Badd to the bone, p.18
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       Badd to the Bone, p.18

         Part #3 of Badd Brothers series by Jasinda Wilder
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  "That's what I was thinking," Bast said.

  "Maybe you and I and Bax can drive down, leave Zane and the others here to run the bar. You and Bax drive back, and I'll fly my Staudacher up."

  "Sounds good."

  Zane popped up at the top of the stairs, drywall mud smeared on his forehead, working on the hole Bax had made near the door frame. " and Claire are really done, huh?"

  "Seems like it."

  "Why, do you think?" he asked.

  I studied the bartop. "She's scared. Messed-up. All that shit with her dad not being her dad, everything she's been through, she just...can't handle being with me right now, she said."

  "Ah. The old 'it's not you, it's me' bullshit, huh?" Zane said.

  I nodded. "Pretty much. I'm not sure it's completely bullshit, though. It sucks, but I get the feeling she was telling the truth. But she's also just scared of being in love."

  Zane glanced at me, dipping the scraper into the mud. "That's really what it is for you, huh? For real?"

  I shrugged. "Yeah."

  "And for her?"

  "She won't admit it, but I think so, yes."

  Zane kept his gaze on the drywall he was mudding, but spoke to me. "Well, it may suck, but you just have to wait for her. Either she'll figure her shit out, or she won't. And if she doesn't, then you'll just have put on your big boy undies and get over her. It'll hurt, and it'll take time, but it'll all work out."

  I gaped at him. "Okay, then, Dr. Phil."

  Zane laughed. "What? I have a little bit of wisdom stored away, okay?"

  "From your extensive experience in long-term relationships?" Bast said, laughing.

  Zane lifted the scraper. "You know I can bury this in your chest from here, right?"

  Bast held up his hands. "Just sayin', man. You're an ex-Navy SEAL, not a love expert."

  Zane's gaze darkened. "Tell another soul and I swear I'll bury you two fuckers, but...when I was bored, which was a lot, I'd read romance novels on a Kindle. You can only read so much Patterson and Grisham and Clancy, you know? I bought some steamy romance shit by accident, thinking it was something different, and I figured what the hell, I'd paid for it, might as well try it. And to my surprise, I enjoyed it. And that shit is actually fun to read, and pretty informative."

  Bast and I stifled laughter. "Fuck you, dude. You're pulling our chains," Bast said, past coughs of restrained laughter.

  Zane kept mudding, and then he was done, and joined us at the breakfast bar, stealing my coffee, which was now cold. "No, it's true. Don't believe me, I'll show you my Kindle."

  "Hard to believe you even own a Kindle," I said, "much less that you'd read romance."

  "Hey, that shit gets downright erotic, okay?" He twisted the mug in circles. "When you're alone with a bunch of dudes in the ass-end of Kandahar waiting out a bunch of asshole guerrillas, you want something to take your mind off the boredom. My Kindle fit nicely in my gear bag and I could load it with hundreds of books, and then easily stow it when it was go-time. Whenever I was somewhere with decent Wi-Fi, I'd buy dozens of books at a time so I had them ready when I wanted to read. It's like having your own library in a piece of plastic barely bigger than my own hand."

  I conceded with a laugh and raised both hands. "Okay, okay. I just would never have guessed."

  "Well, no shit. That was the whole point. Not even the guys in my squad knew about that." He chuckled. "They'd never have let me live it down, had they found out."

  I let out a breath, slowly. "So, I just wait, huh?"

  Zane clapped me on the back. "You went after her. You said your piece, so she knows how you feel. The rest is up to her."

  "Fucking sucks." I sighed.

  "Fucking sucks," both Bast and Zane agreed in unison.

  Dru came down, then, dressed, hair twisted up in a damp knot, a mug of coffee in hand. She waved her hand at her husband and Zane. "Shoo, boys. I want to talk to Brock."

  I thunked my head on the counter. "Oh, yay. More talking about shit."

  Dru laughed. "I'll do most of the talking, don't you worry. I've also invited Mara over for extra moral support."

  "Yippee. Is it too early to get drunk again?" I asked. Dru didn't laugh, though, instead she eyed me suspiciously. "I'm kidding, I'm kidding. I have no desire to drink right now. Except maybe more coffee."

