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Come Back to Me

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Home on leave in sunny California, Marine and local lothario Kit Ryan finds himself dangerously drawn to his best friend's sister, Jessa - the one girl he can't have.

But Kit's not about to let a few obstacles stand in his way and soon Jessa's falling for his irresistible charms.

What starts out as a summer romance of secret hook-ups and magical first times quickly develops into a passionate love affair that turns both their worlds upside down.

When summer's over and it's time for Kit to redeploy, neither Kit nor Jessa are ready to say goodbye. Jessa's finally following her dreams and Kit's discovered there's someone he'd sacrifice everything for.

Jessa's prepared to wait for Kit no matter what. But when something more than distance and time rips them apart they're forced to decide whether what they have is really worth fighting for.
Volume:
1
Year:
2014
Publisher:
Pan Macmillan
Language:
english
Pages:
373
ISBN 13:
9781447274414
ISBN:
B00KCRMYU0
Series:
Come Back to Me 1
File:
EPUB, 353 KB
Download (epub, 353 KB)

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Come Back To Me

Idioma:
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Archivo:
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2

Come Back to Me

Año:
2010
Idioma:
english
Archivo:
RAR, 332 KB
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For Venetia & Amanda

‘You only live once. But if you do it right,

once is all you need.’





Contents


1. Jessa

2. Jessa

3. Kit

4. Jessa

5. Kit

6. Jessa

7. Kit

8. Jessa

9. Kit

10. Jessa

11. Kit

12. Jessa

13. Kit

14. Jessa

15. Kit

16. Jessa

17. Kit

18. Jessa

19. Kit

20. Jessa

21. Kit

22. Jessa

23. Kit

24. Jessa

25. Kit

26. Jessa

27. Kit

28. Jessa

29. Kit

30. Jessa

31. Kit

32. Jessa

33. Kit

34. Jessa

35. Kit

36. Jessa

37. Kit

38. Jessa

39. Kit

40. Jessa

41. Kit

42. Jessa

43. Kit

44. Jessa

45. Kit

46. Jessa

47. Kit

48. Kit

49. Jessa

50. Kit

51. Jessa

52. Kit

53. Jessa

54. Kit

55. Jessa

Epilogue



Acknowledgements





1


Jessa


A whorl in the glass distorts the picture, like a thumbprint smear over a lens. I’m halfway down the stairs, gathering my hair into a ponytail, thoughts a million miles away, when a blur outside the window pulls me up short.

I take another step, the view clears, and when I realize what I’m seeing, who I’m seeing, my stomach plummets and the air leaves my lungs like a final exhalation. My arms fall slowly to my sides. My body’s instinct is to turn and run back upstairs, to tear into the bathroom and lock the door, but I’m frozen. This is the moment you have nightmares about, play over in your mind, the darkest of daydreams, furnished by movies and by real-life stories you’ve overheard your whole life.

You imagine over and over how you’ll cope, what you’ll say, how you’ll act when you open the door and find them standing there. You pray to every god you can dream up that this moment won’t ever happen. You make bargains, promises, desperate barters. And you live each day with the murmur of those prayers playing on a loop in the background of your mind, an endless chant. And then the moment happens and you realize it was all for nothing. The prayers went unheard. There was no bargain to make. Was it your fault? Did you fail to keep your promise?

Time seems to have slowed. Kit’s father hasn’t moved. He’s standing at the end;  of the driveway staring up at the house, squinting against the early morning glare. He’s wearing his Dress Blues. It’s that fact which registered before all else, which told me all I needed to know. That and the fact that he’s here at all. Kit’s father has never once been to the house. There is only one reason why he would ever come.

He hasn’t taken a step and I will him not to. I will him to turn around and get back into the dark sedan car sitting at the kerb. A shadowy figure in uniform sits at the wheel. Please. Get back in and drive away. I start making futile bargains with some nameless god. If he gets back in the car and drives away, I’ll do anything. But he doesn’t. He takes a step down the driveway towards the house, and that’s when I know for certain that either Riley or Kit is dead.

A scream, or maybe a sob, tries to struggle up my throat, but it’s blocked by a solid wave of nausea. I grab for the banister to stay upright. Who? Which one? My brother or my boyfriend? Oh God. Oh God. My legs are shaking. I watch Kit’s father walk slowly up the drive, head bowed.

Memories, images, words, flicker through my mind like scratched fragments of film: Kit’s arms around my waist drawing me closer, our first kiss under the cover of darkness just by the back door, the smile on his face the first time we slept together, the blue of his eyes lit up by the sparks from a Chinese lantern, the fierceness in his voice when he told me he was going to love me forever.

Come back to me. That was the very last thing I said to him. Come back to me.

Always. The very last thing he said to me.

Then I see Riley as a kid throwing a toy train down the stairs, dive-bombing into the pool, holding my hand at our grandfather’s funeral, grinning and high-fiving Kit after they’d enlisted. The snapshot of him in his uniform on graduation day. The circles under his eyes the last time I saw him.

The door buzzes. I jump. But I stay where I am, frozen halfway up the stairs. If I don’t answer the door maybe he’ll go away. Maybe this won’t be happening. But the doorbell sounds again. And then I hear footsteps on the landing above me. My mother’s voice, sleepy and confused. ‘Jessa? Who is it? Why are you just standing there?’

Then she sees. She peers through the window and I hear the intake of air, the ragged ‘no’ she utters in response. She too knows that a military car parked outside the house at seven a.m. can signify only one thing.

I turn to her. Her hand is pressed to her mouth. Standing in her nightdress, her hair unbrushed, the blood rushing from her face, she looks like she’s seen a ghost. No. That’s wrong. She looks like she is a ghost.

The bell buzzes for a third time.

‘Get the door, Jessa,’ my mother says in a strange voice I don’t recognize. It startles me enough that I start to walk down the stairs. I feel calmer all of a sudden, like I’m floating outside my body. This can’t be happening. It’s not real. It’s just a dream.

I find myself standing somehow in front of the door. I unlock it. I open it. Kit. Riley. Kit. Riley. Their names circle my mind like birds of prey in a cloudless blue sky. Kit. Riley. Which is it? Is Kit’s father here in his Dress Blues with his Chaplain insignia to tell us that my brother has been killed in action or that his son – my boyfriend – has been killed in action? He would come either way. He would want to be the one to tell me. He would want to be the one to tell my mom.

Kit’s father blinks at me. He’s been crying. His eyes are red, his cheeks wet. He’s still crying, in fact. I watch the tears slide down his face and realize that I’ve never seen him cry before. It automatically makes me want to comfort him, but even if I could find the words my throat is so dry I couldn’t speak them.

‘Jessa,’ Kit’s father says in a husky voice.

I hold onto the doorframe, keeping my back straight. I’m aware that my mother has followed me down the stairs and is standing right behind me. Kit’s father glances at her over my shoulder. He takes a deep breath, lifts his chin and removes his hat before his eyes flicker back to me.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says.

‘Who?’ I hear myself ask. ‘Who is it?’





2


Jessa


THREE MONTHS EARLIER . . .

‘Oh dear God, who in the name of heaven is he?’

Didi’s grip on my arm is enough to raise bruises. I look up. And I see him. He’s staring at me, grinning, and I have to bite back my own grin. My stomach starts somersaulting, my insides twisting into knots.

‘Kit,’ I say, half in answer to Didi, half just for the chance to say his name out loud after so long. My eyes are locked with Kit’s, and when he hears me speak his name he smiles even wider and walks across the living room towards me.

‘Hey, Jessa,’ he says. His eyes travel over me, taking me in, before settling on my face. He rubs a hand over his shorn head, a self-conscious gesture that makes the somersaults double in speed. He’s still grinning at me but more sheepishly now.

‘Hi,’ I say, swallowing. I’m nervous all of a sudden. I haven’t seen him in nine months. I wasn’t sure he was going to be here today and though I’ve run through this moment dozens – hell, thousands – of times in my head, I find I’m completely unprepared for it now it’s actually happening. In all those imaginings I never once factored in the way he’d make me feel – as though I’ve just taken a running leap off a cliff edge. I’m breathless, almost shaking, finding it hard to hold his steady blue gaze.

He looks older than his twenty-one years. His shoulders are broader and he’s even more tanned than usual, both facts well emphasized by the white T-shirt he’s wearing. I can feel Didi squeezing my arm with so much force it’s as though she’s trying to stem an arterial bleed, and I know if I turn around I’ll see her drooling unashamedly. She might go to a convent school, but Didi’s prayers centre around asking God to deliver her not from trespassers but from her virginity.

‘Happy birthday,’ Kit says now. He hasn’t taken his eyes off me the whole time and my skin is warming under his relentless gaze. I can feel my face getting hotter.

‘Thanks,’ I manage to say, wishing I could come up with a better response, something flirtatious and witty. I know I had something planned for this moment, but my brain has chosen to shut down.

‘Hi!’

It’s Didi. She has let go of my arm and now thrusts her hand out towards Kit. ‘I’m Didi, Jessa’s best friend. You must be Kit. I’ve heard a lot about you.’

Plenty of emphasis on the lot. I make a mental note to kill her later. Kit glances over at me, clearly struggling to contain his amusement, before turning his attention fully back to Didi. He shakes her hand, introducing himself properly, and it gives me a chance to mentally pull myself together and really get a look at him. He’s six foot but he seems taller, maybe because he’s standing so straight. I recognize the ink marking on his arm, poking out from beneath his sleeve. It’s the same tattoo that Riley has. A Marine Corps emblem. My fingers itch to trace it. Oh God. For months I’ve been telling myself to get over Kit, ordering myself to forget him. Didi rolls her eyes at me every time I mention his name. She’s even added my name on Urban Dictionary under the word pathetic. But now, as I watch Kit casting his spell over her, I can see she may finally be ready to cut me a break.

She’s firing questions at him like she’s a Chinese matchmaker, asking all about his job and his uniform. I wouldn’t be surprised if she starts asking him next how much he earns and whether he has a girlfriend. I would interrupt, but I’m still trying to gather my wits and formulate a sentence, and, truth be told, I’m kind of hoping she does ask him whether he has a girlfriend. Though another bigger part of me doesn’t want to hear the answer. Because what if he does? Taking a breath, I remind myself he’s been in Sudan for the last nine months living with a bunch of guys, sleeping in a room with a dozen other men, eating in a mess hall. It’s not like he’s been going to parties or out clubbing every night, so it’s highly unlikely he’s managed to find himself a girlfriend in that time.

Kit answers Didi’s questions politely, nodding and giving the standard issue responses that they’re trained to. In other words, no detail whatsoever. All I know is that he and Riley have been in Sudan along with the rest of their marine detachment, protecting the US embassy in Khartoum. That’s all. They only got back yesterday.

As I listen to Didi and Kit talking, Didi telling him all about how she only moved to Oceanside six months ago and how her big ambition is to finish school and move to LA (thankfully she omits to mention her other big ambition – to lose her virginity), I realize I’m fixating on Kit’s lips, imagining what it would be like to kiss him.

Nothing has ever happened between Kit and me, nothing ever could, so imagining is all I can do. He’s my brother’s best friend and has been since they were fourteen. We’ve known Kit since we moved to California when I was eleven. He and my brother have been inseparable since the day they met at baseball try-outs. It’s the kind of bromance you see in the movies. Not the Brokeback Mountain kind, luckily for me, but something I was always a little envious of. Kit and Riley have probably not gone a day since meeting without seeing each other. They’re closer than brothers. It’s a friendship that persists despite the fact that my father hates Kit and has tried everything in his not inconsiderable power to pull the plug on it.

