Once Upon A Time…Has Never Been This Hot.
Seattle, two years ago…
Ashton Kane faced the casket, feet braced apart, hands fisted together behind his back. Voices murmured around him, the constant rise and fall scratching at his consciousness. He stared directly ahead, looking through the crowd toward the other side of the graveyard. Mist curled over the distant hill, creeping amidst the rows of crosses, slowly blanketing the gravesite in a numbing gray. He shifted his focus when a line of officers raised their weapons, preparing for the instant the rifles would fire. The one moment he couldn't block out.
The reports echoed across the cemetery, scattering a flock of birds. Cackling squawks faded as the low vibrations roiled through the air, settling like stones in his gut. Tendrils of smoke swirled upwards, the smell of sulfur heavy in the light breeze. Memories flashed through his mind, the images cloaked in black and white—the pop of gunfire, the clatter of footsteps. They played in an unrelenting stream of sound and disjointed pictures, all culminating into one singular truth.
He closed his eyes, willing the voices in his head to stop, to leave him the fuck alone. He'd already lost his partner, his sanity. What more could they possibly want? What amount of guilt and self-loathing would be enough to quiet them?
A gentle touch along his shoulder jerked him back, and he looked to his left, glancing at the woman standing beside him, her face blurring in and out of focus as the memories shuffled, Ben's dull eyes still staring at him from the darkness. He wanted to hold her gaze, knowing it was expected, but he broke eye contact, wishing he could fade like the pictures inside his head.
Cassidy's sighed, the shaky sound only increasing the guilt threatening to pull him under. “It's time to go. They'll be expecting us at his parents' house.”
Ash nodded, glancing back at the grave, watching the coffin as it disappeared into the ground, nothing but a hollow thud whispering through the air. He clenched his teeth, willing Ben's voice out of his head, choking back the bitter taste in his mouth as the scent of blood smothered his senses. It wasn't real. None of it. Just his imagination playing with his mind. Twisting the events until he barely remembered which parts had actually happened.
Not like the lingering cry of Ben's mother—the memory of her screaming when he'd informed her that her son had been killed. The feel of her fingers cinched around his wrists, her weight—dead like her son—hanging limp in his arms. Those were real. Those gnawed at him. Clawed at what little remained of his sanity. Pounded through his head like a damn battering ram.
“Ash? You okay?”
He forced himself to turn, to meet Cassidy's gaze and hold it this time. Blue eyes surrounded by creamy smooth skin. He couldn't remember if he'd even looked directly at her since the raid. Since the part of him that made him Ash—made him worthy of her love, worthy of fucking living—had died. Gotten misdirected like that damn bullet, leaving nothing but pain and chaos behind. She was just as beautiful. Just as pure as when he'd first met her.
He'd taint that. Turn it into something ugly. Something she'd want to hide.
She frowned, scanning the empty site. “It's okay. I'll explain it to the Director. It's too soon. We'll drop by once things have settled.” She touched his arm, only to draw back her hand when his muscles clenched beneath her fingers. “I'll give you a few moments. Meet me at the car.” She turned, taking a few hesitant steps away before twisting to gaze at him. “As long as you need. I'll wait.”
He watched her walk away, her boots leaving small impressions on the wet grass. It must have rained, though he couldn't seem to remember. The weather. If he'd bothered to eat. What day it was.
Ash swallowed past the lump in his throat. He should leave. Walk away. Take Cassidy home and make love to her until the memories vanished. Until the haunting rasp of Ben's voice and his partner's vacant stare faded into the press of her body beneath his. Until her soft, wet heat surrounded him, healing him.
It was a ricochet, Ash. One fucked-up bounce. No way you could have known…
“Shut up. Just shut the fuck up!”
