To celebrate the countdown to the release of Pine Harbour #8, Love on the Edge of Reason, I’ve discounted Love in a Sandstorm (#6!) to 99 cents.
I’ll probably blog about what this book means to me before the sale is over, but for now, I’m going to share the first chapter.
LOVE IN A SANDSTORM, Chapter One
The directions from the diner on the edge of Pine Harbour had been clear. Back onto the highway, head just north of town, take the first left.
Such a mundane instruction for a potentially life-altering drive, Jenna Kowalczyk thought.
Five minutes, tops, the waitress had said. Sean would definitely be there. She’d leaned in and with a sympathetic sigh confided that he hadn’t left his older brother’s house since Dean brought him home four weeks earlier.
Of course he was at Dean’s place. Those Foster brothers always had each other’s backs.
Jenna had heard all about Sean’s family in the two weeks they spent together in the south of Spain. When she’d fallen in love with a soldier and let him promise her the moon.
It had only been three and a half months since they’d clung to each other and said goodbye in the Urfa airport. Eight weeks since she’d last heard from him. Six weeks, give or take a few days, since he’d been injured in a mortar attack on a convoy.
An attack she hadn’t known about.
She took the turns mechanically. Instead of the overwhelming emotions she’d expected to feel, there was just a stiff numbness.
The final turn, onto a gravel lane, was marked by a pair of weeping willows. Past those trees she found a sweeping lawn leading to a well-kept sprawling home with a wide porch and a three-car garage to the side, the house Jenna knew Sean’s oldest brother had recently bought and added a recording studio at the back for his fiancée.
She knew all about these people, but she feared they had no clue she existed.
She slowed to a stop in front of the house. Her heart hammered in her chest and she took a full minute to compose herself before she pushed herself out of the car.
The Bruce Peninsula was overcast and rainy, and the unseasonable cool felt even colder given where she’d just come from. She grabbed her jacket.
When she knocked on the door, it wasn’t Sean that answered. She recognized Dean from the photos Sean had shown her.
He didn’t recognize her in the least, though. He gave her a tight, blank up-and-down glance before speaking. “Can I help you?”
She nodded slowly. “I’m looking for Sean Foster.”
“I’m his brother, Dean.”
She gave him another nod as she tried to make sense of this moment. Her brain was spinning hard, but there was no sense to be made. Only one thing to do—rip off the bandage. “Is he here?”
Dean crossed his arms and lifted his chin. “What do you want with him?”
She swallowed hard. “I asked at Mac’s. The diner?”
“I’m familiar with it.”
Heat rushed to her cheeks. “Of course. They said he was staying here.”
“He’s asleep right now.”
In the middle of the day? She instinctively looked past her husband’s brother’s shoulder, seeking out the man who occupied her heart.
“Maybe it would be best for you to come back another time.”
“Right.” That wasn’t happening, though. She was here now and she needed to see Sean. But first…if Dean didn’t know who she was, there was only one explanation. And that was step number one. “Maybe we should talk, anyway.”
She gestured for him to join her on his own porch.
He glanced behind him before stepping outside and closing the door. “What do we need to talk about? If you’re looking for Sean, you should know he’s not in great shape right now.”
Something in the way he said that turned her stomach. She’d known that was a possibility, maybe even a likelihood, but anger—at being left behind, at being ignored—had fuelled her to this point. She’d needed to think she’d been wronged, somehow, in order to keep her wits about her. To keep working when she wanted to curl up in a ball and let her heart just be broken. Of course when she’d realized he’d been injured, she’d feared the worst—but the media reports had made it sound…
Well, whatever it was, better to deal in facts. She squared her shoulders and tightened her mouth. “Then it’s all the better that I’m here.”
“And why is that?”
She shoved her fingers through her hair, ignoring the way they shook, and glanced to the side. “I guess he didn’t tell you.”
“Tell us what?”
Spit it out. She sighed and held out her hand. “I’m Jenna. Sean’s wife.”