I glance through the window out into the garden where my father and Riley are firing up the grill. As though operating on some kind of sixth sense, my father’s head snaps up. He was a marine sniper in his day and he has an eerie ability to sense whenever he’s being watched. He has me in his sights. Then I see him register Kit. A dark scowl passes over his face before Riley ignites the charcoal, sending flames soaring as high as the nearest palm tree, and my father turns back around to bark orders at him. Honestly, only in my house does a birthday party get turned into a military operation.

It’s never been exactly clear why my father hates Kit so much, but I know it has something to do with his father, who is also a marine, and who served in the same company as my father back in the eighties. It could also be that my father blames Kit for some of Riley’s more questionable life choices – namely signing up as an enlisted marine, rather than going to college and becoming an officer, which is what my father had expected him (read: preached at him from birth) to do. Then there was the time they burned down the garage while setting off fireworks. And the time they both streaked across the bleachers during a televised football game. Yeah, now I think about it, there are maybe a few reasons why my dad holds a grudge against Kit.

Kit’s father is now a marine chaplain, having found God after a long battle with grief and the bottle following Kit’s mother’s death. My father meanwhile climbed the ranks and is now Colonel, a role that he inhabits even out of uniform, probably even in his sleep. That could be why Kit is still in the kitchen with us and not out making fire with the men. Or maybe it’s for some other reason?

Kit turns back to face me and takes a deep breath. Behind him I catch sight of Didi making a ‘phwoar’ face. I try not to laugh.

Just then my mother comes bustling through from the kitchen carrying plates laden with food.

‘Kit!’ she exclaims delightedly. My mom doesn’t hold the grudge towards Kit or his father that my dad does. In fact she’s almost as fond of him as she is of me and my brother. She treats him like her second son. Whenever Riley and Kit come back on leave it’s like the Second Coming. My mom throws off the depression that she’s been shrouded in since they left and buzzes back to life. I know that no matter how proud she is of them she hates the fact they’re marines as much as I do. I’ve always suspected too that she’s trying to make up for my father treating Kit like he’s some sort of pariah. It gets kind of embarrassing at times. Like now.

She sets a couple of bowls of salad and marinated chicken down on the table and grabs Kit into a fierce hug. She only comes up to his shoulder but he looks like he couldn’t prise himself free even if he tried. Which he doesn’t because he’s far too polite and I think he secretly likes the fuss she makes of him.

Didi takes the opportunity while my mother is hugging Kit to sidle up to me. ‘Oh man, I didn’t even recognize him from the photos. He’s so much hotter. I want to see him in uniform. Just imagine. If this is how hot he looks in normal clothes.’

I ram my elbow into her ribs. I’ve already seen Kit in uniform. And Didi’s not wrong. It rendered me speechless.

‘Or naked,’ Didi whispers. ‘Actually, yes, forget the uniform. Imagine him naked.’

‘Shhh,’ I murmur, not admitting to her that I have. Many times.

‘He is so into you.’

‘Shuttup,’ I mutter as my mother lets Kit go. My pulse spikes, though. Is Didi right? Or is she just saying that because she knows it’s what I want to hear?

‘No, I’m serious, he can’t take his eyes off you,’ Didi says, covering her words with a cough as Kit turns to stare at me again. ‘See.’ Didi swings towards my mom. ‘Mrs Kingsley, do you need a hand?’ she asks in an exceedingly loud and exceedingly obvious voice.

My mom looks up, flustered. ‘Oh, that would be great, thanks Bernadette.’

‘Didi,’ says Didi abruptly. She hates anyone calling her by her given name. She grabs for the chicken and heads for the doorway where great wafts of smoke are billowing thanks to the lighter fluid accelerant my brother has just thrown on the grill. She shoots me a look over her shoulder as she goes – eyes bugging, head tilting in Kit’s direction. From this I deduce she’s telling me to go and talk to Kit.

The trouble is I’ve never had to force myself to make conversation with Kit before. It’s always come naturally. Until now. For some reason my throat suddenly feels as though it is stuffed with rocks. I can barely think a coherent sentence, let alone speak one.

‘So, Jessa, how you been?’ I hear Kit say just behind me.

I turn around, my heart shooting like a rocket into my rib cage.

‘You know . . . good. Fine. OK.’ Waffling. I’m waffling. He’s laughing at me. I can see the way he’s trying not to smile, biting his lips together. His lips. OK. Focus. Don’t stare.

I take a deep breath. As no one but Didi knows, I’ve liked Kit for years, have had a crush on him since I was about fourteen and he was seventeen, but the last time he was back on leave was the first time I felt it might be reciprocated, maybe, possibly. Possibly not. It’s this maybe, possibly, possibly not that has kept me awake most nights for the last nine months. I kept on replaying the interactions we’d had over and over until the memories were so worn I wasn’t sure if I was patching them with invented events, imagining things that hadn’t happened. Had his fingers lingered in mine that time he pulled me to my feet? Did he hold me extra close when he hugged me goodbye? Did he look at me with burning intensity because he was imagining kissing me or because I had food stuck in my teeth? We’ve emailed each other regularly while he’s been away and the emails have been light-hearted, veering sometimes into flirtatious before just as quickly scooting back onto more solid just friends ground.

‘That’s good,’ he says now. Is that a smirk?

Why can’t I stop staring at his lips? Why do I have to lose my train of thought so completely when he stands so close? And did he always smell this good? What the heck is with me?

I manage finally to find my voice and construct a whole sentence with verbs and nouns and pronouns. Incredible. ‘What about you? How was it over there?’

I catch the slight flicker as his smile fades momentarily before brightening once again. He rubs a hand over his head. ‘Yeah, you know . . .’ He shrugs as he tails off.

Stupid question, I think to myself. Damn. For a moment neither of us says anything. I start twisting the end of my ponytail, something I do when I get nervous, then, realizing what I’m doing could be construed as flirtatious as well as ditzy, I drop my hands to my sides. Kit stands there waiting, watching me, that half-smile still on his face. His expression is hard to read. He seems to be enjoying my discomfort, but there’s something else about the way he’s looking at me. He opens his mouth as though to ask me something, but then closes it again. The air around us feels charged, but that could be because I’m hyper-aware of every gesture I’m making and also of the fact that my father is standing not fifteen metres away holding something that could be interpreted as a weapon.

‘How long do you have?’ I finally ask, feeling my cheeks starting to burn almost as hot as the chicken that’s now smoking on the grill.

‘Four weeks,’ he answers.

I nod and stare down at my feet. Four weeks. A month. And then he’s gone again. Why am I even wanting something to happen between us? It wouldn’t be worth it. He’d be gone before I knew it.

‘So how does it feel?’ he asks me.

My head flies up. How does what feel? For an instant I freak out that he somehow knows what I’m thinking, has read my mind.

‘Being free. Being eighteen,’ he says, seeing my confusion.

‘Well, I have one more week of school,’ I tell him. ‘Then the whole summer. And then I start college.’

Kit tilts his head to one side. ‘USC?’

‘No. USD,’ I answer. I waved goodbye to that dream. It’s University of San Diego for me.

‘I thought you wanted to go to LA?’ Kit says now. ‘I thought there was a drama course at USC there you were really into.’

My gaze flies instinctively to the window, to my father who is still busy with the dancing flames. He’s yelling something at Riley. ‘Well, you know how it is,’ I say, wishing I hadn’t brought it up. ‘My dad wanted me to go to USD. It’s closer. I can live at home.’

Kit looks at me disbelieving, a flash of disappointment in his eyes that makes my insides curl up. Trust Kit to remember that I wanted to go to the University of Southern California. He was the first person I told about my dream to go to USC’s School of Dramatic Arts. That was last time he was back on leave. I’d been fighting with my dad over my test scores, then I’d gone down to the beach and run into Kit. We’d started talking and next thing you know I was telling him everything. Kit was the first person who actually asked me what it was I wanted to do with my life. If you had one dream, what would it be? he’d asked.

I told him I’d go to USC to study drama. He was so interested, so enthusiastic about the idea, that I started to get excited too – to actually start contemplating it. Then I got home, still high on our conversation, ready to start researching the application process, and found my dad waiting for me with a fully drawn-up schedule of after-school tutoring and a brochure for USD. But I don’t want to think about any of that today. It’s my birthday. Kit’s scowling now. He glances around the room. I follow his gaze to the window. My father is standing with charred tongs in one hand glaring through the glass. His eyes are narrowed like laser sights. Suddenly, though, his view is blocked by Didi, who stands before him holding a bowl of marinated chicken like it’s John the Baptist’s head.

‘I better go,’ I hear Kit say.

I spin around. ‘No,’ I say quickly, grabbing for his wrist. ‘Please stay.’

Kit stares down at my fingers circling his arm. He doesn’t say anything, but when he looks up my pulse quickens as I see the expression in his eyes. It’s unmistakable. I’m not inventing this or imagining it. I see the desire, bright as a flame. I drop his wrist in surprise, my fingers burning.

‘I don’t want to get court-martialled,’ he murmurs, jerking his head softly in the direction of the window.

‘Oh, just ignore him,’ I say, sounding breathless and cursing myself for it. ‘He’s just out of sorts. You know what he’s like.’ I hate making excuses for my father but I’m used to it. I’ve been doing it most of my life.

‘Yeah, well,’ Kit says, ‘I don’t want him sending me on a one-man mission to Somalia or Afghanistan. Or worse, making me clean the latrines at the base for the rest of my life.’

Kit looks down at my hand which rests just inches away from his own. He glances up and his gaze rests for a moment on my lips. ‘I best be going,’ he says quietly.

I swallow. No. Don’t go, I want to say. I want to take hold of his wrist again. I want to see that look in his eye one more time. Just to be sure, because already I’m wondering if I imagined it. But I don’t. I just nod. He steps back towards the door. ‘Tell Riley I’ll call him later.’

I nod again. For some reason tears burn the backs of my eyes. I blame it on the smoke from the grill that’s wafting through the open French doors. Why does my dad have to always go and ruin everything? And more annoyingly, why don’t I ever stand up to him? I’m eighteen now. I shouldn’t be scared any more.

‘I’ll see you around, Jessa,’ Kit says. He grabs a couple of cupcakes from the plate on the table, grins at me, and disappears. A few seconds later I hear the front door slam.





3


Kit


I shouldn’t have left. If Colonel I’m a dickhead Kingsley hadn’t pointed those tongs at me like he was aiming a sub-machine gun at my head then maybe I would have stuck around. I swear it was crossing his mind to use my face as fuel for the grill. Whatever. What was I expecting? It’s not like I’ve ever been welcome in their house. Well, OK, that’s not strictly true. I’m welcome there whenever he’s not around. Riley, Jessa and their mom have always gone out of their way to make me feel at home. I think they feel guilty for how he treats me. I know Riley thinks his dad is an asshole, but he can’t say anything. Guess I wouldn’t either in his shoes.

I swing my leg over my bike with a sigh and rev the engine. While I was away the two things I missed the most and fantasized about so regularly that I earned the title of Corporal Space Cadet from my unit were this bike and Jessa Kingsley. OK and a ribeye steak from Fleming’s, cooked medium rare. But mainly Jessa, it has to be said. And holy shit, yeah, now I remember exactly why and simultaneously realize how much my imagination short-changed me. I didn’t have a photograph of her with me – didn’t want Riley to have occasion to ask me what the fuck I was doing with a picture of his sister in my wallet, for obvious reasons, namely wanting to keep possession of my balls. Next time, though, I’m taking a photograph. Balls be damned.

