Sitting on the edge of his bed in the moonlit room, Asher inhaled in slow, measured breaths. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he shook away the nightmare and tossed on his running clothes. The offensively bright red numbers on the clock cast an eerie glow across the room like a sub on red alert.
No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t sleep in late. SEALs had drilled it into him. Awake before dawn. Every day. PT for an hour, minimum. Drills, meetings, planning for the next mission.
Burning off the nightmare with a punishing run around his parent’s property and beyond, his lungs burned, his muscles tremored from exertion. As he rounded the final bend, the house came into view, the pre-dawn glow casting off of the dark windows. Despite the early summer heat, a sharp chill brushed over his sweat-soaked skin like razorblades.
Anything less than the five-mile run, and the unspeakable shit in his head followed him like a wicked shadow all damn day. He almost felt like himself when he pushed his body to the limit like this. If he even knew who that was anymore.
Or ever, really. Eight fucking years in the navy, and he still didn’t know what he wanted out of life. Never did. Maybe never would.
Not like his sister, Pippa. She’d known exactly what she wanted since kindergarten. I’m going to be a teacher when I grow up. I’m going to marry Lincoln, have three kids, and we’ll live next door to you in Foothills. What kid figures it out that early?
Turning the shower on lukewarm to cool his throbbing muscles in the stinging spray, he rinsed off the thick, salty sweat like a damn workhorse. He didn’t linger, not wanting to miss his favorite part of the day. With a quick teeth-brushing and an attempt to tame his past-due-for-a-trim hair, he considered shaving to fully present himself as an upstanding citizen.
Nah. He rather liked his stubble. Maybe he’d grow a full beard one of these days, but that just seemed so cumbersome. Would irritate his dad nicely, though. Maybe that uptight sister of his while he was at it. Yikes, old habits rearing back up. All grown-up, nearly thirty, remember?
Tossing on yesterday’s jeans, he smelled a shirt he found in a laundry bin by the door. Huh. Fresh and clean. Folded too. His mom was taking it way too easy on him.
Paul was glad he was home like Mom was; he was almost sure of it. When his dad continually pestered him to take over the family business, asking when he was going to do something with his life, what he really meant was I love you, son.
Sure. Keep thinking that. As if finishing a four-year degree in three years, then eight years as a Navy SEAL wasn’t meaningful. What his dad really meant was, When are you going to be more like me?
Asher been home a few weeks. Or had it been a month already? Two? He’d totally lost track of time. All he knew for sure was that therapy at the VA was every Monday, then group therapy every Wednesday. He was working his ass off to feel normal again. If that was even a realistic ambition. Had he ever been normal?
Had done pretty well for himself, considering the shit he’d gone through, but he was a work in progress. He didn’t like being unemployed any more than Paul liked it. But, his dad didn’t seem to understand that Asher needed to get his head on straight before he could consider becoming a productive member of society.
He had set the coffeepot to be done just as he finished his run and shower each morning. His parents wouldn’t be up for another hour or two, thank goodness. They were great parents despite his dad’s highhanded nature; he knew he was lucky. But, sometimes it was nice to savor the peace and quiet of the mountains.
Sneaking across the living room with his piping hot cup of coffee in hand, both to avoid spilling and to not risk waking his parents, he slipped silently through the glass slider to the front deck. As he had made the habit since coming home, he sat on his favorite Adirondack chair to watch the sun rising over the mountains. Shades of pink, purple, and orange fingered across the craggy peaks as the sun awoke, rising behind the Cascades. Each breath filled his lungs with crisp mountain air, each sip of the robust brew calmed his thoughts.
It would be hot this afternoon. He couldn’t remember the temperature going over 80 much when he was growing up, and that wasn’t until August. June had barely begun, and the National Weather Service was predicting sunny and 82 today. Would be drought conditions and nearly a hundred degrees by August, or so they said.
