The Beauty Series(10)

By: Skye Warren

Treading quietly, he slipped out of the bedroom to his study across the hall. The answering machine blinked red like it had all afternoon, but he ignored it. He didn’t want to talk to anyone. Instead he flipped the screen up on his laptop, suffusing the room with a dim blue light that comforted him. Here he was in his element. Here he was treated as an equal.

There were six new emails today, each several pages long, dense blocks of text he’d sift through, dissect, and debate. Four from professors and politicos in the U.S., one abroad, and the last from a Jain monk in India. Well, the man’s assistant, technically, since he didn’t use a computer or even prepare his own food. The topics varied from domestic politics, global events, human rights, anything they could discuss passionately and endlessly, spinning his intellectual wheels in the rut of rhetoric. A network he’d built up over his years as a young, ambitious soldier with his eye on public office, never realizing he would one day need them as his sole link to humanity.

He lost himself in the words. Only here, he didn’t have to be himself. The subjects tested him intellectually, but he didn’t have to think about his own life and the lack of it. Not about Erin and when she might realize what a loser she’d hooked up with. Not how he’d feel when she walked away.

Hours slipped away with only the clean, crisp notes of logical arguments, falling one after the other in a melody he could play in his sleep.

“You’re awake.”

He looked up to see Erin standing in the doorway. Her arms were crossed, her slender body leaning back just inside the doorframe. He wondered how long she had been there.

“Oh man, I’m sorry.” He stood up quickly, and pain shot down his neck. Partly it was the position he’d been in, but his neck had been stiff ever since the explosion. Months of physical therapy and rehabilitation visits had only helped so much. The explosion had damaged more than his skin. “I didn’t realize how long it’d been.”

She shrugged, wandering closer. “It’s okay. You can work whenever you want.”

Like a beacon, her presence shone light on things better left dark. She brushed her fingers over a dusty pile of papers. He’d told her to skip this room on her first visit here, and despite everything that had happened between them, he’d never changed that. Her first time in this room, the one place he’d felt alive in those dim hours, and her presence somehow felt more intimate than the sex they’d shared.

“Let’s go back in the bedroom.” His voice came out hoarse. “I can think of something better to do.”

“Not sleep, though, I guess.” Something seemed different about her, a diffidence. A chill in the air between them. She ran her fingers along his desk and gently blew the dust off her finger. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were hiding something from me.”

He wasn’t, not like she meant, so why did he suddenly feel guilty? Because she didn’t know the extent of his injuries and PTSD. Because she didn’t know how much he longed for her. Because she didn’t know how lost he was when not anchored to her. He couldn’t divulge any of that without losing part of himself—without losing her.

“Ask me anything you want to know,” he said. His voice sounded raw, because that was how he felt. Exposed here, vulnerable. For her, yes.

She swiped a finger across the top of his glowing laptop—of course that one came away clean. One of the few things disturbed here. “Is there another woman in the picture?”

Shock mingled with relief as he laughed. “What? No.”

“I mean, our relationship was pretty sudden. I’m not saying we have to be exclusive or that I expect that from you.”

He spoke bluntly to put a stop to that. “There’s no one else for me, Erin.”

“Then why do always come in here when you think I’m asleep? I know you already work in here all day. When do you rest?”

He opened his mouth to respond and then realized he didn’t know the answer. She hadn’t stayed over every night in the two weeks they’d been sleeping together, but dawn usually found him right in that leather swivel chair, eyes bleary from staring at the screen. He’d gone from being active in graduate school and in the military to…nothing. He still felt that drive, that ambition, but he had nowhere to put it, nowhere to go.