on January 21, 2018
Genres: Contemporary Romance
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Self-professed Harry Potter addict and math genius River Jacobsen can count on one hand the people who matter in her life. Really, it’s just Dean, the boy who loves her despite her odd habit of counting everything around her when she needs to quiet her mind. When Dean promised her forever she never imagined it would be a lie.
After Marine hacker Ian Maclean is mistakenly declared dead by the US government, he’s happy to correct them the moment he escapes captivity. He wants nothing more than to get home to the wife he left behind. Discovering she’s been cheating on him since the moment he deployed wasn’t in the plan. Devastated, he walks away from everything, even his name.
With the futures they were counting on destroyed, Ian and River find themselves starting over. Ian reminds River of things she’d much rather forget, but pushing him away is harder than she expected. Ian wants a second chance at happily ever after, but the more he gets to know River, the more he worries she isn’t trying to figure out how to live again, but how to die.
A nurse in teddy-bear-patterned scrubs cries out down the hall behind me, but I can only spare her a brief glance. Time is my enemy, and it is a fickle thing, without any regard for the desires of those subjected to its whims. Christmas morning comes at a crawl for every child who can’t wait to open their presents, while it races forward for stressed-out parents who haven’t finished their shopping. It’s almost like Time is duty-bound to provide us with the exact opposite of what we wish.
And no matter how we beg or cry or plead, it stoically refuses to rewind.
The fluorescent lights over the nurse’s station create a halo-like effect behind her, but the nurse is no angel. If she was, she could take my pain away. “Miss! Please, come back. You can’t just leave!”
But I have to. My head feels disconnected, like my brain is yards away from my body, and every thought takes an excruciatingly long time to process. I focus on just putting one foot in front of the other, making my way to the door marked with the glowing red exit sign. I vaguely remember a man in a white coat patting my arm, his eyes heavy with pity and concern. “You’ll be all right, I promise,” he said, lying. He’d gestured for the nurse to inject something into my IV, and not long afterward, my eyes drifted closed. For how long, I couldn’t say.
I’m not sure of many things right now, but I do know I won’t ever be all right again. I’m trapped in the most brutal contradiction: I desperately do not want to go on living in a world cruel enough to take away everything I care about, but I’m too stubborn to give up and die.
No matter how much the very act of breathing hurts my heart, there are things I still have to do. And there’s somewhere I have to be.
So no matter how the good-intentioned nurse yells, I can’t stay another moment.
A tall man passes me on the opposite side of the hallway, and I briefly worry he’ll try to intercept me, but luck is on my side. He’s far more occupied with the phone pressed to his ear and the giant bouquet of balloons billowing around him, pronouncing, “It’s a girl!” He makes a sharp turn into a patient suite and shuts the door behind him.
My stomach cramps violently, and I’m worried I might puke on the pristine linoleum as I stumble into the push-bar that opens the door. I count the steps as I go down them, trying to calm my rapid breathing, afraid I’m going to hyperventilate.
Counting centers me, as it always has, and I manage to shut out everything except the one thought that matters most: I have to get to Dean.
Three Months Later
When I was still enlisted, I had a ritual for the start of each shift: I’d walk into ops, taking the longest route possible to my assigned station. Even if we weren’t all on the same projects, the general attitude of those already on shift told me a lot. At my workstation, I’d clear the tabletop of anything distracting before turning on my machine. If something didn’t belong, there was always a chance it would snag my attention and prevent me from noticing something more important.
Only when I was sure all the remnants of the person sitting at the station before were gone would I lightly tap the power button on my rig. The fans would kick in, whirring in welcome, and then I could stalk my digital prey. Not that I ever forgot they were real living and breathing people, with lives and families and often questionable loyalties. I didn’t feel bad about digging up things they didn’t want me to know, and when warranted, I didn’t feel bad about compromising their systems, either.
I had a ritual in captivity, too. But then I didn’t have shifts, just moments, so I did my ritual anytime I awoke, counting that as a new day. My days in captivity started just like my days in the ops center: analyzing those around me, trying to pick up on feelings and impressions and less tangible intel, before turning my attention to surviving.
I don’t have a ritual anymore. I don’t have anything anymore.
Not true, Reisner, I scold myself. Except I’m not Cole Reisner anymore, either. I don’t even have my name. Instead, I’m now officially Ian Maclean, security consultant with Morrison Security. Employee count, two. At least now that I’m here. And only because I let Morrison push me into it. I felt just guilty enough for crashing on his couch to be unable to resist when he asked me to help him out. Morrison is great when it comes to brute force, or being able to shoot a cigarette out of someone’s hand. (Yes, I’ve seen him do it. No, it wasn’t mine.) But with the dark web, or intricate computer projects and configurations, he’s just smart enough to know how inadequate he is. And when his best friend and main client demanded results after his property was breached, Morrison wasn’t about to let him down. Lucky for him, I was already here sleeping on his couch, and he wasn’t too proud to ask for help. Unlucky for me, it means my pity party is over, and I’ve got to rejoin the realm of the living.