  Zane and Bast left to go down to the bar, leaving me alone with Dru, who made us a fresh carafe of coffee, which she used to fill my mug, and then Mara breezed in, belly bump first.

  "Damn you both for having coffee when I can't," she said, awkwardly climbing into a high-top chair, sipping from a giant Tervis full of ice water with half a dozen lemon slices floating in it. "I'm allowed a single eight-ounce cup of coffee a day, and lemme just say, that is nowhere near enough."

  "I can't imagine not being allowed to have coffee," I said. "Would it help if I didn't have it around you?"

  Mara laughed. "It's coffee, Brock. I'm not a recovering alcoholic, here." She leaned over and inhaled. "Just let me sniff it a few times."

  I laughed as she inhaled the scent of my coffee, and then went back to sipping from her pink-and-leopard-print Tervis via a foot-long pink straw.

  "That there is a whole hell of a lot of water, Mara," I said.

  She rolled her eyes. "Don't even get me started. I've already had one of these, and I've peed roughly fifteen times so far. I'll probably have to pee another fifteen times just while we're talking."

  I sipped coffee, and then kicked my feet up against the front of the breakfast bar, tipping back in my chair. "This feels like an intervention."

  Dru chortled. "It kind of does, doesn't it?" She patted my hand, and adopted a soft, simpering, lisp. "Now Brock, I want you to know we're all here because we love you. There's no judgment here. This is a judgment-free zone, so you can say whatever you need to, all right?"

  I went with it. "Hi, my name is Brock, and I'm a Claire-aholic. It's been--" I glanced at my watch, "sixteen hours since the last time I saw her."

  Mara fiddled with her straw. "What happened, Brock? All I know is that Dru texted me saying you and Claire had broken up."

  "She freaked and bolted on me." I rocked back and forth in the chair, feeling off-kilter and uneasy and trying to contain the pain. "You guys saw how she was the other night, wasted and being impossible. I thought it would pass, I thought she'd--I thought we'd wake up and talk it through. But when I got up, she was gone. Her stuff was gone. I flew to Seattle, but she wasn't there. That's when I called you. I flew to Michigan and found her at her mom's place. I was so pissed, you know? Like, what the fuck? She told me she couldn't do this anymore, couldn't do us. Nothing I said was getting through. She was just...I don't know. Already gone, in a way. I even told her I loved her."

  "Damn." Mara poked at the lemon slices with her straw. "Not how I saw this going."

  I laughed bitterly. "Yeah, me neither."

  "So she was just like, this is done, it's over?"

  I tilted my head from side to side. "Sort of. She kept saying she was sorry and that she didn't want to do this, but that she had to. I got the sense that she wasn't trying to close me out completely, like end us forever, just that she needed to..." I shrugged. "Figure herself out, I guess."

  Mara ruffled her long, loose hair with one hand. "We all know she's been through a shitload, especially recently. But I can tell you she was never even sure she wanted a real relationship, but you guys just seemed to work, almost like it was...I don't know, inevitable, sort of. I don't think she even really thought of it as a relationship, as such. And then it became obvious that that's what it was, and she couldn't deny it, so it freaked her out."

  "If she feels too fucked-up to be able to even know where to start," Dru said, "it would make sense that she felt like she had to put you guys on pause, more or less. Maybe try to think of it as a break rather than a breakup?"

  Mara said, "I think that's right, though. Give her some time and space."

  I nodded. "That's wh
at everyone is saying, and it makes sense. I understand it, but I don't like it."

  Dru patted me on the back. "I wouldn't expect you to like it. But it might be a good thing. Once she has some time to chew on things a bit, maybe she'll be in a better place to be able to think about you guys, and you can keep going with your relationship and it'll be even better than it was before."

  I sighed again. "Well, I think that's all I can really hope for, right now, I guess."

  It fucking sucked, but it was what it was.

  I pulled my phone out of my pocket, opened up the thread with Claire, and typed out a message.

  I haven't given up on you, or on us. I need you to know that. Take time and space, if that's what you need. I'll be waiting on the other side for you. I don't expect you to even reply, just maybe let me know you're still alive every once in awhile, ok? Just know that I love you. I also don't expect you to feel the same way or say it back or anything. Just know it's true.

