Sunday, December 31, 2017

Meant To Be--Free Short Story by Crystal Inman

It's always wonderful to start the new year on a happy note.
My gift to you is this sweet short story, "Meant To Be".
Happy New Year!
by Crystal Inman

“Go away.” The voice drifted over to Max in the dark.  He stopped in the doorway and sighed.  “I can’t, Lynn. You need someone here.”
“I don’t need anyone anymore.”
“If you don’t take your medicine…” he began.
“Spare me.” The words came out dripping with anger and sarcasm. “Peddle your caring crap to someone else. Just because you feel guilt doesn’t mean I have to care.”
Max heard her move in the darkness. She skirted the window to avoid the moonlight.
“It’s done.” He reminded her as he walked farther into the room. “Please, Lynn. Let it go.”
“Don’t worry, Max. I’m not going to harm myself. You don’t need to babysit me. I can take care of myself.”
“Can you?” he asked softly. “Jerry wasn’t the one for you. I only want to help.”
“Help?” she echoed in disbelief. “How can you help? Can you give me my face back? My life back? What can you give me, Max?”
“I can help.” He moved closer to her and smelled the soft scent of her skin. His stomach clenched. How could he make her understand?  
“Lynn, please. Come here.” He stretched his hand out and touched her arm gently.
He heard the cry before she buried her face into his white, cotton shirt. Her body shook with the force of her sobs. His arms came around her and cradled her soft body next to his. Max wanted to gather her to him. So close she wouldn’t ever hurt again, but he couldn’t. His brother had seen to that—the selfish bastard.
Max’s jaws clenched as he thought of his brother with Tammy on the honeymoon that should have been Lynn’s.
“I’m not crying for him,” Lynn mumbled against his chest.
“I know, sugar. I know.”
She stepped away, making sure her hair fell across her face on the right side. “No. You don’t. But you need to.”
Lynn moved towards the window while keeping her back to him. “I don’t love your brother, Max. I don’t know if I ever did. I thought I did.” She sighed. “And he was everything I thought I wanted.”
“Don’t,” Max pleaded. “I don’t need to know this.”
“Don’t you?” she asked. “Aren’t you the one picking up the pieces? Again?”
“We’ll talk tomorrow.” Max shook two pills out of the bottle and into his hand. He held them out to her and waited for her to take them. She didn’t even look in his direction. She opened her hand, and he dropped them into her palm. Lynn washed them down and moved towards the bed.
“Goodnight, Max.”
“Goodnight, Lynn.” He shut the door behind him.
* * * *
Lynn heard Max’s footsteps recede down the hallway.
She spit the pills out in her hand and grimaced. They were bitter and unpleasant—like her life. Lynn slammed them down on the nightstand and sat up abruptly. She refused to let Max pick up the pieces of her life. She was an adult.
Jerry was a bad choice. Period. And now she would make a good choice. She had to leave here. Now.
Lynn hurriedly dressed and threw her clothes into a suitcase. Max would be in bed within a half hour. He never stayed up late. He had business to tend to in the early morning. She waited until the house was silent before she opened the door and crept down the hall. She avoided the third step because it tended to creak.
The suitcase was heavier than she thought, and Lynn cursed it silently as she dragged it across the oak hardwood floor.
“Do you hate me that much?”
The whispered words tore at her heart.
“Dammit, Max.” She stopped in her tracks. “I can’t stay here. I’m not your responsibility. If I had listened to you to begin with, none of this would have happened.”
Max walked towards her and struggled not to show his emotions as she flinched.
Lynn shook her head back and forth, careful to conceal the right side of her face. She gazed at him, praying he wouldn’t come any closer. She didn’t need his pity—never his pity.
“This is your home, Lynn, for as long as you need it. And you do need it, whether you want to admit it or not. You haven’t healed.” His fingers brushed against the scar from her hairline to her right eye.
“Don’t,” she pleaded. “Just don’t. You know they’ll be home soon, and I can’t be here.”
“Jerry is no longer welcome in my home.”
