Writing this with one eye open….

Haha!  That’s a funny title for a blog post, but it is completely true.  While one of my eyes is almost completely clear, the other one is still a little bit fuzzy.  But I’ve got a job to do, so yes, I am writing this with one eye open.  I have a special treat for you all today.  Here’s the cover for my next novel, In Search of After!  I spent so much time playing around with this cover. I had an initial color scheme that I wanted to work with, but it was difficult for me to incorporate those colors while still making it easy on the eye.  So, without further ado, here is my cover designed by Yours Truly!

Add In Search of After to your Goodreads TBR Shelf!
Also, I am hosting a giveaway for three copies of this book on Goodreads.  So don’t forget to enter for your chance to win.  As promised, here are the first three chapters of In Search of After.  Keep in mind that the following except is from an uncorrected proof, which means that some lines of text may appear differently in the final version!  Enjoy!!!

Prologue
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” Caleb’s tiny voice filled the room and my sleepy eyes, which hadn’t seen as much sleep as they should, forced themselves open.  I had to work a double shift at the hospital the night before and was feeling a bit sleep deprived.  My vision, still fuzzy with sleep, slowly came into focus, and I saw my son’s bright blue eyes, which were so much like his father’s, staring into mine.
“Yes, honey?” I finally managed to answer, my voice still quite thick with sleep.  Instinctively, I cupped a hand over my mouth because I knew my morning breath was probably horrendous, and Caleb wouldn’t think twice about letting me know. Children lack filters, and I knew this first-hand because my feelings had been slaughtered a time or two at the hands of my three-year-old.
“Happy annabursaree,” he said, pulling a handful of hand-picked flowers from behind his back.  I instantly recognized my daisies as his chubby hands thrust them forward, and he beamed with pride.  That beautiful smile pulled at my heart, and I completely ignored the fact that he’d ripped them from my garden—my other pride and joy.  But I couldn’t get mad at that precious face if I tried.
“Thank you, Sweet Pea,” I cooed, running a quick hand through the bright blond strands of hair on his little head.  My son had my full, undivided attention.  That is, until my husband sauntered into the room. 
“Good morning, sweetheart,” called the deep baritone of my husband’s voice from behind my son.  His dimpled grin stretched wide across his freshly-shaven face, and his hair was slightly damp as if he’d not long ago showered.  He was so beautiful and all mine.  Both of the gorgeous men in front of me were mine, and I never took for granted how lucky I’d been to have them.
I was so distracted by my husband’s handsome face that I didn’t notice the tray of food he’d been carrying until he stepped in front of our son and knelt before me.
“I made your favorite: French toast with strawberry-flavored syrup, cinnamon apples, and orange juice.”
My heart fluttered rapidly in my chest at the sight of my men fawning over me.  I gradually raised my form into a sitting position with my back resting against the headboard.
Sean, my husband, slowly rose to his feet and carefully placed the tray of food on my lap.  I picked up my fork ready to dig into my meal when I noticed a small vase filled with water on the corner of the tray.  Then I remembered the flowers Caleb had picked for me.
“You forgot about these, Ma-Ma.  Daddy says they need to go in water.” 
“That’s right, honey.”  I took the flowers from his small hands and inhaled their scent, before dropping them in the vase on my tray.
“Sorry about ruining your garden.  The whole picking flowers thing had been Caleb’s doing all by himself, right buddy?” he said to our son as he ruffled a hand through his hair.
“Stop, Daddy,” Caleb said through a fit of giggles.  Sean and I both joined him in laughter.  His tiny laugh was infectious.
“This certainly has been the best anniversary to date, excluding the fact that you threw your son under the bus.” I laughed as Sean finally released Caleb from his hold. “It will be hard for you guys to top this next year,” I said once our laughter subsided.
The comment hung thick in the air as Sean remained quiet. The silence in the room was unnerving; it became an ever-present pressure weighing down the mood in the room.  Something was off with him, though I couldn’t quite place it.  I just knew it, but I pushed those thoughts aside as I eyed him, his gaze full of the love and adoration I knew he felt for me.
He reached a hand forward and toyed with a strand of my hair before letting it go and it fell right back into place.  “You’re so beautiful.” His voice was barely a whisper.  I knew he had to be speaking from a place of love.  I was pretty sure my morning breath was horrible, my hair was in complete disarray, and I’d been wearing frumpy pajamas.  But with the way he was looking at me, I felt beautiful.  He was talented in that way. 
“I can’t believe I’ve been married to the woman of my dreams for three years.  I feel like the luckiest man on the planet.  I’m so thankful for having been fortunate enough to fall in love with my soul-mate.”
Hot tears welled up in my eyes and spilled down my cheeks, but I blinked them away.  He had no idea that I felt like I was the lucky one.  He was so loving and kind.  He’d never been a taker, and was always willing to give.  No, I was definitely the lucky one here, and nothing he could say, no matter how beautiful his words were, would ever change that.