Jessa Kingsley has been my secret obsession for two years. Thankfully for her she takes after her mom and not her dad – pale blonde hair, creamy skin, eyes so green you’d think they were contacts if you didn’t know otherwise. One day she was this small, blonde kid, all elbows and knees and braces, following the two of us around all the time like a lemming, and then I go away to basic training and come back to find she’s all grown up, with eyes the size of dinner plates, hair hanging straight as a sniper’s aim down her back and a smile that takes my breath away every single time.

She never grew much, in fact she’s still short and petite, but she’s got curves in all the right places. Though it took a while to realize that, and by then it was more like a bonus rather than the main attraction. She goes to a convent school and the uniform is kind of like a nun’s habit. And I think her dad has veto over her entire wardrobe as she’s never showing much skin. I only realized how killer her body was when I saw her at the beach wearing a bikini. That sight was enough to push my obsession from borderline to all-consuming.

Coming to her house was a dumb idea, though. Now I’m not going to be able to get her out of my mind for the next month. I guess half of me was hoping I’d go around to visit and find out she’d gained five hundred pounds or at the very least a boyfriend, which would kick all my dreams into touch. Maybe she does have a boyfriend. The thought makes me almost skid into the kerb. Shit. I didn’t ask. But no. I mean, if she had a boyfriend I would have heard about it, right? Riley would have said something, I’m sure of it. Any whiff of a guy making moves on his sister and he’d know about it and put a stop to it, even from as far away as Sudan. He’d find a way. Plus there’s her father. I can’t see him allowing Jessa to date any time this century. And I can’t imagine any guy meeting her father and asking her out on a second date.

I can’t count the times I’ve thought about telling Jessa how I feel, but to be honest I’ve never been sure if she’s interested. And admitting something like that to someone is purely a one-time deal. If it’s not reciprocated then not only do you look like a prize fool but you also lose a friendship. I don’t care so much about the fool part because she probably already figures me for one, but I do care about losing Jessa as a friend. The thing is, in her emails recently, if I’m not mistaken, she seemed to be flirting with me. And after seeing the way she looked at me just now, and the not so subtle comments her friend was making, I’m pretty sure she must have been. A buzz settles in my chest just below my sternum, a jolt of energy that spreads outwards, making my heart rate speed up.

I realize that I’m doing twenty over the speed limit and grinning like a maniac on speed. I ease off the gas. There’s a sign up ahead saying ‘No U-turns’. For a second I contemplate it anyway. But then I tell myself to stay away. Riley would kill me. Hell, her father would kill me if he even suspected what I fantasize about regarding his daughter. Actually he wouldn’t just kill me. He’d torture me first, then kill me. It’s a bad idea. Jessa and I can’t ever be together. Not long term. She’s off to college in the fall and I’m leaving again in a month, need I remind myself.

I park up by the pier and lean over the railing for half an hour, listening to the waves bash against the struts, watching the kids playing on the swings at the top of the boardwalk and the fishermen casting off again and again, hoping to bag a catch. When I finally turn away the sun is starting to sink over the ocean and I’ve decided what I’m going to do. I grin, even though I know it might just be the stupidest thing I’ve ever thought about doing. And considering all the stupid things I’ve done in my life, that’s pretty impressive.





4


Jessa


I lie on my bed, playing with the necklace my mom just gave me and staring up at the ceiling. It’s heart-shaped (the necklace, not the ceiling) and as I play with it I can’t stop thinking about Kit. Did I mistake the look in his eyes? My stomach flutters with butterflies at the thought that I didn’t. But then the butterflies are blown to smithereens as I picture my father’s face staring at Kit through the window and pointing that grill tong at him. I mean, there are way too many obstacles in the way, not even taking into account the number of guns and grilling implements my father owns. I bury my head in a pillow. I guess I can wave goodbye to ever knowing what it’s like to kiss Kit. While I’m at it, I guess I can wave goodbye to having a boyfriend before I turn thirty or ever losing my virginity. I’ll be like the nuns who teach us Religious Studies at school. In fact I may as well just measure myself right now for a wimple and be done with it.

I didn’t tell Kit about the fights that went down with my dad over college. Actually ‘fights’ would be exaggerating. No one fights with my dad. He lays down the law. We obey. My father has post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a diagnosis Riley and I have made unofficially because he refuses to see a ‘head doctor’ or talk about his problems. We have to walk on eggshells for fear he gets over-stressed or irritated, which is pretty much an hourly occurrence. Even the sound of a kettle whistling can set him off, which is why all our phones are set to silent.

When he does have one of his episodes, it’s like a tornado rampaging through the house. He’s never hit us, but he’s destroyed a lot of furniture. Right now I can hear him downstairs in his den, watching the game, occasionally letting out the odd expletive or victory yell. My stomach is tensed and I feel on edge, like I’m about to take a test where the punishment for failing is death by firing squad. With grim recognition, I realize that’s how I always feel when he’s in the house. I don’t know how my mom deals with it or why she hasn’t divorced him. If I were in her shoes I would have by now. I make a solemn promise to myself that I will never ever marry anyone in the military – not after seeing the destruction it’s wrought on my own family.

A knock on my door startles me. I pull my head out from under the pillow. Riley’s standing in the doorway. He glances over his shoulder, walks into my room and closes the door quietly behind him.

‘Hey,’ he says, dropping down onto the bed beside me. ‘How you doing?’

‘Yeah,’ I say, sitting up cross-legged on the bed and shrugging. ‘You know.’

He nods. He knows. Birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving . . . they are without a doubt the most stressful days of the year in our house. Having Riley here helps because at least we get to share the load and both of us can tag-team my mom. When he’s not here it’s all on me, something I think Riley feels guilty about as when he hands me a well-wrapped present he looks kind of sheepish.

‘Happy Birthday,’ he says.

I take it curiously, glancing at him. ‘What is it?’ I ask.

‘I got it over in Sudan.’

That makes me raise my eyebrows. I mean, I can’t imagine what sort of shopping malls they have there.

I tear open the wrapping with difficulty. My brother and I have spent our lives being taught to square away our rooms at the end of each day, to make our beds like we were preparing for a daily inspection, which in fact we were. The present is as tightly and perfectly wrapped as a marine dorm bed. It takes me almost five minutes to get into it.

‘An iPhone?’ I say in amazement when I finally manage to tear off the paper.

‘Yeah, don’t show Dad,’ Riley says unnecessarily. As if. My dad is vehemently against social media, smart phones or, well, any technology that isn’t designed for military use. He’s just naturally suspicious of anything he can’t understand and that puts social media at the top of his list, with teenage girls just below it. Not only has he banned me outright from having a Facebook account but he’s only recently agreed to let me have a cell phone (the most basic brick-sized one on the market) on the condition, he stressed, that I use it only for emergencies. The guy in the phone store looked at me with a pity normally reserved for victims of humanitarian disasters. The only good news is that he didn’t qualify what he meant by emergencies, so every conversation with Didi now starts with ‘Didi, it’s an emergency.’

‘You got this in Sudan?’ I ask Riley, noting it’s the latest version but that it has no box to go with it. Or instructions for that matter.

Riley shrugs. ‘I got it unlocked for you and I put on a few apps.’

I scroll through. ‘Candy Crush? Angry Birds?’

‘You know, for all those boring lectures you’re going to have to sit through in college.’

‘Thanks,’ I say, smacking him on the shoulder.

‘You’re welcome,’ he says, smacking me back. We don’t say anything for a while. Riley seems different these days, especially after this last tour: older, more careworn, tired. He rarely smiles any more and I can’t remember the last time I heard him laugh or tell a joke, which is strange as Riley was always the joker – the kid who stuck waterproof stickers of his teachers’ faces in all the toilet bowls in school, the kid who covered his principal’s car in tin foil and who led his entire sixth-grade class on a Ditch Day. I guess he quit with the pranks around the same time my dad starting losing it.

I don’t tell Riley but the thing that scares me most, besides him dying, is that one day he’ll come back and start behaving like Dad. The day he enlisted with Kit was one of the worst days of my life. But I smiled like always and pretended I was happy for them both. I want to ask him now about Sudan, about his job, about what he’s seen, but I know he can’t tell me much and I also get the feeling he doesn’t want to talk about it anyway.

‘Do you want to watch some TV?’ I ask, hoping he says yes because it’s not like I’ve had a chance to hang out with him much since he got back. And it’s my birthday.

‘I can’t,’ he says. ‘I’m going out to meet Jo.’ He shoots me an apologetic smile and gets up.

I try to cover my disappointment. It’s decided then. I’m just going to lie here and have a little pity party for myself because who spends the night of their eighteenth birthday alone in their bedroom playing Angry Birds on a phone where the settings are all in Arabic, wearing a heart-shaped locket their mom gave them? Oh yeah, that’s right, someone with no life. And no prospect of ever getting one.

‘How is Jo?’ I ask, smiling, though on the inside I’m sighing.

‘Yeah, she’s good,’ Riley says, his face immediately lighting up. He and Jo have been dating for three years already. They met just before he and Kit enlisted. Jo was waitressing at his favourite steakhouse. He spent most of his savings on steak and tips, trying to convince her to date him, and eventually she caved in. My brother is what some might call persistent. My mom says he just doesn’t know how to take no for an answer. They seem to make it work, even though they only see each other every nine months or so. I ponder on that as Riley walks out the door. No doubt to spend the night having sex. It’s not even his birthday, I think to myself grudgingly.

Not even a minute after he goes, the sound of something rapping against my window makes my head snap up. I get up from the bed and cross to the window. Riley. He always used to throw stones up at my window on the nights he’d snuck out as a signal to come down and unlock the back door to let him in. I open the window and peer out. Maybe he forgot his keys. It’s totally dark out, the moon just a sliver, and the lights in the backyard aren’t on so I can’t see anything.

‘Jessa?’

My heart leaps into my mouth when I recognize Kit’s voice.

‘What are you doing?’ I hiss into the darkness. My excitement is marred by the fact that my dad has supersonic hearing and if he finds Kit loitering in his bushes he won’t need an excuse to reach for his gun.

‘Come down,’ Kit says.

I hesitate. My stomach feels like a washing machine on spin cycle. Why does he want me to come down? What if my dad hears? But my body is responding of its own accord – I’m already walking to the mirror. I drag a brush through my hair and stare at my eyes, which look slightly feverish and glassy.

I tiptoe out onto the landing, trying to think up an excuse as to why I’m heading downstairs in case I get caught. Then I remind myself it’s just after nine o’clock. I don’t need to have a reason for going downstairs. What I need is to get it together. I walk into the kitchen, straight over to the door and then ease back the lock and creep out, the whole time murmuring a silent prayer that I don’t get caught because I might be good at acting, but when it comes to my father I’m only winning Razzies. He can see through me like I’m a window with no glass.

I’m barefoot; the grass tickles my feet. I move swiftly across the lawn towards the bushes at the side of the garden. When I get there, though, there’s no sign of Kit. I look around. Where is he? Am I losing it? Did I imagine it?

Then though a hand covers my eyes and an arm wraps around my waist from behind. ‘Boo,’ Kit whispers into my ear.