“Oh,” she snipped, flashing her eyes at him, “but the emotionally scarred and crippled chick is? This is what I’m talking about, Max. Stuff the pity.”
“And where would you go? That depressing apartment in town? Who would take care of you then?”
“I’ll take care of myself, dammit!” She kicked the suitcase and scowled at it.
“I see you’re feeling better. That infamous temper is showing.”
Lynn took a step back to calm herself.
“And now here’s the composing part. I always wondered how you could go from pissed to fine in two seconds.”
“Watch and learn.” She relaxed her face and took one deep breath. Then another. “See? All better. Now get out of my way.”
“Pardon me?”
“That would be a negatory. Lynn, you’re staying here. I’m tired of asking. I’m telling. You’re staying. Now either you or I can take that suitcase back, but believe me, it’s going back.” He crossed his arms and studied the stubborn woman in front of him. She was furious. And she was beautiful. He watched her eyes flash again as she scowled up at him. She was only five-foot-five compared to his six-two, but that never bothered her. She gave as good as she got.
Her short, brown hair hung to her shoulders and curled softly at the ends. The right side hung in front of her face to hide the scar she was so conscious of having. The left side was tucked behind her ear. Max made a concerted effort not to look below her neck.
Lynn’s body was curvy in all the right places. He knew that for a fact. Once upon a time, it was all he could think about. And now here he was, in the same predicament. And he would never be able to tell her.
“You are not my keeper,” she reminded him.
“Someone needs to be.” He stooped to pick up the suitcase and stood up. “Please, Lynn.”
“One more week, Max. And then I’m gone. No matter what. You can’t watch me all the time.”
She followed him sedately to her room and saw him place her suitcase next to the dresser. He looked at her pleadingly, but she shook her head and sat on the bed. Max shut the door behind him.
Yes. He could watch her all the time. And he would.
* * * *
Lynn woke the next day and had the same thought as she’d had the previous forty-five days. She was scarred and alone. She screwed up the only relationship that ever meant anything to her. And now she was at the mercy of a man she didn’t want to be anywhere near—lovely way to begin a day.
She sat up and touched the side of her face. The puckered skin disgusted her. The long, ridged line still felt foreign on her skin—another sign of her blatant stupidity.
Lynn knew she did it to herself, that infamous temper in action. And now she didn’t even want to touch a car. The simple thought made her skin crawl. She was lucky she hadn’t harmed anybody but herself. Pity, she thought in disgust. I don’t need it anymore in my life.
Lynn swung her legs over the bed and sat upright. The dizziness made her bite her lip to focus herself. She refused to take the drugs they were giving her. It was too easy to simply sleep. She wanted to live. She needed to live.
Lynn dressed and walked out into the hallway. The smell of breakfast made her stomach growl. Max cooked breakfast every morning for her. Lynn walked down the stairs, her hands trailing over the beautiful oak banister. She used to dream of living in this house. Having roots here.
“I was about to wake you up.”
Max’s voice broke into her reverie. Lynn glanced up and tried to smile. He watched her struggle and tried to ease her pain. “I’ve made pancakes, eggs, and sausages. Help yourself. I’m going to be working in the home office today.”
“Convenient,” Lynn remarked.
“You think?” Max quirked an eyebrow. “I guess it is.”
Lynn laughed at his surprised tone. “I’ve known you for years, Max. You’re not that subtle.”
“Sometimes I am.” The words were cryptic. He turned and walked into his office.
She walked into the kitchen and filled a plate. She needed to clear up this mess with Max before she moved on. It was past time. He had to know the truth. Lynn had one foot in his office doorway when the front door opened.
She turned to see who it was, and the tray dropped from her nerveless fingers. It was Jerry and his new bride.
* * * *
Max ran out of his office and took Lynn’s hands in his.
“Are you all right? Was it a spasm?” He massaged her hands and looked into her eyes.
“How sweet,” Tammy drawled. “I told you we should have called first.”
Max’s head swiveled around, and he stared in disbelief at his brother and new sister-in-law. “Get in my office now,” he ordered. He practically shoved the pair inside and slammed the door shut.
