"Zane, that's not--"
He cut in over me. "But since you're so intent on leaving, I'll let you leave, no more weirdness."
"Really?" I quirked an eyebrow back at him. "Just like that?"
He shrugged. "Just like that."
Temptation, you're a nasty bitch.
But, I'm a strong woman, and I've faced temptation before. Been burned by it, too, so...yeah. I walked away.
"Nice to have met you, Zane Badd."
"Same here, Mara."
I walked, my head throbbing and my stomach churning with a raging hangover, following the docks, the water on my left, unsure of where I was going, because I still couldn't remember why I'd come to Ketchikan in the first damn place. It was hard to make my exit look purposeful when I had no idea where I going, but I gave it my best, dammit.
A block, two blocks, three...I kept expecting him to appear behind me with that sexy, gruff voice of his, but he never did. He actually let me just walk away.
It wasn't until I was walking past a docked cruise ship that I remembered why I was here: my best friend Claire was on a cruise that was docking here tomorrow morning--this morning, now, I suppose--and I'd come to Ketchikan to surprise her. Claire had recently taken a job in Seattle, leaving me behind in San Francisco. The bitch, she'd broken up the Gruesome Twosome. I hadn't seen Claire in person in something like six months, although we spoke on the phone, texted, and emailed each other constantly. But digital communication just isn't...the same.
Claire and I had been nurses together in the Army, assigned to the same unit right out of Basic. Our efficiency together as a team had earned us the nickname Gruesome Twosome, and we'd just kept using it. It was funny, too. Or well, ironic maybe, because we were both these short, good-looking blonde chicks, so the nickname seemed somewhat misplaced, unless you'd seen us in action, up to the elbows in gore.
Then, when we both took our papers at the same time, it just made sense for us to live together. And we had for several years. She'd found work in the tech industry doing something fancy with computers, because even though she was an experienced nurse she had no desire to keep doing it once she got out of the Army. I worked in the tech industry, too, although my job was in an HR department rather then working with the actual machines.
We had each other, we had our awesome apartment in the heart of downtown San Fran, we had our favorite bars...it was great.
And then Claire got the offer of a lifetime, doing what she'd been doing only getting paid double...in Seattle. Of course she had to take it, and I as her best friend had to support and encourage her decision to go to Seattle. Didn't mean I had to like it, though.
My new roommate, who had taken over Claire's bedroom,...sucked. Loud, annoying, she watched the stupidest shit on TV and she didn't even like The Walking Dead, for fuck's sake--and to top it off she was a shitty wing girl at the bar. She brought home annoying guys, too: grunty, weird, the kind who'd walk around naked making dicks jokes while I was getting ready for work. She ate my food and didn't replace it, left her garbage everywhere, and made these stupid, obnoxious, yelping noises during sex. She sounded like a damn zebra.
So, when Claire forwarded her cruise itinerary--rubbing in my face that she could afford a cruise--I'd decided it was high time I got some girl time with my bestie. I used my vacation days, packed some shit, and booked a flight to Ketchikan. I had a room at a B&B, and I'd checked in and left my stuff there last night before deciding to explore the city on foot.
Those explorations had led me to an awesome outdoor party, a wedding reception open to the public and put on by a local bar owner...which had led to a few drinks while people watching...which had led to someone shouting medic. It's ingrained, at this point. Once a combat medic, always a combat medic. You hear that word...your training kicks in and you just go where you're needed.
I'd found myself face to face with a mesmerizing pair of deep mahogany eyes, framed in the sexiest, handsomest face I'd ever seen. Which had turned out to be connected to the most amazing body I'd ever seen, and the most amazing cock I'd ever seen, which had led to the most amazing sex I'd ever had...
And walked away from.
It was for the best, though, I told myself when I finally I reached my B&B. He was clingy, following me out onto the street, practically begging me to come back for more sex.
I didn't do clingy.
I hosed off in the shower when I got to my room and passed out, still naked and wet, on the bed, telling myself not to have any dirty dreams about Zane Badd.
