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Authors: Serena Bell

Can't hold back

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Can’t Hold Backis a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

A Loveswept eBook Original

Copyright © 2015 by Serena Bell

Excerpt fromTo Have and to Holdby Serena Bell copyright © 2015 by Serena Bell

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

LOVESWEPTis a registered trademark and theLOVESWEPTcolophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming bookTo Have and to Holdby Serena Bell. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.

eBook ISBN 9781101886755

Cover design: Diane Luger

Cover photograph: Fotolia/Igor Mojzes

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Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Epilogue

Dedication

Acknowledgments

By Serena Bell

About the Author

The Editor’s Corner

Excerpt fromTo Have and to Hold

Prologue

“Is this seat taken?”

From her perspective in the grass, he was a giant, with broad shoulders and a luminous smile. She’d always thought it was an exaggeration when women said they lost their breath in a man’s presence, but she just had.

She got a grip and shook her head. “Pull up some turf.” She patted the lawn beside her, and he sat.

He was vivid, like a soldier in a movie: ripped, swaggering, grinning, golden-haired. He’d smiled in her direction earlier, and for a split second she’d thought,Who me?before she remembered that she was standing next to Becca. Her sister was a manmagnet.All the two of them had to do was idle in a patch of sunlight admiring the garden, and sexy six-foot-plus men in butt-hugging jeans and black T-shirts materialized from nowhere—

Abracadabra!Hot guy for Becca.

In the car on the way over here, she’d told Becca that Jake’s picnics boasted not just amazing food, but other earthly delights. “We’ll get you back on your feet,” Alia had promised, sneaking a glance at her sister, slumped in the passenger seat. Ever since Becca’s boyfriend had left her three months ago she rarely smiled.

Becca had been hoping for a proposal, and Alia was almost as disappointed as Becca was. She wanted her sister to be happy. Settled.Cared for.

Hot Guy for Becca set his plate on the grass. He sat cross-legged, and his thighs and calves, which looked like they’d been hewn from wood, were generously decked with curly golden hair.

“My sister just went to get some food,” she told him, pointing.

He cast a glance at Becca, standing by the salad table, loading her plate with potato chips. Tall, beautiful, blond, andglowingwith vitality.

“You guys don’t look anything alike.”

“We don’t.” She forced a smile. It wasn’t only blindingly obvious differences, like Becca’s blond and Alia’s dark hair, but everything else, too—Becca was slim, with hourglass curves, while Alia was “athletic”; Becca had porcelain skin and Alia was generously freckled; Becca’s features were classic and even, and Alia was—well, she’d be kind to herself and say “cute.”

She sighed.

“Nate Riordan.” The man beside her reached out his hand for a shake.

“Alia Drake.”

Big hands. Warm. A moment ago, the world had smelled like summer. Like grass gone somewhere to seed, roses in bloom, and the mingled marvels of mesquite smoke and grilling meat.

Now her head was filled with a different scent entirely—soap, shampoo, the faintest whiff of some spicy male deodorant or cologne.

He was going to have no difficulty making Becca forget her romantic troubles. He could probably make any woman blank on her own name.

She retrieved her hand before she could reflect any more onthat.He wasBecca’shot guy.

Alia worried about Becca a lot. Probably too much, considering they were now both adults and capable of standing on their own. But it was an old, old habit, born after their father’s death and during their mother’s long depressions, when Becca had struggled to keep her head—and her self-esteem—above water.

They were both adults now, but Alia totally got what parents meant when they said your worry didn’t vanish just because your kid had taken off for college.

“You friends with Mira?” Nate asked, hoisting his burger for a bite.

“Jake. We went to PT school together.”

“You’re a physical therapist, too, huh? I’ve always thought that was a cool job.”

“I love it. Love the work, love the people.”

“Yeah? You’re lucky. Not too many people get to say that about their jobs.”

“You don’t love yours?”

He laughed. “Caught that, did you? I don’t have a story like Jake’s, all that post-Nine/Eleven conviction. Going to college for me meant a staggering amount of debt, and the only way I could hope to get myself out from under it was to join up. So that’s what I did. And it’s not that I hate it. I just…I guess…you find meaning where you can, you know?”

She did, or thought she did, and it made her want to glide straight past small talk and delve in, but instead she asked, “Are you a Ranger, too? Is that how you know Jake?”