“I got you something,” Sean said quickly as he got up from the bed and walked to the door with Caleb in tow.  “Eat up and after you get dressed, I’ll give it to you.”
I shook my head firmly.  “I thought we made a deal that we’d never exchange anniversary gifts.”
He laughed.  “Relax,” he jested as he turned to face me.  “It’s nothing major.  Just hurry up and eat.  Get dressed and meet me in the kitchen.  I’ve got to make sure my big guy gets a hearty breakfast too.”
My heart nearly burst with pride seeing my two men together.  For some reason, I felt the need to embed that moment in my memory.  I took a mental snapshot and imagined it over and over again in my mind.
After finally finishing my breakfast, I’d showered and dressed then wandered to the kitchen, anxious to see the gift Sean had given me.  I’d long abandoned the brief faux-anger I felt when he told me he’d gotten me a gift.  The ‘no-gifts’ rule had been his idea—not mine.  Had I known he’d buy me something, I’d have made sure to get him something as well.  But I figured he knew that, which is probably why he didn’t tell me.  Sneaky little devil.
When I finally walked into the kitchen, I leaned against the door frame and watched Sean as he lifted Caleb’s chubby body from his high chair.  As I stood there watching my boys, a flash of regret washed over me.  I knew that Sean had dreams of his own, yet he put them aside to be a stay-at-home dad to our son. He wasn’t afraid to make sacrifices for this family. I owed him so much for the sacrifices he continued to make each day.
After a few moments of simply watching them interact, I made my presence known, walking all the way into the kitchen.  Caleb saw me first.
“Mommy!” he exclaimed excitedly as he made grabby-hands at me.  I answered his unspoken request by snatching him out of my husband’s arms and hugging him close to me, practically smothering him.  He didn’t object.  He only clung to me tighter like it’d be the last time he’d ever hugged me.
My eyes flicker up to Sean, who is watching us, and I smile.
“Jealous?”
“Hardly.”
Caleb and I eventually ended our embrace, and he pushed out of my arms, eager to get down on the floor and roam about.  I gently released him, and he ran into the living room where a trunk full of toys awaited him.
My husband wrapped his arms around me from behind, enclosing me in his arms and I settled into his embrace.  “I still haven’t given you your gift,” he whispered in my ear, the feel of his breath on that sensitive spot instantly made my skin prickle.
“You should’ve told me we were exchanging gifts,” I told him as we pulled apart.
“We’re not.  I’m giving you something that had always been yours.  Besides, waking up to you every single day is enough of a gift to me.”
My heart flipped at the sound of his sweet words.  He handed me a long, black jewelry box, and my eyebrows lifted with confusion.
“What’s this?” I asked breathily, the lump that formed in my throat made it suddenly difficult to speak.
A knowing grin broke out across his handsome face. “Just open it.”
I did as I was told and gasped in awe at the surprise inside—not because it was some extravagant piece of jewelry.  It was everything but.  But the sentimental value it held could never be bought.
“My ring,” I choked out as warm tears dripped from my eyes.  “I thought I’d lost it years ago.”  I eyed the piece of jewelry which was now attached to a thin silver chain.  He’d made my promise ring into a necklace for me.
“You did, but I found it.”
“Where?”
“The backseat of Mom’s station wagon.  I was cleaning it so we can put it up for sale.”
My cheeks instantly reddened as I recalled one particular night in the back of his Mother’s car.
Sean chuckled knowingly.  “Don’t be embarrassed.  I’m pretty sure that was the night Caleb was conceived.” He stepped closer to me.  Gesturing to the piece of jewelry in the box, he said, “I can’t believe it’s been there all this time.”  For a split second pain washed across his face, but he instantly schooled his features to hide any trace of sadness. The pain of his mother’s death the year before still weighed heavily on him. “Do you remember the night I gave this to you?”
“Of course.  It’s a night I’ll never forget.  It was our junior year in high school.”
“Our fourth anniversary of being together,” he said, finishing my thought.  “We’d just gotten back together after one of our many petty fights.”
I chuckled and nodded.  “You said it was a promise to me that I’d always have your heart.”  My voice was wobbly, my face felt hot, and my eyes were watery.  I struggled to keep my emotions in check.  I’d always been sentimental, and it never really took much for me to break out in water works.
“And now I’ve put it on a necklace so that it will always rest close to yours.  That way whenever you wear it you’ll think of me.”  It was too much.  His words were too much.  I couldn’t contain the storm of emotions brewing within me, and I began crying.  Hard.
“Dani, baby?  What’s wrong?  You don’t like it?”
“No,” I answered quickly and sternly in spite of the tremors in my voice.  “I love it.  It’s perfect.”
“I know you feel guilty about the time you spend away from us.  I just want you to have a way to keep us close to your heart.” Sean stepped even closer to me and gently took my face in his hands as if my face was the most fragile thing he’d ever held.  His fingertips on my skin were a soft caress as he slowly inched closer to me.