All too soon, the moment came to an end, as it did every day. Coffee drained, sun burning brightly in his eyes, he headed out to the garage. Soon, he’d start work for his dad.
Not today. Not that he could put it off much longer. He’d already been putting it off for 29 years. I just got home… give me a month… let’s plan on after Pippa’s wedding... I should be able to start by mid-July. Paul had to know he was stalling, but he also had to know that Asher had no desire to work at the hardware store.
At no point had he ever indicated to his father that he wanted to take over the family business. Ever. His degree was in political science and his only real experience was in combat. When had he ever indicated an interest in running Sutherland’s Hardware?
Popping the hood of his antiquated pick-up, he got to work. This old truck would run, whether it wanted to or not. The rust-bucket had gotten him through high school, college, and eight years with the navy. It couldn’t give up on him yet.
Not with all the damn new parts he’d put in it; it was becoming quite the bionic rig these days. He wouldn’t be surprised if it stood up and declared it was an alien here to save Earth from the Decepticons. Wasn’t owning a Transformer every guy’s fantasy?
* * *
Clutching her official license in her hands, Sophie twirled a sprightly jig around the room. Carefully, to avoid tripping over the neatly stacked boxes which made up the complex maze that used to be her living room.
Sophie Jones, Certified Public Accountant. Master’s graduate, financial genius, successful businesswoman. Okay, maybe let’s not go that far just yet, but Sophie couldn’t seem to reign in the thrill of recognition for her accomplishments. It had been a long haul.
“Pip, where are you? It came. I passed,” She hollered across the apartment, grinning so wide she could feel the warm breeze from the open windows blowing across her teeth.
“What? In here.” Pippa Sutherland, her best friend and roommate of the last four years, called back from her bedroom.
“Can you send me your Aunt Jane’s number? I want to send her a pic, so she knows her protégé is official.” Sophie tried to calm her prancing feet to show Pippa the certificate, but she couldn’t seem to stop the happy dance in progress.
As a child, she’d never dreamed of being an accountant. But after tightly managing the household finances, lest her aunt blow their limited income on manicures and highlights, she’d discovered she had knack for it. Years of working in coffee shops, the bank, then the vigorous internship at the investment firm in Seattle, led to today’s overjoyed response.
Prying the certificate from Sophie’s eager hands, Pippa admired the page and squealed, throwing her arms around her friend. “Congratulations. I’m so excited. I’ll text you Jane’s info; she’ll be anxious to hear from you.”
As soon as Jane had heard that Sophie was planning a career in accounting, she’d been begging for her to come join her at Foothills Accounting. Begging maybe was too strong of a word, but she’d been asking meaningfully. From the moment she’d laid eyes on Foothills, Sophie had wanted to make the move.
Foothills was aptly named, charmingly settled on the talus of the Cascade Mountain Range, just before the elevation rapidly inclined. It was a charming town with delightful people, of which the Sutherlands were a household name. And, it was tucked neatly away from the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities that surrounded Puget Sound.
Seattle had been a great change of pace from Los Angeles, but still too much for Sophie. Foothills was just right, with the population just over 8,000. Large enough to be able to hide in the crowd, but small enough to not get lost, either.
Tossing her long hair behind her shoulders, she attempted to tame the mass of locks. Neither blond nor brown, but an odd mix of both. Although they were natural highlights, the variety looked like she couldn’t decide what color highlights to add and tried a sampling of every shade of blond and light brown at the salon. With a flourish, she finished the happy dance with a bow and plopped down onto the foot of Pippa’s bed.
Grin as wide as Sophie’s, Pippa dropped onto the wooden chair across from her friend and teased, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you quite so bouncy before. How much coffee have you had today?”
“Just two or three cups so far,” she bugged her eyes out in dramatic punctuation.
Pippa’s legs did their own goofy wiggle around her backwards desk chair. “The teacher and the accountant, ready to take on Foothills by storm. We’re quite the sensational pair.”