“No, actually—Army grunt, between deployments. And I met Jake when he gave a talk. ‘A Life of Purpose’ or something like that. I was a senior in college, it was career week, and I almost didn’t go because I knew I was enlisting, so I figured I knew my purpose, or at least my purpose for a little bit.” He gave a wry shake of his gold-streaked head. “But some of my friends were planning to go, and I thought I should at least check it out. And I was, like, okay, here’s a guy, a Ranger, out of the Army, missing a leg, doing all this great stuff—competing in triathlons, going back to school, helping other soldiers—”

“Jake’s amazing.”

“He is,” Nate agreed, suddenly serious, and that was almost more dazzling than the smiling version. She found herself sucked into his blue-eyed gaze, a little dazed, nodding. “So fu— freaking inspiring. I mean, not some saint, but a guy who suffered and figured out how to come back stronger, to be a dad and a husband, and how to help tons of people, but also not bragging about it.”

She smiled, because, yeah, that was what she loved about Jake, too. Not just the bravery, but: “He won’t take any credit for doing what needs to be done.”

“Right. Damn, couldn’t have said it better. Exactly.” He grinned.

Oh, my God, that grin. Confident but not arrogant, his eyes bright, corners crinkled, a crease that stopped short of being a dimple in one cheek.

She was staring at him, and the moment had stretched too long.Right.She looked away and took a hasty bite of potato salad.Wow.Really good. Mira’s work.

“Now he’s building the retreat—have you seen it?” she said.

He shook his head. “Not yet. But he was telling me about it, and it all makes sense. That he’d end up doing that, helping other guys with the transition. He had a tough homecoming.”

Jake had come back from Afghanistan with an above-the-knee amputation, having lost both his leg and his teammate to an IED explosion—and promptly discovered he was the father of a seven-year-old he’d had no idea existed.

They exchanged knowing glances, then both turned to watch Jake, who was tossing a football with Sam.

“But he turned itintosomething. And he’s made this great life for himself, you know?”

Yeah, again, she knew, but suddenly she couldn’t quite get the words to come out around the feeling in her chest. The tightness was caused by thinking about Jake and what he’d lost and found, yes, but it also had something to do with the sympathy, admiration, and longing on Nate’s face when he watched father and son together.

“Anyway—” Nate’s lopsided smile and half-shrug said,Back to lighter topics.“I went up after the talk and said how much I admired what he’d done, and we ended up getting drunk together. So now I’m on the picnic invitation list.”

“And once you’re on the list, you’re on forever. And Jake and Mira know how to throw a party.”

They smiled at each other, and he raised his red plastic party cup to hers in a toast. “To the picnic list.”

“Hey, guys.”

She’d almost forgotten about Becca, who was now standing over them with her plate, looking faintly uncomfortable. As if she were waiting for an invitation she wasn’t sure would be extended.

She’d seen that look on her sister’s face far too many times. The expression Becca wore after years of being unsure of herself.

Becca, who hadn’t learned to read till she was ten, who called herself dumb way too often, who still found writing almost impossible. Becca, whose boyfriend had told her he needed to be with someone who was his intellectual equal.

Becca, who was Alia’sfamily.Because their dad was gone and their mom was—well, she was who she was—and the two of them had still somehow made a childhood out of the muddle.

Becca needed a guy like Nate Riordanwaymore than Alia did.

Plus, Nate really wasn’t Alia’s type. Alia’s life, for better or for worse, had made her into someone who thrived on taking care of people. It didn’t tend to work out well for her with guys who were more the fiercely independent alpha types.

And if there was something she knew about Nate Riordan after five minutes in his company, it was that he knew what he wanted and how to get it.

So Alia said, “Nate, Becca. Becca, Nate,” and caught Becca’s eye and grinned at her sister.Look what I found for you!

Nate stood to shake Becca’s hand.

See? That right there.The kind of guy for whom chivalry wasn’t dead. He could take care of Becca the way she deserved.

Alia stood, too. Becca was—she was actually smiling at Nate. Or at least most-of-the-way smiling.

God, she’d missed her sister’s smile.

Nate smiled back at Becca. Her hand was still in his.

Perfect.The handshake would do its magic, and Becca could handle the rest.

Alia watched the two of them, golden in the sun, and felt—

She wasn’t sure. The pleasure of a match well made, maybe.