When his lips finally met mine, it was a shock to my system that slowly charged each of my senses to life.  He tasted sweet like syrup, smelled fresh and clean like soap, and his lips felt soft like the gentle stroke of a feather.  I loved this man with all I had to give, and that love was intensified by the fact that I knew he felt the same.
“Eww!” Caleb’s voice pulled us back from our fantasy world where, for a brief moment in time, only he and I existed.
We backed away from each other to direct our attention to our son.  He ran and jumped into his father’s arms, and I smiled at my beautiful family, overflowing with pride that I had all I’d ever need right here in front of me.  I never hated my job and the fact that I had to leave and go to work more than I did at that particular moment.
“All right, Tiger,” Sean grunted as he set Caleb back down on the floor.  “Let me help Mommy put on her necklace, and then we’ll both say goodbye so that she can get to work.”
I smiled but it was forced. I hated the way he said “goodbye.” It all seemed so final.  Pushing those thoughts far from my mind, I turned around so that my back was facing him and handed him the black box.  He opened it and reverently lifted the necklace from the box.  I gathered my hair in one hand, holding it out of the way so that Sean could slip the necklace around my neck.  Once he’d fastened it in place, he slowly glided his hands from my shoulders to rest on both sides of my neck, gently tipping my head back so that he could plant a quick upside-down kiss on the tip of my nose.
I turned around in his arms and pressed my lips hard against his.  His hands quickly flew up to cradle my face as our kiss deepened.  God, I loved this man.  I was addicted to his smell, his taste, his touch.  He was like a drug in its most potent, purest form that I could never get enough of.  In fact if he was a drug, I’d have overdosed years ago.  Before we got too carried away in front of Caleb again, I pulled away.
“If I don’t hurry I’ll be late,” I breathed against his lips.
Sean ran the pad of his thumb across my lips and leaned into me to place a soft kiss on my forehead—my favorite spot to receive his kisses.  “We wouldn’t want you to be late,” he replied, reluctantly pulling away.
“I’ll be straight home tonight, okay?”
Sean gave me a quick nod before scooping Caleb up in his arms so that I could kiss him.
“Bye, Mommy’s sweet boy.”
“Bye, Ma-Ma.”  His adorable little voice nearly brought me to my knees.  I leaned across Caleb and kissed my husband one more time.
“I love you.” 
“I love you more,” I challenged playfully.
“Never.  It is not humanly possible to love anyone more than I love you.”  The butterflies in my stomach began to dance a fox trot in my abdomen.  I couldn’t believe that after all these years Sean still had the power to give me butterflies.  Maybe it was because I knew every word he spoke represented his true feelings.  The only person my husband loved more than me was our son, to whom I’d gladly accept second—the very close second that it was.
My little family was far from perfect, far from ideal.  But they were perfect for me and they were my ideal.  Suddenly that eerie feeling hit me again, and I took another moment to soak in the moment and engrain every infinitesimal detail of every second of this time with them into my memory.
When I was certain I’d cemented every detail in my mind, I grabbed my keys and slung my purse strap over my shoulder.  With my hand on the doorknob, I turned around to offer them one final wave, savoring the moment just a little more, before I left because somehow I just knew it’d be my last.
Dani
One Year Later
364 days, 17 hours and 33 minutes of desolation.
That’s how long it’s been since my life’s been irrevocably changed, since this gaping hole formed in my heart, since life as I knew it ended.  Each of those days, hours, and minutes have been filled with an intense pain that I didn’t know could exist.
Each day has been marked with the agony of finding the two most important people in my life so brutally and savagely murdered.  Each day has been filled with the guilt over having been spared. Over having been away pursuing my career while my family stayed behind at home only to unexpectedly have their lives taken in the most unimaginable of ways.  Each day I’ve longed for their presence and felt tormented over the fact that they’d never be back. Each day a little more of me died, and I mourned each fading fragment of my existence. Each day, I sat alone, wishing it’d been me instead of them. Or if it had to be them, wishing I could have gone with them.
That’s how I’ve spent my days this past year. It’s how I will spend each day moving forward. It hurts not having them, having lost them, and wanting them here, but it hurts even more knowing that I’m still here. That by some weird coincidence I’m alive and my family isn’t. I should’ve been there that night. Perhaps if I had, that cold day almost one year ago to the minute would’ve been just like any other day. I’d come home from work, kiss my husband, cuddle my son, and all would be right with the world. We’d eat dinner together. I’d give Caleb a bath before reading him a bedtime story and tucking him into bed. Then I’d go to bed but not before making sweet tender love to the man I’ve loved since I was 12. He’d hold me in his arms and tell me how much he loves me and how he’d never leave me. How no matter what life throws at us, he’d always be with me.
Now he’s gone.
