“Don’t you usually go for a run in the morning?” I asked as Rhys came out of the bathroom in his shorts and T-shirt.
“Well, I’m going tonight instead.”
He was snippy, and thanks to the chat I’d had with Gwen earlier today, I knew why.
“I made grilled cheese. You hungry?”
“No thanks.” He walked toward the door.
“Hey, um, can I talk to you for a second?” He turned to face me. All the chiseled features of his face resembled smooth stone. Fierce and unmoving.
I put the spatula down and leaned against the counter. Deep breath. Initiating conversation maybe wasn’t normally this scary for a regular person in a regular situation, but staring down a man twice my size and me having the verbal finesse of a drunk sailor, made me worried.
“I know that tomorrow is the anniversary of your father’s death,” I started.
“Damn it,” he mumbled, glancing at the ceiling. “I thought you were going to help her with her computer, not talk about things that don’t matter.”
“But it does matter. This obviously affects you and you lied to me about what happened with your dad.”
“I said he died a few years ago.”
“Fifteen is not a few and you didn’t mention that you were with him.”
“Because that’s not your business.”
My chest stilled for a moment. This was not going how I needed it to go. He was hurting, so whatever I needed to say, to do, to help, I’d try. “You know what, Rhys, you’re right. Maybe in a different circumstance it wouldn’t be my business, but it is now.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I care!” So much for finesse. I blurted out the plain truth with no smooth voice or verbal setup.
He took a step toward me. “Really?”
“Yes,” I said. “I know I’ve been difficult, I don’t do this whole feeling, talking stuff well, but I do care, Rhys.”
The expression that took over his face about made me keel over. He looked at me like he wanted to believe me, but wasn’t sure if he could. Good God, I’d had those same thoughts before, now that I was standing on the other side of things, it hurt bad.
“This doesn’t concern you, Emma. I can deal with my issues.”
That stung. I wanted Rhys to open up. Wanted to push him the way he pushed me, because it wasn’t until I did that he’d trust me. He had my trust. Earned it. It was my turn now.
“Talk to me,” I said, the same way he had asked me a few weeks ago.
“I’m sure my mother already told you. We were out on the property and he had a heart attack. There’s nothing more to say.” Though he looked right at me, the topic made him obviously tense.
“There is more to say if you felt like you could have saved him,” I said softly. His jaw clenched. “But his death wasn’t your fault, Rhys. Doesn’t mean you failed.”
“He died, Emma. I’m not really interested in discussing this.”
“But you need to talk to someone if you’re still holding on to this guilt, this feeling that you could have done something to help him.”
He shook his head. “Emma, I’m fine. My father died, it’s hard, but it’s done and now I’d like to go for a run.” He gripped the door handle and just before he walked out I called after him.
“What about Afghanistan?”
He turned slowly back to face me. The look on his face was so deadly, it made me tremble. Swallowing hard, I pushed lightly, wanting so much to have him open up. Let me in. So I could help. Help lighten some of the burden like he did for me. Even just be there to listen. Anything. I’d do anything.
“What about the bombing?” I whispered, pushing a bit more.
“Careful, Emma,” he growled. “You’re going into things you have no idea about.”
“Then tell me. Please,” I added. “It’s obviously still haunting you.”
“Haunting me? You know what’s f**king haunting me? The people that died, Emma. A person was blown up right before my eyes.”
“Did the woman in your wallet die too?”
He clenched his teeth. “You’re going through my shit now?”
“I was just putting money back last week and saw it.”
His eyes were so hard, they looked like freshly poured concrete and his teeth were about to snap from the pressure of his jaw clenching.
Oh no . . .
“Was she the one they caught and sent in with a bomb?”
His lips pulled back from his teeth as if the truth I was speaking was boiling his skin over. But what was even stranger was that there was just a hint of water lining his eyes. Everything he said came rushing back:
I saw a lot people . . .
I was there a long time . . .
Good people looking for a way out . . .
“You loved her,” I said around a choking sob in my throat. “Didn’t you?”
“She was a nineteen-year-old woman trying to escape. She came to us, we prepped her, and for years she was an informant and translator. I was personally responsible for her safety.”
Each word looked like it cut his throat coming out. My eyes hurt and matched the water lining his.
“Rhys . . .” I took a step toward him, but he just yanked open the front door and slammed it shut behind him. Running into the night, from himself, from his past, from the guilt I knew he carried. And there was nothing I could do.
My whole chest caved in on itself. I did the only thing left in my power. I sat down at the table, and waited for him to return.
The door boomed open and I shot from my seat. I stood up instantly, unaware that my eyes had drifted closed. Rhys was in the doorway, breathing hard, sweaty and looking ready to fight, to scream, to hug, I had no idea which. But tension poured from him.
“I was fine,” he said and walked toward me. I backed up until I felt the counter behind me. “Then you came along, with those big eyes and smartass mouth and I knew . . .”
He pressed against me, the counter digging into my lower back. He smelled like the earth and wind and spice. Everything in me responded to him. Wanted to reach out, to hold him. But I could tell this wasn’t a tender moment. This was Rhys, looking for something.
I just hoped I could be what he needed.
“There was something about you from the beginning that called to me, Emma. Made me think you somehow needed me.”
His breath hit my lips, but tension rolled from every part of his body.