You can guess how well that worked.
I closed and locked the door to the bar behind me and stomped upstairs, resisting the temptation to grab a bottle of Jack on the way up; four in the morning was probably too early to start drinking.
Xavier was at the stove scrambling some eggs. "Got shot down, huh?"
"No, I didn't get shot down, dipshit," I snarled. "She just...had to go."
Xavier nodded, pushing the eggs around the pan. "Sucks."
"Yeah, well, what are you gonna do?" I sniffed. "Got any for me?"
Xavier ignored my question, but ended up answering it by divvying up the eggs onto two plates, with toast and bacon on the side. I poured us coffee and we sat down to eat.
After a few minutes of silence, Xavier glanced at me. "She was hot."
I nodded. "Insanely hot."
"Sounded like the sex was good, too."
I frowned at him. "You're a virgin, Xavier--how would you know?"
He smirked at me. "Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but three hours of screaming seems to indicate quality sexual relations."
I snorted at him. "'Quality sexual relations' he says. Fuckin' dork." I chomped on a piece of bacon, and then sighed as I chewed. "But yes, it was the best sex I've ever had."
"And you let her go?" he asked, his voice disapproving. "Have you learned nothing from our dear eldest brother?"
"It's not that simple," I said. "I wish it were."
"So...you got shot down."
I threw my fork at him, nailing him the chest, spattering eggs all over him. "Yes, goddammit," I snapped. "I got shot down."
Not much fazed Xavier except being touched, so he just picked up my fork from where it had fallen on his lap, and handed it back to me, brushing the egg off his chest. "You seem vexed."
I gaped at him. "You're a regular Sherlock, ain't ya, kid? What gave it away?"
"Throwing the fork was a pretty obvious signifier," he started, and then stopped, eying me warily. "Oh. You were being sarcastic."
"Yes, I was being sarcastic." I resumed eating, but angrily this time.
"I don't understand," Xavier said, after a while. "You've had a lot of sex, with a lot of different women, and rarely the same one twice. What makes her so different? And why are you so upset?"
"That's part of what has me wigging out," I answered. "I don't know. I mean, yeah, Mara was fuckin' gorgeous, man. Those tits? That ass? The way she moved, the sounds she made? She was tight, but she knew what she was doing, and knew what she liked...and then there was just...fuck, I don't know. Something about the way we were together that was just...different. Something about...her, I guess."
"So why don't you try to convince her to go out with you, then? Like, try to...I don't know what you'd call it. Get to know her, or something."
"You make it sound so simple, but that's not how...it's not--I don't..." I trailed off, hunting for an explanation. "That's called starting a relationship, and I just don't know how that shit works. Besides, I don't do relationships."
"You have relationships with all of us," Xavier responded, head tilted to one side.
I laughed. "That's you guys. You're my brothers."
"Is it really so different?"
I laughed all the harder. "Spoken like someone with less of a clue about women than me. Yes, Xavier, it is exactly that different. You guys are my brothers, my family. I've known
you my whole life. Plus, you're dudes. Women are...different. They're tricky. Complicated."
Xavier chewed on that for a while as he finished eating. When he was done, he cleared our plates and poured us more coffee, then sat down again, having come to some kind of conclusion.
He eyed me over the rim of his mug. "You're chicken."
I choked on my coffee. "Excuse me?"
"I said...you're chicken."
I stood up slowly. "You do realize I can, and will, break every bone in your body, right?"
"You might punch me a few times, but you wouldn't break my bones," he answered smoothly, ever the logical one.
I sat back down. "Yeah, well, you ever been punched?"
He traced a fingertip around the rim. "Yes. Quite frequently, once upon a time."
I frowned. "You have? When?"
"High school. I got picked on a lot. I was beat up like once a week, minimum."
I set my mug down. "You're shitting me."
He stared at me, genuinely baffled. "Why would I jest with you about this?"
"I never knew."
He snorted. "Well, duh, of course you didn't. You were gone."