Rolling her eyes, Sophie chuckled over the irony. Although Pippa could honestly say she’d always epitomized the prim and proper, albeit fun, schoolteacher, Sophie couldn’t exactly say the same. But, it sure felt good to now have a fancy certificate that announced to the world she was Ms. Stability.
“Shouldn’t Lincoln be here soon? I’m sick of living out of boxes. The fridge is completely empty aside from last night’s pizza. Which, I already had for breakfast.” Sophie grabbed her gurgling stomach and groaned, a pitiful scowl drooping over her face.
Pippa handed her back her certificate and rested her chin on the back of the chair. Studying her watch, she scrunched her face in careful calculation. “Twenty minutes. They gave him the runaround at the rental truck office. He actually read every last line of the agreement, proving himself the tenacious attorney already.”
“I can’t stop fretting: your parents don’t mind me crashing at their place for a few weeks? Even while you’re away on your honeymoon?” Although she’d asked the same question dozens of times over the last few weeks, she still didn’t want to be a burden. Never wanted to be an inconvenience. Not that she had a complex or anything. Okay, she totally did, but she was really working on that.
Pippa kicked her across the narrow aisle between the bed and her spot on the backwards chair. “Stop asking. Trust me, they love having you around. I think they’ve put in for an adult adoption. Your picture is on the dang mantle. Mom brags about you on Facebook as much as she does Asher and me.”
Trying to not bite her fingernails, a nasty habit she officially quit five years ago, Sophie settled for letting her knee vibrate at a critically high frequency. “But Asher just got back what, a month ago? They must have their hands full helping him get settled now that he’s back from the navy.”
Rolling her eyes lovingly, Pippa reached her foot over to still Sophie’s frantic knee jiggle. “It will be a full house, but that’s the way they like it. I worry more about you having to live in the same house as my reprobate brother.”
“He can’t possibly be the lecher you’ve made him out to be. Besides, you know I have too good of self-restraint these days when it comes to men. If it helps you relax a bit, I promise to not have sex with him.” Sophie crossed her heart and raised her hand in a heartfelt salute.
Despite her many trips to Pippa’s parent’s house, she’d never met Asher. According to Pippa, he maintained an almost laughable affinity for women - particularly Pippa’s friends.
A picture of him in his uniform resided next to hers on the mantle. She could certainly understand the fuss. Maybe, just maybe, on lonely nights, she let her imagination wander and allow a fantasy or two about the sexy SEAL. Not that she’d ever tell Pippa, and she told her best friend everything. Hell, their periods were synced to the day.
“Before he joined the navy, every friend I brought home just ended up straight in his bed. I’d like to be able to make and keep a friend that is just mine. You can be friends with him, just please don’t fall for his charms.” She feigned a teasing smile, but Sophie knew it was no joke. Pippa and her brother had butted heads enough over the years, and the loss of a few friendships due to Asher’s dating habits had been a huge strain on their relationship.
Rising from the bare mattress, Sophie grabbed her certificate and reassured her friend. “I would love to take offense that you think I would choose one night with your brother over a lifetime of friendship with you, but I know you have a bit of a complex about the whole thing-”
Mouth open to defend herself, Pippa couldn’t get her thought out. Sophie talked right over her friend, holding her finger up to silence her.
“Which I really do understand. And, I’ll pretend you didn’t just imply that I’m a faithless friend and a slut,” Sophie rolled her eyes and nudged her friend. Yeah, he was absurdly handsome, with a body that made her imaginary love life much that much more interesting, and deliciously creative, but she didn’t let her libido rule her life.
“I don’t think you’re a slut or a faithless friend.” Pippa raised an eyebrow and nodded plottingly, “Actually, I suspect you may just be the one to put Asher in his place. All gorgeous with those long lashes and long legs. A heartbreaker that will finally leave the desperate single men of Seattle in peace, so they may spend their nights pining away for some other supermodel disguised as an accountant. When you refuse his come-ons, can you film it? I can’t wait to see the look on his face when a woman doesn’t fall at his feet.”
