When I was seven my Uncle Mario died. He had been among the first group of troops to be deployed to Afghanistan after the attacks on the Twin Towers. I remember sitting at our white kitchen table drawing on a large sheet of white butcher paper. Mom was at the sink washing the lunch dishes. Cameron, older than me by five years, wasn't home. It was a Saturday morning and he'd spent the night at his friend Ethan's house.
The phone rang sometime after noon. Mom answered and was silent for a moment, then the phone fell from her fingers and clattered to the floor. The backing and the battery flying cross the tile.
"Oh, Piper," she breathed.
"Don't cry." I told her, touching a tear that fled down her cheek.
She didn't tell me what had happened—I was too young and so no one had, but I was old enough to know that something was wrong. The house was so stiff. So quiet. People came in floods, bringing food and wearing black. Even as a seven-year-old I knew how to grieve.
I was sitting on the couch, looking over chemistry when the doorbell rang. Hefting aside the textbook on my lap and an assortment of loose papers and notebooks, I left the couch and went up the little set of stairs that led from our sunken living room to the rest of the house. I didn't bother looking through the peep hole to see who it was—we were expecting a repairman for the washing machine—and pulled open the door.
I swallowed. Standing on our doorstep were two men in uniform. From the Army. Shiny brass buttons, navy suits, hats, pristine white gloves. I shook my head suddenly, feeling a heaviness settle over my heart. "No."
"Miss, are your parents at home?" one of them asked softly.
This wasn't happening. Not again.
"Mom!" My voice came out hoarse and quiet. I felt tears pricking at my eyes, dreading the news I knew I was about to hear. I stepped away from the door, leaving it wide open. "Mom. Dad." I tried again, louder this time. Still no answer. "Mom!" I yelled, suddenly cut off by a sob, tears blurring my vision.
"Piper? What's wrong?" Mom's voice came from down the hall that led to the laundry room and the kitchen.
I didn't answer. I couldn't. I was still staring at the handsome men on our door. The bearers of bad news. One looked particularly stoic, like he had done this before, which I'm sure he had, and the other . . . looked almost as heartbroken as I felt. He was standing straight and tall, but I saw it in his eyes, and a little tell-tale trembling shook his chin.
He couldn't be gone. He couldn't. Oh, Cameron.
"Piper, what in—"
Mom came into sight holding a glass of water, looking annoyed. But when she saw the soldiers on our stoop, the glass fell from her fingertips and crashed to the wood floor, shards and water skidding about the landing. "No," she moaned. "No!"
"Mrs. Montgomery?" the sad looking one asked cautiously. "My name is Lieutenant Brian Adams. I—I brought Cameron's body back here. From Iraq." Brian Adams didn't look much older than Cameron had been.
Mom didn't hold back the sobs that broke forth, and tears trailed down my cheeks as her cries turned into wails. She collapsed where she stood, sinking to the floor, ignoring the glass shards and the puddle. Brokenly, I went to her side, wrapping my arms around her, trying to pull her out of the mess.
"Audra, what's happened?" said Dad as he stepped into the entry way from the hall. He stared a moment at the men at the door, before joining me in trying to get Mom off the floor. She refused to move. "Christ, not Cameron?" He asked, his voice cracking. He didn't have to wait for an answer—he saw it in their faces and in ours. "My boy! My son!"
For the first time in my life I saw my father cry, his face turning red, his sobs joining Mom's. Then I couldn't hold it back any longer. We sat on the floor, glass biting into our skin, water soaking into our socks and the knees of our jeans.
I'd never cried so hard. My brother. My only sibling. Dead. Gone. I'd never hear him laugh again. Never skype him on Christmas or his birthday. No more letters, no more sending packages. Just pain.
"No. No. No. Cam . . ." Mom moaned.
"Mr. Montgomery . . . the body is at the funeral home down the street." Lieutenant Adams said softly. "We need—we would like for you to see the body."
"What—what happened?" Mom asked, her voice shaky as she stood up, wiping her eyes.
"Enemy fire, Ma'am."
"Did—is he—did he—" she broke into another fit of sobs.
