Badd to the bone, p.11
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       Badd to the Bone, p.11

         Part #3 of Badd Brothers series by Jasinda Wilder
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  She didn't answer. Brock stood up with me and we made for the door. I stopped, the storm door propped open. "What was his full name?"

  A long silence. "Brennan Patrick O'Flaherty."

  I soaked that in, filing it along with the rest of the information I wasn't sure how to process. "Bye, Mom."

  "Goodbye, Claire." She said it with a sense of finality. She was staring into space, lost in the past, lost in thought. I wasn't sure I would ever see her again.

  As I was angling into the passenger seat of the rental, Tab and Hayley rounded the corner, just finishing a jog together.

  "Claire?" Tab, the more observant of the two, stopped beside me, eyeing me. "You're leaving already? What's wrong?"

  "Nothing." I stood back up and hugged her. "And yeah, I'm going home."

  Tab frowned, and touched my cheek, then showed me her index finger, damp. "You're crying."

  I wiped at my face with both hands. "Oh. Um." I shook my head. "Never mind. It's nothing I want to talk about right now."

  Hayley stepped in for a hug. "When will we see you again?"

  I shrugged as I let her go. "Maybe you guys can come visit me in Ketchikan. You'd like it there."

  "Oh, that would be fun! Could we?" Tab asked.

  I tried to smile. "I'll call you and set something up."

  They both hugged me at the same time. "We love you, Claire," Hayley said. "Please remember that we're here for you."

  "I know." I whispered it. "I love you guys too."

  And I did. They'd never understood why Mom and Dad--it was hard to break the habit of calling him that even though I didn't feel he deserved the title--had treated me so differently, and they had always done their best to make up for it by loving me all the harder, and I'd never resented them for the difference in treatment, since it was no more their doing than it was mine.

  I let them go and got into the car. Brock drove off, and I didn't look back. We were pulling up the hotel a few minutes later, and I grabbed Brock's wrist before he could get out. "Take me home, Brock."

  He sank back into his seat. "Home?"

  I nodded. "Ketchikan."

  He gazed at me steadily. "Ketchikan is home?"

  "Yeah, I feel like it is."

  He reached up and palmed my cheek. "Home it is, then."

  Chapter 7

  Brock

  It'd been a little over a month since the funeral, and Claire was being...weird. As in, we hadn't discussed anything she'd learned on the trip down to Michigan. Not once. She told me she needed time to process, that she wasn't ready to talk about it. Okay, fine, I kinda get that. So I've been giving her space. Our relationship progresses apace; we fuck like teenagers who have just discovered sex, and we still don't really use the bed. We spend a lot of time together, we talk, we hang out with my brothers and Mara and Dru, and life is good. She's spending more time here than in Seattle, and I'm starting to think she's considering moving here full time, but she isn't quite ready to actually pull the trigger, or isn't sure how to broach the subject.

  I haven't forgotten her warning, though: a shit-storm is coming. I can feel it. I can see it in her. It's...inevitable, it seems. I mean, you don't lose your father and then discover he's not actually your father within a week and remain totally unaffected by it. And when Claire thinks I'm not paying attention, I see her staring off into the distance, deep in thought. But she never shares.

  And the sex...? It's hot. It's wild. It's adventurous. It's nonstop. We fuck standing up, we fuck against walls and in the shower and on the floor and on our hands and knees, we 69, we finger each other's assholes, she sucks me off when I least expect it, and I eat her out until she's quivery from too many orgasms. On the surface, it's incredible. A dream come true.

  Yet...there's just...there's something off.

  I don't know. I don't know how to frame it, how to look at it. Is there something missing? I don't know. What could be missing? I don't know, I just don't know. I get the feeling there's still so much Claire isn't telling me. And I don't know how to get it out of her.

  It was two in the afternoon on a Wednesday, and I was sitting at the bar watching sports highlights while Zane repeatedly tossed a long black knife in the air so it flipped several times, caught it by the rope-wrapped handle, and hurled it at the wall behind the bar to sink an inch deep into the wood, which was now heavily pockmarked from Zane's boredom-killing activity.

  "You're stewing on something," Zane said, as he retrieved his throwing knife from the wall.

