Fighting for Everything:A Warrior Fight Club Novel(3)By: Laura Kaye
“That’s great,” Noah said, fisting his hands against the sensation of his fingertips going numb. Judging by how her expression dimmed, his reaction had disappointed her. He’d disappointed her. Just like he knew he would. “Really. Good for you,” he added, but it came out breathy and unconvincing because his chest had gone tight.
He needed to get away before he ended up having a full-blown panic attack in front of all these people. In front of Kristina. In front of his parents and brother. In front of all these strangers. Embarrassing himself and ruining everyone’s night. But if he could just leave and get himself together for a few minutes, then maybe he could come back and act like a normal human being.
Sometimes, he really fucking wished he’d had a limb blown off, or that the injuries to the left side of his face hadn’t healed so well. Then at least he’d have an obvious reason for struggling to readjust to civilian life. Then people would look at him and just know what his fucking problem was.
Kristina hugged herself, her arms pushing the mounds of her breasts together under the low V-neck of her dress. “Yeah, so—”
“I, uh…” Noah tore his gaze away from her cleavage and swallowed hard. “Gotta…go…,” he said, not even sure of the words coming out of his mouth. And then he pushed past her and headed toward the house, not turning back when Kristina called his name.
No doubt disappointing her one more time.
Kristina stared at Noah’s back and wondered what the hell just happened.
The distant, sullen man who couldn’t be bothered to be interested in or spend five minutes with her was not the Noah she’d known most of her life. Tonight wasn’t the first time since he’d come home from the Marines that he’d acted weird around her. And weirdness was something they’d never had between them, not in all the years she’d known him, not when they’d confessed things to one another they would never otherwise say, and not even when they’d dated other people and shared the juicy details.
For a long moment, she stood at the edge of the party and debated, and then she decided—she wasn’t letting it go this time.
Her gut told her Noah needed her.
Making her way through the other partygoers, she headed toward the deck, intent on confronting Noah about what was going on with him once and for all. Because that’s what best friends did—that’s what they’d always done.
Growing up, Kristina had always clammed up whenever her father’s schizophrenia worsened—and Noah knew her well enough to know her silence and withdrawal meant something was bothering her. Every time, he worked to draw it out of her no matter how much she resisted. He’d always been relentless about it, knowing she needed to let it out even when she hadn’t wanted to face just how troubled her father was—and that he might never get better.
Noah needed Kristina to be that relentless now. Her gaze followed him as he disappeared inside the house.
For a lot of reasons, she’d been holding back since he’d gotten home from the military. Because he’d been upset about being discharged. Because he’d earned the right to feel anger at no longer being able to do what he loved. Because after everything he’d been through, he’d needed time to heal without her jumping on him.
Well, not jumping on him. Because, even though Noah was totally freaking jumpable, they were just friends.
Actually, just friends didn’t begin to do them justice. They were so much more than friends. Kindred spirits, maybe.
Kristina jogged up the steps and nearly ran into Mr. Cortez as he came out of the back door, his hands full of bags of buns for the burgers and dogs.
“Ah, there you are,” he said wearing that big open smile that all the Cortez men had. Well, Noah used to have it. Had she seen him smile even once since he’d been home? “How are you doing, Kristina?” He gave her a one-armed hug.
“Summer’s almost here, Mr. Cortez, so I couldn’t be better,” she said, giving him a wink. Truth be told, she loved being a teacher, so she didn’t spend the school year wishing for June’s summer dismissal to arrive. But she appreciated the extra time summer gave her to concentrate on her writing, which was harder to come by when she had papers and homework assignments and course preps needing her attention at nights and on the weekends. Teaching was one of those jobs where, no matter how much you worked, there was always something else you could be doing.
Mr. Cortez laughed. “I bet. Make sure you get something to eat,” he said, gesturing to the bags of buns. “We made enough food for the entire neighborhood.”
“I will,” Kristina said, giving him a smile and then slipping inside the Cortez’s big, warm kitchen. Mr. and Mrs. Cortez were both amazing cooks. Kristina had many fond memories of watching the couple in the kitchen, of spending time with what she’d sometimes wished was her happy family, of meals filled with laughter and conversation, rather than the tension and awkwardness that had often filled her home.
Searching for Noah, Kristina peered into the family room, then the living room. No luck. In the hall, she opened the door to the basement where he’d been living the past few months. “Noah?”