Home > If You Leave (Beautifully Broken #2)(11)

If You Leave (Beautifully Broken #2)(11)
Author: Courtney Cole

Our grandparents have owned a cottage here in Angel Bay since before I was born. We stayed here with them every summer when we were kids, but then our grandfather died and our gran hasn’t been the same. Jacey still spends summers here to keep Gran company, but for at least the past year, Gran has been in Florida most of the time anyway.

Jacey cringes. “You won’t believe this but I don’t know when she’ll be back. I think she met someone in her retirement village.” She watches my face and nods. “I know. I don’t like to think about it either. But you know, Grandpa’s been gone for years now. I suppose she’s lonely.”

“Oh, God,” Brand mutters, swigging his beer. “Geriatric sex. I’m out. Where’s the bathroom?”

Jacey points him in the right direction and then she drops into his vacant seat. I stare at her, waiting for her to give me an explanation. After a couple of minutes of silence, I just flat out ask.

“Why didn’t you tell me about that guy?” I ask her, serious now. “You should have.”

She drops her eyes and stares at the empty beer bottle that Brand left behind.

“Because I can handle it on my own,” she tells me with a sigh. “I don’t need to have my big brother swoop in and save me.”

I sigh too. “I know you don’t,” I reply. “But maybe your big brother wants to swoop in and save you. It’s sort of what I do.”

She laughs at that. “Oh, great. So you retire from the army and I’m going to have to let you save me all the time so that you get your hero fix?”

“Something like that,” I answer absently. In my head I’m thinking about my schedule. “I think I can stay here for a while,” I tell her. “Brand and I have to pitch our new body armor to the Pentagon in a couple of months, but until then I’m free.”

“Unless I find another investor in the meantime,” Brand interjects as he grabs another chair and comes back to the table. “But even then, you can get to the meeting just as easily from here as you could from your condo.”

I nod and Jacey stares at us.

“I don’t understand your new business,” she admits. “You’re selling body armor to the government, right? Why don’t they make their own body armor?”

“They do,” Brand explains. “But it’s not good enough because the good stuff has always been too expensive. Gabe and I want to design better armor that the government can buy for every soldier. If we can do it, and if we can get the army to buy it, then no one will ever have to go through what we went through.”

Jacey grumbles, “And I have no idea what you went through because you won’t tell me.”

Brand and I both are silent and Jacey sighs. “I know, I know. You’ll talk to me about it when you’re ready.”

“It’s not you, Jacey. It’s just not something we like to talk about to anyone,” Brand offers. “Think about the most horrible thing you could possibly think of. The bloodiest, scariest thing… your worst nightmare. Then picture it happening to you… picture it becoming your reality, a nightmare that you can’t wake up from. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to talk about it either.”

Jacey looks stricken and she puts a hand on my arm as she stares at us both.

“Fine. I get it. But seriously, if either one of you ever want to talk about it, I’m here. And I have two ears to listen with.”

I pat her hand. “Thanks, Jace. But back to the matter at hand. I’m going to stay with you for a while. No arguments.”

Jacey groans, but finally nods. “Fine. I guess it would be nice to have you around anyway. I miss you. And you know, Gran’s been after you to come and bug-bomb her basement for spiders ever since you got home. This will give you an opportunity.”

She grins and it’s my turn to groan. “Crap. I forgot. I don’t know much about bug-bombing, but between Brand and me, we’ll figure it out.”

Brand yelps. “How the hell did I figure into this? The only thing I know about spiders is that I stay away from them.”

“I’ll pay you in beer,” I offer.

“Done,” he quickly agrees.

I turn back to Jacey. “Now, about this Jared guy. What’s he like? I want to get a handle on him.”

Jacey thinks on that. “Well, he isn’t the most stable person. I should’ve listened to Maddy. She tried to tell me what he did with Mila. But when I asked him about it, he said he’d been drunk and wasn’t himself and I believed him. The problem is, he’s drunk all the time and so he gets ugly. But if you’re at the house, I bet he’ll leave me alone. No one in their right mind, drunk or not, would mess with you. Your bicep is as big as my thigh.”

I picture Mila, the sister who introduced herself to me earlier. The sweet, charming sister who clearly wouldn’t hurt a fly. If that a**hole would f**k with a chick like that, he wouldn’t hesitate to f**k with my feisty sister.

“You have to take unbalanced little f**ks like him seriously, Jace. And somehow, I doubt your little boy toy is intimidating enough to help much. But I’ll be here now and hopefully Jared will just stay away and the problem will be taken care of.”

“OK,” Jacey sighs. “But don’t rag on Peter. He’s in a band. He doesn’t need to be intimidating. He’s a creative.”

I roll my eyes and she grins.