  The message switched to "read" after a few minutes. The gray bubble with the three dots popped up, the dots rippled a few times, and then the bubble vanished. This happened twice more, as if she was trying to figure out what to say, but couldn't. Eventually, a reply popped up from her.

  It was a single letter:


  Chapter 12


  Dr. Liz Rivers was a younger woman, mid-to late-thirties maybe, with a cute brunette bob and delicate cat's eye glasses. Her soft, quiet mannerisms belied a sharply observant intelligence and a keen insight into human nature. I hated her as much as I loved her.

  "All right, Claire. So your homework last week was to work on forgiving yourself." Dr. Liz gave me a gentle smile, one full of calm encouragement. "How do you feel that went?"

  I shrugged one shoulder. "Okay, I guess. Quite honestly, forgiving Connor was easier."

  Dr. Liz nodded. "Of course. Forgiving ourselves is always the hardest thing to do. We often feel as if others deserve forgiveness, that others can earn or obtain or be given our forgiveness. But ourselves? Oh, no. That's much, much harder. That's why we've waited this long to work on this aspect of your therapy."

  Dr. Liz continued, "How did you go about trying to forgive yourself?"

  I shrugged again; I shrugged a lot around my therapist. "Um. I would think about all the shitty stuff I've done, and instead of letting myself feel like crap and get down on myself for it, I'd think about forgiving myself."

  "Do you feel like it's working?"

  I laughed, somewhat bitterly. "No, not really. I still feel like shit a lot of the time."

  "When you say you feel like shit, what does that mean? Can you unpack that a bit?"

  "I used people. Guys--men, I mean. I used them. I took what I wanted, and I made it all about me, and then I ditched them." I focused on the toes of my bright red Converse shoes. "It's not about the sex, exactly, or feeling a slut. I'm okay with that. I've made peace with that--"

  "Have you?" Dr. Liz, usually soft and quiet and sincere and kind, interrupted me, her voice sharp. "Have you really made peace with feeling like a slut?"

  I restrained the urge to either bolt or smack her. "Yes, doctor, I have," I snapped.

  She was unfazed. "I'm not so sure I believe you, Claire." She made a note on her yellow legal pad. "The vehemence of your reaction makes me think otherwise."

  I groaned. Five months of therapy--biweekly at first, and then after two months, weekly--you think I'd have learned by now not to bullshit Dr. Liz, since she always saw through it.

  "FINE!" I huffed. "No, I'm not okay with it. I haven't made any kind of peace with it. I'm still fucked-up over it. I'm still fucked-up over getting pregnant and the miscarriage and being disowned, so hell, of course I'm not ready to...what? Forgive myself? Is that what I'm supposed to do? Part of me says I should just own my actions. Guys can be players and fuckboys, they can rack up one-night stand numbers in the double and triple digits and society thinks he's a big, swingin' dick badass because he can haul down major ass like a modern-day Casanova. But if I do the same thing, I'm a dirty slut. And I think that's bullshit. Guys talk about how many chicks they've banged, and they congratulate each other on it. If another girl hears that I've fucked...what, forty, fifty different guys? They look at me like I've got actual crabs on my face or some shit."

  "You can't control others, Claire. I'm not interested in how others react. And if you ask me, I'd say the guys who sleep with that many different women deserve the slut label too. I'm not in the business of labeling or judging, I'm just saying, if society is going to put that label on promiscuous women, then men who do the same thing deserve the label as well."

  "That's what I'm saying!"

  "I know, but my concern is with you. How you feel about yourself." She tapped the tip of her pen on the pad, and then flipped the pen around her index finger. "The point of all this, aside from the general need to deal with a lifetime of built-up issues, is to get you to a mental and emotional place where you feel ready to face Brock again, right?"

  I nodded. "Right."

  "Well, then, we can't get sidetracked by the injustices of society. You made choices. You dealt with your pain and confusion and abandonment and everything else via sexual promiscuity. You chose to wall yourself away from the world, you chose to keep your true self hidden, and to never rely or depend on anyone.