Shivers ride down my spine in waves. His left hand lingers on my stomach but he removes his other hand from my eyes. I turn around slowly, shakily, suddenly self-conscious. I’m only wearing pyjama shorts and a cotton camisole top, no bra. Maybe I should have thought to put on a sweater. But it’s too late. I watch Kit’s gaze fall to my legs and slowly sweep upwards. Goosebumps rise across the surface of my skin as though he’s tracing my body with his fingers, not just his eyes. When he reaches my face I see the smile on his face and the way his eyes are glittering.

My breathing hitches as I stare at him. ‘What are you doing here?’ I whisper.

‘I forgot to give you this,’ he answers, pulling an envelope from his back pocket.

I stare at it. ‘What is it?’

‘Open it,’ he says, pushing it into my hands. ‘It’s your birthday present.’

I take it and open it, the whole time aware that he’s watching me. Inside are two tickets to The Merchant of Venice in Balboa Park for a fortnight’s time. I look up at him wide-eyed. ‘Are you serious?’

He nods, smiling as he sees my grin. ‘I remember when you were in it,’ he says. ‘You want to go and see it? I wasn’t sure . . . ’

‘Yes, yes,’ I say quickly. ‘Thank you! I can’t wait. You’re coming with me, right?’ I ask, holding up the second ticket.

He shrugs. ‘Sure. I mean, I didn’t want to presume or anything. You know, in case maybe you wanted to take Didi. Or . . . ’ he has been staring down at his feet but now he looks up at me and I realize he’s fishing to see if I have a boyfriend.

‘No. I want to go with you,’ I say, the words stumbling over themselves in their haste to get out. Should I have played that cooler?, I wonder. But too late. And anyway, he’s now grinning.

‘Cool,’ he says, toeing the ground.

We both take a breath in. My eyes dart towards the house. I guess I should head in before the game ends or my dad hears us. Without saying a word Kit suddenly takes my hand and pulls me deeper into the shadow of the bushes. I make no attempt to protest.

‘You know,’ he murmurs, not letting go of my hand, ‘I’ve been thinking about you. While I was away.’ He looks straight into my eyes, the smile gone, a look of studied seriousness on his face, and maybe, just possibly, a hint of nerves. ‘I’ve been thinking about you a lot.’

‘Oh,’ I say. Kit’s presence seems to directly affect my literacy levels.

‘Yeah,’ he says, looking down at our hands. His thumb starts almost absently to stroke my pulse point and I draw in a sharp breath. It’s as if he’s stoking a fire, making my blood course through my veins like molten lava. I can feel the heat flooding my face, rushing to other parts of my body too.

‘How long have you been here?’ I ask, trying to keep my voice steady, though I’m losing the ability to concentrate as his thumb keeps stroking.

‘About thirty minutes. I waited until I saw Riley go out.’

‘You’ve been waiting in the bushes for half an hour just to speak to me?’

Kit shrugs. ‘I’ve done sniper training. I can sit for hours in the dark, waiting and watching.’

‘That’s comforting,’ I say. ‘And not creepy in the slightest.’

He laughs quietly and the sound makes me want to lean in closer, to press my body against his.

‘I figured your dad wouldn’t want me coming around and knocking on the door.’

I glance over my shoulder automatically, half expecting to see my dad taking aim from the back porch. ‘You know if he finds you out here he’s going to kill you.’

‘I’ll take the chance,’ Kit says, shifting ever so slightly and drawing me closer so only a sliver of space remains between us. I barely come up to his chin so I’m having to tilt my head all the way back. This close I can smell his scent – laundry powder and something else, something citrus, aftershave maybe.

‘I just had to see you again,’ he murmurs, his voice as soft as a caress.

I pull back an inch, my heart galloping. I’m scared. Not of Kit, but of what’s about to happen between us. It feels like I’m about to take a step off a cliff and into a void and I have no idea whether I’ll land safely or end up smashed to pieces on some jagged rocks I can’t yet see. This could be reckless, stupid, dangerous. Or it could be the best thing I ever do. ‘I’m serious,’ I mumble. ‘If my dad finds you out here, he’ll go ballistic.’

Kit smiles. He lifts his hand and strokes a strand of hair back behind my ear. ‘It would be worth it,’ he says, his hand lingering, moving to rest against my cheek.

‘What would?’ I ask, my senses obliterated, all my focus on his hand and on his lips, so close to mine.

‘This,’ he says, and he kisses me.

I’ve imagined kissing Kit a million times, but never in all my imaginings was it like this. The instant his lips touch mine I feel like I’m rocketing through space. His arms tighten around my waist, pulling me closer, the heat of his hands and his lips lighting signal fires all the way through my body. He’s tender, gentle, almost careful with me, until, utterly consumed by him, I push myself up on tiptoe and wrap my arms around his neck and draw him closer.

He groans a little as my breasts press against him, and his hand falls to my hip, gripping it tightly and pulling me more firmly against him. The kiss deepens, his tongue pushing into my mouth, meeting mine. I can feel his desire, taste it, and it’s feeding my own. And now I’m truly breathless, stars dancing on the backs of my eyelids, blood roaring in my head so loud that I don’t at first hear Kit say my name, his lips still pressed to mine.

‘Jessa,’ he murmurs.

It takes me a few seconds to come to. Kit has stopped kissing me. He pulls away, though his hands are still gripping my hips. I open my eyes, my breath ragged and my face burning. Kit is staring over my shoulder.

‘Your dad,’ he whispers.





5


Kit


Shit. Jessa’s dad is illuminated in the kitchen doorway like the captain on the bridge of a ship. He’s silent, unmoving as a statue, but I can feel his eyes burning through the darkness. He’s staring straight at us – or rather straight at the bushes as though he has X-ray vision and can see us hidden behind them, his daughter in my arms.

Against me, Jessa has gone rigid, frozen with fear. Her fingers bite into the tops of my shoulders. I hold her tight, making sure she doesn’t move so much as an eyelash. He might be an old dude, but Jessa’s dad is still a trained sniper, famous back in his day and with a shelf full of trophies to show for it. I don’t want my head to join them.

We’re pretty well hidden behind a thicket of leaves and branches and the moon has thankfully chosen to slip behind some clouds, so I don’t think he can make us out, but any movement or noise and we’re done for. His eyes might not be as razor-sharp as they used to be, but the guy has ears like an elephant. The joke on the base is that Colonel Kingsley can hear a marine fart in Afghanistan without moving from his desk at Pendleton. The roar of blood in my ears is so loud I’m betting that’s what got his attention in the first place.

Slowly I raise my hand and place a finger against Jessa’s lips. They’re warm and so soft that straightaway I get a tingling in my gut and an overwhelming urge to start kissing her once more, never mind her father watching . . . he can have a front-row seat. Then I get a grip. I lock eyes with Jessa. She’s staring up at me, her expression so fearful that anger instantly wells up in me, taking the place of desire. Who the hell is this guy to make her – his own daughter – this scared? I force my anger down and give Jessa a smile, and then when that doesn’t work, I wink at her, trying to get her to relax. She does. Her breathing settles and her grip on my arms loosens.

Keeping as still as I can, I swivel my eyes so I can watch her dad. He’s still there, in the doorway, glaring out into the blank void of the garden, and it feels as if he’s staring right at me, drilling through me with his eyes, spitting hatred across the darkness. If he decides to come and investigate, we’re fucked. I don’t care so much about myself, but I do care about what he might do to Jessa. I don’t think he’d hurt her, but man, it won’t be pretty. He’ll probably ground her for a century. And there goes any chance I might have of seeing her again before I head out on my next deployment.

Just then, Colonel Kingsley Sir takes a step onto the veranda, holding the kitchen door open with one hand. Shit. There’s only one thing for it. I need to go out there, bite the bullet and hope it’s just a metaphorical one. I’ll act like I was hanging around waiting for Riley, not wanting to disturb them all by ringing the doorbell. He might buy it. Though how I’m going to explain the fact that I’ve been sitting in the bushes in their backyard I’m not yet sure. Telling him I was relieving myself on his prize begonias isn’t going to go down well. Oh well, it’s not like it will be the first time I’ve been on the receiving end of one of Kingsley’s rages. One time Riley and I burned down the garage playing around with some fireworks and Kingsley did the best impression I’ve seen of an angry person since Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver.

I prise Jessa’s fingers silently free from my arms. Her eyes grow even bigger, the whites so visible they gleam. She shakes her head at me, trying to grab for my hands to stop me, but I just smile reassuringly at her and then point to the tree and nod at her to stay out of sight. She glares at me in response.

But then, just as I’m about to step out of the bushes, my hands raised as though I’m surrendering to the enemy, Jessa’s dad turns abruptly around and marches back into the house. Loud cheering is issuing from a television somewhere inside. The game! I close my eyes and say a grateful prayer to the gods of baseball for saving my ass.

I turn around, grinning, and find Jessa staring over my shoulder, her face pale and stricken. ‘What?’ I whisper, whipping around smartly. Maybe I was mistaken and he was actually going for his gun.

I turn in time to see her dad locking and dead-bolting the back door. Uh-oh.

The sound of the bolt ramming home makes me wince. Jessa’s mouth falls open. ‘What am I going to do?’ she whispers, panic lacing her voice. ‘I can’t get back in!’

I look back at the door, checking the windows on either side in case any have been left open. Nope. There’s a drainpipe that runs down the side of the house right by Jessa’s bedroom window, and if it was me I’d probably try it, but I’m not sure Jessa’s going to be open to that particular idea. Though I would quite like to see her try it in those shorts.

She’s staring up at me half expectantly, half fearfully, and it looks like she could be on the verge of tears. Damn. This is my fault. I pause to run through the options in my head, which only takes about two seconds because there aren’t any, besides knocking on the front door and making up some lame excuse about sleepwalking, that is.

Jessa hugs herself around the waist and starts shivering lightly. I pull her instinctively towards me, wrapping my arms around her as though it’s the most natural thing in the world to hold her like this, which is exactly how it does feel. My chin rests on top of her head and I get a hit of her shampoo – rosemary and mint – and have to stop myself from burying my face in it and inhaling another lungful. An idea crystallizes in my head at that point, one that makes me grin in the darkness and say another prayer of thanks to the gods of baseball. It’s reckless and probably crazy as ideas go, and I’m not sure Jessa is going to buy it, but here’s hoping.

‘Does your dad ever check on you when he goes to bed?’ I ask her.

Jessa shakes her head at me, looking confused.

‘Your mom?’

‘She’s already asleep,’ Jessa whispers, still looking confused.

The grin widens on my face. ‘OK,’ I say, trying to rein it in. ‘I got a plan.’

Jessa waits.

‘Come with me. Let’s spend the night together.’

Jessa’s mouth instantly falls open. She takes a step backwards, slipping out of my arms.

‘No, I don’t mean like that,’ I whisper, suddenly flustered. Crap. She took that entirely the wrong way. ‘I mean, let’s go for a drive, hang out, talk.’ Man. I blew it. She’s looking at me now with both eyebrows raised, arms crossed defensively against her chest.

‘Look,’ I add, hoping my charming smile will win her around as it has other girls in the past, and then simultaneously hating myself for even trying to win her around, because Jessa isn’t like other girls and this isn’t a game. For the first time in my life this feels real. Not something I’m playing at. I’m nervous, something I don’t usually feel when it comes to girls. I don’t want to screw it up. Again, not something I usually worry about.

‘You can’t get back inside,’ I say, reaching for Jessa’s hand. A frown passes across her face as swift as lightning, but lingering. ‘Come on,’ I say, hoping I don’t sound too desperate but finding my throat dry as sand, praying silently that she’ll say yes because suddenly a whole lot more than just a night seems to rest on her answer. ‘It’ll be fun. I promise.’

