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Page 4


I ignore it as best I can, but warning bells are going off. I ignore those, too. Nothings going on, right? I mean, Im about to ship out in a week, for Christs sake. She would wait till Im gone to start anything, right?

  I go to the gym three days before my plane leaves Des Moines. Im only there for about half an hour before I feel something in my shoulder pull and decide to call it a day. Usually Im at the gym for an hour or two, which how it’s been since high school.

  The gym is a couple miles away from Lanis apartment, and I walk the distance, huddled in a thick coat and sweatpants, feeling the wind bite through the cotton to freeze the sweat on my legs. As I approach the apartment complex, my heart begins to hammer in my chest. Theres no reason for it, but its a feeling Ive learned to recognize. Its foreboding. Premonition, maybe. A gut feeling. Ive learned to recognize these feelings and trust them. Something is wrong. I dont feel the prickling of my skin, the crawling of my flesh and the cold sweat of fear, so I dont think its a danger situation, but something is off.

  I approach Lanis front door and slip in, silently. The hinges dont squeak, and the knob doesnt scrape. My footfalls are stealthy on the carpet. I dont know why Im doing this. Im in a tactical crouch, and my hands are clutched in front of me automatically, as if Im holding a rifle. Its habit, reflex. Every sense is attuned.

  I shrug out of my coat and drape it across a chair back. My skin tightens with apprehension. Is Lani hurt? I dont smell blood. I smell. . . sweat? Bodies. I smell sex.

  Then I hear it: a sigh, gentle, brief, and female. Its a sound I know all too well. Its the sound Lani makes when she comes. She doesnt scream or cry out; she clutches me close, arms around my neck, and sighs—almost a whimper—into my ear. I can almost feel her arms, hear the sigh, but Im not in that bedroom. She’s not making that sound for me. I wait, crouched outside her door and listen, just to make sure Im not mistaken. Maybe shes pleasuring herself. I dont like that idea much more, since why would she need to do that if she has me? But. . . no. I hear him. A deeper sigh. A grunt. Murmured words, her laugh, a male moan.

  She’s having sex, and it’s not me.

  Fuck.

  Anger ripples through me, turning my sight red, making my hands shake. I breathe, hard and deep and fast. I wait, force my blood to slow, force my hands to unfist. I cant afford mistakes. I cant afford to lose my temper. Ive been too careful about it for too long to mess up now. Juvie was bad enough. Im not going to jail. Im not going to get court-martialed.

  When Im as calm as I can get under the circumstances, I fling open the bedroom door. There she is. Naked and beautiful, underneath Douglas Pearson. Doug. Skinny little Doug, nerdy, introverted, acne-scarred, works at an insurance agency Doug motherfucking Pearson.

  I resist the urge to throw him out the first-story window.

  "Get the f**k out, Doug. " My voice is a whisper. Calm and deadly. "Get the f**k out, now. Ill be gone in a minute, and you can have her back. I just need to talk to her. "

  Doug scrambles off the bed and dresses in record time. He stops in front of me, his eyes wide with terror, his nostrils flaring, reeking of fear. But he stops in front of me and faces me. I give him credit for having some balls. "You wont. . . you wont hurt her? If youre going to hurt someone, hurt me. "

  I laugh. Its not an amused sound. "Dont tempt me, pencil-dick. No. Im not going to hurt anyone. Except you if you dont get the f**k out of my face. "

  He gets out. Lani clutches the bed sheet around her chest, as if I havent seen her naked a million times before. As if we didnt lose our virginity together at fifteen. As if I didnt have a ring in my duffel bag. That act, the shielding herself from my view, tells me all I need to know.

  Page 10

 

  "Three days, Lani. Three goddamn days. You couldnt wait three motherfucking days?" I turn away from her and talk to the door. Im too pissed to trust myself facing her. "I dont get it. If you didnt want me, why the f**k didnt you tell me? I mean, f**k. "

  "Stop saying that word, Hunter. I dont like it. "

  I whirl. "Fuck you, Lani. Im a goddamn Marine. Ive got a dirty f**king mouth, and Im pissed off. You cheated on me. " I force myself to take two long steps across the room away from her. "I’ve never asked. I come back, and I dont ask you any questions. Im gone for a long time, and I’ve never asked what you do while Im gone. But. . . while Im here, I kind of expected you to be faithful. Is that too much to ask?"

  Lani doesnt answer.

  "How long?" I ask. "How long has this been going on with that little prick?"

  "Dont talk about Doug like that, Hunter. Hes a good man. He—"

  "I didnt ask about him. I dont care. How. . . long. " It doesnt come out as a question.

  "I first started seeing him about two months after you left the last time. " She lowers her eyes away from mine.

  Thats a full year. More.

  Shes ashamed, and she should be.

  "And youve been going behind me with him all the time Ive been back?"

  She nods, a tiny jerk of her chin.

  "Fuck. " I want to hit something. My fist balls and I lift it to punch through the wall or the door, but I dont. "Un-fucking-believable, Lani. If you dont love me, have the balls to say so. "

  She moves forward off the bed, sheet trailing behind her, clutched to her chest. "Its not that I dont love you, Hunter. I do. But. . . Im not in love with you. "

  "Whats the difference?"

  She reaches for me and I pull away. She lowers her hand. Her vivid blue eyes shimmer. "Theres a huge difference. "

  I collapse backward against the wall, anger fading to confusion and hurt. Without the anger to prop me up, Im limp. "Then explain it. "

  She pulls clothes from the drawers, glances at me, and hesitates.

  "What?" I ask. "Like I havent seen you naked before?"

  "Its not that," she says. "Its. . . I dont know. I just feel weird about it. Just turn around and give me a second, okay? Please?"

  I turn and stare out the window at the wind-driven drifts of snow. I ignore the rustle of skin and cloth, resist the urge to turn and watch her dress. It will only hurt more.

  "Okay," she says. "Im ready. "

  I slip out of the room to the kitchen without looking back at her. "I need a drink. "

  She follows me. I open a pair of beers and hand her one. She holds it without drinking.

  "Hunter, listen. I do care about you. I love you. Ive loved you since the tenth grade. But. . . things change. Youre gone. Youre fighting, and youre not here. Thats really it. Its hard to stay in love with you when youre thousands of miles away for months at a time. I was lonely. Doug was there. I. . . love him, too. Im in love with him. Im so sorry. I cant image how that must hurt to hear, but you deserve the truth. "

  "I deserved the truth months ago, Lani. "

  She winces. "I know. I feel terrible. Its just. . . hes good to me. He takes care of me. Hes there for me. "

  Something dawns on me. "He knew about this? He knew about us? You and me? And he was okay with it?"

  She has the decency to look chagrined. "Yeah. I know how that must seem, and he. . . he hated it, but I told him it would only be for a little bit. Just until you left again. "

  "How long were you planning on stringing me along?" My beer is gone and I get another. I need it for fortification against the rage.

  "I was going to send you a letter. " Her voice is tiny.

  "God, really? A Dear John? You were actually gonna send me a real Dear John letter? Fuck, Lani. Thats the cruelest shit you couldve done. Theres nothing worse. " Suddenly that second beer is gone and a third is cracked open.

  "Slow down, Hunter. Please. I cant have this conversation with you if youre drunk. "

  "Well have this conversation however the f**k I want. You owe me that much. "

  On impulse I go get my duffel bag, move around the apartment shoving my things into it, and then rummage until I find the ring. I drop the duffe