"Yeah, but the others--"
He kept going as if I hadn't spoken. "By the time I got to high school, you, Bax, and Brock were all gone, the twins had graduated already and were playing gigs, which only left Lucian, and he dropped out to get his GED and work on the boat. And Sebastian? He had his hands full keeping the bar afloat. Dad's death came as a shock to all of you because you were gone, but I'd seen it coming. He was...sick. He'd been sick for a long time, he just...finally couldn't take it any longer. He'd been pretty much absent for like...two or three years by the time he died. Like, he was around, physically, but he wasn't...there. So Bast had to step up, work the bar, make sure I got to school, all that. Who was going to do anything about the bullies at school?" Xavier shrugged like it was irrelevant. "The school wasn't going to stop it. I've never really had any friends, and all my brothers were gone or busy, and my father was a mental case."
"Shit, Xavier, you make it sound like you were completely alone."
He blinked at me for a long time. "I was."
"Goddamn, kid. I had no idea." I let out a breath. "And you were bullied at school?"
He nodded. "Badly, yes. They'd punch me in the hallways, fill my locker with dog shit, steal my books, and beat me up on the way home. It was rough. But...I graduated, and got the scholarship to Stanford. None of those assholes even went to college. They're all still here working on fishing boats and fixing cars. It's all they've ever done and all they will ever do."
"Why do you think they bullied you?"
It was his turn to laugh at me. "Spoken like someone with no clue what it's like to be bullied." He took a hit of his coffee. "They bullied me because I was younger than all of my classmates by two years, at least. I was so much more intelligent than all of them that I might as well have been an alien."
"And people fear and hate what they don't understand."
"Shit, kid, I'm sorry that happened to you. I'm sorry none of us were here to protect you."
"You couldn't have even if you'd been here," he said. "But I made it through. I survived, and that's what matters. I'm stronger for it now."
"Back to your original statement, though. You mentioned something about a chicken?"
He nodded. "Yeah, you."
"You better explain."
"You're attracted to this girl at the very least, yes?"
"Yeah," I said, hesitant.
"And she seems to share that base level attraction, yes?"
I nodded. "Right."
"But having examined the subtext of what you've said versus what you've implied, combined with your conflicted body language, I would hazard a guess that you feel a lot more than just a base level physical attraction for this woman. You are unfamiliar with what it feels like to deal with an emotional connection, however, because--and I'm only guessing here, but I would lay a wager that I'm correct--you have learned to shut down your...emotional synapses, so to speak. Your capacity to deal with emotions has atrophied. You deal in the physical. You are strong, fast, powerful, athletic, vigorous, and virile. The physical world is easy for you, it's where you dominate--not to suggest a lack of intelligence, mind you, but your primary prowess is as a warrior. And combat, from what I've read, forces one to inure him or herself to the rigors and traumas of war. Emotions are an unwelcome liability." He paused to think. "But yet, in the real world--or rather, in the larger context of society outside the theater of war, I should say, emotions are the currency of culture."
I blinked at him, trying to absorb and process what he'd said. "You said a mouthful, kid."
"I just mean--"
"Like you said at the wedding, I'm not stupid, Xavier. I know what you meant; I just have to process it. My brain works all right, just not as fast as yours."
"Very few do, in my experience." He said this as a matter of fact, rather than as a boast.
"You're saying I--that I'm in love with her?
Xavier made a face. "In love? You just met--all you did was have sex. You know literally nothing about this woman, Zane. There are emotions other than love and lust that you can feel toward females, you know."
"Oh really? Like what?" I prompted, curious and amused.
"Friendship?" he suggested, characteristically oblivious to the subtle note of sarcasm in my voice. "Respect. Compassion. Curiosity. Need. Desire, but for the company of the person rather than the physical desire connoted for our purposes by the term lust. And really, the range of human of emotion is such a broad and complicated spectrum that I fear we do not have adequate terminology for all of the nuances and varieties that are possible."
I shook my head. "Where the hell do you get this shit, Xavier?"