Lynn stooped to clean up her mess, but Max held her away from it. “I’ve got it. Why don’t you go fix another plate? I think it’s about time I talk with Jerry.”
“Max, please. I’m fine. And I’m capable of cleaning this. I’ll pack my suitcase and be gone by noon.”
“If you leave this house before the week is up, Lynn, I’ll come and get you. Believe it.” He nodded to her once and disappeared into his office.
When did he become so damn bossy? Didn’t he realize this was no longer the Stone Age? She had free will. She could damn well do what she pleased. When she wanted to do it. And she would show him a thing or two. Lynn stiffened her shoulders and walked into the office with the rest of them.
Jerry looked up at Lynn when she entered the room.  He glanced away quickly, and she bit her lip. It was either that or tear into his hide. Tammy smiled at her and waved with her left hand. Her wedding ring sparkled in the light. She looked at it and then Lynn. Her smile widened.
Max slapped his hands down on his desk. He looked at Jerry and then Tammy. When he was sure he had their attention, he spoke. “You are no longer welcome in this house. I believe it would be in poor taste to have you here.”
He turned to his brother. “You have enough money to stay in a rented house until you buy one. You don’t need to be here.”
“I want to be here,” Tammy pouted. “It’s the family house. And I’m family. I’m your sister-in-law, Max,” she reminded him. “Half this house is mine and Jerry’s.”
“Wrong,” Max spat out. “You have no part of this house.”
“But Jerry said…” she trailed off.
“What? That you were entitled?” He sneered at the word. “You aren’t entitled to jack. The house is mine. It always has been. The condition was that the first of us to marry would inherit the house. I’ve already contacted a lawyer. Your vows,” he laughed, “don’t count.”
Tammy turned to Jerry and opened her mouth. He held up his hand, and she closed her mouth and crossed her arms over her stomach.
“Max,” Jerry began, “I think there’s a way to work this out. Tammy and I love this house. How about I make an offer, and we share it?”
Lynn bit back her laugh. She knew good and well Max wouldn’t budge. It was that look in his dark green eyes that should have warned the two off. But Jerry didn’t know when to shut up.
“Just because you’ve taken in company,” he glanced at Lynn, “that doesn’t mean you need to turn your family away.”
“Maybe she’s more than company.” Tammy arched an eyebrow. “What is it, honey? Couldn’t get one brother so you went after the other one?”
“I could say the same for you.” Lynn looked at Tammy coolly, not letting her see the pain. Her hands curved into claws, and she told herself to breathe. The insinuation burrowed into her mind and hooked deeply.
Max came around the side of the desk and put his arm around Lynn. His smile came easily but didn’t reach his eyes. “You can stay for two days. No more. And you can keep your comments to yourself.” He turned Lynn around and escorted her to the door. “Don’t even think about leaving,” he warned her. “I still have a week.”
Jerry and Tammy walked out of the office and started up the stairs, but Max’s voice stopped them. “You two will be in the guest house. Linens are in the closet. Be gone by Monday.”
Jerry scowled at his younger brother and glared at Lynn. His eyes seemed to search out her scar, and she tried her best not to shrink against Max’s side. Tammy smiled at them both and led Jerry outside to where they were staying.
Max looked over at Lynn. Her eyes were wide in her face. She looked stunned. “I need to leave.” Tammy’s words echoed in her head.
“If I have to sleep in the hallway against your door, you’re not leaving.” Max escorted her into the kitchen and loaded up a plate with breakfast.
Lynn watched his capable hands cradle the plate. He placed two of everything on her plate and handed it to her.  When she opened her mouth to protest, he put his finger against her lips. Her eyes widened, and she stepped back.  Her life was one complication after the next. The sooner this week ended, the better.
“Thank you.” She took a fork out of the drawer and walked into the living room. The morning was cool and crisp. Max had started a fire in the fireplace downstairs, and she sat on the couch in front of it. Lynn tried to eat, but Tammy’s words stole her appetite. What did that witch know?
“I’ll be in my office for the rest of the day. If Jerry or Tammy bothers you, let me know. I can cut their visit even shorter.”