It took agonizing seconds for Dean to glance down at her extended fingers, then back up at her face. Process her words and weigh them.
He didn’t take her hand, though.
She left it stuck in the space between them. She had nothing to apologize for. She had a ring and two weeks’ worth of stories and photos that proved she wasn’t insane, even though right now, in this moment, she felt totally crazy.
Slowly, he extended his arm and shook her hand. It wasn’t the warmest handshake she’d ever experienced, but it wasn’t booting her off his porch, either. Small miracles. “Say that again?” he said carefully after he released her hand.
“We met in January at a transit camp in Turkey. Just before he went to Spain on his long leave. We traveled together. I was in the room when he called home.” She’d been curled up against his naked chest, but that wasn’t a detail that needed to be shared with his brother. “And then, at the end of our holiday together, we got married.”
She swung her bag off her shoulder and dug into it for her phone. Sean’s brother didn’t say anything as she tapped in her password and clicked into her saved photographs. She didn’t have many since Spain. A couple of selfies she’d sent Sean, nothing indecent, and the group photos she took with her Doctors Without Borders colleagues the night her replacement arrived, and she left the camp.
When she said an abrupt goodbye to her life’s plans and her planned out future.
All to chase the missing pieces of her broken heart.
She found the end of their trip. The twenty-four hours in Gibraltar. Their wedding pictures, as simple and unassuming as they were.
Fingers still shaking, she handed over the phone.
Dean flipped back and forth, then swore under his breath before glancing up at her and swearing again, this time louder. “Well, I’m sorry for being suspicious. You’re right, he didn’t tell us.”
She’d known that from his initial who-the-heck-are-you expression, but the confirmation still hurt. And when she opened her mouth, nothing came out.
“He’s not himself.” Dean likely provided this as some sort of justification, and she got it.
She wanted that explanation too. Needed to cling to it because if he were, this would be extra awful. The man who’d seduced her, thrilled her, loved her couldn’t do this. Couldn’t go cold and silent just like that.
“Can you tell me what happened? The news reports were sparse, to say the least.”
He shook his head. “Not my story to tell. But you should come in. We’ll give you some space to speak to him on your own.”
Sean heard voices downstairs and hauled another pillow over his head. He could handle the ringing, or the spinning, or the nausea. Any one of those things were manageable. But all three together filled him with the worst kind of impotent rage, because there was nothing to be done. Even the medications he’d been prescribed didn’t work. They didn’t touch the dizziness or the tinnitus. Sure, they helped with nausea, but so did being unconscious.
He closed his eyes and willed himself to fall back into the broken sleep he’d been riding when the noise had started again.
But instead of quiet, he got a knock at the bedroom door.
“Go away,” he growled in the cold, hard voice he still didn’t recognize as his own.
His oldest brother didn’t listen, because that wasn’t his way. Instead he pushed the door open. Creak.
Sean moved the pillow that was in front of his face out of the way and found Dean looming in the doorway. “You’ve got a visitor.”
“Not up for it.”
“Not an option for this visitor.”
“Someone from the unit?” Definitely not up for that, then. He was no fucking hero. He’d been dodging visitors the entire month he’d been home, and that wasn’t going to change any time soon. “If it’s the padre, tell him to fuck off.”
“It’s your wife.”
For two weeks in the military hospital in Germany, he’d imagined those words. At first, he’d wanted, needed to hear them. Tried to ask the nurses to get in touch with Jenna, but his words had been all fucked up, and they’d ignored his badly written notes.
He’d dreamed of her. Futile, frustrating dreams, of falling asleep in her arms, only to wake up and she was gone.
He’d dreamed of his late mother, too. Hadn’t done that in years.
Then the doctors started to talk about his rehab and transitioning out of the army. He’d been reminded at every turn about the ever-present threat of another stroke. Of disability and accommodation. Faces grew sympathetic and voices softened.
Did he want to go to a rehab hospital far from home?
