I hook my index finger inside my collar and pull. Two hours sitting at this imposing conference table is more than enough to last me the rest of my lifetime. My eyes flick to the check with more zeros in it than I’ve ever seen, signed by my former client, the rock star Cole Manchester. “Seed money,” he’d called it. “Use it to buy a gym and start over. You deserve this, and it’s the least I can do to say thank you for saving our lives.” I’d rather have my partners back.
I slide Cole’s check to the attorney.
He verifies the amount against the contract, nods and hands it over to my brother-in-law. “One more thing. David asked that I add another provision to the contract. He would like the effective date of transfer of Complete Gym to be extended thirty days. This means that instead of your taking over tomorrow, Wills, you’ll assume possession next month.”
My eyebrows raise as I look at David.
He answers my silent question. “Complete is like my extended family. They rallied around me when we got the news about Addie. I haven’t been able to find the words to tell them I’m leaving, and I need this extra time to make sure everyone understands.” He pushes the check back to me.
I hold up my hand to stop its progress. “Keep it.”
The money never felt like mine, anyway. Letting go of it doesn’t bother me. The extra thirty days, however, that bothers me. What am I going to do with myself for thirty whole days? I can’t stay still. The demons that haunt me would play three-dimensional chess in my head.
“I’d like to start the transfer of Complete now. We don’t have to make any announcements or anything, but people can get used to seeing me around the gym.”
David clears his throat. “Of course. But, I’d appreciate it if you’d keep a low profile until the sale is public. I’ve scheduled a Summer Competition for next weekend, and I promise to let everyone know then.”
I swallow over my distress and tip my chin toward him. I can’t force him to give me the keys sooner, and he needs to do this in his own time—I only wish his time was now.
After signing what feels like a million documents, the attorney shakes our hands and leaves us in the conference room. I extend my hand to my brother-in-law. “I’m glad I was able to buy you out. This way, I can carry on the work you both started.”
Dropping my hand, he responds, “Thanks. This is the right thing for me to do, even if it feels like I’m losing her all over again.” Using the palm of his hand, he rubs his cheek.
Burying these painful memories, as per usual, I raise my chin. “Want to grab a burger?
He tugs at his blazer. “Sure.”
We head over to a local hangout, which is bustling with the Tuesday afternoon lunch crowd. Luckily, we snag the last booth. After the server brings our beers, I ask, “Have you decided where you’re moving yet?”
David lifts his beer to his lips, then puts the bottle down. “I put an offer down on a house in Charleston.”
My hand stills mid-air. “I thought your family is in Montana. Figured you’d go back there.”
He takes a swallow of beer. “They are. They want me to move back home, but Addie and I spent so much time there visiting. I’ve talked it over with my therapist and decided that I need to go somewhere that I’ve never been. I’ve heard good things about Charleston, so I figured it was as good a place as any to start over.”
I rub the back of my neck at his mention of a therapist. I don’t see the value, but his seems to have helped him. “I’ve never been to that city either. But I hope you find what you’re looking for there.”
We clink the necks of our bottles. He’s a good guy, David—my sister adored him. I get the feeling he hasn’t truly forgiven me for her death, though. And why should he? It’s not like I have. Or ever will.
“Did your condo sale go through yet?”
I place the bottle down on the table. “Yes. I signed a lease for an apartment near Complete yesterday. I want a fresh start, too.”
Our oversized cheeseburgers arrive—mine with a side of fries, onion rings for him. David takes a bite of the burger and comments, “Heart attack on a plate, that’s what Addie would call this.”
Swallowing a mouthful of fries, I reply, “I kept explaining to her that it hits all of the food groups—vegetables, protein, carbs, oil and dairy.” I lift the burger to my mouth. “The perfect meal.”
He snickers. “I tried that tact once. She wasn’t convinced, although she always brought me an In-N-Out Burger for my birthday.”
“That was Three.” My nickname for my sister rolls off my tongue as if she’s sitting next to me. I add more ketchup to the pool already on my plate. “She’d debate a point forever, but then indulge your preference in the end.”
