People liked to say that nothing hurt more than loss. Bullshit. Losing things happened—it was part of life. When people lost something, they could move on and start over.
The hardest thing was wanting something I couldn’t have, something I had to see but knew I’d never get.
Which meant the blonde woman walking through the parking lot toward the building I waited in made for the most painful thing in my whole damned life.
The fact that just her name could make my heart speed made me want to curse myself. At forty-seven, I was hardly a kid, so why did she hit me this hard? How could she make a hardened killer feel like an eight-year-old boy with his first crush?
At least I didn’t try to pull her pigtails or anything quite that stupid.
Though, was what I was doing any better, really?
Sure, I had a soreness in my shoulder from the wound, especially if I overdid it.
And I often overdid it.
Still, the month since I’d taken a bullet to protect my daughter had given me plenty of time to get back to myself. I’d lucked out that the bullet hadn’t hit anything vital. Blood loss had been the biggest issue, but a transfusion at the hospital had fixed that.
I couldn’t move quite as fast as I could before, the muscles still knitting back together as I worked at not allowing anything to atrophy. I’d gotten injured enough over the years to know myself, to know how far I could push my body as it recovered. Though, I did miss being younger, back when I healed so much faster.
A soft knock drew my attention to the door. The way my chest tightened made me sigh. Would I never stop reacting this way? It had been ten years since I’d first met Sasha, and she still did this to me.
“Come in,” I called.
The door opened, and Sasha stepped inside. She wore clothing that fit her style—a pair of gray slacks and a white button-up shirt tucked in. A long silver necklace hung, the pendant hidden beneath her shirt. Her curly blonde hair was pulled into a bun. Her makeup was subtle, as usual, with only a light sparkle on her lids and some mascara. It was one of the things that drew me to her, how simply she dressed, how natural she appeared, how honest she was.
Which was strange. The other love of my life—
I cut that thought off before it got far.
When she caught sight of me, a timid smile broke out over her pink lips. She was the only person in the world who smiled when she saw me. Maybe that was part of my obsession, some selfish piece of me that enjoyed our interactions, that liked how she didn’t fear me.
She had no idea who or what I really was, which was the only reason she could relax like this around me. If she knew…
If she knew, she’d never willingly stand in the same room as me again.
“You look good,” she said as she shut the door behind her.
“I heal fast. Call it one of my few redeeming qualities.”
“I don’t know if I’d say few,” she answered before setting her crossbody bag on the table. She glanced around the room, then furrowed her eyebrows. “What is this place?”
“It’s a doctor’s office. The doctor is on vacation this week, which left it empty. I thought this was a good place for the final check-up, in case you needed anything.”
“Do they know we’re here?” She worried her bottom lip with her teeth, as if the idea of breaking and entering disturbed her.
“Of course they do. I paid the office manager for the use of it.”
She let out a soft, relieved breath.
It reminded me just how innocent she was, how different. The women in my life tended toward vicious. They were tough, terrifying and more than willing to backstab anyone they needed to.
Sasha was, instead, a breath of fresh air in my stale world. She was kind, honest and caring. She epitomized everything I wasn’t.
“Are you okay?”
Her question made me stand up straight, realizing I’d stared at her without intending to long enough that I’d made her uncomfortable. I scolded myself for my rare lapse of focus. “Sorry,” I offered to defuse the tension, then reached for the folder I’d left on the exam table and handed it to her. “Here are the X-rays, the report from the radiologist and the blood tests. They were all done four days ago, so it should give you everything you need.”
Sasha stared at me as if weighing my words for truth. After a moment, she took the file. I doubted she believed me fully, but rather realized I wouldn’t answer even if she asked more.
She flipped through the pages, skimming her simply painted nails over the words. “Your bloodwork looks good. Your vitamin B levels are low, and your magnesium is borderline. I’d suggest supplementing those. In six months, have another test run to make sure the levels are where they should be.”
I nodded and leaned against the exam table. I ate fairly well—taking care of my body allowed me to stay sharp—but I didn’t doubt there were things I could do better.