I don’t blame him. I don’t feel short-changed. I don’t feel lied to. I know nothing about that night had been Sean’s fault. I know if it were up to him, we’d be together. Holding each other. Loving each other until our hairs turned gray, bones grew tired, and muscles went weak. But fate has a funny way of messing things up. Even the most intricately laid plans are no match for the devious twists that fate delivers so unexpectedly, so inexplicably, so unnecessarily. And now all I’m left with are the memories.  Memories of the people they were.  The person I was.  The people we were together. Memories that do more harm than good. Memories that remind me how good life was then, and how fucked up life is now. Memories that provide little comfort.  They only serve as reminders of what was and what can never be again.
I don’t know why I came here.  It’s too difficult living with the memories.  I hate missing them and knowing I have to live without them.  I thought visiting the cemetery would help bring my loss into perspective, but in many ways it’s made the hurt that I feel every single day even more excruciating.
The now-permanent tightness in my chest only feels tighter almost to the point of debilitation.  I clutch my chest in a feeble attempt to ease the pain and my fingers instinctively clutch the ring attached to my necklace.  I squeeze it tightly in my hands as I bend down and lightly run my fingers along the shiny engraved granite stones that are the only proof of their having existed.  Gone are their matching beaming smiles. Their matching blonde heads, matching thick lashes covering matching bright blue eyes.  Sean and I always joked about how Caleb was not his son, but his clone.  Just thinking about those happier times causes my eyes to water.  I’m surprised I can still make tears when I’ve done nothing but cry every single day this past year.
I’ve been duped.
The few friends we had that came out after the murder and attended the memorial services told me that this would get better.  That time would help ease the pain, heal my wounds, and eventually I’d be able to find peace again.  But there is no peace in knowing that the only people that truly mattered to me are not here.  Nothing can replace the part of me that was them.  That part of me that they occupied is now gone.  It will never belong to anyone else.  Knowing that makes attempting to find peace impossible.
I lift my hand from Caleb’s gravestone to wipe away the tears that are streaming incessantly down my face.  I’ll never get over this loss.
Why me? 
Why them?
Why us?
I wish I had those answers.  But even if I did get those answers, they won’t bring them back so what’s the point?
I regain my composure to the best of my ability and slowly raise myself from the soggy ground and walk back to my SUV, my heels sinking into the damp dirt.  The rain and my tears make it difficult to see more than a few feet in front of me.  Not that I mind the rain.  It seems so fitting, considering my almost-constant state of melancholy.  But I know that the rain will make it much harder to see while driving at night, which is vastly approaching.
After climbing into my SUV, I turn the key in the ignition, turn on my wipers and headlights, and ease out of the cemetery and back onto the road that leads to my new house.  I refuse to call it a home.  No, the house I shared with my family was a home.  Sean and I spent so much time and put so much love into restoring that house to a livable state, but it’s why we loved it so much.  It was perfect for our little family.  But the memories of the night I found them are too fresh in my mind for me to want to live there anymore. 
I wish I could find the will to live again, but it’s so hard when all I want is them.  Sometimes I still feel them.  And in my loneliest of nights sometimes I hear Caleb’s tiny giggles or Sean’s deep raspy voice.  It just all seems so unfair.
We’d faced so much and been through so much to be the family we were.  Sean and I knew each other all our lives, but we didn’t actually consider ourselves an official couple—an us—until the seventh grade.  All the other kids that we’d grown up with were weirded out by our relationship.
Most of them couldn’t understand how two people who were so young could consider themselves in love with one another, but I know we were.  We dated all throughout middle school and into high school with a few brief, immature breakups in between.  But that was our dynamic.  We fought hard, and we loved harder. 
I’d gotten pregnant with Caleb near the end of my senior year in high school, and as expected, my family freaked.  My dad demanded that I have an abortion, but my mother opposed it.  She wanted to send me away to live with an aunt out of state until the baby was bornand give it up for adoption.  But I couldn’t do it.
I knew I was young, probably too young to be a parent, but I wanted our child.  He was a product of mine and Sean’s love.  Sean somehow convinced me that we could do it.  That I wouldn’t have to give up my dream of going to college and eventually becoming a nurse.  He promised me that he would be there for me and the baby in any way he could and that we could make it work.  He refused to abandon his child the way his father abandoned him.
We didn’t have it easy.  Sean, who was raised by a single mother, didn’t have much money, and because I hadn’t complied with my parents’ wishes, they disowned me so I didn’t have any either.  Susan, Sean’s mother, helped out as much as she could, which wasn’t much.
After graduation, Sean worked two—sometimes three—jobs so that we could eventually get our own place and have everything we needed for when the baby arrived.  I went to college as planned until Caleb was born, which was during my winter break from college.  I was able to continue without missing a beat because Sean changed his work schedule so that he could care for Caleb while I continued school.
We got married when Caleb was four months old.  It was the happiest day of my life.  We weren’t surrounded by many people.  Other than Caleb, Sean, the officiant, and I, Susan was the only person in attendance.
Sadly, Susan passed away from lung cancer just a year after we’d gotten married.  Susan’s death was hard on Sean, but unbeknownst to him, his mother had a $50,000 life insurance policy, and Sean was the sole beneficiary.  The money did little to comfort him after her passing, but it helped us to start our life together.
