He reaches over my other shoulder and points right at Mars. We’re still not touching, but my heart is beating about a thousand times a minute, because my dumb body remembers everything and it wants me to put my cheek against his, lean back against his chest.
“Now, look a little down and to the right,” I say. “That’s Antares, another bright star.”
He points at the wrong thing, and I grab his forearm, gently point him at the right one.
“Okay,” Hunter says. He’s so close I can feel the vibrations of his voice.
“Now, go up a little, and see the third star kinda making a triangle?”
I move his arm again, until he’s pointing to Saturn.
“That’s it,” I say.
There’s a long moment where we both just look at the two planets and the star, right above the horizon. He moves his arm, and for a moment I think he’s going to drape it over my shoulder, because that’s what he would have done, back then.
He puts it back in his pocket instead. I try not to be disappointed.
“Can I tell you something?” he asks.
“Of course,” I say. My stomach twists, and I rock a little on my heels, fighting my urge to lean back against him, let him wrap his arms around me.
“When I got back from the desert, I was surprised that we’ve got the same stars,” he says.
The desert is Afghanistan. He was calling it that before we ever broke up.
“Not exactly,” I say.
“I was surprised we’ve mostly got the same stars, then,” he says. “I didn’t know the sky depended on latitude, not longitude.”
“You learn something new every day,” I say, because I have no idea what else to say.
There’s a long pause.
“When did you get back?” I ask.
“Two years ago.”
I do some quick math.
“You signed up for another tour.”
“Sure did,” he says. “Semper Fi and all that.”
“But you didn’t want to be career military?”
I’m not sure why we’re talking like this, side-by-side, pretending to look at the stars instead of face-to-face, but I’m too nervous to move. I’m afraid if I do, I’ll somehow end up with my lips on his, and he’ll pull back and laugh and tell me that he hasn’t thought of me that way in years.
“I’m not cut out for it,” he says. “I… didn’t always have the level of respect for my superiors that they preferred.”
“But you signed up for another two years of active duty,” I press.
It’s dumb because it doesn’t matter, but somehow, it feels like another betrayal. We were together when he signed up in the first place: four years of active duty, four years of being in the reserves. His father had been in the Marines, his grandfather, most of his uncles. All Marines.
So when I had a complete and total meltdown, he didn’t understand. But I didn’t want him going away for four years, to somewhere dangerous and scary, somewhere that I wouldn’t see him and he might die. I was seventeen, insecure, selfish, and fucking terrified.
It was our first big fight. I didn’t want him going at all, and I made him swear up and down that when his four years was up he wouldn’t sign up for another tour.
“I signed up the week after you dumped me,” he admits.
I blink. I was pretty sure he dumped me, but I don’t say anything.
“I ended up wishing I hadn’t, to be honest,” he goes on. “But it was the only thing I could think of to do that would really show you I didn’t give a shit about you any more.”
He’s straightened up now, his head somewhere above mine, still standing behind me. I’m frozen, looking at the stars and not seeing any of them.
He stayed in a war zone just so I’d know he didn’t care about me any more, I think.
That’s not what someone who actually doesn’t care does, and we both know it.
“Except I think you just found out for the first time, so the joke’s on me,” he says, a chuckle in his voice. “I’m sure you’re really hurt about something I did years and years ago. I sure showed you.”
I don’t say anything. I wouldn’t say I’m really hurt, but I don’t feel nothing. I wish I did.
“Clem?” he says.
“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t know you were…”
I let my voice trail off, because I’m not really sure what to say.
“I didn’t even know you stayed in the military that long,” I say instead.
I didn’t know it would still kind of hurt my feelings, I think.
“Are you okay?” he asks, because of course he can still tell when I’m upset.
“Yeah,” I say.
I stare resolutely at the horizon.
“Clem, c’mon. Turn around.”
He takes me by the shoulder, and I let him spin me in a circle until I’m eye-level with the collar of his jacket. I look at it, the stretchy brown material that edges the dark green canvas, because I don’t know how to look him in the eye right now.
“It worked,” I finally blurt out, then look up at him.
He looks confused.
“You signing up for another tour,” I say.
There’s a long, long pause. My hands are fists in my pockets. I don’t think I can explain why my feelings are still hurt, because I don’t understand myself. It doesn’t make any sense, and I know it.
“I didn’t want it to,” Hunter says softly. “Not any more. Not for years now.”
“I know,” I say.
“I didn’t think I could come back and see you,” he goes on. “Even the thought of living in the same town with you three years later seemed unbearable.”
His hand is still on my shoulder, warm and strong and oddly comforting. I try to laugh.
“I’m that bad, huh?”
“Yeah, you’ve got this weird smell,” he teases. “It definitely wasn’t because I was afraid to see you with someone else.”
I give in. I lean forward and put my head on his shoulder. Even through his jacket it feels familiar, and a tremor runs through me as he puts his arms around me, my hands still in my pockets.
Friends hug, I think. It’s fine.
“Think we can wipe the slate?” I say. “Just start over, like all that didn’t happen.”
I feel a gentle tug on my scalp, and I realize he’s playing with my hair, absentmindedly winding a strand of it around his finger over and and over again. Like he used to.
“I don’t think that’s possible,” he says, and I feel his voice rumbling out of his chest. “But I think we can accept that it happened a long time ago when we were different people.”
“I’ll take it,” I say.
I believe it for exactly one second, and then there’s another light tug on my scalp, because he can age and he can come back from the military and he can be more mature and he can change, on the surface, but he’s still playing with my hair the same way he did at seventeen.
I take my hands out of my pockets and put my arms around him, and he holds me a little tighter, my head burrowed against his chest. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not sure that people can change, or at least, I’m not sure I believe that they can change enough.
I never loved you anyway, he said. I don’t think he meant it. I haven’t thought he meant it for years, but he still said it and that’s what counts, right?
“Can I tell you something?” I ask.
“No,” he says.
I roll my eyes, even though he can’t see. Then I take a deep breath.
“I missed you,” I say.
“You missed me?” he says, and he sounds genuinely surprised. “You were at college. There were tons of people around.”
I shrug against him.
“After a while it was just little things,” I say. “I’d see a really great dog or something, and I’d think, I have to tell Hunter about that dog and then remember that I… couldn’t.”
“Tell me now,” he says. “Clean-ish slate. All that is just background noise.”
I laugh, and he adjusts his stance a little bit, pulling me even closer. I hope none of the volunteers come back and find me just standing here, in a weird hug with some guy, but I don’t really care that much. I’m an adult. I can hug whoever I want.
“Start with Trout,” he suggests.
“I’ll make you a deal,” I say. “Help me put these telescopes away, and I’ll tell you about eight years’ worth of notable dogs.”
I pull back and look up at him, my hands still on his sides.
“You remember all eight years?” he asks.
“I can always invent dogs you’ll like,” I say.
I’m about to say something else, but Hunter’s looking down at me, our eyes locked, and it flies right out of my brain.
He’s going to kiss me, I realize. He’s going to kiss me and I’m not going to do anything to stop it.