She moved from the blood test to the X-rays. Her competency impressed as always. Beauty didn’t get people far with me, but being talented? That got me. She only glanced at the actual images before switching to the report. “Everything looks good here. Your healing is on track. Honestly, it is amazing that you’ve come this far so fast. I guess it shows you take good care of yourself.” She lifted her gaze from the files to me, a heat in her blue eyes that made me swallow.
I knew exactly how this would go if I allowed it. All I had to do was cross that distance, was to pull her against me, and she’d give in.
She’d do more than give in—she’d respond in kind. She’d kiss me back, let me touch her all I wanted. I could shake this emptiness inside me, perhaps forget about it for a short while.
But…that wasn’t fair to her. I couldn’t expose her to me, to the ugliness of my life, my past, all for a few hours of selfish pleasure.
So instead, I answered with a flat tone to drown the desire between us. “I guess I have good genes.”
She nodded, and I got the sense she knew I’d rejected her. After ten years, I would have thought she’d gotten used to it. Still, each time it happened, each time I put up a large do not cross sign, her face fell. She never pressed, never tried to seduce or manipulate me into agreeing, but that didn’t hide her disappointment.
After putting the papers back together and closing the folder, she turned fully toward me. “Okay, shirt off. Let me examine you, and that will be it. If you start having problems or find your range of motion isn’t what it should be, consider getting some physical therapy.”
I moved my fingers to the buttons of my shirt and undid them efficiently. When I managed them all, I undid the buttons at the cuffs, then slid the shirt off. I hung it over the back of one of the chairs.
When I turned back to Sasha, I caught that same look in her eyes from before. She’d locked her gaze on my chest, tracing along the bare skin as if she could feel it if she just stared hard enough.
And for my part, I sternly told my body to behave, to not react. If I could stay perfectly still on a roof in the rain for six hours waiting to spot a target through my scope, I sure as hell could convince my cock to ignore this whole situation.
“As you can see, I’m healed,” I said to break her out of her fantasy.
She blinked quickly and her cheeks flushed a deep red. “Sorry,” she said, reminding me of when I’d apologized for damn near the same thing. As fast as she said it, however, she shifted into her work mode. She came closer, leaning in to study the mark on my chest which had already almost fully healed. “The scar won’t go away,” she said. “It will fade, but that’s it.”
“It’s not my first scar, and I doubt it’ll be my last.”
She pressed her lips together before she peered at the old scars that covered me.
“How did you get so many?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I told her.
She hesitated, then reached for one of the deeper marks. It sat just below my ribcage—a thick scar from where a lucky asshole had driven a hunting blade into me.
Talk about embarrassing… I’d faced off against some of the worst people, but some biker in a bar had gotten the jump on me because he’d been high and thought I’d flirted with his wife.
His wife who had been only a coatrack near the door. Drugs are a hell of a ride.
The stroke of her fingers against my skin made me want to lean in, to let her touch all she wanted.
Instead, I wrapped my hand around her wrist to stop her, then waited until she lifted her blue eyes to mine.
And when she did?
I swore to myself that I’d never tell her the truth about myself, because if I did?
She’d never look at me like this again, and I didn’t know if I was strong enough for that.
Jarrod’s large hand wrapped around my wrist made it hard to breathe.
Despite having treated his wounds over the years, I never touched him outside of that. My cheeks burned at the fact I was touching him like this now, that I’d done something so unprofessional.
Worse, he’d stopped me.
Not that I blamed him for stopping me. It wasn’t as if I wanted him uncomfortable, as if I wanted to push him into something. Jarrod was mysterious, quiet, dangerous, but always treated me with unfailing care.
He was also one-hundred percent not attracted to me.
The truth depressed me, but I’d forced myself to accept it. The sexual tension was all from one side—mine.
Who could blame me, though? Jarrod was unfairly handsome. He had eyes so light blue that they appeared silver. His hair was dark, which matched well with his tan skin. He had facial hair, though it was always kept short and neat. All of it made him look like some bad boy who I shouldn’t ever look twice at, yet I couldn’t deny having been smitten since our first meeting.