"He died quickly, Ma'am." The officer said gently. His gaze met mine and I saw something deeper in his blue eyes. Knowledge. Had . . . had this man been with my brother when he'd been killed?
I couldn't think straight. I couldn't think of anything but the last time I had seen him. It had been almost a year. Too long to go without seeing someone you love.
I knew I had to call Ethan. He wouldn't know yet. He needed to know. I picked up my cell phone and dialed. Ethan Grant was number four on my speed dial even though I hadn't seen him since the last time Cam had been home. I sank onto my bed and slid under the thick covers. He answered on the third ring.
"Ethan," I breathed softly, trying to sound normal, but my voice cracked.
"Sweetheart, what's wrong?" he asked quickly. "If I need to beat someone up—"
"I can do that. I'll do it right now. Who is it?"
"Ethan!"I said, a little more harshly than I had intended.
I drew in a shaky breath and started sobbing, uncontrollably. I pulled the blankets up over my head and shut my eyes tightly.
"Piper? Christ, what's wrong?" Ethan asked, instantly sober.
"Cameron? What's wrong with him?" He sounded suddenly breathless, like I was. Nervous. Scared.
"He's—he—Oh, God." I clamped my eyes shut even more, drawing in uneven breaths.
"Pipe?" he asked anxiously.
There was a long moment of silence. "Shit." He said softly. "Oh, Christ."
I sniffled and wiped my nose on my sleeve. "Yeah."
"Crap, Piper. I've got to go." Ethan's voice sounded heavy and ragged. Without another word he hung up.
Stunned, I let the phone fall out of my grasp and buried my face in the comfort of flannel sheets. I sobbed again. Confused. Hurt. I thought that I would have found a friend in Ethan. Instead he's hung up like he didn't have another care in the world. Terrified of having to face the situation by myself, I reached out and snatched my iPod off my nightstand. It only took seconds for me to locate Cameron's favorite album. I turned up the volume and then retreated back under the covers to cry. No doubt my parents were doing the same thing in their bedroom downstairs.
It had been awful. Horrible. We had gone together to the funeral home. Dad had to drive because Mom was crying too hard to even see. No one asked if I wanted to drive. I'm glad they didn't.
And then seeing him, his skin still dusty from Iraq. Ragged. His hair shorn short. His blue eyes staring wide at nothing at all, a determined look still on his face.
I couldn't do it. I'd run from the room as fast as I could, barely reaching the nearest trash can in time before I vomited. And then I'd been so embarrassed. Guilty. Weak. Too weak to even look at my brother for the last time.
My thoughts were interrupted by a knock on my door. Expecting Mom or Dad, I sat up and threw the covers back. "Y-yeah?" I sniffled, reaching out to pause the music.
"Hey, Piper." A deep voice said softly. A voice that did not belong to my parents. For a moment my heart leapt in my chest and I thought for sure that I had been dreaming. But then, the door was pushed open and someone else stepped into my room.
"Ethan!" I exclaimed. Shocked, yet so happy.
He entered my room cautiously, looking around curiously, noting the band posters, the over flowing laundry basket, the desk covered with novels and textbooks. He made his way over to my bed and collapsed onto it, nearly smothering me. Under different circumstances I would have laughed and squealed. Instead, I only waited for him to move. He did, squeezing into the space between me and the wall, resting his back and his head against the mountain of pillows that adorned the head of my bed. He pulled me closer, tucking me in next to him. A slew of butterflies started flying in my stomach and for a moment I thought I was going to throw up again, but then I realized that it was different. Good. Because of Ethan.
"Hey, Piper." He murmured.
"Hey, Ethan." I said back, burying my face in his chest after turning the music back on. He smelled good, like old times. Neither of us questioned out current position. Why would we when it felt right?
He slipped his arms around me and I sighed easily. "How's Maria?" he asked, referring to me ex-best friend.
I shrugged. "We're not really friends anymore."
"She didn't like me with Corey."
"Doesn't she know that you guys aren't together anymore?" he asked curiously.
I lifted my head to look into his brown eyes. We stared at each other for a moment before I remembered he'd just asked a question. "How did you know?"