She doesn’t pull her hand from mine, which I take as a good sign. She just stands there, studying me, biting her lip. She looks at the house. When she turns back to me the frown has vanished, replaced by a small, shy smile which plays at the edge of her mouth. Those lips, man . . . I tug her towards me, take her face in my hands, and because I can’t stop myself, I kiss her, just gently, savouring every single second. She kisses me back, her body swaying against mine, pressing closer. God, this girl . . .

‘OK,’ she whispers against my lips just before I lose my train of thought completely.





6


Jessa


Kit pulls back, his arms still around my waist.

‘Really?’ he asks.

I swallow, my heart slamming fast against my ribs, then nod.

Even though it’s dark I can see his smile lighting up his face. Then he takes my hand and links his fingers tightly through mine, and just this simple action makes my heart expand in my chest like a balloon about to burst because it feels so natural, so normal and so right. It feels like Kit could lead me anywhere right now, and I’d simply follow, which, given I’m not one for spontaneity or risk-taking, freaks me out.

Kit tugs me through the bushes towards the gate at the side of the house. He’s stealthy and silent, while even barefoot I seem to be making enough noise to alert the whole of Oceanside, including the people buried in the cemetery. My ears are pricked and I keep my eyes locked on the back door, anxious that my dad might come back to investigate, this time with his gun, but I’m even more nervous about what’s about to come next with Kit. Where’s he going to take me? What are we going to do? The butterflies in my stomach swarm in a giant eddy, rising up my throat and almost making me burst into hysterical laughter.

Kit draws back the bolt on the gate, easing it as quietly as he can but it still squeaks loudly enough that we both pause, cringing. Next door’s dog starts barking and Kit grabs my hand and starts jogging towards the sidewalk and a white van parked up about twenty metres away. When I see what’s behind the van I come to a sudden halt, digging my heels in.

Kit looks back at me over his shoulder. ‘What’s up?’ he asks.

I stare at the bike parked behind the van, mentally slapping myself. Of course he came on his bike. He goes everywhere on that thing. But he can’t actually be expecting me to ride on it too, can he?

‘You don’t want to ride the bike?’ he asks, reading my mind. ‘Is that it?’

I shrug at him. ‘Um, it’s just . . . ’ All I can think of is my dad lecturing me about never riding a motorbike and warning me that if he caught me doing so he would ground me for the rest of eternity and use my college fund to buy me road safety classes.

‘I promise I’ll go slowly.’ Kit takes both my hands and pulls me towards him, and my heels, despite being glued to the sidewalk, somehow come unstuck. ‘I’ll look after you,’ he says softly. ‘Don’t worry.’

The thing with Kit is that he has these eyes which are so blue and so clear they’re basically hypnotic. When he stares right at you, it’s like you’re a butterfly pinned to a board. There’s no escape. All you can do is submit, which Didi would probably claim is all about my deep-seated compulsion to please and to avoid conflict, brought about by years of having to accommodate my dad’s moods. Didi’s father is a psychologist, so she has a deep-seated compulsion to analyse everyone she comes into contact with. But secretly I think she’s on to something. I just don’t have the courage to actually confront this truth and deal with it. One day. Just not today.

Kit unlocks the seat of the bike and hands me something. I shake it out. It’s an old leather jacket, soft as butter and lined with worn suede. I slide my arms through the sleeves, shivering not with cold but because it feels like being enveloped by warm arms – Kit’s warm arms, to be precise. The jacket smells of him – and of motorbike – and I want to burrow down deep inside of it like an animal going into hibernation.

Kit comes and stands in front of me to zip it up. He pauses when he’s done, puts his hands on the collar and draws it up under my chin. I hold my breath, expecting him to kiss me again, because it looks like that’s what he’s thinking about as his eyes dance around my lips, but at the last minute he decides not to. He reaches instead for something else from inside the bike and passes it to me.

It’s a helmet. Holding it in my hands, I stare at it like a strange and magical relic I can’t guess the use of.

‘You going to put it on or not?’ Kit asks.

‘What about you?’ I ask, noticing he doesn’t have another one.

‘I’ve got a hard head,’ he says, rapping his hand against his skull.

‘That explains a few things,’ I mutter, undoing the strap of the helmet.

‘You need a hand?’ Kit asks as he watches me wrestle the helmet on. My cheeks are going red because I know I must look like a total idiot standing in my bare feet wearing skimpy cotton shorts, a leather jacket five sizes too big for me and an oversized motorcycle helmet. As if on cue, Kit grins at me. ‘Looking hot,’ he says, his gaze sweeping all the way up my body.

I narrow my eyes at him but the visor is down and I don’t think he can see my scowl. He hops forwards and helps me do up the strap, his fingers pausing to linger against my throat. Instantly I forget about the stupid helmet and about the fact that I’m standing on my street looking like I’m dressed for some bizarre kind of costume party. It’s that hypnotism thing again, except it’s not just his eyes this time, it’s his touch.

‘You could wear a sack and you’d still look beautiful,’ he says, dropping a kiss on top of the helmet. He says something else but I don’t hear it because all I can focus on is how he just called me beautiful. My heart does a bungee jump. Kit just told me I’m beautiful and I’m wearing what feels like a concrete turban on my head. I know Didi will laugh her ass off when I tell her.

Kit has already swung his leg over the bike and is sitting waiting for me. I wobble a bit, unused to the extra weight on top of my shoulders and the weird deafness that comes from the padded bits by my ears, then swing my leg over the seat and climb on behind him. He takes my hands and pulls me closer, wrapping my arms around his waist, then kicks up the stand and revs the engine. We take off down the street. I have to suppress a scream – of surprise and excitement both. My thigh muscles squeeze the outside edge of Kit’s legs, and I knot my hands over the rock-hard slab of his stomach. I press myself even closer against his back and feel a rush like nothing I’ve experienced before.

It’s like a rollercoaster ride. And as Kit takes the corner with total ease and confidence, I know one thing with sudden and absolute certainty: I don’t ever want to get off.





7


Kit


When I take the corner and Jessa’s body leans with mine into the curve, I almost shoot straight through the intersection. It’s hard to stay focused with the feel of her pressing against my back, and I’m just glad she can’t see my face because I know I must be grinning like an idiot.

I pull up at a stop light and feel Jessa shift behind me. Without thinking I drop a hand and rest it on her knee. She burrows even closer against my back in response and I have to fight an urge to stroke my hand all the way up her thigh. Instead I place it firmly back on the handlebar and scan the street in all directions for cop cars. Driving without a helmet will get me a ticket, but I’m hoping we’ll get lucky. We’re not going far, after all – just back to mine.

As I’m glancing around, on the lookout for flashing red and blue lights, I see something far worse than a cop car and swear under my breath. Straight ahead of us, in the oncoming traffic queue, waiting at the stop light, is Riley’s car.

Has he seen me? It’s dark and I can’t make out his face. I look back at the light. It’s still red. Come on, change, I urge it silently. As soon as the light snaps to green I give the bike full throttle and throw a right turn. Jessa’s arms tighten around my waist and too late I remember I promised her I’d go slowly.

Mitigating circumstances. Checking in the mirror I see Riley’s car crawl across the intersection behind us. Did he see? For the last mile of the journey I find myself struggling with guilt and shooting looks in my wing mirror. Riley’s my best friend, but more than that he’s effectively a brother to me. What kind of a guy goes behind their best friend’s back to hook up with his sister? I try to imagine what Riley would say if he found out, but I don’t even like to contemplate it. He’d be mad, that much I do know. The President’s secret service team have nothing on Riley when it comes to overprotectiveness.

One time we were all out for pizza and some guy made the dumb but entirely understandable mistake of looking at Jessa twice. Riley got out of the booth and went over to him, demanding to know what he was looking at. The guy almost shat his pants right there in the middle of the restaurant. He’s probably never looked at another girl since.

Another time, when Jessa came to the base for our send-off, one of the guys in B Company asked who the hot piece of ass was and Riley saw red. He smacked him with a right hook before the guy had even finished his sentence. He got an official reprimand for that. If Riley hadn’t done it, though, I might have. Even back then I had a thing for Jessa, though I hadn’t fully admitted it to myself, let alone anyone else. If I had to analyse what it is that brings out the overprotective warrior in me, I’d say it’s her vulnerability – what my sister calls her sweetness. My life is basically spent surrounded by guys in uniform waging war and watching porn in their downtime. Jessa’s the counterpoint.

Or maybe it’s because her father’s a controlling bully and I want to protect her from him. My guess is that’s why Riley’s so protective of her too. Not that either of them really opens up about what goes on behind closed doors. I’ve only managed to pick up a few clues here and there. I sigh. Could also be that my sister’s right and I have a hero complex.

A car is coming up on my inside and I glance sideways in panic. It’s not Riley, but it briefly crosses my mind that I could simply try to explain – tell him that I’m not just playing around. The problem with that, though, is that Riley knows me better than anyone. He knows my history and will therefore assume Jessa’s just the next in a relatively long line of girls I’ve had meaningless flings with. It’s not like I’ve ever had a proper girlfriend, so how would I convince him that this is different? I don’t want a meaningless fling with Jessa. That much I do know. But the fact is I’m leaving soon and I’ll be gone for a year. How can it be more than just a fling?

As I pull into my driveway, thoughts still stampeding around my head, I notice the lights are on downstairs. Damn. My dad’s still awake. I pull the bike into the garage beside my dad’s pickup and quickly kill the engine. Jessa surprises me by hopping off the bike before I can help her. I ready myself for her laying into me about driving too fast, but when she pulls off the helmet I see her cheeks are flushed and she’s smiling like she just won the lotto.

‘That was amazing. Can we do it again?’ she says, the words flying out of her breathlessly.

‘That was nothing,’ I say, grinning back at her. ‘One day we’ll take a road trip. A long one. Just you, me and the bike.’ As soon as I say it I start imagining it, and for a moment I can smell the ocean breeze, feel Jessa’s arms around my waist leaning into every bend. I can picture the two of us riding into the sunset, stopping at cosy, out-of-the-way hotels, having wild adventures involving hot springs and deserted beaches. The fantasy vanishes as quickly as it appears. Why am I saying things like this to her? Getting her hopes up? I’m contracted to the military. They own my ass.

Jessa’s biting her lip, a cute habit I’d forgotten about. She does it a lot, especially when she’s contemplating doing something she thinks is against the rules . . . so basically everything other than breathing. But seeing the glow in her eyes as she stares at my bike I get a buzz in my sternum. Rule breaking is something I used to be a pro at, and the thought of breaking some with Jessa, if it makes her smile the way she is now, is a total turn-on.

‘What are we doing here?’ Jessa asks now, looking around the garage which doubles as my dad’s workshop. ‘Is your dad home?’ The worried look is back. I’m guessing she’s afraid that if my dad finds out she’s here somehow it’ll get back to her dad, despite the fact that my dad and her dad don’t speak and I’d absolutely trust my dad never to say anything.

‘We’re not staying,’ I tell her, hoping to allay her fears. ‘I just wanted to pick up a few things.’

‘Where are we going?’ Jessa asks gleefully, the worry erased, and I have a sudden urge to pick her up and swing her around, her enthusiasm is that infectious.

‘It’s a surprise – quit asking.’

She purses her lips at me, but I ignore it and head towards the door that leads into the utility room. ‘Wait here. I’ll only be a moment.’