“Why?” Max echoed.
“Why are you doing this?” Lynn stood up and looked into Max’s face. “Why would you choose me over them? Am I that pitiful?”
Max stood and towered over her. “You’re important to me, Lynn. I won’t have either one of them upsetting you even more than they already have.” He nodded to her and walked into his office.
And what was she to do with her time? Lynn glanced around and sighed. She shut her eyes as dizziness washed over her again. That doctor and his damn pills. She’d done nothing but sleep for the first month. And Max had been there. He had immediately moved her to his home and arranged to care for her. His guilt was palpable.
Just because his brother jilted her at the altar. It was almost humorous. All those times she’d told herself she could do it, only to find out she wouldn’t have to—and the look on Max’s face. Lynn’s breath caught in her throat.
That’s when she ran from the church. Her car was waiting for her. And she took it for a ride. Tears. Shame. All of her emotions spilled over, and she didn’t see the curve. And then pain. Blood.
When she woke, Jerry and Tammy were in Hawaii, having their honeymoon. Lynn didn’t leave her bed for another two weeks. All her mistakes added to her shame.
Her life was one big blunder after another. The headache started behind her right eye again, and she touched it gently. The headaches not only hurt, they scared her.
Lynn’s fingers brushed against her scar, and a single tear slid down her cheek. She wasn’t vain. The scar in itself didn’t bother her. Her knees were scarred up from childhood mishaps. She had a scar on her right forearm from falling through a screen. No. The scar was a reminder of her stupidity. When would she learn?
And now Tammy and Jerry were back from their honeymoon, and Tammy was acting like the proverbial cat with the canary. She would stop at nothing to embarrass Lynn and finish what she started.
Lynn plucked a book down from the bookcase and wrapped herself in a blanket on the couch. She could hear Max talking to someone on the phone, and she smiled sadly.
One week. She would have to leave. She’d already done enough damage.
* * * *
Max finished up his phone call and walked out of his office. He shut and locked the door behind him. He didn’t trust Jerry or his new bride. One glitch in the plan, and he would never have another chance.
He walked into the living room and looked down at Lynn. She was sleeping with a book tucked up to her chest.  The firelight played over her features. Max smoothed her hair behind her ear and let his fingers trail through it.
“How sweet.” The saccharine words hissed behind him. Tammy stood in the kitchen, watching him.
“What do you want?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Just my due. I couldn’t get it from you. But believe me when I say I’ll get it from Jerry. Too bad the princess here had to get in the way. She had such a pretty face.”
Max’s jaw clenched, and he fought for control. “Get out. You may have Jerry fooled now, but he’ll see through you soon enough.”
“You think?” she purred. “Somehow I doubt it. All of Jerry’s thoughts are centered below the belt. And I can take care of that.” She sidled closer to him and pressed her body to his. “You know I can.” Tammy puckered her lips. “Did you miss me?”
“No,” he said. “Honestly I didn’t.”
“Pity.” She pouted up at him. Her tongue snaked out and licked his jaw. “I could always come back in after Jerry goes to sleep.”
“Get the hell out of this house. Now.” His voice shook with barely concealed anger. “I don’t want to see you in here again. Send your husband for whatever else you need.”
Tammy looked down at Lynn and up at Max. “She made her decision, big boy. And it wasn’t you.” With that parting shot, she sauntered out the front door.
* * * *
Lynn blinked in the darkness and waited for her eyes to adjust. She was in bed. Her arm reached out and touched the sheets to make sure. Was she losing her sense of time now?
“Don’t worry. I brought you in here.”
She gasped and sat up in bed, then reached for the lamp and clicked it on. Max was sitting in a rocker by the far wall. He watched her move her head so that her scar was covered. It angered him more than he could say.
“I’m sorry to be such an inconvenience,” she said stiffly.
“No, you’re not,” he corrected her. “You’re reveling in it. It’s your protection. Your shield. You’re on that side, and we’re all over here.”
“No.” Max stood up and walked over to the bed. He sat on the edge and moved closer to her.