It was his turn to shrug. "I heard it somewhere. My mom, maybe."
"If you know, I'm sure she knows. Ii haven't heard from her in a while."
"Don't you see her around?" he asked, shifting a little.
"She changed schools. Her Mom couldn't afford the tuition anymore."
"Huh." He said softly. We fell into silence, listening to the music. It didn't take me long to fall asleep, nestled in Ethan's strong arms, cozy and warm.
When I woke up the first thing I realized was that I wasn't under the covers anymore. I'd probably gotten too warm during my nap. The second thing I noticed was Ethan. His left hand was on my stomach where my shirt had ridden up. His other hand was resting lightly near my knee. His head was turned toward me, warm breath hitting my neck periodically, causing goose-bumps rise on my skin.
Suddenly he moved in his slip, his grip on my knee tightened slightly and I was greeted by an explosion of warmth. It started deep in my belly and spread outward—my body responding to his touch.
What was going on? I'd never had anything but platonic feelings for Ethan, had I? Had I? That was a good question indeed. Maybe as a child I'd crushed on him, but that must have been the extent of it.
Settled in silence and enjoying the feeling of being held by a man, I relaxed back into the bed, glad for the heat pouring out of the vent above my head. I was wearing a pair of pink plaid sleep shorts. I'd changed into them after . . . after we'd gotten home, and they too seemed to have slid out of place. They were settled much lower on my hips than I would normally have worn them. Lifting my head slightly, I saw the tattoo peeking out from under the waistband of my shorts. It was a small set of black swirls. Merely decorative. No meaning. Hard to find a tattoo with meaning when you're almost drunk. Not that I would ever be drunk again—once was enough.
I jumped a little, surprised by his voice. "Oh, um. Hi." I answered, meeting his gaze. "I'm sorry—"
"Sorry?" he asked, removing his hand from my knee to run it through his curly hair. "About this?" He asked, squeezing my thigh gently. I nodded slowly, distracted by his touch. "Shouldn't I be the one apologizing."
"I—I don't think I mind."
Ethan chuckled and let out a woosh of breath. It hit my neck and I shivered lightly at the sensation. "I think we could use a little friendship right now. A little . . . distraction."
I nodded, surprising myself. "I think you're right."
"I—I can't believe he's gone." Ethan murmured softly, sitting up against my pillows more and pulling me closer. I was quiet for a while. I wasn't ready to cry all over him again. "Piper, when did you get a tattoo?"
His fingers brushed over the black ink lightly and my stomach muscles rippled in response, drawing a startled gasp from my lips. I blushed deeply. How embarrassing. "Um—what?"
He chuckled softly, tightening his grip on my thigh. I closed my eyes tightly, utterly confused by the feelings flowing through me. "I take it I found a soft spot. Anywhere else I should know about?"
"No," I lied deftly, thinking automatically about the tender spot on my neck, right below my left ear. Corey had known about it, but he'd never been good about making sure that I was happy too.
"Isn't this weird for you?" I asked suddenly.
"No," he answered, sounding honest.
"You haven't always thought of me as . . . a little sister?"
He shrugged again, brushing his fingers over the skin of my hip again. I closed my eyes, trying to hide the way it felt, but I'm not sure that it worked well. "You were always . . . Cam's sister. Not mine."
"Oh," I answered, unsettled by the fact that our conversation had turned back to Cam so quickly. I just wanted to forget for a little while longer—pretend that everything was normal. Enjoy feelings that I hadn't felt in a long time.
"And here I am, back in your room. Only this time I'm not a freshman in high school, and you certainly aren't ten."
"No, I'm not."
"And thank God for that."
My stomach flipped at those words and I gasped a little when he slipped out from underneath me. "Leaving already?" I asked softly, watching as he left me alone on the bed.
In answer, he pulled his sweatshirt over his head and then kicked off his loafers. God, he was hot. Had I really never noticed his muscles? Or that nose, straight and perfect? Deep eyes framed by thick lashes that any girl would be jealous of.
"See something you like?" he asked, his eyes twinkling.
I flushed and sat up, resting my arms around my knees to watch. He approached the bed slowly, looking at me in turn. "How did I wait this long to kiss you?"