I forget to wipe the grin off my face before I walk into the kitchen where my dad happens to be fixing tea.

‘What you grinning for?’ he asks me, arching an eyebrow as he pours milk into his mug. My dad might be knocking fifty but not much passes him by.

‘Nothing,’ I answer, heading straight for the stairs.

‘Last time I saw a grin like that, nine months later your sister arrived on the scene,’ my dad calls after me. ‘You watch yourself.’

Man, my dad. He’s always handing out pearls of wisdom, mostly ending with the moral always wear a condom. I shake my head. As if I’m going to sleep with Jessa. In all honesty, the fantasy was never fully fleshed out. It was usually just me kissing her, holding her, waking up with her in my arms, nothing beyond that. Totally PG compared to some of the fantasies the other guys in my unit would happily share. But with Jessa it felt wrong to imagine something so intimate, as if doing so would be taking advantage of her. Having said that, now I’ve actually kissed her I think I’m going to have trouble not letting my imagination make up for lost time.

I push open the door to my old bedroom. I have a room on the base where I keep most of my stuff, but when we’re on leave I stay here. There’s a single bed sitting against the wall – the same bed I lost my virginity in aged fourteen (to the babysitter). There are faded baseball posters on the wall and a row of trophies sitting on a shelf above the desk. My nieces and nephews sleep here when they’re staying over, so there’s also a heap of stuffed animals on the end of the bed and a pile of diapers and baby stuff on top of the dresser. My sister failed to heed the ‘always use protection’ advice my father likes to dole out. Though at least she waited until she was married, my dad likes to point out.

I head straight for the wardrobe, grab my backpack and stuff a couple of sweaters into it, then throw in two blankets from the laundry cupboard before heading back downstairs again. My dad’s watching the end of the game, so as quietly as I can I root through the kitchen cabinets for a thermos and a torch. I fill up the thermos with tea, grab some containers from the refrigerator and finally make for the door.

‘I’m heading out, Dad,’ I shout over my shoulder.

My sister has left a pair of old flip-flops by the back door, so I swipe them as well as the keys to the truck that are hanging on a hook.

Jessa’s standing by my dad’s workbench waiting for me, and when I see her I let out the breath I didn’t even know I’d been holding. The sight of her standing there in my old leather jacket, her legs bare, is the same as a punch to the solar plexus. ‘OK,’ I say, tossing the bag onto the flatbed of the truck. ‘Good to go?’

I unlock the passenger side for her, but just as she starts to move towards me, the door to the utility room flies open, blocking her way, and my dad appears.

‘Where you say you were going?’ he asks.

I can see Jessa’s feet poking out from under the door, but thankfully the rest of her is hidden. ‘Out,’ I answer, feeling just like I did the time I was fifteen and got caught stealing his car to go on a date. Back then I had no licence. I have to remind myself I’m twenty-one now and not doing anything wrong, legally speaking at least.

‘Seeing Riley?’ my dad asks.

‘No. He’s with Jo. I’m just going to go for a drive . . . ’ I clear my throat. I’m not a good liar. ‘Mind if I take the truck?’ I add.

‘Sure,’ my dad says, ‘though last time I checked, the steering wheel was on the other side.’

I blink, then realize that I’m holding the passenger door open. I close it slowly, glancing nervously in Jessa’s direction.

‘How was the party?’ my dad asks.

‘OK,’ I mumble, walking around to the driver’s side.

‘You see him?’ my dad asks, his face set in a glower. There’s only one person on the planet makes him glower that way, and that’s Jessa’s dad.

‘Yeah.’

‘Still being a stubborn asshole?’

‘Um,’ I say. Yes, but his daughter’s right behind you, so I can’t admit that because I’m hoping to make out with her some more tonight, and can you please go back inside already?

‘How was Jessa? She have a good birthday?’ my dad asks, thankfully changing tack.

‘Yeah, I think so,’ I say, making a move to get into the truck and hoping he’ll take that as a hint and go away. Where are the gods of baseball when you need them?

‘You tell her yet?’

I stop with one foot in and the other out and stare at my dad over the roof of the truck.

‘Tell her what?’ I ask, feeling like I have fire ants marching up my back.

My dad throws back his head and laughs. ‘Tell her what?’ he says as though I’ve just cracked the funniest joke he’s ever heard. ‘You know what.’

Don’t say it. The ants march up my neck and swarm across my head into my ears so all I can hear is buzzing.

‘That you like her,’ my dad says. And then he adds, seeing my mouth fall open, ‘Oh, come on, you think I don’t have eyes? I might be an old bachelor and a man of God, but I still know a pretty girl when I see one and Jessa Kingsley is about the prettiest girl I’ve seen in a long while. I’ve seen the way you look at her. You should just tell her how you feel.’

Thanks for that, Dad. I owe you one. I can feel my face heating up, but then I decide to just shrug it off and smile, because hell, Jessa already knows I like her. It’s not like my dad gave away a big secret or anything. It’s actually kind of funny.

‘Yeah, maybe,’ I mumble, looking at my feet, ‘I’m thinking about it. Don’t want to mess things up.’

‘Life’s too short, Kit,’ he says, with a touch of melancholy in his voice that makes my head snap up as it’s not something I’ve heard in a long time. ‘When you get a chance for happiness, you have to seize it before it’s snatched away.’

‘OK,’ I say. ‘I’ll take that on board. Carpe diem. Got it.’ I salute him goodbye, but still he makes no move. He just stares at me and nods a few times, his lips pressed together as though on the verge of delivering a sermon. Please, no, I think. We’re going to be stuck here all night at this rate, with Jessa hiding behind a door and me listening to my dad telling me to seize the day, while he’s the one standing in the way of me doing just that very thing.

‘See you later,’ I say.

‘Drive safe,’ my dad says, finally turning towards the door.

‘Roger that,’ I say, metaphorically wiping my brow as I watch his departing back.

My dad pauses and looks over his shoulder. ‘Bring her home safely,’ he says.

‘Bring who home safely?’ I say, my stomach dropping with the weight of a bomb to my feet.

‘The truck – who did you think I was talking about?’ my dad answers innocently, winking at me before closing the door.





8


Jessa


‘Where are we going?’ I ask again when we hit the freeway.

‘If you keep asking I’m going to have to turn around and take you home,’ Kit says, ramming the stick shift up a gear. His hand brushes my knee and my leg gives a little jump. He notices because I see the smile he tries to fight down. He takes his hand off the stick and rests it on my leg for a moment, his thumb stroking my knee softly, before he puts it back on the wheel to change lanes. I shiver and Kit glances over.

‘You cold?’ he asks.

I shake my head. No. Most definitely not. I’m wearing one of his sweaters. But even so I’m not sure my body is ever going to feel cold again. Every time Kit looks at me, my inner thermostat ratchets up another degree. I’m starting to understand what my mom feels like when she complains about her hot flashes.

In the dark gloom of the car, I try to study him surreptitiously. I like the way the muscles of his forearms work beneath his skin as he moves through the gears. I trace the line of his arms and the broad sweep of his shoulders and then let my gaze linger on his face, which is illuminated every now and then by the strobe lighting of on-coming traffic. Kit’s mom was Portuguese and he has her smooth olive skin and long dark eyelashes. He looks over at me, feeling me watching him, and smiles – he’s always so ready to smile, it’s one of the things I love about him. Love? OK, scratch that. Rewind. It’s one of the things I like so much about him. He has an infectious smile. I catch a glimpse of his father in him just then and it reminds me of something.

‘I saw the photograph over by your dad’s workbench,’ I say.

Kit frowns. ‘What picture?’

‘The old one.’

It was framed and hanging on a nail over the lathe. At first I thought I had to be seeing things, but closer inspection revealed that it was my dad in the photograph standing beside Kit’s dad. They were both in uniform and they both looked so young, as young as Kit and Riley. They were smiling at the camera, my dad half turned towards Kit’s dad as though laughing at a joke he’d just made, and Kit’s father grinning much the same way Kit does. Kit’s father was film-star good-looking when he was younger. Even today some of the people who knew him back then call him by his nickname McQueen, after the actor Steve McQueen, because of his mesmerically blue eyes. Like Kit’s.

‘I thought your dad and my dad hated each other,’ I say.

Kit smirks. ‘No. Your dad hates my dad. You forget my dad is a man of the cloth. He doesn’t hate anyone. Or so he says.’

I frown. ‘So what happened between them then? Do you know? Has he ever told you? My dad won’t talk about it.’

Kit shoots a quick glance my way. ‘No. I’m not totally sure of the story. Have you tried asking your mom?’

‘She won’t tell me. She said it’s too sad and there’s no point dredging up old memories.’

‘Well, there you go, then,’ Kit says. ‘Maybe we should leave it alone. Let them figure it out by themselves.’

‘It’s been twenty years – I’m not sure they’re ever going to figure it out.’

Kit looks at me curiously. ‘Why are you worrying about it? Some things you just have to let go of.’

I sigh and look out the window.

‘What’s the matter?’ Kit says, putting his hand back on my knee.

I turn towards him. ‘Just . . . um . . . It doesn’t matter.’ Kit looks at me, his eyebrows raised. I take a deep breath. ‘Just . . . I wish my dad didn’t . . .’ I tail off.

‘Hate me so much?’ he finishes for me.

‘Yeah,’ I admit.

Kit shrugs. ‘I can live with it.’

‘But it sucks, you know?’ I say, my voice rising. ‘It isn’t fair. You didn’t do anything.’

Kit’s voice is quiet and soft when he answers. ‘Life’s not about fair, Jessa.’ When I huff again he adds, ‘It’s cool.’

‘But it makes things harder,’ I murmur.

‘What things?’ Kit asks.

‘This – us – ’ I say, gesturing at his hand on my knee, then I stop. ‘Why are you grinning?’

‘Because you said us.’

My cheeks flare and my insides squirm like live bait. Have I been way too presumptuous? Is he teasing me, or did he like the sound of it?

‘Let’s not worry about it now,’ Kit says quietly.

I press my lips together. Easy for him to say – he doesn’t live with my dad. If he finds out I’m dating Kit . . . hang on, I’m not dating Kit. Jump ahead much, Jessa? Well, if my dad finds out I’ve skipped out in the middle of the night to spend time with Kit, just the two of us, then I don’t want to imagine what he’ll do. Or Riley. Crap. I grip the edge of the seat so hard my knuckles turn white. I’d been so worried thinking about what my dad would do if he found out that I didn’t think about Riley. But that’s almost as bad to contemplate. Riley’s been protective of me since we were kids. He’s had to stand between me and my dad’s rage on more than one occasion, and I guess the role of protector has stuck.

I’ve never had a boyfriend so I wouldn’t know how Riley would react, but one time he thought a guy looked funny at me and almost hit him. Riley’s hot-headed, and more than once my parents were called to the principal’s office because he’d got into a playground fight, but since he joined the military he seems to have mellowed. Ironic, I know. He controls his temper a lot better, that’s for sure. I think the fear of becoming like our dad has something to do with it. Though I think discovering Kit and I have hooked up might test that theory.

‘Hey, put some music on,’ Kit says, interrupting my thoughts. He tosses me his phone.

I connect it to the radio speakers and start to flick through his iTunes. There’s a lot of hip hop, but also, surprisingly, a lot of blues and jazz.

‘There’s a playlist called “road trip”,’ he says.

I find it and press play and Joni Mitchell starts blasting through the speakers. I raise my eyebrows.