“I’m gonna grab some lemonade. Either of you—”

“No, thanks,” Becca said.

“I’m good,” Nate said.

Alia walked away.

Half an hour later, Becca caught her arm beside the dessert table.

“Are yousure? He talked to you first. You guys looked like you were enjoying yourselves.”

What Alia wanted, she reminded herself firmly, was to make her sister happy.

When she answered, she made herself do it casually, with so much confidence there could be no doubt.

“A hundred percent positive.”

She was. A hundred percent positive about wanting to make Becca smile. All the way. All the time.

Chapter 1

TWOYEARSLATER

“Come off the foam roller and take a moment to lie on your back,” Alia told her class.

Four soldiers slid to their yoga mats in the dim studio.

“How does it feel?”

She held her breath, because she wanted so badly for this class to be a success, and now all she could do was cross her fingers and hope that her best had been good enough.

A few sighs and a moan answered her. The tall redheaded former comm officer said, “Like I’m lying in a trench.”

“That’s right,” she teased. “While you were on the roller, I went around and dug trenches for all of you.”

The sensation was an illusion, created because they’d been resting for so long on their backs on the foam roller, letting their shoulder blades sink toward the floor, opening the muscles along their spines. Now that they were on the floor, their brains were sending them the message that the ground was indented.

They’d all started class today with chips on their shoulders. Three of the four had shown up as a favor to Jake, who ran the R&R veterans’ retreat and was Alia’s new, temporary boss. The fourth had come willingly but tried to leave once he discovered that they weren’t going to be using the Reformer machines, which resembled medieval torture devices more than exercise equipment. All of them had grumbled and sulked, and she’d indulged in a moment of worry that maybe this whole thing had been a bad idea.

Then she’d taken a deep breath, cracked her mental knuckles, and bulled through it. She’d jollied and teased them, leading them through stretching and strengthening and breathing exercises, until the starch had gone out of their attitudes, one by one. Big, tough, ripped men; men who’d shot and killed, fought for their survival, their countries, their buddies; men who were scarred, in chronic pain, struggling to learn to move with prostheses—limp as rags on their mats.

Now, finally, she let herself relax and savor her success—and their comfort. None of them showed the slightest sign of wanting to move, ever.

“Rest as long as you want,” she told them. “No one’s coming in for another hour. Raise your hand if you want me to bring a blanket to cover you.”

They all raised their hands, and her smile broadened. She brought them blankets and covered them. And they let her, like they’d accepted her as Mama Bear.

These were not men who frequently let down their guards, not men who slept well at night—or ever. She’d given them something they needed desperately, and,God,she loved that.

She heard a tap on the studio’s window and looked up to see Jake.

“I’ll be right outside, guys.”

She went to the door and slipped out. “Hey.”

“You won them over.”

She grinned, pleased with herself. “And you said movement therapy would be a tough sell for guys who got a little light exercise by running up mountains with a hundred pounds on their backs.”

“I stand corrected.”

The admiration was plain in his voice.Excellent.Because if she did a good job here during her two-week temporary gig, there was a chance he’d hire her on permanently. And that meant—

That meant not having to go backthere.

At the thought of her old job, the tension crept back into her neck and shoulders.Sigh.

“So, hey,” Jake said, more serious. “I screwed up. And I need you to not hate me for it.”

Uh-oh.

“I could never hate you,” she hazarded.

The hesitation in her voice made them both laugh, but he quickly got serious. “I’m taking off in an hour, but something’s…come up.”

Jake was headed to the airport to take a five-year-anniversary trip to Hawaii with his wife, Mira, which was why he’d asked Alia to come to R&R for two weeks, to fill in for him during his absence.

“I totally forgot you knew him.”

“Knewwho?”

“Mira reminded me. That you guys knew each other.”

“Jake, what are youtalkingabout?”

She wouldn’t yap that way at just any boss, but Jake was a good friend. They’d been at PT school together, not only study and drinking buddies but also deep admirers of each other’s work and perspective, which was why Jake had called her when he’d needed someone to fill in.

“Nate Riordan’s here.”

All the air went out of her lungs.

“I know it might be weird, since he was with Becca—”

Oh, if only that had been all of it. Nate had indeed dated Becca, and that alone—given that the relationship had ended badly—might have been awkward enough, but Jake didn’t know the half of it. Or she hoped he didn’t.