Lynn felt her eyes widen as she realized his intent. And then his mouth closed over hers.
He was so warm. His lips moved against hers, and she sighed and moved closer. Why couldn’t it always be like this? Where was her happy ending? And why did she always choose the wrong one?
Max brought his hands up to thread through her hair and moved her closer to him. When Lynn opened her mouth to his tongue, he dipped inside, tasting her soft mouth.
Lynn lost track of time as Max’s mouth claimed every part of hers. He gently stroked her tongue with his and brought pleasure to each area he touched. When Max’s hand brushed against the scar on her face, she jerked back.
“Leave.” Her voice trembled, and she cursed her own weakness.
“Lynn,” he began.
“I won’t be a substitute for Tammy.” She looked him in the eye. “I know you’re hurting.”
“Don’t,” he said harshly. Max stood up from the bed in one swift motion. “Just don’t.” He walked out her door and shut it behind him with a slam.
Lynn turned off the light and lay back down. She should have left a couple of days ago, before Tammy arrived. She would never forget seeing Tammy in Max’s house. The image tore through her with sharp claws. Lynn wanted so badly to tell Max months ago how she felt, but when she arrived at his house, Tammy answered the door in Max’s robe. And smiling that smile she seemed to have perfected.
Lynn left quickly. And then she fell into Jerry’s arms.
He was right there to tell her how pretty she was and how much he loved spending time with her—until Tammy.
Jerry proposed to her within two months of their meeting, and Lynn accepted. Max would smile at her politely, not at all like the times they had before he met Tammy. Lynn thought he cared for her, but she had been mistaken. She’d known Max for two years, and not once did she see him date anyone. And when she had decided to make a move to pursue the relationship, she was stopped dead in her tracks.
And the wedding—the almost wedding: Lynn was having second thoughts long before her wedding day, but she convinced herself to wed Jerry. And then everything fell apart. The look on Max’s face when he brought her the note from Jerry said it all. His girlfriend ran off with his brother.
Max started to say something, but Lynn ran—away from her shame, away from her life, away from everything, and into the abyss of her life now. He was obviously still attracted to Tammy. It must hurt him to be so close to Tammy and not be with her. But Lynn wouldn’t be a substitute. Not even for Max.
She fluffed her pillow and lay in the darkness. Less than a week and she would move on with her life. Without Max or any part of his family.
* * * *
Lynn dressed and walked downstairs into the kitchen. Bacon, eggs, and toast were piled on the table. It was supposed to smell wonderful, but she wondered if she could keep any of it down. Max was sitting at the table, brooding over his coffee cup. He looked up at Lynn as she entered.
“Morning,” she replied. Lynn took a plate and put some eggs, two pieces of bacon, and a piece of toast on her plate. She sat down stiffly and tried not to wince at the pain in her head. Her headache was back in full force.
“You don’t have to be so damn polite all the time.”
“Pardon me?”
His green eyes bored into hers. “I said you don’t have to be so damn polite all the time. Your head hurts. I can see it in your eyes. But here you sit, at the breakfast table, enduring my company.”
“Please, Max. I don’t want to fight.”
“I know.” He stood up and pushed his chair into the table. “And it’s a pity.” He nodded once and left the kitchen.
“Cryptic men,” she muttered. Lynn bit into a piece of bacon and chewed it slowly. Would she ever understand them? Probably not—no instruction manuals, no guides, nada—it was ridiculous. If she was so easy to read, why wasn’t he?
Lynn was finishing her breakfast as Jerry came in. He avoided her eyes but moved to make a plate for himself.
“Don’t I rate a ‘good morning’?” she asked.
Jerry’s head came up, and he nodded. “Good morning, Lynn. How are you?” His eyes lingered over the side of her face her hair was hiding.
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “I was simply wondering why you decided not to marry me and take off with Tammy instead. Any answers?”
He sat down across from her. “Tammy and I are more compatible.”
“You mean she’ll screw your brains out whether you’re married or not. I thought I explained that.”
“It’s not about sex, Lynn. Though Tammy is more than willing to do whatever I ask.”