Susan had also left her home to Sean.  It wasn’t much, just a small, two-bedroom house that needed a great deal of work, but Sean and I were committed to making it our home.
A few months after Susan died, I completed my undergrad and received my bachelor’s in nursing.  I graduated a year early and at the top of my class.  Afterwards I landed a job at the hospital where I performed my clinical training hours.  It was my dream job, but I often had to work crazy hours so Sean quit working to stay at home with Caleb.  He’d always been so supportive, and I loved him for it.  He’d so willingly and selflessly put his own dreams on hold to make sure I got to live mine.
He was my everything.  He and Caleb were my world, and now that they’re gone there really is no point in trying to live.  I’ll never find that happy place again.  I’ll never be the person I was when I was with them—when they were with me.
The trip down memory lane causes tears to form and fall all over again.  But this time loud sobs accompany them, and it becomes so intense that I have to pull the car over, right on the side of the bridge that leads into the town I live in.
I look out at the stretch of road ahead of me illuminated by the car’s headlights.  The rain continues to pour, intensifying the crippling sense of loneliness that’s currently ravaging my soul.
Suddenly I feel claustrophobic in the cab of my SUV, and I think I’m on the verge of suffocating.  I take large, gulping breaths as I haphazardly reach for my door handle, yank my door open, and awkwardly tumble out onto the wet pavement.
I could easily just end my agony and suffering right here, right now.  I’d rather die than suffer through this agony—this Hell—for another day.  I find my balance as I stand and trudge in my now soaked clothes to the side of the bridge near the railing. I grasp the railing in my slippery, wet hands and lean over the edge as the rain continues to fall.  I look at the water below, and I’m terrified.  But the terror I feel when looking down doesn’t compare to the heartbreak I’ve lived through and will continue to live through unless I end it right now.
I raise a foot as I step up onto the railing and swing a leg over so that I’m straddling the flimsy wooden contraption.  Tremors rake through my body as I look down at the rush of water below me.  I close my eyes, trying not to think about the act of jumping, but instead focusing on letting go and the possibility of being reunited with the two people I love more than anything else in this world.  I take a few more deep breaths, willing my anxieties to abate as I finally let go.
Aubrey
What the hell is she doing?
I think those words to myself as I approach the bridge that leads into the quiet neighborhood of Ashland Woods, a small coastal town just outside of Annapolis, Maryland and my new home. The rain is falling down hard as hell against my windshield so it’s hard to see what this woman’s doing despite the continuous back and forth of my wipers, but I can see that she is leaving her car—which judging from the exhaust coming from the muffler, is still running—and walking over to the railing on the side of the bridge.
Is she about to jump?  I immediately chastise myself for that ridiculous thought because I mean, who would jump unless they’re trying to kill themselves.
Wait. Is she trying to kill herself? I ask myself as I watch her swing a leg over the railing.  It’s about a 40-foot drop that I’m sure she wouldn’t survive because the water at this end is rather shallow in comparison to the height of the bridge.  She’d instantly die from the impact, rather than drown.
 I guide my pickup to the side of the road, parking it right behind her SUV.  I snatch up my rain jacket from the passenger seat and shove open my door.  Running through the rain, I hurry over to the railing and in three long strides, I make it to her.  And just in time, too, because the minute I make my way to her she lets go of the railing.  I reach my arms out in just enough time to prevent her from falling. 
She yelps and shudders from the initial contact as if she wasn’t expecting it.  I guess she must not have noticed she now had an audience of one.
“It’s okay.  I’ve gotcha,” I whisper into her hair, and I feel her body relax a little bit as I wrap my arms tightly around her small body and pull her off of the railing.
When she’s finally securely on her feet, she clings to my drenched clothes and begins to sob into my chest.  I admit, I’m a little freaked out.  I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know what she’s dealing with.  Although, I assume it’s some pretty heavy shit being that she’d been on the verge of jumping from the bridge.
As if suddenly coming to her senses, the woman eases her grip on my drenched shirt and steps back, but she doesn’t make another move.  She stands there, seemingly stunned as she stares blankly ahead.  I would say she’s looking at me, but with the lifeless look in her eyes, I know she’s looking straight through me rather than at me.  It’s almost as if she’s in a daze. 
The dull rumbling of the thunder above us breaks her trance-like state and she nervously tilts her face towards the sky, the heavy downpour of the rain continuing to soak through our clothes.  Acting completely on auto-pilot, I wrap my rain jacket around her quivering shoulders and guide her to the passenger side of my pickup truck as I open the door and help her inside.  I dash around the front of the truck to the driver side and hop in before turning the heat on full-blast.
I blow into my hands and then rub them together as I attempt to generate some warmth.  It’s an uncharacteristically cool April night.  According to the thermostat in my dash, it’s 38 degrees-Fahrenheit, and this rain makes it feel even colder. 