Jake sighed. Her wariness must have been all over her face.

“He was discharged—medical—a couple months ago and I tried to get him to come then, but he wasn’t having it. He’s been living in an apartment in Portland with his cousin, but his cousin met a woman he’s serious about, so that’s not happening anymore. Basically, all I know is that he had low-level blast injuries, moderate traumatic brain injury, some memory loss and cognitive impairment at first, but big improvements on that front. But it sounds like he also has some mystery pain. He’s been back a couple months and he’s been taking a lot of painkillers, but he quit a few days ago—”

“Cold turkey?”

“Just un-cold-turkey enough not to kill himself, I think,” Jake said. “He’s in pretty bad shape now. Out of the worst of it, but you know what that’s like.”

She did. There was no worse pain than the pain unmasked when an opiate haze lifted.

“Why’d he do that? Quit taking the pills?” She couldn’t judge, without seeing and talking to him, whether quitting painkillers was the right choice for him, but going nearly cold turkey was brutal.

“All he told me is he has something important to do and he needs to be clearheaded. You’ll have to ask him. He wasn’t very forthcoming about anything. He mainly said he needed a place to go, and wanted to know if my offer of him coming here was still open. I said, ‘Hell, yeah.’ And then Mira reminded me about his history with Becca. So, look, if it’s going to be too weird, we can figure something out.”

She didnotwant to tell Jake she couldn’t hack this. He was supposed to be on an airplane in an hour, and she was supposed to be the woman who could handle anything that came up while he was gone. In their phone conversation, when he’d called to ask if he could fill in for her, he’d made it clear that he thought the toughest part of the job was the emotional burden of dealing with psychically and physically injured soldiers. She had to show him she had enough strength and perspective to do this. She couldn’t afford to be high-maintenance now over some guy her sister had dated. Even if—

Even if he wasn’t justsome guy her sister had dated.

But for all intents and purposes, that was all he’d been. Right?

And she didnotwant to go back to Elijah Bay Rehab.

The day before Jake’s call had been a pretty typical day at Elijah Bay. Her last appointment of the day had been with seventy-two-year-old Mrs. Stenno, who’d arrived buoyant. She’d washed her own hair that morning for the first time since the stroke, and had gotten it squeaky clean. Her daughter had declared her capable of taking care of herself and was planning to move back home.

I get my house back, she’d said giddily.

Alia lived for those moments.

But then, after Alia ushered Mrs. Stenno out, her supervisor had called her into his office, in his ironside battleship voice.

“This isn’t a yoga retreat, Alia. Chris Price says you were using some kind of tapping technique on Mrs. Stenno? And when I had to take Elisabeth Toole for you last week, she wanted to do ‘the visualization stuff I do with Alia.’ You’re wasting patient time. You’re wastingmytime.”

She took a deep breath. “I’m getting results.”

She had proof, and not just anecdotal proof. She had better recovery times than the other PTs. She had better recovery times than her supervisor.

And that, she knew, was at the heart of this.

“I’ve told you before how I feel about the earthy-crunchy-granola stuff.”

This wasn’t the first time he’d confronted her, and her pent-up frustration threatened to break from its bonds. She made herself take a few deep breaths. “Tapping and visualization aren’t earthy-crunchy. They’re pain-management best practices.”

“You don’t decide what’s best practices at Elijah Bay,” her supervisor said darkly. “Idecide what’s best practices at Elijah Bay. And if I hear anything else about this kind of bullshit, you can find yourself another job.”

She made up her mind then that she would. But it had to be a certainkindof opportunity. Because physical therapy wasn’t just a job for her. Relieving other people’s pain, helping them to live full, active lives despite setbacks or permanent disabilities—it was her passion. And she wanted to do it in a setting where she could really make a difference.

That was why she’d been so thrilled the next day when Jake had called her with the temporary offer. R&R was the perfect opportunity.

Some women her age—twenty-six—might not love the idea of going to live in the woods in the middle of nowhere. Not exactly the best place to build a social life or meet a mate. But Alia was different. She knew she didn’t need romance to be happy. Friendship, yes; human love and kindness and companionship, yes—all of which she had in spades from her Seattle buddies and her amazing sister—but romantic love, not so much. It had a way of going awry for her, leaving her out in the cold. She wanted to walk a different path, a path of service and purpose. She wanted to be where she was needed.