The thought of Tammy’s body next to Max’s had her clenching her already tense jaws. “I bet.” She bit the words out.
“I’m sorry you were hurt, Lynn.” Again, he gave a quick glance at her face. “But I’m happy now.”
“And Max?”
“What about him?”
“Never mind.” Lynn stood up and walked over to the sink. She put her plate in it and turned around. “Enjoy your marriage.” She strode out of the kitchen and walked outside.
The fall leaves littered the front yard, and Lynn walked through them, enjoying the crunch under her feet. The cool air soothed her head, and she blew out a breath. She didn’t want the medications the doctor prescribed. If she kept taking them, she’d be in this house for another six months.
She wandered down the path that wound around the house and into the pasture. Max owned one hundred and twenty acres of farmland. He was slowly implementing plans for cattle and other livestock. It had been his dream since he was in his early twenties. When his parents passed away a couple of years ago, Lynn met him at the lawyer’s office. They began talking. She had recently lost her last parent.
Max had been sad, but he wasn’t the bitter man she saw this morning over breakfast. Did he want her to fight for Jerry? What kind of nonsense was that? She didn’t want him. As soon as she came back to consciousness, she knew that. Her accident lifted several veils off of her eyes. Jerry wasn’t the man for her. She was simply sorry that Max had to be hurt in order for her to see it.
“Shouldn’t you be resting your head or something?”
Lynn’s head snapped around, and she sighed when she saw Tammy. “I’m fine, thank you.”
Tammy was wearing tight, blue jeans and a turquoise sweater that fit like a second skin. She sauntered closer to Lynn and grinned. “I’m so happy you’ve recovered. It’s a pity about the accident.” Her eyes searched out the hidden part of Lynn’s face. “I heard you had quite the scar.”
She looked at Lynn with glee. “Is it hard? Knowing I’ve had both of them, and you’ve had neither?”
Lynn looked the woman in the eye. “It’s hard to stomach your presence. Period.”
Tammy’s face twisted into hatred. “Ah. I see the gloves do come off. How interesting.” She walked beside Lynn down the path. “I was wondering if you had a backbone.”
They rounded the curve and kept walking.
“I don’t really want any company, Tammy.”
The path became denser, and they ducked to avoid low branches. Lynn sighed. “This is ludicrous. I don’t like you. You don’t like me. Go back to the guesthouse. Visit your husband. Whatever you want. But leave me alone.”
“Maybe I want to be friends.”
Lynn snorted and looked at the other woman. She stopped in her tracks and shook her head. “Do you honestly think I’m that stupid?”
Tammy cocked her head to the side. “Yes?” She took one step towards Lynn, and Lynn felt her feet slide in the soft dirt. Her arms pin-wheeled as she fell backwards.
Tammy watched as she fell and slid down into the ditch.
Lynn landed with a thump and blinked repeatedly. Her head was aching terribly. She tried to call out, but her shout came out as a whimper. The dirt fell around her, and Lynn tried to pull herself up. Her fingers clawed the dirt, but she was too late. The dizziness overcame her, and she slumped back into the trench.
* * * *
Lynn woke and shivered in the darkness. Her body was bruised from head to toe. She tried to sit up, but it made the pounding in her head worse. Tammy. That witch left her here. Where was Max? Jerry? Hell, anyone. She huddled tighter into the dirt and tried to listen for footsteps of any kind.
The moon was only a sliver. It filtered through the trees and barely made a dent in the night. The leaves rustled underneath her as she shifted to try and make herself comfortable. Someone would come for her, wouldn’t they?
* * * *
Lynn watched the sun peek through the canopy of leaves above her. Her throat was parched, and she tried to speak just to make sure she could. The pathway was far above her. She squinted in the light and tried to move herself again. The dizziness made her vision blur, but she bit her lip and edged herself against the soft ground. She slid her body fully against the dirt and tried to get her legs underneath her.
The pain was excruciating, but Lynn would be damned if she’d allow herself to fall back into being a victim. That part of her life was over. And when she finally laid her hands on Tammy, that woman better have exceptional medical care.