 I chance a glance at the woman and she’s facing the window, but I can see from her trembling shoulders and the small sounds coming from her that she is still crying.
I’m at an impasse.  Should I ask her name or should I just let her be?  I know that she probably needs a moment to think about what she’d been on the brink of doing.  It quickly becomes obvious to me that maybe she didn’t really want to jump to her death but instead lost herself in a brief moment of weakness.  I’m just glad I showed up when I did, but this isn’t about me.  This is about her and the fact that whether she’d fully intended to kill herself or not, she would’ve died if she’d have fallen.  Somehow I figure in my mind that she needs a moment so I focus instead on trying to get warm, which includes shedding some of my sopping clothing.  I reach behind my back and grab a handful of my shirt as I pull it over my head and arms before tossing it onto the back seat.
For a few minutes we sit in silence.  She continues to cry uncontrollably, and I can sense the intense pain evident in each of her sobs.  I’m not sure what to do.  A part of me—a huge part of me—wants to jump out of the truck and run far the-fuck away.  But another, much smaller, part of me wants to comfort her.  To end her weeping.  To ensure her that whatever she’s going through can’t be bad enough for her to want to end her life.  
But then I remind myself that I don’t know anything about her, and what she’s dealing with could be bad enough to make a person consider offing themselves.  I just wish she didn’t feel like offing herself.  I try to remain unaffected, but seeing this woman fall apart right before my eyes tugs at my heart.  I reach out a hand to move a piece of her dark, wet hair from her face and tuck it behind her ear.  My fingertips lightly brush against the soft, smooth skin of her cheek. I let them linger there even longer when she doesn’t push my hand away.  And because apparently I’m a total sap, I swipe the pad of my thumb under her left eye and wipe away the tears.  Her cries slowly cease, and she lifts her head slightly as her glossy, red-rimmed eyes meet mine.
I know there isn’t much light.  In fact the only light shining through the truck’s cab is a flickering street lamp, but it’s enough for me to see that this woman is beautiful.  She’s got the bone structure of a model—high cheekbones, plump, pink—kissable—lips, smooth, almost-golden skin.  Her dark, thick eyelashes are wet with tears, and it’s a reminder to take my mind out of the gutter.  Yes, she’s beautiful, but she’s also got issues.  Hell, she could even be married, and here I am checking her out like she’s on display.
But I guess I’m not the only one.  I watch her eyes as they roam from my naked torso, up my chest, to my lips before finally looking into mine.  Once our gazes converge, she quickly glances away as if she feels guilty or something.
Yeah, she’s probably married.
I start to ask her name, but she beats me to the punch.
“Who are you?” she asks timidly never looking back in my direction.
“My name’s Aubrey,” I reply quickly.  “Yours?” I run a swift hand through my long, damp hair.
“Dani—Danica,” she stammers, still refusing to look my way.
I don’t really know what else to say to her.  I mean, there is so much I want to know.  But that involves asking questions, and I don’t know how much of that she could actually handle given her current state of fragility.
The warmth emanating from the truck’s heater fills the cab, causing the windows to fog. I turn on the defroster and direct my attention right back toward the road ahead.  If there will be any conversation between the two of us, I’ll leave her to be the one to initiate it.
This day turned out much differently than I’d planned.  Not that I had any real plans for the day other than getting settled into my new place.  But one thing’s for sure, my plans did not involve playing Good Samaritan to someone so seemingly hell-bent on ending her own life.
Finally when I’m convinced that she’s not going to initiate any conversation, I turn to her and say, “Wait here.”  Quickly climbing out of the truck, I run half-dressed through the pouring rain to her SUV as a flash of lightning cracks through the black sky, followed by a loud boom of thunder.  Once I make it to her car I reach into the open driver-side door and turn the knob to turn off her headlights.  Pulling the key out of the ignition switch, I climb out of the vehicle and close the door.  I double-tap the lock button on the entry keypad until the horn sounds once and the lights flash, letting me know the doors are locked.
I run back to my truck with her keys in tow, the rain pelting down heavily against the naked flesh of my upper body.  When I get back into my truck, I grab her small, delicate hands and place her keys into them.  I turn the heater back up to the maximum setting as I back away and merge back onto the road.
“Wait, what are you doing?” she asks, her eyes growing wide with panic.
“Taking you to my place.”
“Your place? But…but I don’t even know you!”
I pull over again and throw the truck into park. “I know,” I tell her as I reach into my back pocket and pull out my wallet.  I flash her my law enforcement ID before shoving my wallet right back into my jeans pocket. I don’t know what that was supposed to do, really.  I guess I figured that by showing her that I’m an officer of the law, she might consider me to be someone trustworthy, although if I’m honest I know it’s not.  My past indiscretions are proof.
I quickly glance in her direction and catch her looking at my tattoo-covered skin and shaking her head at me.  “How do I even know if that’s real or not?  You flashed it so quickly I couldn’t even tell if that was really you.”
