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I shook my head. “You know I don’t mind. You’ve been a huge help around here.”

“Things seem to be better for you, too.”

“I feel better.”

“Have you heard from Ryan? No one’s heard from him since he joined that special thing.”

My mouth turned to the side. Most of the time I tried not to think of Ryan, the sand, or the bul ets flying every where while he carried his his pipe bomb backpack.

“No,” I said.

Beth nodded. The desk phone rang and she stood, pushing Line One and answering without hesitation. “Nina Grey’s office…no, that file is in the…oh Lord, Sasha, I’ll just come find it for you. How long have you worked here?”

Beth hung up the phone, and I smiled. “Don’t let her take advantage of you. Do you want me to say something?”

“No. I do plenty of that,” Beth said, winking.

“I’m heading home. Wil you lock up for me?” I asked.

“I always do,” she said, waving behind her.

Jared stood beside his SUV with a smile, waiting with arms wide. He had let me fal asleep in his arms the last few weeks and then left sometime after. Jack and Gabe stayed out of my head, and I slept through the night, never realizing Jared was gone. He was getting so good at pinpointing when I would rouse he usual y slid next to me just before I awoke. Once again, life was semi-normal.

His hand slid over mind as it rested on the console of the Escalade. “Something came for you today.”

“A letter?” I asked, nervous.

Jared let go of my hand, pul ing an envelope from his jacket pocket. Ryan had final y written again.

Nigh, I s ti l l thi nk about y ou ev ery day. S ometi mes w hether I w ant to or not. Thi ngs hav e been pretty bus y. The new c ompany I’ m i n i s a w hol e new breed of s ol di ers . I l i k e i t, but I mi s s y ou. W hen I get a c hanc e, I s i t and w atc h the s uns et, and thi nk about our game, and the pub, and y our s tupi d temper tantrums . I mi s s i t al l . Tel l ev ery one I s ai d hi .

Ry an I folded the paper back to its original shape.

“Do I have to remind you that this isn’t your fault?” Jared asked.

Ryan’s sudden departure was too much of a coincidence to believe that it wasn’t my fault, but Jared, Kim, and Beth al assured me quite regularly that his reasons were purely financial.

He didn’t write again after that, and I relied on Jared’s intermittent phone call s from Claire to hear of his whereabouts, and that he was okay.

Claire stil had to pul a multitude of strings to keep a close eye on Ryan. She call ed home frequently to complain of Ryan’s lack of self- preservation, which helped to get him accepted so quickly into the Special Forces in the first place. Claire’s phone call s were reason to fear; for Ryan and for her. I chewed my thumbnail each time Jared answered the phone, waiting for him to assure me that Ryan’s commando behavior hadn’t gotten him kil ed.

As our smal , but close group of friends waved goodbye on the last day of our sophomore year at Brown, Ryan came to the forefront of my mind.

“He should be here,” I said to Beth.

She held my arm as we walked to the parking lot. “I know.”

“No, he’s in the middle of nowhere, prone on a sand dune, trying not to get shot so he didn’t have to watch me be with Jared. It’s not fair. He should be here with us.”

Josh and Tucker were heading to their dorm to pack and head home, and Kim walked with them, punching Josh in the arm. The opening of Summer Break was bittersweet, and we al knew why.

Beth walked me to the Escalade, and after a warm embrace, left me to find Chad. They would al meet at the Pub that night to celebrate, and I would stay at home. It didn’t feel right to have fun when Ryan was fighting for his life.

Jared was unhappy with my mood. He didn’t ask what it was, but I assumed he knew. I didn’t enjoy talking to him about Ryan. It was unfair to him, and didn’t make me feel any better, so I didn’t see a point.

The loft was immaculate, and the summer sun lit the beige wal s, making every corner of the room glow. It had been nearly a year since Shax had been in our living room, since Jared threw the book at him that Gabe so desperately wanted us to have. It had been almost a year since I was shot. I rubbed my thigh where the scar stil remained.

Jared flipped through the mail at the kitchen table. “What do you want for dinner, Sweetheart?”

“It just doesn’t seem to get better,” I said, shaking my head. “We can redecorate, and fil the bul et holes in the wal s, and pretend life is normal… but you’re gone every night, and we aren’t any closer to getting the book, and Ryan is gone. It’s been a year and it doesn’t feel like it’s gotten better.

We’re stuck.”

Jared raised an eyebrow. “Bad day?”

I sat on the arm of the couch. “He’s going to get kil ed. Every day that he’s out there, Claire is in danger. We should bring him home.”

“You’re suggesting that we go to the Middle East and abscond with a member of the Special Forces?”

I puffed. “It’s not right that he’s not here.”

“You’re just letting the guilt eat you alive. You have to let it go, Nina. You have to let him go.”

“I know what you’re thinking,” I said. “This isn’t about me having feelings for him. Maybe it is about guilt, but I can’t stand it anymore…how Josh and Tucker and everyone else look at me. That’s why I don’t hang out with them, anymore. That’s why I don’t go to study group. I have been sleeping through the night for months, and I can’t go back. The looks on their faces—they blame me.”

“You blame you,” Jared said. “I have an idea,” he said, pul ing his cel phone from his pocket. He dialed numbers, and then held the receiver to his ear.

After several moments, a grin touched his mouth. “Claire. How is everything? I see. I have someone here that would like to speak to you. You got a minute?”

Jared handed me the phone. “Hel o?” I said, unsure of her reaction.

“It is hot as hel here,” Claire snapped. “I have sand in places no woman should experience. It’s in my hair, my eyes, the seat of my Jeep. There’s no getting rid of it, even when I get the occasional shower. And my hair looks like crap. So…how are things?”