Billy Idol’s White Wedding blasted from Pippa’s phone. With a squeal of delight, she hopped out of the chair and answered, “Hey, my sexy fiancé. Come on up. Our muscles are primed for heavy lifting.” Ending the brief call, Pippa stood from her chair and gazed about the room. “Let’s get out of this dump.”
It wasn’t exactly a dump, but the apartment was in the untrendy section of the university district, far from the ritzy shopping centers. Although their apartment may be musty and tiny, she’d miss it. End of an era.
She blinked back the threatening tears. The best friend she’d ever had was getting married in three weeks to a great guy. Yes, precisely three weeks; Pippa had shared her digital calendar which included a daily countdown alert. Sophie was really happy for her. Not even that awkwardly jealous, smiling-and-nodding happy. She was genuinely thrilled for her friend.
Pippa had planned their futures as she planned everything else, meticulously and boisterously. Sophie didn’t mind; uncertainty was far scarier than a well-mapped plan. Being included in Pippa’s life and family over the last few years had been huge for her. Gave her the sense of belonging she’d been desperate for. Plus, she was excited about her fresh start in an adorable hometown with a great job already lined up.
Sophie needn’t have bothered fighting the tears. After greeting her fiancé briefly, not quite overdoing the PDA, but close, Pippa turned and looked around the apartment. Tears streaming down her face, Pippa ran across the apartment to Sophie. “I don’t want to go. I’m going to have to be a grown-up now and go home to a smelly boy every night.”
“Right here,” Lincoln waved from the kitchen. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not offended. I do stink sometimes.” The women ignored him. In a loving way. He was good-natured and a good fit for Pippa’s wound-too-tightness.
Wiping away the pesky tears that soaked her cheeks, she hugged her friend. “You get to work your dream job as a teacher and live with the man you love. Maybe make a few adorable babies soon. Even if he does smell sometimes.” He didn’t, but he was an easy, affable mark.
After a few sniffles and another round of tears, Pippa pulled away. Lincoln knew his fiancé well and had already started carrying boxes out to the moving van. Returning from load number one, he was now followed by his very handsome friend, Grady, who was carrying a stack of pizza boxes.
Lincoln put one arm around Pippa and kissed the top of her head. “I hope you don’t mind, I dragged Grady up from Foothills. I figured we could use a hand.”
Mustering up her appetite, Sophie endured yet another meal of pizza. She loved pizza, but it might be time for a break. Grady made eyes at Sophie immediately, as he seemed to be more and more flirty each time she saw him. Glancing to Sophie subtly over her folded slice, Pippa raised her eyebrows suggestively.
Sophie rolled her eyes and shook her head No. Grady was ridiculously handsome. Ocean blue eyes, surfer blond hair, incredible body he’d toned to perfection. An attorney that had graduated from law school last year, he was a great conversationalist. And, rumor had it, was good at everything.
He was an old friend of Lincoln’s from Foothills and his business partner, so she’d only met him a few times. She’d be seeing a lot more of him in the future. The pair had just opened their own law firm in Foothills with an office a block or so down from Foothills Accounting.
Pippa seemed to think he was her soulmate. She liked him. A lot, really. Maybe once she was settled, she’d give it a chance? She’d already put him off once, claiming she wanted to get to Foothills before she started anything.
Stalling. She knew what it was. Trying to think of a nice way to refuse him, as she really did like him. Hell, he was perfect. Everything a woman could want.
He just… she didn’t get that heat deep in her belly when he walked into a room. Her heart didn’t skip a few beats, forgetting its rhythm, when he winked at her. She’d never felt those things, but knew they were imperative when considering a permanent mate. Maybe she would react differently when the stress of the last few months was gone?
Love at first sight was a stupid notion anyway, one she did not buy into. Not even in response to a few stupid photographs of a man she couldn’t - and wouldn’t - be with that had burned into her brain.