“Look,” I say, struggling to hide my annoyance and sound polite, “I can assure you I have no ulterior motives.  I’ll bring you right back to your vehicle tonight.  I’m just taking you to my place—which is less than five minutes from here—to change into something dry.”  Nothing pisses me off more than seeing someone look at the ink adorning my skin and assume I’m the bad guy.  My eyes certainly didn’t miss her look of disapproval.
“But what about my car?”
“It’ll be fine until the morning.  I’ll make a couple phone calls, though, just to be on the safe side,” I respond.
Her shoulders seem to slacken somewhat and she looks into my eyes as if to assess whether or not I’m being honest.  After a few moments, she crosses her arms in front of her and begins to stare out of the window again.  I take that to mean that she is no longer protesting and begin to drive again.
Two minutes later, we arrive in front of my cabin-style home.  I climb out and stroll to the porch to unlock the door.  I turn around towards Danica and watch as she takes timid steps to the front door. 
“I promise, I’m not a murderer,” I say and she flinches as soon as I say the words.  Perhaps I need to re-phrase myself.  “I mean, I’m only trying to help.  That’s it.”  I hold my hands up in an I-surrender gesture, and then turn back around to push the front door open all the way.
She cautiously steps over the threshold, and I follow closely behind her.  Reaching to the wall beside the door, I find the switch to the entry lights and flick them on.
Her face lights up as she takes a look around my house.  I admit, seeing the wonder in her eyes puts a smile on my face and my heart swells with pride.  This house has been a labor of love—proof of what my two hands can create.  When I first bought this house, it really wasn’t much of a house.  The previous owners left this place in complete shambles but with patience and dedication, I not only made it habitable, I created a work of art.  Before I moved in, I was unsure what I would do with it.  I thought about leasing it out during peak vacation season or maybe even flipping it for a profit. As it turns out, I did neither.  I moved in just this past weekend after having to ditch my hometown for some less-than-favorable reasons that I’m too ashamed to admit to, and finally finished unpacking this morning.
“Wow, this is impressive,” she says, running her fingers along the antique table in the entryway that I’d restored. 
“Thanks.  It took a while, but I finally made this home exactly what I wanted.  It had good bones, so I just really gave it a facelift.  There’s just something about old houses, you know…” I reply, trailing off.
She looks up at me nervously.  “Yeah, I know what you mean.” Her voice is quiet, almost a whisper. 
“So,” I say, gesturing to her to come all the way in.  “I’ll get you some clothes.  Feel free to take a shower or whatever you need.  The master’s at the other end, and that’s where I’ll be.”  She moves her head up and down slightly in a gentle nod before returning her attention to the floor, her expression forlorn, and in that moment my heart aches for her.  I don’t really know her, but I know that I don’t want her to be sad. 
She’s too beautiful to look so miserable.
I don’t know where that ridiculous thought came from.  As if being unattractive suddenly warrants unhappiness. Perhaps I left my rational thinking in Annapolis along with my dignity. Who knows?  All I know is that if I had the power to free her from her pain, I would.  Without question. My mother used to joke that I must have some super-hero complex because I always wanted to save the day.
My mother.
She died right after I graduated from the police academy, and I thought it was a loss I’d never recover from.  But I had to.  My little brother needed me so I had no time to play the grieving son.  I was instantly thrust into a world filled with responsibilities. 
My father died when I was just a young boy, and my mother never married again, but that didn’t mean she suddenly turned to a life of celibacy, which explains why Grant was born.  He was the product her brief affair with a married man, that left her broken-hearted and pregnant.  The asshole that fathered my brother wanted nothing to do with him, and insisted that the only way he’d support him financially was if my mother never acknowledged his paternity.
Of course she went along with it because she felt she had to.  My mother lost herself in her marriage to my father.  She had no identity other than his wife, having never held a job or attending college, which meant she had absolutely no skills useful for working outside of the home.  Well, that’s how she saw herself.  My mother was my own hero, and I thought she was capable of anything.  I think the reason she never worked after her marriage to my father was much more out of fear than a lack of skill.  Her role as a homemaker easily qualified her for a variety of jobs, but she simply wasn’t interested. 
The money my father left behind was running out so she took his shitty deal and took care of my brother and me to the best of her ability.  After she died from ovarian cancer I took on taking care of my brother, but honestly I had taken on the role of being the man of the house long before my mother closed her eyes for the last time.  It is because I took that role so seriously that my mom told me I had a super-hero complex, that according to her, I carried into my relationships with the women in my life.  She said I tended to go for needy women that I could save.  Although I deny it, I understand why she had drawn that conclusion.  Most of the women I date—which haven’t been many—usually have severe daddy issues and I always come to their rescue.  It’s not intentional, but I guess you can say I definitely have a “type.”
I shake my head to remove myself from my inner thoughts as I search through my drawers for something that Danica can toss on so that I can take her back to her car.  I don’t want to freak her out further by taking too long, so I quickly grab one of my white tees and a pair of sweatpants that are too small for me, and head back into the living room.