Would he have adequate support if he was discharged? It wasn’t a lie to say yes. His brothers would do anything for him. Of course he hadn’t allowed them to. He’d hissed and growled and snarled until they gave him space.
And as he struggled with the transition back in Pine Harbour—as he realized just how well and truly fucked he was, not for a short time, but maybe forever—he couldn’t stomach the thought of having one of them reach out to her. Couldn’t bear the thought of her pitying him, too.
Better for her to be angry and righteous. To move on and leave him behind.
He’d resolved himself to that plan, deciding it would be better for her that he be nothing but a memory.
But she was here.
His stomach heaved.
He lurched to his feet, ignoring the way the room twisted obscenely around him, and shoved past Dean. There was no way for him to keep the floor from coming up to meet his face. It was only absurdity that drove some part of him to keep trying, like on the three-hundredth try, mind-over-matter might finally work.
Dean hauled him up and half-carried him into the bathroom, where he lost his lunch in the toilet.
Silently, his brother handed him a damp towel.
His whole life, Dean had been taking care of him. Ten years older and endlessly wiser, he’d been shoved into a parent role before he was ready, but he’d stepped up anyway.
And now he was doing it again, his new life with Liana on hold because Sean was a mess.
Sean swiped angrily at his face. He didn’t look in the mirror. He hated what he would see if he did. Gaunt cheeks, scruffy beard. Too long hair, sunken eyes. He didn’t need to see himself today to know Jenna couldn’t, ever. “Make her go away.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
“Then what the fuck good are you?”
“I honestly don’t know.” Dean growled under his breath. “You got married?”
That was before.
It hurt so much, a bright, sharp regret in his chest.
“We had a fling.” The words turned sour in his mouth. A lie. It had been so much more than that. He’d been the luckiest man in the world.
Like everything else in his life, the idea of having a wife was now done. Broken. Impossible and shoved deep down lest it destroy him to think about it.
“She’s downstairs.” Dean kept pushing that fact in front of him, like he wasn’t covered in a cold sweat already.
“You don’t have a choice.” His brother opened the bathroom door. “Liana and I are going out for an hour to give you some space. I’m telling Jenna you’re up here.”
No. It was a wounded, pathetic cry, and he swallowed hard not to let it out.
He wouldn’t beg.
If he needed to do this, he’d do it. He’d find a way to tell her this was a mistake. Her coming here, them getting married, the whole thing.
He stood there, in front of the sink, and listened to Dean’s heavy steps descend the stairs. Murmurs, then silence, followed by noisier murmurs. Dean had gone to get Liana from her studio—interrupting her work—so they could get out of the way.
His chest tightened. It was too late to move—not that he could on his own. Too late to try and look good for her—not that he deserved to preen.
As the front door clicked shut, his pulse pounded loud inside his head. It added to the disorienting cacophony of sound in there that made it so hard for him to think.
All of his fucked-up brain stuff should make it hard to hear things, but if anything, it heightened his sense of sound. He heard her downstairs. Shifting on the spot. Restless, worrying.
If she’d stood there any longer, that knowledge would have twisted tight enough inside him that he’d have tried to move. Tried and failed, like all the other times, but he was close to lurching forward when she took her first step up the stairs.
Creak. Another two steps, and a pause. Then a sigh and a resolute return to climbing, step by dooming step, until she appeared in the doorway, wearing jeans and a jacket, her Chucks still on her feet, like she knew he wouldn’t let her stay very long.
Her eyes widened and her perfect mouth, sweet and soft, pulled into a surprised O. “Sean?”
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said, his voice rough. His knuckles hurt from how hard he gripped the sink to keep himself steady, but what was another layer of pain?
Her eyes flicked down, then dragged up his body, her gaze searching. He stood there and let her hunt for any answer that would satisfy her curiosity. Any answer that would reassure her he was nothing like the man she’d married.
Nothing like the man who’d loved her for too brief a time.
She took a shuddering breath as her eyes met his again, and his chest cracked open in a hard, wrenching twist. “And yet I am,” she whispered.