I gulped, then tried to put us back on track. “The scars do matter. They could have killed you.”
He tilted his head, his eyes pulling me in as they always did. “They didn’t kill me, though. The past doesn’t matter, not really. As long as I survive it, what use does thinking about it have? Why treat remembering pain like some badge of honor?” His voice dropped, and the next words came out so softly, I was sure I wasn’t meant to hear them. “As if I had any honor.”
I dragged my tongue over my bottom lip as I struggled to keep myself together. Why was it that I could save lives, that I could shut down everything else and do what needed to be done when it came to medicine, but the moment Jarrod looked at me, I became some air-headed bimbo who couldn’t string together a sentence?
It was downright embarrassing, especially at my age. I was creeping up on forty, an adult woman who had had plenty of relationships, so why did he made me feel like this was all new again?
Because you can’t have him.
“They matter to me,” I whispered.
“Because you matter to me.” Admitting that made my heart race, as if I had just run a mile.
He didn’t react. There was no softening of his expression, nothing to give away how he felt. Why was it so hard to read him? He seemed to know everything I thought, could figure me out so easily, but he was as mysterious to me now as when he’d shown up next to my car that first night, telling me he had a patient who needed my help.
He released my hand and stepped away. A chill settled between us, the distance as clear a ‘no’ as possible. Though, when he opened his mouth, he seemed to want to make it even clearer. “I appreciate all you’ve done for me.”
“You paid me for that, so you don’t have to thank me,” I reminded him.
“And you fought me about that until I started to simply wire the money into your account.” A trace of annoyance in his tone made me want to smile. He was used to getting his way, but I had no issue arguing with him. “But what I was trying to say was that I acknowledge everything you’ve done. You took care of my daughter, something that no amount of money could possibly repay. However…”
And my heart crumbled with that one little word. It was like the word ‘but.’ It meant to ignore what had been said before that point. He normally turned me down vaguely, in a way that allowed me to save face.
That ‘however’ said he’d grown tired of having to repeat himself.
I braced myself for him to tell me he had no romantic interest in me, to tell me to let go of that idea because it would never happen.
“This is the last time I’ll contact you,” he said.
That wasn’t what I’d expected.
“What?” I all but shouted. “I’m sorry about mentioning the scars. I won’t do it again, I promise.”
He shook his head as he pulled on his shirt. “You don’t need to apologize. You haven’t done anything wrong. I just think this association has run its course—for us both.” He buttoned his shirt, his motions slow and careful, his agile fingers moving almost mindlessly.
“But—” I said, then didn’t go on when I had no idea what else to say.
He reached out and cupped my cheek, the first time he’d touched me in such a familiar way. Why now? When he was leaving? It felt unfair and cruel. Still, he spoke, either oblivious to my pain or not caring about it. “This is for the best, trust me. The number you have in your phone for me will always work, so if you end up in trouble, if you need help, I expect you to reach out.” His thumb brushed my cheek in a soft stroke. “Do you understand me?”
I shook my head, feeling pathetic. “No.”
He lifted one of his dark eyebrows. “No?”
“If you won’t rely on me anymore, don’t expect me to ask you for anything.” I pulled away no matter how much it hurt. I wanted to stay there, to feel his palm against me, but I didn’t want to pour more poison down my throat. It was a consolation prize that would only hurt me more.
I gathered my things, needing to escape as fast as possible. I hated this, hated the goodbye, hated how useless I felt. No matter how much I cared about him, he didn’t feel the same. He’d never felt the same. He’d just been someone too kind to break it off before because I was a sob story, and he was nicer than he’d let on. My eyes stung, but I didn’t want him to see my tears, for him to witness just how pathetic I was.
“Sasha…” he said as I reached the door.
I turned back to face him, wanting him to tell me to wait, to take it all back.
However, he said nothing else.
So I shook my head and walked out, trying to hold my head high as I left the man I loved behind.