She wriggled slowly up the slope, pausing now and then to catch her breath. She clawed her way, inch by inch, almost to the top of the pathway. Her breath was coming in great gasps, and she prayed she wouldn’t lose consciousness as another wave of dizziness washed over her. Lynn only closed her eyes for a second, but that was enough.
She could hear someone call her name as her hands loosened their grasp, and she began the descent down the slope again.
* * * *
Lynn blinked slowly and opened her mouth to ask where she was, when she saw Max out of the corner of her eye. He was sitting in the rocker in her room, watching her. As soon as he saw she was awake, he perched on the edge of her bed and spoke.
“You need to leave.”
“What?” she asked in disbelief.
“You’re right. You were all along. I’m sorry I didn’t listen.” He wouldn’t meet her eyes.
She threw up her hands. “Oh, that’s great! Now you want to boot me out. And they say women don’t know their minds.” Lynn plopped back against her pillows and moaned softly as pain shot through her temple.
Max stood abruptly and looked down at her. “That’s what I’m talking about. You don’t need to hurt yourself.”
“Hurt myself?” she echoed. “What in the hell are you talking about?”
“Tammy told me what you said before she left.”
Lynn thought back over their conversations and knew it wasn’t going to be good, whatever it was. She took a deep breath to steady herself and asked, “What exactly did your sister-in-law have to say?”
“She explained to me how you felt. She said you two had talked before about your feelings for Jerry.” He turned his back to her. “I realize now that I can’t keep you here against your will. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“So I’m going to harm myself...over Jerry. That’s what you’re saying?”
“Yes.” His voice was harsh.
“Now let me tell you something, Max Branton. I don’t love Jerry. I never did.” Max turned to watch her speak. “I don’t give a tinker’s damn about him or her. Well, actually, since she let me fall into that damn ditch, I’d like to wring her neck. But I’ll be okay with never seeing her again.”
His mouth dropped open. “What?” he yelled.
“Your girlfriend. She let me stay in that ditch and didn’t go for help. She would have probably let me rot there.”
“I don’t understand. She told me you ran off.”
Lynn’s voice was edged with disgust. “Of course she did. Then she could have the both of you again. How nice for her.”
“What?” His yell was even louder than the first. “What are you talking about?”
“Does density run in your family or what?”
“Before you insult me again, could you please explain what you’re talking about? I’ve never had anything to do with Tammy.” His jaw clenched and unclenched. Lynn watched it in fascination.
“I don’t know why you’re so mad.” She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at him stubbornly.
“Lynn,” he warned her, “either you explain what you’re talking about, or so help me…” he let the sentence trail off.
“What?” she asked sweetly. “Are you going to let me fall in a ditch, too?”
“Enough!” he shouted. Max clenched his fist and hit the doorjamb. “Tammy is not my girlfriend. She told me you informed her you were going to run away. You said I was overbearing and pushy. You couldn’t wait to leave here.”
“Did it ever occur to you she was lying?”
“Why would she lie?” Understanding slowly dawned in his eyes.
“Yes,” Lynn said bitterly. “Tell me why that pathetic excuse for a human being would lie about this whole situation. Please. What could she possibly gain? Oh, that’s right,” she snapped her fingers, “Jerry, you, and this house. Where is she?”
“They left last night. She was in a hurry. Said she felt guilty for you leaving.”
“I bet,” Lynn muttered.
Max looked down at Lynn and sighed. “She also told me several other things. I assume those are lies, too.”
“I can’t wait to hear this.” She sat up straighter in bed and motioned for Max to continue. “Please. Don’t leave me hanging.”
“We don’t have to go into this right now. You’ve been through a lot the last couple of months. We can do this later.”
“Like hell.”
“Why are you so stubborn with some things and not others? It drives me crazy!”
Lynn cocked her head to the side and grinned. “Spill it, Max.”
“She said you cared about me.”
The words hit Lynn hard, and she felt all the color leave her face. She knew she should have simply shut up and let it go. But no, not her, she couldn’t lie to Max. Maybe she could worm her way out of the truth.
“Oh, did she?”