"I read constantly and very quickly, and I possess an innate curiosity that drives me to explore a broad range of subjects." He pivoted to stare out the window at the pink of dawn on the horizon. "Math, science, electronics and robotics, physics, these are subjects I innately comprehend. I possess a highly logical mind, thus those subjects are easy for me. Humans are not...logical, nor predictable, except that in some ways we are logical and predictable...humanity is a difficult, complex topic. Psychology, emotions...these are things I don't grasp as easily as I would differential calculus or quantum physics." He sighed deeply, and I sat in silence, listening, since Xavier rarely spoke of himself. "Like most geniuses, I struggle with expressing myself, and struggle even more with understanding people. I mean, I understand people on an anthropological level, but when it comes to actually dealing with people? I'm much less sure of myself in actual social situations."
"This is probably the deepest conversation I've ever had at..." I consulted the clock on the stove, "five o'clock in the morning."
"Really?" He smiled, gazing off into space. "I often sit with Hajji after our shift, and we talk of many deep and complex issues well into the smallest hours of the morning."
"Who's Hajji?" I asked.
"His name is actually something like Mohammad ibn Ibrahim. Hajji is a title he earned by making the pilgrimage to Mecca, called a hajj."
I nodded. "Ah, yeah. I've heard about that."
"He works at the diner with me, back at school. He's very intelligent, very erudite and well spoken. We are a bit of an odd couple, so to speak, as he's well past fifty and I'm barely eighteen and we're from totally different cultures and backgrounds, but we share a roaming sense of curiosity, and neither of us really feel as if we fit in anywhere."
I chuckle. "You're a fascinating person, Xavier."
He eyed me in utter befuddlement. "Fascinating? What does that mean? How am I fascinating?"
"The things you say, the way you say them? You talk like someone out of...I don't know, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, rather than an eighteen-year-old punk-ass hipster." I got up and put my mug in the sink, clapping him on the back. "I'm glad we've got t
his year together, baby brother."
He watched me as I headed to my room. "Me too." When I got to my door, he spoke again. "So...what are you going to do about that girl?"
I shrugged. "Track her down, see if I can figure out some way of getting her to give me the time of day."
"Do you think the aphorism that nothing worth having comes easy applies to women, Zane?"
I stopped and glanced back at him. "I think I'm about to find out, bro."
"You did not." This was Claire, sitting across from me in the booth of a dive bar far across town from Badd's Bar and Grill; it was somewhere past midnight the day after I'd walked away from Zane, and I was being interrogated by my best friend.
"I totally did."
Claire was the same height as me and we both had natural blonde hair, but the similarities ended there; she was more waifish, slender, with what she called mosquito bite titties and a boy butt, with her hair cut in a pixie bob--which she'd dyed pink since the last time I'd seen her. Whereas I'm...curvy, so to speak. I kept fit, but the gym and clean eating can only do so much. It can't, for example, reduce the visual affect of a big D-cup on a five-five frame, nor can it lessen the pop of my booty, which has always been...generous, shall we say.
Beauty is about a hell of a lot more than cup size and jean size, and even though Claire doesn't have a lot of extra padding, she is, hands down, the most beautiful girl I know, and I love her hard.
What I don't like, sometimes, is her unyielding insistence on calling me on my shit. I mean, yeah, it's part of why I love the bitch as much as I do, but god it's annoying when I just want to be left alone to get away with my shit.
Like now, for instance.
"Tell me again what he looked like," she demanded. "Details, please."
I sipped my cabernet sauvignon, and then sighed, "I already told you what he looks like, Claire."
"I know, but I feel like it bears repeating, if you're to be believed."
I bobbed my head side to side. "You have a point." Another long sip. "Fine. He's an even six feet tall, and he has to weigh at least two hundred pounds. And honey, that shit is solid muscle. If he's got more than eight percent body fat, then I'm my own great-aunt Lucille. His body is just...chiseled. You know that look we both like so much, right? Where he's not, like, one of those bodybuilders who looks as if he's trying to become one big tanned muscle. He's got all the right muscles in all the right places. That's Zane."
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