“Nina,” Jared call ed after me, but the tires sloshing through the wet pavement as cars passed by drowned out the fol owing words.
It was wrong, but in my haste to speak to Ryan again, I ignored Jared and ran to the cruiser at ful speed, paying no attention to the rain.
The air was biting, and the rain instantly dampened my clothes. I yanked open the passenger-side door, assuming it would be as cozy as the Escalade.
“Cheese and rice!” I said, crossing my arms and bending at the waist. “You could hang meat in here!”
“Sorry,” Ryan said, turning up the heat. “I keep it cool so I can wear my coat. Can’t real y waste time putting it on before I make a stop.”
I laughed once. “A cop?”
“Yeah.” He smiled and looked down. “Yeah.”
“I guess this means you’re not coming back to Brown.”
“Looks that way,” he said without humor.
He was thicker than I remembered, but his face was thin. Lean was probably a better word. A hardened expression replaced his sweet smile. He appeared older; a long, weary line of disappointment and horrendous experiences no man should ever have to encounter reflected in his once bright, green eyes.
By his hesitation alone, I could tel the effort to pul me over wasn’t due to the anticipation of a happy reunion.
“You stopped writing.”
“I did,” he admitted. “I used to sit on a dune and watch the sun set, thinking about you…writing half of what I wanted. That was my nightly routine for a long time.”
“My postman has some explaining to do.”
“I only sent a few of them. I was in love with you for a long time, Nina.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, trying the swal ow the lump that had formed in my throat. It was pointless to apologize after what I had done to him, but the words fel out of my mouth.
“Why? I’m not the first guy to go war after my heart got broken. Half of my buddies wrote home to girls that didn’t love them back. Some of them had girls that quit waiting. I was one of the lucky ones, even though your smile haunted me for a long time.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” I said, wrinkling my nose.
“No,” he said, matter-of-factly. “After leaving, going half-way across the world, I stil missed you. I didn’t think it would ever go away. But something changed, Nina.”
Ryan smiled. “I quit loving you.”
I nodded, my feelings conflicted. A smal part of me was hurt, and maybe a bit jealous that he had final y gotten over me. The rest of me was overjoyed. “That’s…good? I guess?”
“No, that’s wrong. I stil love you. I wil always love you as my friend. But I’m in love with someone else.”
A grin streaked across my face for a fleeting moment. “That’s exciting. Do I know her?”
“Actual y…I think you do. And I need your help.”
“Anything. I sort of owe you, don’t I?”
Ryan sighed, nodding. “That’s where I was going with this.” He paused for a moment. “You ever get the feeling you’re never alone? I mean, even when you are.”
His words spoke to every moment of my life, but I remained quiet.
Ryan ignored my silence. “Do you remember the night Jared came into the bar? And the last night we were together?”
My heart began to pound. I didn’t know what direction the conversation had taken, but I felt instantly uncomfortable. “What about it?”
“I remember three things about both of those nights: Jared’s sister, how strong she was, and those crazy blue eyes. Everyone else says I’m crazy, Nina…but you…you I know wil understand.”
“Don’t be so sure,” I said, feigning bewilderment.
Ryan huffed, frustrated. “The night in your father’s office. You said I couldn’t tel anyone about our plan because Jared would find out. I thought he was in the F.B.I. or something, but it’s bigger than that, isn’t it?”
I touched his arm. “You’re seeing someone professional, right? About what happened to you over there?” The words had to be said to protect those I loved, but the guilt was overwhelming. Ryan didn’t deserve that from me—he had come to me for a reason: because he trusted me to believe him. If the consequences were different, I would have been the friend he’d always been to me, but my choice was clear.
He paused. Anger made the skin around his eye twitch. “What makes you think anything happened to me over there?”
“I uh…,” I swal owed. “I real y should be going,” I said, reaching for the door handle.
Ryan grabbed my arm. “I saw her eyes. The day she saved my life, I saw her. No one has eyes like her, and no woman that size could have carried me out of there. Tel me where Claire is, Nina.”
My door flew open, and Jared pul ed me to my feet. Ryan scrambled out of his cruiser, desperate. “I just want to talk to her,” he yel ed over the rain. “I don’t need to know how she did it. I just…need to see her again.”
Jared glanced at me, and then back to Ryan. “Unless you’re charging us with something, we’re leaving. Good to see you again, Ryan.”
“I’m not crazy!” Ryan said, desperate. The rain was more of a downpour, but he was unfazed.
My steps were smal and quick, trying to keep up with Jared as he led me by the arm to the Escalade. Once inside, I turned around, holding the seat with both hands as I watched the stand off between the two men I loved in such opposite ways. Ryan, in his puffy, standard-issue policeman’s coat simply watched Jared glower at him. It was a new side of him, as I half-expected a nasty exchange of words.
Jared slammed the car door behind him before shoving the shifter into gear. The speedometer passed the point of speeding before we were out of Ryan’s radar range, as if Jared dared him to stop us again.
“Okay. Jared? Jared!” I said, fumbling with my seat belt.
“It certainly seems that way,” I said, bracing myself as Jared weaved through the traffic. “Claire wil lay low for a while like you said to. It wil be fine.”
“You heard him, Nina. He’s been holding onto this for months. He’s not going to let it go.”