In no time, our plates are cleaned. But I still need to ask David one thing that’s been bothering me for years. I may not have another chance. “You don’t have to answer me, but I’ve been wondering if you know why she decided to stay in the reserves instead of getting out when her enlistment ended? I asked her at the time, but she never gave me a straight answer.”
He swallows his last onion ring and wipes his mouth with a napkin. “She loved it. She loved the camaraderie and sense of purpose. Even when I was out and we started Complete, she felt it was her patriotic duty to serve one weekend a month.” He finishes his beer. “And your father played his role, as you well know.”
I clench my jaw. Yes, I do know, all too well. When I refused to join the Marines right out of high school like he and his father did—like my sister did—the dynamics around the house changed. Not that they were ever great before I dropped out of college and got certified as a personal trainer. When a client, Nolan Kates, saw me handle some unruly gym members, he thought I’d make a good bodyguard. His suggestion struck a chord with me and, after taking classes in personal security, I ended up working for his PI firm. Not that my father thought too much of that career, either.
“We knew her unit could be called up to go to Afghanistan, but she joined the reserves anyway.” He crumples up the napkin. Head turned, he says, “Hey, I’m grateful for the Marines, though. I never would have met your sister if we weren’t stationed together.”
I raise my beer to my lips but place it on the table without taking the final swallow. “I wish I had gone into the Marines. Then she wouldn’t have felt compelled to join up, and she would be here today.”
“You don’t know that. Addie was feisty. She probably would’ve joined for the sole purpose of competing against you.” His right lip curls upward.
“You’re probably right,” I say without conviction. Having her death on my conscious is a lasting ache that hurts more sharply than the prick of the tattoo I got in her honor two years ago.
David brings his arms up and reaches under his shirt, then takes off a silver chain. No. Not a chain—it’s Three’s dog tags. He looks at them and closes his fist. “I need to move on with a clean slate, Wills.” He extends his hand to me. “Here. I want you to have these.”
I suck in a breath. My eyes bounce from his now-opened palm to follow a tear rolling down his cheek. I shake my head, unable to speak.
“Please. I want you to have them. Addie would want this.”
I swallow over the lump lodged in my throat. “Thanks.” Reaching out, I take the chain and put it around my neck, allowing it to fall under my shirt. My hand pats her dog tags that now rest on my chest.
After a minute, he signals for the server to bring our check. “This is on me.” He offers a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Looks like I have a big check waiting for me.”
I open my mouth to argue, but the intense look on his face makes me say instead, “Thanks. When we’re done here, want to go to Complete?”
David pulls out a light brown leather wallet with the Marine Corps logo on it. After he extracts some bills, he glances at his watch. “Can’t. I have to get back and walk Gemini.” Three was Gemini’s handler. Injured when she was killed, David was able to adopt the military working dog and spoils him rotten. Not that I blame him.
Fishing into my pocket for my keys, I reply, “You go do that. I think I’ll see what I can do at Vets for Military Dogs.” I’ve been volunteering at this place—a charity that fosters injured military working dogs until they’re ready to be adopted—for years. There’s always a dog that needs his belly rubbed.
As we’re exiting, my cell beeps. My stomach contracts when I see that “Emilie Dubois” sent me another text. To complete my self-inflicted torture, I open it, shake my head and put my cell into my back pocket without responding, just as I’ve done with all of her texts. I’m no good for the French supermodel—not the same man I was before I had to kill Cole’s crazy stalker. Not that I ever was good enough for her. Besides, we never did much but talk and share a couple of kisses. I vault in my Jeep, blasting rock music to drown out my jumbled thoughts.
I’m going to make you proud, Three.
No more deaths. I rub my bicep, which hosts my newest tattoo honoring my fallen partners, Jared and Roberto.
Thirty days will fly by, right?
And the one thought that swirls around the most—How can I keep my distance from Emilie now that she’s living in LA?