‘Joni Mitchell?’ I say.

Kit smiles and shrugs. ‘What’s wrong with Joni?’

‘Just not what I expected from you.’

‘I have a soft and sweet side. You just haven’t discovered it yet.’

I smile at him. ‘Yes I have. You might think you’re a badass soldier, but I’ve known you since you were fourteen, Kit. You can’t fool me. I know who you are.’

He looks across at me, his mouth pulling up at one side, a curious look on his face.

One of the reasons I fell for Kit in the first place is because he’s not like normal guys. For a start, not many twenty-one-year-olds are as physically fit as him or Riley. The Marine Corps training is the toughest in the military, and by the time they finished their sixteen-week basic training they were both unrecognizable. They’d both been fit before, but when they came home my jaw hit the ground. They were pure, solid muscle, leaner, sharper-angled somehow, their eyes quicker, their posture more rigid, their bearing more confident.

But it’s not Kit’s physique that I’m talking about. It’s the way he is, the confidence he has that’s beyond his years. He speaks softly – I’ve never seen him lose his temper or shout – and when he walks into a room it’s like he’s a magnet and everything, including the air, is drawn towards him. Although I know he can strip an automatic weapon in under ten seconds and is trained to lead men into battle, I’ve also seen him singing lullabies to his baby nieces while he cradles them in his arms, and jump off a pier to save a drowning dog.

‘You remember the time you and Riley took me to the movies?’ I ask.

Kit frowns, trying to recall it. I guess the memory isn’t as deeply embedded in his brain as it is in mine. It was a night my dad was throwing a fit – about dinner being late or something equally trivial – and Riley and Kit bundled me out the house and took me for a burger and a movie. In my head I pretended I was on a date (handily ignoring Riley’s presence).

‘You guys wanted to see Iron Man 2 but it was sold out so you took me to see Eclipse instead,’ I remind him.

Kit grimaces instantly. ‘Oh yeah, how could I forget the sparkly vampires.’

‘Don’t give me that. You totally cried at the end. I saw you.’

Kit opens his mouth to protest but then shuts it. ‘Well, you know, I’m a little partial to stories about forbidden love,’ he says. ‘Give a guy a break.’

We drive for another hour except it doesn’t feel like an hour because we spend the whole time laughing and talking, and it’s only when I glance at the watch on Kit’s wrist and see that it’s nearly midnight that I bother to look out at the dark stretch of road we’re on and ask, ‘Are we driving all the way across the country?’

‘No ma’am,’ Kit answers. ‘Five more miles and we’re there.’

I look out at the empty dark desert on either side of the car. It’s impossible to see anything beyond the twenty or so metres that are lit up by the truck headlights. A buzz of excitement hits me. I settle back in my seat, cocooning myself inside his sweater, and he looks across at me. ‘That’s better,’ he says, taking my hand and squeezing it.

‘What’s better?’

‘You didn’t ask where we were going.’

I frown at him but he just keeps smiling.

‘You’re starting to trust me,’ he says.





9


Kit


I guide the truck slowly over the rutted ground and kill the engine. The sudden silence that fills the cab is louder than television static. I glance across at Jessa who’s staring out the window expectantly, a little line furrowing her brow. I know she really wants to ask where we are and is desperately trying not to. I put her out of her misery by killing the headlights. Immediately blackness envelops us, rushing in like a wave, swallowing the car whole. Jessa gasps. The sky above us is lit up like a chandelier.

I crack open the door and get out the truck. ‘Wait there,’ I tell her, but she doesn’t answer; she’s staring at the sky with a look of total wonder on her face.

I hop up onto the flatbed of the truck and lay out the blankets I brought, regretting not bringing pillows. Not for me – I’ve slept on far harder ground than this – but for Jessa. I hope it’s not too cold. The desert’s freezing at night, even at this time of year.

Once I’m done I hop down and head around to the passenger side to open the door. I take Jessa’s hand and she slips down from the truck. She doesn’t say a word. Her head is cricked backwards staring up at the night sky. Putting my hands on her waist I lift her up so she can scramble onto the flat bed of the truck, then climb up after her. Jessa’s kneeling down on the blanket and I lie down on my side beside her.

‘This is amazing,’ she says, still not taking her eyes off the sky.

‘It’s one of the best places in California for stargazing,’ I say, though I’m yet to look at the stars. Next to Jessa they kind of pale.

‘I can’t believe I’ve never been here before,’ she says, resting back on her elbows and stretching her legs out. I take a deep breath, trying to tear my eyes off the smooth, tempting length of them. I snatch the spare blanket and throw it over us, then lie down beside her. After a moment she rolls gently against me. I lift my arm and she scoots even closer, resting her head on my shoulder. For a long while neither of us moves, and I’m not sure about Jessa, but I know that I’m not thinking about stars. All I can concentrate on is the feel of Jessa’s body relaxing against mine, the warmth of her bare legs pressed against my thigh, the feel of her breasts against my side and the cool silk of her hair tickling my neck.

The tension in her body gradually seeps away as my hand gently strokes her shoulder and arm beneath the blanket. Goosebumps prickle her skin and my gut tightens in answer. I want nothing more than to kiss her, but I don’t. I don’t want her to think I brought her all this way just so I could make out with her. I mean, I do want to make out with her, but I also want to take things slowly, make sure she knows I’m not putting any pressure on her. If all we did was lie here and look up at the stars, that would be enough.

‘That’s the big dipper,’ I say, pointing out the plough shape of stars in the sky. ‘And this little one here, that’s the little dipper, Ursa Minor. See the brightest star in it? At the end of the handle? That’s the North Star.’

Jessa follows my hand with her eyes.

‘It’s always there, all night. Doesn’t rise, doesn’t set. All the other stars revolve around it. It’s the one you look for if you’re lost. It’ll take you home.’

Jessa is quiet for a moment. ‘How do you know all this?’ she finally asks.

‘They taught us in basic training. We have to be able to navigate without a compass at night.’

Jessa tenses a little and then her hand moves beneath the blanket and comes to rest on my stomach. Oh man. I hope to God it stays there and doesn’t wander any lower, because I’m barely managing to stay cool as it is.

‘What else did they teach you?’ she asks, her fingertips gently and slowly smoothing their way across my T-shirt, tracing the bottom line of my ribs and then my stomach muscles. Blood pounds in my ears like a hammer against an anvil.

‘To iron. I have mad ironing skills,’ I practically stammer. ‘And I also know which spoon to use for soup and which to use for dessert.’

‘Useful in the heat of battle,’ she laughs. ‘Why do you need to know about place settings?’

‘We work in an embassy. We’re guarding diplomats.

They give us etiquette lessons before they send us into the field so we don’t go embarrassing ourselves at all the fancy functions and act like grunts who’ve never seen a knife and fork before.’

Jessa leans up on one shoulder and looks at me strangely, as though she’s checking if I’m kidding or not. I’m not. ‘You get to go to parties?’ she asks.

I shrug, pulling her back down so her head rests on my shoulder. I like feeling the weight of it there. ‘Yeah, sometimes. I mean, embassy functions, socials, that kind of thing.’

‘And there I was imagining you living in a dorm with a dozen guys, standing sentry all night and living on rat packs.’

She’s talking about the foil pouches containing what some guy with no taste buds who works in supply believes constitutes food – the packs marines are forced to eat in combat zones. ‘Nah,’ I tell her. ‘No rat packs for us. We have our own chef.’

She tries to sit up again but I tickle her under the arm and she collapses back down, this time almost right on top of me.

‘You get your own chef?’ she asks, incredulous. ‘No wonder you and Riley both wanted to become embassy guards.’

It’s true. Both Riley and I trained hard and sat numerous tests so we could be selected for embassy duty. They’re pretty choosy, but we both made the rank of corporal and then made the grade. But right now, it must be said, I couldn’t pass a simple English proficiency test. Jessa’s thigh is flung across my legs, her stomach resting on my hip, and I can feel my body responding automatically. I try to think of my old drill sergeant screaming in my face, to picture myself in the pit doing push-ups until my body cramps, but when Jessa leans her weight on her arms and looks down at me, her hair trailing down on either side of my face, her lips just an inch from my own, all those images vanish, replaced with just one – her naked beneath me.

It’s been almost a year since I’ve been with a girl. Usually marine security guards have the easiest time when it comes to getting girls. We’re based in cities, guarding embassies, we’re not infantry on deployment, so we go to parties, find ways to sneak girls into our dorms, flirt with embassy staff and have affairs, even though we’re not supposed to. I’ve had several casual flings over the years while based overseas, and a few here in between deployments, but in Sudan there wasn’t much in the way of nightlife and all the embassy staff were male. Even if they hadn’t been, though, I know I wouldn’t have been looking, not with Jessa so much on my mind.

She presses her lips to mine and I have to suppress a groan. I hold her hips lightly and then stroke a hand up her back between her shoulder blades. My tongue explores her mouth and even though I’m longing to explore more than that, to run my hands over every curve of her body, kiss every bare inch of her, I don’t. I’m happy to go at whatever pace she wants to set. Besides, kissing her is plenty. I bite her bottom lip and she lets out a gasp and digs her fingers into my waist. I’m so hard that the pressure of her weight is making things painful.

Eventually, unable to take it much more, I roll her off my chest and onto her side, turning to face her. My pulse is so elevated you’d think I’d just run a three-minute mile, and I have to take a long, deep breath to try to steady it. Jessa’s cheeks are flushed and she’s breathing fast. She places a hand on my face, grazing her palm across my jaw, then traces the shape of my lips. I kiss her fingertips and watch her as she takes in a sharp breath. Her eyelids become heavy, her lips part. My mind fills with the image of her lying naked in my arms, her head thrown back with abandon. My imagination is most definitely making up for lost time.

‘So,’ she whispers. ‘Are you going to tell me then?’

‘Tell you what?’ I ask.

She smiles slyly, her fingers delicately tapping my collar bone. ‘Your dad asked if you were going to tell me how you feel.’

I stare at her. Put me on the spot much? ‘Still thinking about it,’ I tell her, enjoying the disappointment that flares across her face. I wink at her. ‘Don’t want to mess things up.’

Jessa’s disappointment gives way to a smile. I kiss her once more, then draw away, rolling onto my back and pulling her under my arm. She sighs contentedly and rests her head on my chest, just below my chin.

I think about what she said earlier, about how she sees through me, how she knows me. Her words struck me hard as a kick to the ribs, jolting something free inside of me – a truth I’d been avoiding. Ever since I became a marine I’ve felt like I belong to a different tribe, always on the outside looking back in at the rest of the world, playing a role that I put on the first time I wore my uniform.

But with Jessa, I don’t ever feel that way. Lying with her right now, under this endless sky, it feels like we’re the only two people in the world, and for once I’m not on the outside, I’m right on the inside, exactly where I belong. When I’m in uniform, I feel like I’m pretending at being someone – someone I’m not sure I really am. When Jessa looks at me, my body lets go of all the tension it’s been holding, all the pretence, and just relaxes, and it feels good. It feels better than good. It feels like freedom.

I like the way she sees me, I think to myself as I stare up at the million dead and dying stars above us. It’s someone worth striving to be.





10


Jessa


All he does is hold me, his hand gently stroking my waist, occasionally pressing his lips to my forehead, but I have never felt so connected to anyone before in my life. My lips still burn, my cheeks are stinging from where they scraped his stubble, and my heart is beating super-naturally fast.