  "Understandable, and expected even, considering the way your parents handled things with you--which, as I've said, is simply inexcusable." She flipped the pen around her finger again, and then scrawled something on her pad. "That past is yours, and you have to accept it. It is what it is. You cannot change it. Forgive yourself for it. Move on from it. Commit to making different choices in the future. Notice my phrasing there, Claire: different choices, I said, not better.

  "The passing of judgment--whether on ourselves or on others--is a losing game--there is no winner. We are all flawed, and we all make choices we wish we hadn't. It's up to us and only us to direct our future, to decide what is good and bad for us.

  "Obviously, this is predicated on a basic sense of right and wrong. Lying is wrong, murder is wrong, cheating and theft are wrong, embezzlement, extortion, all that is obviously wrong. But the personal choices that we make which do not fit so easily into neat little right or wrong do you quantify the morality of those things? It is up to the individual, I believe. And for you, however you quantify the morality of your history of promiscuity, you have to make peace with it. You can't allow the past to have such a powerful hold on your present, because what has a hold on you now affects you in the future."

  I thought about what she was saying. I realized that I had been judging myself all my life, and always found myself to be lacking. I let myself muse out loud. "I could never do right, for Connor--for Dad. Nothing was ever good enough. No matter what I did, how well I did it, it was never enough. I was always treated as...less. Less worthy. Less...less inherently good. Like Tab and Hayley deserved God's grace and mercy--God's, and therefore Mom and Dad's--they deserved that, but I didn't."

  I tapped my shoe on the carpet in a rapid, nervous pattern, because when my brain was firing this fast, my body had to move, too, even if it was just a tapping a toe or bouncing my knees. "I think I sort of absorbed Connor's judgmental view of myself. It was the way I was always treated, and so I treated myself that same way."

  "That's a very important realization, Claire." Dr. Liz leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and fixed me with a sharp look from behind her glasses. "You deserve understanding--from others, but most of all from yourself. You won't ever allow yourself to succeed if you don't give yourself room to fail, and allow yourself understanding when you do fail.

  "And I'm not even saying the choices you've made in your life are bad choices, or that you've failed in any way. I don't believe that, not at all. I think you've succeeded. You've come through a lot, and you're still here. You sought out help when you needed it most."

  "But I hurt Brock al
ong the way."

  "Perhaps, but I think you did the right thing. You knew you weren't in a place to be with him. It wouldn't have been fair to him, or yourself to have even tried to be in a significant relationship. You needed this time, Claire." She sat back once more. "You have made wonderful progress. I think you're on the right track with the understanding that you've been judging yourself too harshly. Continue along that path, and try to find your way to deeper self-forgiveness and understanding."

  We talked about a few other things, and I answered honestly and openly, and then when my hour was up, I thanked her and went out to my car.

  I owned a car now, which was kind of crazy. It was a Jeep Wrangler, bright blue, two-door, soft-top, four years old. I'd bought it from a guy that lived in my mom's subdivision, and he'd beefed up the engine and the exhaust, put on big, knobby off-road tires and a three-inch lift. Immediately after buying it, I'd gone on Amazon and ordered fluffy pink seat covers and a giant fake crystal shifter knob for the manual transmission stick, to girl it up a bit. It was a ridiculous, absurd, and insanely fun vehicle, and I loved it.

  I'd relinquished my place in Seattle, had a company box up my stuff and send some to me and they put it the rest in storage. I quit my job at the firm and hung out my digital shingle as a freelance programmer, which had honestly gone a hell of a lot better than I'd expected. I was constantly busy and making really good money, but better than anything, I was working for myself, by myself.

  I hung out with my sisters, and had lunch with my mother several times a week. Those lunches were a shock to me, because I discovered that I really did have a lot in common with Mom, and that I genuinely liked her, as a person. Now that Connor was gone, at least--and that was a weird realization to have. There'd been two full sessions with Dr. Liz spent dissecting that, what it meant for me and how I felt about it.

  That was the other thing that was different for me: I'd tried half a dozen therapists until I found Dr. Liz; we clicked--she just got me, and I found her mannerisms and the questions she asked and the insights she provided to be genuinely helpful. She called me on my shit, but gently, and pushed me to understand myself.

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