She wanted to give something back to these men who had given so much themselves.

So, yeah, no way she was going to refuse to help Nate, regardless of history. She was a professional, a big girl with a mission that didn’t include fussing over an old crush. If the cost of working for Jake at R&R was that she had to be in close quarters with Nate, she could handle that. Besides, she owed Nate. If she could give him some peace, some relief, maybe it would help compensate for—for what she’d done.

“Of course I’ll work with him. The thing with Becca isn’t an issue.”

That for sure was a lie wrapped in the truth. Nate’s relationship with Becca might have been short-lived—maybe even doomed from the start—but there was nothing small or simple about the tangle Alia had managed to make of it.

Jake exhaled deeply, and Alia realized he’d been prepared for her to say no. “Well, good. I’ll run past Sibby’s desk and schedule Nate in today or tomorrow. Can’t imagine anyone I’d trust more with his well-being. And can’t imagine any hands I’d feel more comfortable leaving my patients in. This means a lot to meandto Mira.”

She shoved him lightly. “Go on. Get out of here. Enjoy your trip. Don’t give any of this another thought.”

He saluted her, turned sharply on one foot, and marched off. She laughed.

But she wasn’t laughing as she turned back toward the studio, where her relaxed soldiers were snoring in stereo.

I hope your trust in me is justified,Jake.

Because she’d been a fool more than once before, where Nate Riordan was concerned.

Chapter 2

Nate lifted a kayak off the rack, and a spasm of pain in his shoulder caught him off guard. The kayak tilted, and he righted it quickly and lowered it to the ground. Cracking the resort’s kayak wouldn’t be a good way to return the favor Jake had done by taking him in.

He was damn grateful to Jake. For inviting him to stay at R&R, and for keeping the offer open even after Nate had stubbornly refused it the first time. And he was grateful to Braden and his grandparents, for giving him a project. A reason to get clean and stay that way, something to hold on to as he’d flushed the last oxys down the toilet. A purpose to cling to as he’d picked up the phone and dialed Jake’s number and on the long drive down from Seattle, when the pain in his head and neck had filled his mind and almost drowned out the Mariners game on the radio.

But somehow he’d kept his eyes on the road and his foot on the gas.

I got this, J.J.

He rubbed his shoulder, shrugged it a few times, but that only made things worse. He was going to have to bull through it today. And tomorrow. And the next day.

He crossed to the shed for a life jacket and a paddle.

The pain was mysterious and ever-changing. Sometimes it was a stab behind his eyes or a wave of nausea, the migraines he’d been told to expect in a wake of the blast. More frequently, it was his neck, his shoulders, his back, all of which had taken a beating when the blast had thrown him. That made sense. But sometimes the pain obeyed no logic. It started in one place and spread, lighting up points all over his body until he felt patched together out of signal flares of pain.Here!AndHere!AndHere again!Or it was everywhere at once, like the flu, an ache that told him where he began and the rest of the world ended.

It had definitely been worse since he’d watched his pain meds spin in the water funnel.

He’d seriously contemplated snatching them back up. He knew what that meant. You only thought about putting your hands in the toilet to recover melting tablets if you were an addict. And of course he’d known, long before he’d flushed, that he was. But there was nothing like having it spelled out.This drug owns you.

This pain owns you.

But he didn’t care about that right now. He was going to do this, keep moving forward, haul himself bodily over every obstacle, and cling to the incline with bleeding fingertips if necessary.

With effort, he slid the kayak to the edge of the dock and into the water. He wedged his paddle behind the seat and slipped in. He’d kayaked a ton as a kid, so he knew the ropes, including self-rescue. Still, he’d forgotten the particular gravity of a slim boat like this one, and as he pushed off, he almost capsized. The effort of stabilizing sent arrows of pain up the right side of his back.Damn.

“Nate.”

There was a woman standing on the dock.

Alia Drake.

“We had an appointment.” She frowned across the small but growing span of water between them, her arms crossed.

He didn’t bother asking how she’d known to look for him here. When he’d headed this way, he’d walked past a group of guys sitting on the back porch. If she was hunting for him, she would have asked them if they’d seen him.

“Sorry,” he muttered. Only he wasn’t. He’d deliberately blown off the appointment, because—well, for a lot of reasons. Because he’d had enough physical therapy to be sure that whatever was wrong with him, PT wasn’t going to fix it. Because he hated medical offices and doctors and nurses and PTs. And most of all, because the last thing he needed right now was Alia Drake.

