Mari stared at the blue digits of her clock. 1:42. She would have sworn when she crawled into bed she would sleep like the dead. Every time she closed her eyes for too long the memories came rushing back though. She couldn’t forget the hard unyielding arm around her waist as she was dragged farther and farther from Reese or the fear of not knowing what horrible things the man intended to do to her.

She rolled onto her back, rubbing at her eyes. Sand could have been in them as gritty as they felt.

“Mari.”

She jolted upright to find Reese in the doorway of her bedroom.

“There’s no trouble,” he said immediately.

Her shoulders slumped as she dragged a hand down her face.

“C’mon.”

She wasn’t getting to sleep any time soon. Even if there was a chance, her tiredness was no match for the curiosity for what he had planned. She tossed the covers back and got out of bed. The TV cast a soft glow over the living room. The light spilling over from the kitchen gave away Reese’s location. The sound of kernels popping made her smile.

Moments later the kitchen light cut off and Reese reappeared with a bowl of popcorn and drinks in hand.

“We just watched a movie,” she heard herself say even though she didn’t mind.

“You haven’t been still for more than 10 minutes since you went to bed so we’re watching another one.”

She didn’t have a rebuttal for that. She sat down onto the couch. He set their drinks on the coffee table and joined her.

“Blake’s just as bad as you,” he grumbled. “If I get another message from him, I’m just going to send you to him and be done with it.”

She grinned. She should probably feel guilty, but she liked knowing Blake cared enough to be worried. Reese’s mock annoyance amused her.

“You guys get along really well. I never did hear how you met.”

He arched a brow. “I’m a nice guy so how did I get caught up in all of this?”

She shrugged and tried to stifle her laughter as she scooped popcorn from the bowl. “Basically.”

“Someone I used to work for knew Blake. He pointed me in his direction when I needed more work.”

Mari leaned forward as she reached for her bottle.

“My mom had me young.”

It was a fight not to jerk around to face him. It was the most personal thing she ever heard him say. She made herself casually sit back and pop the top off the bottle.

“Her parents weren’t the supportive kind so she made her own way. My father was around for a while. He got himself killed when I was eight and it was just the two of us after that.”

She blinked at the hardness in his voice. “That sucks.”

“It did since we lost what bit of income he was bringing in. He wasn’t a bad father, but he wasn’t a good one either. His death wasn’t much of a loss outside of what we lost in money. I started doing little things here and there to make a couple of dollars, kept doing it as I got older. By the time I met Blake, I’d picked up a lot of different skills. He had a job I could do and he paid well so I took it.”

He snagged his bottle and took a long draw from it. “He taught me a lot and he did it without making it hard. There came a time when I had to choose if I wanted something different or if I wanted to stay. In the end, I chose to stay. Blake always made that worth it.”

She heard what he didn’t say. Blake became a father to him. She and Blake were bridging the gap now, but they would never get those years back. She should have resented Reese, but she couldn’t dredge up the bitterness. They…fit.

“I’m glad you had him.”

His gaze shot to her at the soft-spoken honesty. She tossed a handful of popcorn into her mouth with a smile. The soft sounds of the TV drew her attention and she snuggled into the couch.

“He changed my life,” Reese admitted a few moments later.

She tipped her head up and found his eyes on the screen.

“I’d have made it. I knew a lot of about survival by then and I had my mama to think about. I’d have been a different man though. I wouldn’t have liked becoming that man.”

If she thought about it, she would have hesitated. Since she didn’t, her hand covered his and squeezed.

“Then I’m really glad you had him and you got to become a man you like. My friends and I like that man too.”

A smile tugged at his lips. “You guys like everybody.”

She scoffed. “Definitely not true. We’re nice to everybody, but that doesn’t mean we like everybody. And you know Jules.”

He chuckled. “True.”

“So just accept the compliment,” she said rolling her eyes before giving her attention back to the TV.

“For what it’s worth, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt as comfortable as I’ve felt here.”

She beamed and squeezed his hand again. No more words were needed and they let the storyline of the movie they’d barely noticed draw them in.

Mari stirred and opened her eyes. She didn’t remember closing them. Through half-opened lids, she could make out Reese’s blurry features. They were moving. She only half registered his arms around her, holding her to his chest.

“Go back to sleep,” he encouraged quietly.

She was going to protest for the sake of protesting, but her eyes were so heavy. She dropped her head back down and sank into sleep once more.

<< Chapter 41                                                            Chapter 43 >>