“Yes.” Max’s eyes met hers. “I thought it was rather odd for her to tell me that.”
“Why?” Lynn asked.
“You’ve always seen me as more like a brother. Someone to talk with.” His eyes searched hers before she shifted them away.
“You’re pleasant to talk to.”
“So is a damned stuffed animal. Help me, Lynn. Tell me what’s going on.”
She moved around in the bed, buying time. What did she have to lose? Lynn sighed once before she spoke. “I might have become a little more attached to you. But that ended when I came here to talk to you, and Tammy opened the door in your bathrobe.”
“Hell,” he muttered.
“Quite,” she agreed. “So I left. And then Jerry began paying attention to me. And you had Tammy.”
“I never had Tammy in any sense of the word. One of my friends dumped her on me at the club. She was drunk. I drew the short straw.”
“But she said…” Lynn trailed off in absolute horror. “Damn it. I really do loathe her.”
Max walked over and sat on the bed by her side. “Talk to me, Lynn. What else haven’t you told me?”
The weight of the past two months crushed down on her. “I’m tired, Max…all the time…and dizzy. And I keep making the same damn wrong choices. I think I’m cursed.”
He chuckled softly and moved to hold her hand. His fingers stroked delicately over her palm. She shivered as the heat moved through her. Her eyes widened when he moved forward. Lynn put her other hand out and held him back.
“Didn’t you hear me explain that I’m cursed?”
“Lynn.” His voice was husky. “I don’t give a damn.”
“Max,” she pleaded. Lynn moved her hand and pushed her hair back off of the right side of her face. “This is me. I’m scarred. I’m not talking only about physically. I don’t know what I’m doing!” She threw up her hands and felt the tears slide silently down her face.
“Don’t cry.” Max wiped the tears with his thumbs and leaned forward to kiss her forehead.
“Did it ever occur to you that I’m seriously damaged? My head aches continually. I could have brain damage. I might keel over at any given moment. You don’t know.”
“Yes,” he corrected her, “I do. Why do you think I pushed for you staying here so often?”
“You’re inherently bossy?”
Max chuckled. “That, too. But no, doctor’s orders, I assured him you’d rest and take your medicine.”
“It makes me sleep non-stop.” She scowled in disgust.
“It’s supposed to! Woman, you’re driving me stupid.” He shook his head. “The medicine is for your headaches. You take the recommended dosage, and then you can slowly wean yourself off of it.”
“I’m not going to have an aneurysm or something?”
“You’ve been thinking you’re dying?” he asked in disbelief.
“Maybe.” She avoided his eyes. It felt like a giant weight had been lifted from her. She peeked up at him and sighed in relief when he didn’t look too agitated.
“Your body will heal,” he promised her. “I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you sooner. I was being selfish.”
“Selfish?” she echoed.
“I want you here, Lynn.”
“Why?” Her question was blunt.
“Because I want you in my life. I need you here. When I thought Jerry was going to marry you, I was dying.”
“Why in the hell didn’t you say anything?” she demanded.
“You quit talking to me. And Tammy was there to assure me you picked the brother you wanted for your husband.”
“Did I already say that I hated her immensely?”
“Yes.” He grinned at her. His grin soon replaced by desire.
Max’s thumb traced the soft curves of her mouth, and Lynn closed her eyes and savored his touch. His thumb was replaced by his mouth. Lynn eagerly welcomed him. He finally drew back, breathing heavily. She moaned a little as he sat up straighter and looked at her. Her cheeks were flushed from his kisses, and he smiled satisfactorily.
“You’re staying.” Max’s eyes blazed. “When I look at you, I see the woman who holds my heart in her hands. And this,” he traced her scar with his hand, “is part of you. And I won’t take anything less.”
His words burned brightly in her heart. Max wanted her—all of her. Lynn looked over at him and smiled contentedly. She was home. Her place was with Max. And nothing would push them apart again. Lynn opened her arms, and he moved into them. He held himself back so that he wouldn’t flatten her, but she pulled him tighter to her until there were no seams. And for that, she was grateful.

© Crystal Inman 2017

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