Kiss me? Oh, God. Could I do that? Kiss him, his lips on mine? Before I could ponder it anymore his face was perilously close. Not for the first time I smelled his cologne. Crisp and cool. The same scent that Cameron used to wear. For a moment I forgot that Ethan was in front of me, and all I could think about was Cam. The way his eyes crinkled when he laughed, the way he would always come downstairs and eat breakfast still in his pajamas before getting ready for school. Stupid, little things. Things that brought tears to my eyes.
"You're awful quiet." Ethan said, pulling me out of my daze as he wiped a tear from my cheek.
"Sorry—I—it's just . . . you smell like him."
He pulled away and sat back, looking a little astonished and a bit crestfallen. "Do you want me to leave?"
Startled, I shook my head with surprising vehemence. "No! No. No. It's . . . it's okay."
"We just need some time to forget. Some distractions. Just for this afternoon." Ethan murmured softly, leaning back in. "I need this."
"I get it." I told him, honestly. He was right. I didn't want to think about Cameron, at least not for a few more minutes. It was unbearable. The pain. And, for a while I would just like to pretend than none of it had actually happened. Stupid war. Stupid government. Stupid Cam! And, maybe it was the grief that was causing me to crave Ethan's touch, to seek comfort in the arms of someone my own age who would understand. Someone so familiar.
"You never answered my question." Ethan said, rather suddenly as he looked at the space where our crossed legs almost touched at the knee. His hands drifted over my skin and I was suddenly glad that I'd just shaved the day before. The sensation caused a flurry of tingles to spread over me again. God. Who'd have know that it would be Ethan who could make me feel this way with just a touch? Like we were the only two in the world.
He chuckled and reached out, lifting the hem of my black t-shirt slightly to bare the tattoo. Oh. Right. "When did you get this?"
"Oh, um . . . Corey's mom did it for me when I turned seventeen." I was having difficulties focusing again. His hand was slipping lightly up my side, skimming over ticklish flesh.
"It's pretty sexy." He said, leaning closer.
My breath hitched slightly as his fingers skimmed too lightly over the spot on my side. My muscles spasm under his touch and I knew that he noticed. I hoped he didn't think I was easy. Sexy? Me? Piper Jo Montgomery? "You think?"
"God, yes." He breathed, reaching up with his free hand to cup my cheek. His lips brushed mine ever so slightly. I craved more instantly. He tasted sweet and spicy like apple cider.
Unable to stand it any longer, I crushed my lips to his, almost drunkenly. Intoxicated by his touch. By every move he made. He let out a deep, throaty noise of surprise and slid his hand farther up my shirt.
Finally lost, I wrapped my arms around his neck, pulling him closer, not satisfied by the little bit of contact between us.
He pulled away first and I wondered if I'd done something wrong, but then I remembered I wasn't with Corey anymore—I didn't have to worry about being snapped at. His brown eyes met my celery colored ones and I noticed with satisfaction that his chest was rising and falling almost as rapidly as mine. "So sexy." He muttered, leaning forward to snag my lower lip ins his teeth, tugging gently.
I let out a soft noise of pleasure and immediately pulled away, blushing. "Sorry."
"You're killing me." He grumbled. "Listen . . . I don't know what things were like for you when you were with Corey, but I—just—You need to know that I'm not here to—I'm not here for sex."
Flushing again, I pulled farther away, afraid to look at him. "That was blunt."
"It's the truth."
I looked at him squarely. "So what are you here for?"
"Comfort. Peace. Acceptance. If I happen to get to second base with you, so be it."
Laughing, I pushed him gently and was glad to see that he grinned as he fell backward on the bed. "You're funny."
"Good to know."
I smiled, wondering what I should do next since I felt awkward staring at him. With Corey . . . I hadn't had this sort of freedom, so to speak. Never had to make the first move once. But Ethan seemed to be counting on me doing just that.
He was smiling softly, his arms crossed behind his head, his brown eyes staring at me lazily. "I won't bite, you know. Unless you ask."