I was nervous – stupidly nervous – when he lay down beside me, that, being way more experienced than me, he’d have expectations, but now I smile to myself. I should have known Kit would never push. I smile wider when I remember how he felt when I lay down on top of him. He was definitely turned on. And the fact he hasn’t tried to go faster than I want to ironically makes me want him even more. Last summer I had a fling with a guy which ended because he kept trying to convince me to do stuff I wasn’t ready to do. If he’d just played it cool and not put any pressure on me, then maybe I wouldn’t still be a virgin. Half of me wishes I wasn’t because Kit’s so obviously not, but half of me is also glad because if I had to choose anyone in the world to lose my virginity to, other than say Ryan Gosling, it would be Kit.

Kit suddenly sits up. ‘Man, I forgot. Are you hungry?’ He turns around and grabs his backpack, emptying out some containers from inside.

I pull the blanket around my shoulders and sit up. ‘What you got?’ I ask.

‘Pasteis de nata,’ he says, handing me a little pastry with yellow cream inside.

‘Where did you get these?’ I ask.

‘I made them,’ Kit says, smiling.

I pause with the cake halfway to my lips. ‘You made this?’ I say.

‘A-ha,’ he says, waiting for me to bite into it.

‘Did they teach you how to cook too at etiquette school? Because I’ve never seen Riley so much as boil an egg.’

Kit shakes his head. ‘My mom taught me.’

I close my mouth. Kit’s mom died when he was nine. I never met her and I’ve never heard him speak about her much. I’m not sure he wants to talk about her now, so I take a bite of the cake and – woah . . . oh my God . . . this is really good. I finish it off in seconds and Kit’s already handing me another. ‘This is so good,’ I say with a mouth full of pastry.

‘I know,’ he answers smugly.

‘I didn’t know you could cook.’

‘I have many, many skills. As you will soon discover.’

He catches my eye and I totally do not misread the look he’s giving me. My stomach flip-flops and heat rises up my neck. If he’s that good a kisser I can only imagine how good he might be at the other stuff.

After I’ve eaten at least six of the cakes, Riley stands up and shakes out the blanket to get rid of all the crumbs, then lays it down on top of me again. ‘You OK?’ he asks. ‘Not cold? Tired?’

‘You’re such a gentleman,’ I say as he sits back down and puts his arm around me.

‘I have four aunts and fifteen female cousins. I had manners beaten into me.’

‘Not by your dad?’ I ask, twisting to face him. My dad still yells at us if we put our elbows on the table or start eating before he’s done saying grace.

‘No,’ says Kit smiling. ‘He was browbeaten by all the women in the house. My mom and all her sisters. He gave up trying to win against an ocean of oestrogen.’

I like the image of Kit’s dad being overwhelmed by his mom and her sisters. It’s easy enough to picture. Whenever I’ve met Kit’s family I’ve never been able to get a word in edgeways.

‘What else did they teach you?’ I ask.

‘To put the toilet seat down.’

‘Always a good habit. Could they teach Riley, do you think?’

‘I’ll ask.’ He twists a strand of my hair around his finger. ‘I can braid hair too.’

I narrow my eyes at him. ‘You can braid hair?’

‘Oh yeah. French braids, normal braids, you name it. Just don’t tell anyone in my unit because my reputation is on the line here. If they ever found out that would be it for me.’

‘OK, I promise,’ I say. ‘Though you might have to make it worth my while.’

‘What? Buy your silence?’ he asks, sliding his eyes in my direction. ‘With money?’

‘No,’ I whisper. ‘Maybe some other way.’

‘Some other way?’ he asks, his lips now against my ear. ‘I can think of a few ways that might work. Except . . . ’ He pauses, his voice so low it gives me chills. ‘I’m not sure you’d be able to stay silent.’

My whole body arches towards him, my skin contracted in a shiver so tight it’s painful. Just his words make my breathing speed up in aching anticipation. Is he going to follow through? But he doesn’t. He just links his fingers through mine and turns to face me so we’re nose to nose.

‘I meant it when I said I was thinking about you a lot when we were away,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t get you out of my head.’

Cold desert air fills my lungs as I draw in a huge breath. ‘Me neither,’ I whisper. ‘I mean, you. Out of my head.’

‘Truth?’

I nod.

Kit lifts his hand and traces a finger along my cheekbone and then my lips. ‘Since when?’ he asks.

‘Last time you were back. You remember? That time at the beach . . . ’

He stares at me for a moment in disbelief before his face cracks into a grin. ‘Oh, I remember all right. You were wearing a yellow bikini. It’s burned on my retina.’ He rolls his eyes to the sky and rubs his hand across the bridge of his nose. ‘Man, what I would have done to kiss you back then.’

He liked me back then? ‘You should have,’ I say. If only he had. We’ve wasted so much time, that’s all I can think.

‘And I wouldn’t be alive today if I had. Your brother would have had a piece of me.’

It’s the first time either of us has mentioned Riley, though I’m certain Kit must have been thinking about him too.

‘You OK with this?’ he asks when I don’t say anything. The grin has gone and his expression has turned deadly serious. ‘I realize I’m putting you in a difficult situation. I mean, neither your dad nor Riley are going to be happy if they find out about us.’

‘Well, we’ll just have to keep it a secret, won’t we?’ I say, leaning closer so my lips are just a millimetre from his.

‘Are you sure? That’s what you want?’ Kit murmurs. ‘Because if you’re not sure . . . if you don’t want to get in trouble, I’ll understand. If you want it to be just this one night and nothing more.’

I kiss him before he can say anything else.

After a few minutes, Kit prises me off him. ‘I better take you home,’ he sighs.

I groan inwardly. I wish we could stay here forever. But Kit’s right. We need to get going before I get totally busted, because then this really will be the only night we ever get to spend together. My dad would ground me in a way that makes a life sentence at Guantanamo seem like a day at Disneyland.

Kit jumps down off the back of the truck and holds his arms out for me. He catches me and holds me for a few seconds, touching his lips to mine.

‘There’s going to be more, right?’ I murmur against his lips.

‘Oh, you better believe it,’ he answers, smiling as he kisses me again, his hands winding through my hair, tugging me closer. ‘We’re just getting started.’





11


Kit


In the silvery light of the pre-dawn, I park up a block from Jessa’s house. Jumping out the truck I jog around to her side and open the door. She pulls off the sweater she’s wearing – my sweater – and the flip-flops, and I try not to stare, even though the top she’s wearing isn’t leaving much to the imagination.

‘You sure this is going to work?’ she asks me as we walk hand in hand towards her house.

‘I thought you were starting to trust me?’ I say.

In answer she bumps her head against my shoulder.

Just before we round the corner onto her street, I pull her against a tree and run the flat of my hands up her arms. She sighs; a sound I could really get used to. I take her face in my hands and kiss her, a lingering kiss that makes me feel light-headed. The sun’s rising by the time I let her go, smoky gold and red light making Jessa’s skin glow golden. Her hair’s all mussed up so I smooth it down. There’s not much I can do about the inky smudges beneath her eyes or the swollen chapped lips. Girl looks like she’s had a wild night in someone’s bed. One day, I remind myself. If I get lucky.

‘OK. Good to go?’ I ask. She shakes her head but lets me pull her towards her house.

The lights are all off at Jessa’s house. It’s a few minutes before six, but just to be sure no one is awake we crouch down behind her dad’s car and I spend a couple of minutes surveilling the front of the house. Confident we’re in the clear, I nod at Jessa. She takes a deep breath and then leans forward, giving me an unrivalled view of her cleavage, and kisses me one last time before she scoots towards the side gate.

Next door’s dog starts up howling when she draws the bolt and I wince as a light snaps on in her parents’ room. I spring to my feet and bound up to the front door feeling like I could run a marathon, which is pretty impressive considering I’ve not slept in twenty-four hours. I’m pretty proud of my foresight too in packing my jogging gear last night. I managed to swap clothes before the drive back, ditching my jeans for a pair of shorts and some running shoes.

Halfway up the garden path I see the curtain in Jessa’s parents’ room twitch. I press my finger to the buzzer just as Jessa slips through the side gate.

A door slams inside. This is followed by Jessa’s dad shouting, and about a minute and a half later a very sleepy looking Riley comes to the door wearing just a pair of boxers. He squints at me painfully through the morning glare.

‘Dude, it’s like not even six. What the hell are you doing here?’

‘You said you wanted to go for a run,’ I say, trying to smooth my face into something resembling innocence.

‘I meant this afternoon,’ Riley groans.

‘We’ve got a physical fitness test in a couple of weeks,’ I remind him, starting to stretch out.

Both Riley and I will pass the test easily and he looks like he’s about to tell me that, so I lean quickly on his competitive streak. ‘I’m going to beat your ass this time,’ I tell him.

Last time I got a 289 and Riley got a 293 out of a possible 300. Just like I knew it would, my threat works. Riley can’t stand the thought of losing. ‘Fine,’ he huffs. ‘Let me get some clothes on.’ He makes to close the door on me but I wedge my foot in the gap and push past him.

‘Can I get a glass of water?’ I say.

Riley grimaces and glances towards the stairs.

‘I’ll be quiet,’ I say. ‘I’ll tiptoe like a mouse.’

I pirouette past him and Riley stops trying to argue and jogs upstairs to get dressed. Jessa’s waiting by the back door and as soon as I unlock it she comes darting inside. She’s skittery and nervous, and she looks anxiously over my shoulder. I put a hand on her waist and pull her behind the kitchen door. She looks up at me with those eyes as wide as the ocean and gives me a smile – the smile of someone who just got away with a bank heist; or the smile of a girl who just spent the night making out under the stars.

I kiss her and she loops her arms around my neck. Somehow, maybe because we’re in her kitchen, maybe because we know we could be walked in on at any moment, or maybe just because we’re both still buzzing on the memory of the night and the relief of having got away with it, this kiss is the hottest yet. For the first time I let my hands rove from her waist, stroking up her sides, my thumb tracing the curve of her breast. She inhales loudly, pushing her hips against my now very obvious erection. Crap. I take a step back, holding her at arm’s length, and take a deep breath. Down boy. I don’t want to try explaining that one to Riley.

Jessa grins at me, a dangerous look in her eye. Oh, she knows. I shake my head at her. This girl is going to get me into all sorts of trouble. Bring it, is my brain’s shamelessly immediate response.

‘Can I see you later?’ I ask, cursing myself for how eager I sound.

She nods.

‘OK, I’ll call you,’ I tell her, then remember I don’t have her number. ‘Wait,’ I say, pulling out my phone, ‘what’s your number?’

Jessa takes the phone out of my hand and quickly taps in her number. I watch her, feeling a buzz in the pit of my stomach at the possibility that this girl might become mine. When she’s done she hands me back my phone with a shy smile. For a moment I forget where I am and can think only about pulling her into my arms again and feeling her body against mine. I take a deep breath. Riley will be back any second.

‘You should go, get some sleep,’ I say. Go, before I really am put in a compromising position, is what I’m thinking.

Jessa smiles at me, biting her bottom lip (imagining something that’s against the rules, I hope), then reaches up on tiptoe to kiss me goodbye. Just as she does, the door swings open and we both jump back as Riley walks into the kitchen. He stops mid-step as he takes a look at Jessa and me and I can see his instincts flare.

‘What are you doing up?’ he asks Jessa, eyes narrowed.

‘I heard the doorbell,’ Jessa answers smoothly before looking at me and crossing her arms over her chest. ‘Thanks for that,’ she snarks. ‘You