  "Yeah, I'm thinking about how you're completely fucking up that wall."

  He laughed. "It is kind of messed up, isn't it? Meh, I can replace the boards in about thirty minutes, and you can't see it unless you're behind the bar anyway." He hopped up to sit on the bar next to me. "Talk."

  I sighed, took the knife from him and fidgeted with it. "It's complicated."

  "You wouldn't be stewing on it if it was simple."

  "I guess you're right." I slid off the bar to stand where Zane had been, and hurled the knife at the wall; it thunked butt-first into the wall and fell to the floor. "You make that look easier than it is."

  Zane retrieved the knife and stood beside me. "You have to keep your wrist locked and throw with your whole arm so you impart proper spin to the blade. Like so." He demonstrated, and I watched his posture, the way he held the knife, the way his arm moved. "So...what's the deal?"

  I tried again, and this time I got it to stick, but only sort of. "It's Claire."

  "Problems popping up?"

  "Well, sort of. More that problems haven't popped up. Among other things, her dad died, and she discovered he wasn't her biological dad. How does that not fuck her up a little? Yet she seems fine."

  "Seems like you're looking for problems when there aren't any. Are you having second thoughts about being with her?"

  "Hell no. She means the world to me, But, I just have this feeling that...I don't know, that she's just suppressing things, and I don't know how to get her to talk about it without pushing her."

  Zane watched me throw the knife again, and then adjusted my grip slightly, and showed me a slowed-down version of the arm movement. "Stupid question, maybe, but why not just flat out ask? Sometimes you have to push people, I think."

  I shrugged. "I don't know. I don't want to make waves right now. She's been through a lot, and I want her to be able to figure it out on her own."

  "Well that's fucking stupid."

  I frowned at him. "Why do you say that?"

  He gave me a duh, you're a stupid-ass glare. "Because you're her boyfriend, fucknuts. It's kind of your entire job to help her figure her shit out. That's why we date people, bro: for help when life gets shitty. Company during the good times, yeah, and for sex, and someone to sleep with at night, and wake up to in the morning. All that shit is nice. But...if you're not being a source of help when shit get shitty, then what's the point?"

  I laughed. "You have such an eloquent way with words, Zane." I let out a frustrated breath. "But you're right. There's gotta be more than just being there through the shitty shit, as you put it."

  "Damn right there does. She needs you to show her the way through, man. I don't mean that in any kind of sexist, women are meant to depend on men kind of way, just...if she doesn't know how to sort her shit, it's your job to help her."

  "I don't know the way through, though. I don't what she's struggling with."

  "Then that's where you start. Get her to open up."

  "How, though?"

  "Fuck, dude, I don't know, a can opener?" He slapped me on the back. "By talking, dumbass. Only way there is."

  "Oh."

  Zane chuckled. "For a guy who's supposed to be one of the smart brothers, you sure are a dumbass, sometimes."

  "Fuck you."

  "Yeah fuck you back, turd-biscuit."

  "Fuck you back harder, floppy cunt waffle."

  Zane chortled. "Dude, that's a good one! Floppy cunt waffle? Damn, son."

  I laughed w
ith him. "I've been saving that one for a special occasion."

  He stared at me expectantly. "So? Go! Go talk to her."

  "Now?"

  He quirked an eyebrow at me. "Um, yeah, now. The longer you wait, the harder it gets."

  "Since when are you wise about this shit?" I asked.

  "Since it's not my relationship we're talking about. It's easy to give someone advice about their business, but it's always a hell of a lot harder to make sense of your own shit."

  "That's the truth." I shot him a look as I tossed my bar towel at him. "You got this?"

  "Yeah, I think I can handle the zero customers, dick-licker."

  I gave him the finger as I left the bar to go in search of Claire.

  It wasn't hard to find her, though. She was set up on the couch in Mara's office, which was in the back corner of a marketing firm a few streets up from the bar. Mara had taken over the office manager job Lucian had suggested, and discovered that she loved it. The company was a marketing and branding firm local to the Ketchikan area, and they were expanding quickly, taking on more and more accounts as their reputation grew. There'd been talk of Mara buying in as a partner eventually, but for now, she was managing the office and enjoying it. It was different work from what she'd done in San Francisco and Seattle, apparently, but it was low-key and she really seemed to thrive on it, so Zane was happy because she was happy.