But when I get to the living room, I don’t see her.  I see a light come on down the hall in one of the guest bedrooms so I figure she must’ve started her own tour of my house, which normally I would mind, but for some reason currently unbeknownst to me, I don’t mind right now.  Maybe it’s because of the way her eyes lit up with appreciation and admiration when she saw my handy work that I don’t mind her wandering around my abode.
I take wide strides as I walk down the hallway to the guest bedroom and find her standing in front of the bedroom’s lone window with her arms folded in front of her.  I see her shoulders trembling slightly, and I assume she must be crying again.  I hate to interrupt her moment, but I need to give her the clothes so that I can get cleaned up too.
I pretend to clear my throat before entering the room, and she quickly turns around to face me, her face wet with tears.
I cautiously enter the room, and the corners of her mouth tip up into a half smile, and she quickly swipes at her fallen tears.  “Hope you don’t mind me sort of taking it upon myself to wander through your home,” she says, her voice trembling with uncertainty.
I shake my head as I approach her and hand her the folded clothes that are in my hands.  “I don’t mind.  Are you okay?” Clearly, she’s not, but it’s hard to watch someone breaking down before your very eyes and show no concern.
She nods slightly as she takes the clothes from my hands.  “I’m sorry I’m this weeping mess,” she says without looking into my eyes.  Instead she keeps her gaze fixated on the articles of clothing she has in her hands.
“It’s okay, really,” I reply more to assure myself than her because honestly, it’s not okay.  Crying women always tend to make me feel a little uncomfortable.  I should be a pro with the way I’ve witnessed many nights of my mother’s own distress, especially after the bullshit she had to take from Grant’s dad.  I’d comforted her the best way I could, but it was never something I was good at doing.  “So, the hall bath’s right across the hall,” I say, changing the subject.  “As I said, you’re more than welcome to take a shower if you’d like, and right after that I can drive you back to your car.”
“Thank you,” she mumbles softly, still trying to avoid making eye contact, but I’m not bothered by it.  I actually find it kind of cute, though I hate to admit it.
“So I’m going back into my room to take a shower.  I’ll be back.”  Without anything more to say, I turn on my heel and head out of the bedroom.
Once I’m securely behind my bathroom door, I rid myself of my wet clothes, and step into a shower of steaming-hot water. For a couple of minutes, I stand there and let the water rain down my face and flow down my body before finally soaping up my washcloth and washing off.
I rest my hand on the knob before turning the water off.  I’m not quite ready to get out because I’m not quite ready to face Danica.  And I know why.  It’s because my mother’s words hold some truth.  I do like being the hero, my actions tonight confirm it.  It’s not intentional, it’s just me.  It’s almost as if I can see their potential—see who these women are capable of being.  I help to bring it out of them, and once they find themselves, they leave me behind. 
Finally, I turn the water off and hop out of the glass shower stall.  I grab the towel hanging on the rack and dry off quickly before tying the towel loosely around my waist.  I pick up another one and run it through my wet hair a couple of times.  Using my fingers to comb through my hair, I pull the damp strands back and tie them into a knot with the elastic band I had on my wrist.  After dressing in sweats and a t-shirt, I finally work up the nerve to walk down the hall and face Danica. 
The shower water isn’t running so I know she’s already showered, and I assume she’s decent because the guest bedroom door is open and the light is on.  She’s busy pulling the covers back on the bed when I step into the room and tap on the open door with my knuckle to get her attention.
Her emerald eyes meet mine, and for a moment I’m rendered speechless.  She’s absolutely gorgeous, despite the trace of sadness in her features.  She looks so fragile standing there in clothes that are too small for me, yet swallow her whole. I can’t deny that I’m attracted to her, but my history with women and the fact that she’s probably unstable stop me from acting on my attraction.
“Hi,” she says, greeting me softly.  At least she’s not crying.
“Hi. You ready to go?” I ask her as I lean a shoulder against the door frame. 
She glances up at me with all the uncertainty and vulnerability I’m sure she feels.  “Would you mind if we waited until the morning?  I mean, well, I don’t know if you have something else to do, and well, if you do then I could go.  I don’t want to impose,” she rambles nervously.  She releases a breath and then continues, “I know you don’t really know me, and I don’t really know you, but I don’t know what I was thinking earlier tonight.  I don’t want to burden you, but—”
I wave a hand, cutting her off.  “You’re more than welcome to stay here tonight,” I say, taking a couple steps towards her but making sure to maintain a measurable distance between us. “I don’t mind.  I had no plans other than to get some sleep.  You can take my bed, though.  I have to admit this bed isn’t very comfortable.”
She shakes her head.  “No this is fine.  You’ve been generous enough.”
I nod my head in understanding before turning back towards the door.  I better start distancing myself.  I can already sense my hero instinct rearing its ugly head.  “Good night,” I call over my shoulder as I slowly tread back down the hall towards my bedroom.

Copyright © 2014 by DeAnna Holland.  All rights reserved.

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