Startled, my mouth fell open in shock. But then I remembered that Ethan was twenty-one, or almost twenty-one. In tht moment I couldn't remember when his birthday really was. He was so much older. So much more experienced than I was . . . still in high school. Suddenly feeling discouraged, I looked at my lap, wondering what Cam would have thought if he could have seen us. I imagined he would have been very angry with Ethan.
"Hey," Ethan said quietly, sitting back up. "What's on your mind? You look like you're kinda . . . guilty.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "What—what would he think?" I didn't bother saying Cam's name aloud.
Ethan shrugged. "I can't say for sure—no one can now. But the guys always talked about you when we were around him. We'd come over and you'd be running around in your shorts and tank tops or in a bikini and well—we couldn't help but look. Four high school guys. Raging hormones. You know. And . . . none of us could really help teasing Cam about it. I think . . . I think I was the only one who was probably serious about it, but it pissed him off so much . . . the teasing."
I looked up. Ethan . . . had noticed me? Cameron had known? "I guess I just feel guilty for some reason." I told him honestly.
Ethan rolled onto his knees and leaned toward me, pressing a kiss to me dark red curls. "Piper Jo, I swear to God, Cameron would've been okay with this—us."
"Okay." I said slowly, lifting my lips into a small smile. "But, if you want to get to second base, you might want to hurry. Mom and Dad might get suspicious of how long you've been up here."
He grinned sheepishly. "I—uh—let myself in, actually. No one answered when I knocked and the door wasn't locked."
"All the more reason." I said, surprising myself.
A throaty laugh escaped from his lips before he leaned down and captured mine with his own. Instantly, I was in heaven. My heart pounding. My head swimming. Warmth and tingles spreading like fire with his touch. His hands found my thighs, sliding high with each kiss, yet stopping each time at the hem of my shorts. Pulling away to catch my breath, I muttered, "Tease."
"You haven't seen anything yet." He murmured huskily against my neck.
More warmth filled me, pooling low in my belly at those words and suddenly I had the desire to know more. Before I could ask, his lips were back on mine. His tongue slipped inside my mouth, teasing and stroking at my own. My fists tightened their hold on the sheets underneath us before he suddenly grabbed them and slung them around his neck. "If you don't touch me, so help me God . . ."
He didn't finish that sentence and I didn't need him to. I fisted my hands in his hair, gasping slightly as one of his fingers slid along the waistband of my shorts. Before I knew it, my hands were at the hem of his shirt, lifting it up. We pulled apart briefly and he finished yanking it over his head, tossing it to the floor.
Did I mention that he was perfect? Absolutely perfect. I raised a hand to his neck and trailed it across his tan skin, delighting in every ripple of his muscles, every sharp intake of breath. Feeling bold, I leaned forward and kissed his neck gently. I took a deep breath and sighed at the familiar smells. I noticed him tense when I briefly let my tongue touch his salty skin, and drew back. "I'm sorry—"
Ethan opened his eyes and stared at me for a moment, blinking. "Relax, Piper."
I nodded my head and pulled my hair over my shoulders, away from my face. "I know. I'm sorry. I—just—"
"I might kill Corey."
"What?" I squeaked. Uh-oh. Not a good sign.
"The bastard's got you all messed up. Lord, this might even be easier if you were a virgin."
Offended, I crossed my arms. "What makes you think I'm not?"
His eyebrows shot skyward. "Are you?"
I gave in with a sigh. "No."
"There you go."
Still glaring, I didn't say anything. I narrowed my eyes when he smiled mischievously. In the blink of an eye, Ethan had pushed me backward, and had begun attacking my sides with his fingers. Peals of laughter and squeals erupted from my mouth before I could stop them. I wiggled and begged, but he wouldn't stop. Finally I relaxed, hoping he would stop at the first sign of surrender. I was right.
But before he could kiss me, as I knew was his intention, there was a knock on my bedroom door.
Ethan pulled away immediately. "I'll come back tomorrow." He whispered, before quickly yanking his t-shirt back over his head again.
He opened the door before I could reply and I hastened to straighten out my disheveled appearance. Mom came in. Her eyes were red and puffy and for a brief moment I wondered why. But then I remembered.
Cameron was dead.