“I’d better get my side work done so that Maddy doesn’t freak out. She pretty much stays until the last person is ready to go. When will you be at the cottage?”

“I’ll drive home and pack a bag and then be back tonight. It might be late, but I’ll be here.”

“ ’K.” She drops a kiss on my forehead as she walks past. “You’re the best big brother I have. Thank you for my birthday watch. It’s gorgeous.” She stares at her wrist, at the glittering gold watch I brought her.

“I’m the only big brother you have,” I answer. “And you’re welcome.”

She starts to walk away, then stops, glancing back at me. “Hey, Ethan Eldridge is asking Maddy out. You’d better get over there and take care of that.”

My head snaps up, only for me to find Madison talking to the candy-ass she was with earlier. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but Jacey can.

“You missed out.” She shakes her head. “She just said yes.”

Why does that annoy me so much? Maddy looks up and catches my gaze, her cheeks flushing. Why do I bother her so much? What the hell did I do last night?

“I don’t own her, Jace,” I finally answer. “She can date whoever she wants.”

“But I want her to date you,” Jacey says. “You don’t even know how perfect you are for each other.” I just roll my eyes and turn back to Brand.

We watch Jacey walk off and then Brand looks at me.

“You’re going to f**k him up, right?”

I know he’s not talking about the candy-ass who just asked Madison out. He’s talking about the little a**hole giving my sister a hard time. I stare at Brand levelly over the rim of my beer bottle.

“Yep. If he comes anywhere near her.”

Brand nods in satisfaction. “Fucking prick. Jacey’s gotta stop dating those losers.”

“I know,” I agree. “She’s got to stop dating so many guys, period. She needs to be more discriminating. Jesus.”

Brand looks at me, his expression suddenly serious.

“You know, it might help you to be here. It’s a good place for you to try and get back on your feet, to get healthy again, you know?”

A knot forms in my throat and I ignore it. I nod wordlessly as I stare out the window. I don’t like talking about this shit, not even with Brand.

“I know what it’s like,” he reminds me. “Everyone’s got demons. You and I just happen to share ours. And dude, it’s not your fault. And it’s not my fault. We got served a shit sandwich that night. You’ve got to stop blaming yourself for it. Mad Dog wouldn’t want that.”

“Mad Dog can’t want anything,” I tell him grimly. “He’s dead. And if I hadn’t been distracted…”

“No,” Brand interrupts. “No. Just stop right there. There’s no way we could’ve known what was going on. Not you, and not me either. You’ve got to deal with this and move on, Gabe. Trust me, I know.”

I stare at him for a minute before I finally nod. He’s got a point. It really might help me to be here. And he does know what he’s talking about. When we first came back from overseas, Brand signed up for extensive PTSD therapy, while I opted out. For one thing, I think therapy’s a bunch of bullshit. For another, they can’t fix me like they fixed Brand. What happened wasn’t his fault. It was mine.

“Fine,” I agree. “I’ll try to deal with this. How’s your foot?”

That night… the night that we both would like to forget, has left lasting scars on the both of us in different ways. The explosion that blew apart our Humvee broke every bone in Brand’s left leg and foot, basically crushing it. The doctors had to reconstruct the entire thing and now it’s more steel and screws than it is bone. Brand still walks with a barely discernible limp.

“It’s getting better,” he answers. “Still hurts like a bitch, but you know what they say. Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”

“You’re a crazy summabitch,” I tell him. “You know that, right?”

“Uh-uh,” he answers, shaking his head. “I passed the psych test with flying colors when we discharged. I’m certifiably sane. True story.”

I roll my eyes. “Nope. You just know how to act that way. True story.”

Brand laughs and throws a twenty on the table as a tip for Jacey.

“Isn’t that a bit much?” I raise an eyebrow. He shrugs.

“It’s her birthday. And she’s always broke. That girl seriously can’t manage her money. She needs to get her ass back in school so that she can get a job where she makes more of it.”

I shake my head at the mere thought of my sister’s fickle career plans.

“If she made more money, she’d probably just spend that too. She’s changed her mind a thousand times. But she’d better figure it out soon. She can’t wait tables forever.”

Regardless of my harsh words, I toss a tip down too. She does need the money.

Brand hesitates before he walks away. “I mean it. Take some time off.”

Jacey’s nowhere to be seen, so I shoot her a text, telling her that I’ll see her later tonight. I take a step for the door, and then get an idea.

Taking the extra receipt lying on the table, I scribble a note and then my cell number before I fold it over and walk it to the burly guy tending bar.

“Could you give this to Madison?” I ask him. He stares at me curiously, but holds his hand out for the note.

“Sure,” he answers, questioning me with his eyes.

“Thanks,” I reply, handing it to him, not offering him an answer.

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