The space between them was widening. The temptation to start paddling full speed away from her was strong, and the only thing that kept him from doing it was the fact that pain still had his neck in a death grip. He took a deep breath and waited for it to subside.

She turned away from him, and for a moment he thought she’d given up, but then she came toward him with a life jacket and paddle in her hands. He watched as she lifted a kayak from the rack and dropped it effortlessly into the water.

Fuck.

She slid neatly in, surprisingly graceful for such a tall woman, and pushed off.

“I don’t want company.”

“Tough. I told Jake I’d help you.”

“And this is helping me how?” He was mad enough to look her full in the face, and that was a big mistake.

She looked right back at him, utterly uncowed, and her gray-green eyes were generously fringed with sooty lashes. Her cheeks were pink with anger.

She was startlingly pretty. He’d privately thought her the more beautiful of the two sisters, even though Becca’s beauty was more conventional. When Alia had made it clear that she wasn’t interested—that her sister was the available one—Nate had given only one backward, regretful glance—metaphorically—before turning his appreciation on Becca.

But now he admired the thick, glossy strands of Alia’s straight, medium-length dark hair. She wore no makeup, and he was charmed—against his will—by the freckles scattered over her nose and cheekbones. She was tall for a woman, and strong. On the dock, when her legs had been level with his eyes, he’d surprised himself with the impulse to run his hands over the muscle in her legging-clad thighs and strong bare calves. And yet—he’d noted, before the life jacket and spray skirt had covered most of her—she had curves, too. Nothing showy. Everything in proportion. She looked…real. That was it. As if she were built forpurpose,not for any man’s entertainment.

Especially not his.

“Why didn’t you come to your appointment?”

“Because I don’t need PT.” He turned his boat and paddled out toward the center of the lake.

She pulled alongside him and kept pace. Every stroke sent pain shooting up the back of his neck.

“You’re hurting.”

It was a statement, not a question.

“I can see it on your face. The way you’re holding your upper body.”

“It’s not that bad.”

That was a lie, and this was making it worse. The kayak, the paddling, Alia’s scrutiny, fierce on his face.

He wasn’t going to do Suzy and Jim and Braden any good if he couldn’t even paddle into the middle of a goddamn lake.

He wanted to howl his frustration to the sky, but Alia was there, watching him, and he couldn’t.

“Jake said you were taking oxycodone, and then you quit. Why’d you do that?”

He had to admire her style—not giving him a chance to deny the assertion before she threw the question at him—and the way she was barely breathless from the effort of paddling. She wastough,one of the things he remembered liking about her. If there was a person on earth who would understand why he had flushed those pills down the toilet, it was her. “I felt like they were the boss of me, not the other way around.”

She nodded.

“I need to take a kid on a kayaking trip in three weeks. Can’t be popping pills the whole time.”

“But this is okay? You think the kid’s not going to notice that you’re in pain?”

Her meaning was harsh, but her voice was kind. Firm. Not a challenge so much as a real question.

Their paddles dipped into the water. They had quietly come into synchrony, skimming over the water alongside each other, nearly silent.

“Most people don’t notice.”

But she’d seen it right away. In his face, she said. In the way he held his upper body.

He remembered that she was a good observer. She’d seen him, seen through him, as early as their first meeting at the picnic. Later, she’d written about the world so clearly in her emails and letters—though of course back then he’d thought they were Becca’s.

“Why is it so important to go on this kayaking trip?”

They were almost across the lake now. The flat expanse of gray-blue water was surrounded by forest. The only civilization visible was the retreat itself, where he could see people moving around, as small and busy as insects. He wished he hadn’t come out here. He’d hated the idea of her office, but this was worse, the two of them out here and her question dangling, as if she had a right to know the answer.

He chose a partial truth. “The kid, Braden. I served with his dad. He’s…gone. He and Braden were supposed to do a kayaking trip this summer.”

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

Strange how easily voices carried out here, how you could hear a whisper spoken several feet away.

“Yeah, well.”

“Let me help you.”

The pain carved a channel down his back, as if in protest of all the times people had said that to him. All the times it had given him hope, and all the times that hope had turned out to be false. The pain got under his ribs, the way it so often did, and made him mean.

“Like you helped Becca?”

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