  It also walking distance from the converted warehouse Zane was renovating--well, that Zane was lassoing all of us brothers into helping him renovate. Most of the complicated, technical stuff was being done by Bax and Xavier, but the easier stuff like laying tile and slapping up sheetrock the rest of us did on our downtime. It was almost done, and looking pretty damn sweet, honestly. They had a shitload of space, lots of natural light, and enough bedrooms that they could have a dozen kids and not run out of places to put them all.

  As expected, Claire was sitting cross-legged in the corner of the thirdhand couch Mara had in her office, laptop open, fingers flying on the keyboard, a giant mug of steaming coffee on the table near her elbow, giant bright red over-the-ear Beats on her head. Mara was at her desk, two monitors set up side-by-side, a pile of file folders in front of her, the one on top open; she too had a big pair of headphones on her head. Neither of them noticed me right away, and I just watched them for a moment. Intermittently, one of them would cackle and glance up and they'd shoot each other a look, and then go back to their computers. I realized they probably had a messaging thread up, so even while they were each working and in their own headspace, they were still talking to each other, trading jokes or dirty memes.

  I leaned a shoulder against the doorframe and stared at Claire, just to see how long it would take before she noticed me. Mara's desk faced the doorway, so she noticed me right away, but I touched my lips with a finger, and she hid a smile while trying to ignore me. It took almost two full minutes before Claire started to shift, getting the slightly uncomfortable feeling of being watched. At first she glanced up at Mara, but she was studiously tapping away at her keyboard, so Claire went back to her work. I continued staring, as quietly as possible, and finally Claire slid her gaze up to the doorway, and when she saw me, she actually jumped.

  "Holy shit, Brock, what the fuck?" She slid her headphones down around her neck. "How long have you been standing there?"

  I laughed. "Almost five minutes, babe."

  She eyed me. "So. What's up?" Another long glance at me, and then she sighed. "Wait, let me guess, you want to talk."

  "Yeah."

  She nodded, closed her laptop, set her headphones on top of it, and stood up, following me out of the office with a wave at Mara. Once out on the street, she threaded her fingers into mine and nudged me with her shoulder. "So. 'Sup?"

  "You feel like going for a little flight?"

  She shrugged. "Sure."

  We walked together to the dock where my seaplane was moored. My plan wasn't new by any stretch of imagination--I sure as hell didn't have several hundred grand for a brand-new one; mine was a Piper Supercub from the late 1980s, heavily rebuilt by the previous owner, an older airshow pilot I'd gotten to know on my second national airshow tour. He'd sold it to me for a steal, since he'd been retiring and wanted to get rid of pretty much everything he owned so he could retire onto a sailboat with his twenty-years-younger wife. It had a brand-new engine, recently recovered wings and fuselage, a new prop, and some nice updates and upgrades to the mechanicals. It was a wide body, which meant it sat four as opposed to two, which was nice. I didn't do any cargo hauling, so I didn't need the cargo space, which was another reason I'd gone with this particular aircraft, since a lot of Supercubs or similar models only sat two to accommodate more cargo.

  My aerobatics aircraft, a fifteen-year-old Staudacher, was currently in storage in Juneau, which was sad. I missed aerobatics, missed the rush, the adrenaline, the excitement.

  Yes, I owned two planes. The Staudacher had been my first major purchase, and it had set me back almost a hundred and fifty grand, but I'd saved every penny--except for the cost of flying lessons--that I'd ever made working all year long and two jobs over the summers from the time I was fourteen. I'd saved up enough to put over half down, and Dad had cosigned a loan for the rest.

  As soon as I took ownership of that bird, I set out to become a stunt pilot. I'd made some contacts with aerobatics pilots at the airport while taking lessons, which is how I'd gotten into it in the first place. I had the talent, and with a lot of aerobatics training I acquired the skills and, before long, I was performing at airshows around the Northwest, and eventually across the country. I'd quickly paid off the remainder of the loan and before long, I had a decent nest egg saved up, which I'd used to buy the Piper so I could fly in and out of Alaska without having to bother with the local airport and the long drive to the bar.

  Claire climbed into the copilot's seat, buckled in and donned the headset while I went through the preflight. In no time, we were airborne and heading north. Unsurprisingly, Claire seemed in no rush to push me to talk. I followed the sound north, keeping an eye out for a likely spot to put down. It was a bright, warm, sunny day, and I had it in mind to anchor offshore somewhere and sit on the float with a fishing pole and talk. Zane had lit a fire under me and I was determined to get to the bottom of things with Claire. As restless and energetic as she was, she enjoyed fishing with me off the floats, and it had become one our favorite ways to kill a few hours on a Saturday afternoon.

  After a quiet thirty-minute flight, I set down a few hundred yards away from the shores of the Muffin Islands, a spray of rocky, tree-covered islands near a set of other larger islands north of Ketchikan. It was a fairly remote spot, beautiful, lush, green, and peaceful. I threw out the anchor and let the plane drift backward until I felt the hook bite into the seafloor.

  Claire already had the tackle box open and was setting up our poles while I shut down the engine. We rolled up our jeans around our knees and dangled our bare feet in the cool water, lines angled out, bobbers floating, the sun shining, a long warm breeze ruffling our hair.

  "This is more than just a fishing trip, right?" Claire asked after a few minutes of silence. "I'm behind on work, but I figured this was important."

  "I can't help feeling like you're suppressing something," I said. "Your dad's passing, what your mom told you...you don't just waltz away unaffected from that kind of thing."

  "Maybe I do." She tugged on her line to set the bobber wiggling on the surface.

  "Nope." I glanced at her, assessing; she wasn't shut down, but she wasn't liking this topic, either. "You're suppressing."

  "So? Why can't I suppress it?" She shot me an angry look. "Do I have to tell you every little thing I'm thinking and feeling? And if I don't, it automatically means I'm unhealthy and suppressing? Is that it?"

  "Claire, I'm just worried. You lost your father, and you learned your parents had been lying to you your whole life."

  "And I'm supposed to be moping around crying,
now? I'm supposed to sit on some therapist's couch and spout all my weepy emotions because Daddy didn't love me?"

  I sighed. "I mean, well...yeah, kind of."

  "That's not me, Brock, and if you don't understand that about me by now, then you haven't been paying attention."

  "I have been paying attention, which is why I'm even doing this. I don't want to push you any more than you want to be pushed, but I know you're feeling things you're not letting out and, I'm sorry babe, but that's not healthy. If you don't want to talk to me--"

  "I'm not seeing a therapist, Brock, so don't even finish that statement."

  "Okay, okay, fine. Then talk to me."

  "And say what?" She tugged her pole upward again. "I mean, for real, what is it you want me to say? 'Oh, I'm so sad, I'm so confused, I don't know who I am.'" The last sentence was delivered with such intense sarcasm it fairly cut the air like a razor. "Fuck that. I'm dealing, okay?"

  "I just--"

  "I know, I know. You just care," she said, interrupting me again. "You want to help. I'm grateful, Brock, I really am. But I'm fine."

  Her bobber dipped, bounced, and then sank under the water, and she stood up on the float, angled the tip of her pole upward and cranked the reel, pulling in a giant fish. I scooped it up in the net, worked the hook loose, put it on a stringer, and she cast her line out again.

  "Nice catch, babe. That thing has to be damn near a foot long."

  She grinned at me. "I'm winning...again."

  I rolled my eyes at her in fake annoyance, because that was an inside joke between us: she always caught more fish than I did, for whatever reason. It was fucking annoying, but also kind of funny, because she'd never been fishing until I took her out a week or two after we first met.

  She'd hated it at first, but once she learned to settle in and enjoy the peace and just hang out with me and talk, she started to get into it. And then she'd caught her first fish, a four-pound monster, and she'd been...hooked--fishing puns for the win. And now, whenever we went out, no matter how many fish I caught, she always caught more than me.

  "If Brennan was still alive--" I started.

  "NOPE!" she shouted over me. "Not going there, Brock. Don't care. He's dead, Dad's dead, and I don't really give much of a fuck about either of them."

 
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