He pressed his hands against his temples. Excuses. Lies. He was to blame. He'd given the orders, told Ben to secure the rear exit. If Ash had just done the damn job himself…
He turned on his heels, heading for the red Jeep parked near the end of the lane. He could see her brown hair through the window. The way it cascaded across her shoulders, the muted light highlighting the golden streaks in it. He clenched his fists. He could still feel the ghosted caress of the silky strands across his skin as he gathered them in his hands, holding the mass back as she moved above him. Sweat-slicked flesh gleaming in the moonlight. Her back arched, head thrown back as she pulsed around him, making him feel alive. Deserving.
He hadn't so much as kissed her this past week. Had barely been able to bring himself to be in the same room with her. She'd tried talking to him then had left him to his thoughts, always reminding him she was there. That she'd always be there. That she'd wait.
He walked woodenly to the car, opening the door then sliding in. He didn't turn to meet the gaze he felt centered on him, choosing to stare straight ahead as he turned the key, letting the hum of the engine fill his head. He glanced over his shoulder, pulling into the lane, refusing to look at the grave in the rear-view mirror. He'd made his choice. He just didn't know if he could live with it.
* * * *
“He's gone, Ash. You can stop.”
Ash shrugged the hand off his shoulder, pressing on Ben's chest, counting out sets of five before pausing to breathe into the man's mouth. “Where the hell are the paramedics?”
“He's not dead. Fuck that.” He kept pushing, kept breathing. “He wasn't even in the line of fire.” He brushed sweat out of his eyes. “Come on, buddy. Breathe for me. Just fucking breathe.”
Ash bolted awake, arms thrashing, heart pounding. Images wavered in the darkness as Ben's voice played in his head, the accusing tone grating on his nerves. Ash closed his eyes, focusing on drawing air in, then pushing it out, shaking his hands against the remembered feel of his gun. His skin felt tight, as if he were inside someone else's body, fighting to get out. The lights flicked on a moment before the couch dipped beside him. He closed his eyes, mentally telling her not to touch him. Not to make him feel.
She kept her distance, a rough sigh sounding beside him. “Here. This might help.”
Somehow he managed to pry open his eyelids, staring at her outstretched hand. The brown liquid shimmered in the light, reflecting the pattern of wood on the ceiling.
He took the glass, tensing when his hand brushed hers, feeling his heart beat faster at the brief contact. Hell, just knowing she was only a foot away, her breath softly blowing across him, made him want to crawl out of his skin. Leave that man, those thoughts, behind.
He downed the shot, letting the warm liquid burn away the pain. But it wouldn't last. Wouldn't do more than mock the memories that lingered just beneath the surface. A temporary reprieve that would make the next round more vivid. More real.
Cassidy reached for the cup, allowing him to drop it into her hand. He didn't miss the way her fingers trembled, nervously caressing the glass as if being this close to him frightened her. It should. It frightened him.
Another sigh passed her lips as she stared at him, the weight of her gaze making his muscles twitch. He held his breath, finally shifting his focus, cursing at the tears pooling in her eyes. It gutted him. Tore at whatever piece of himself still remained.
She waited until she seemed certain he wouldn't look away. “They're getting worse. You can't even sleep for more than an hour without screaming. We can't live like this, Ash.” She pushed her hand through her hair, tousling it about her head. “You need help. We need help.”
He gained his feet, crossing the room, needing the distance just to fucking breathe. The air felt too heavy. Too weighed down by her expectations, her needs. He stared out the window, watching the rain dot the glass, distorting the streetlights gleaming on the road.
“Ash. Please. I'm not going to tell you that I know how you feel. I wouldn't insult you like that, but damn it…” She padded to the center of the room. “You can't even look at me. I feel as if I've already lost you, and you're standing five feet away.”
His chin bowed toward his chest, the truth of her statement hitting him hard. “I'm dealing.”
“You're dealing?” Her voice rose in pitch, tears muffling some of the syllables. “How are you dealing, exactly? By pushing everyone away? By retreating so far inside yourself all you can see is the darkness? The pain?” More footsteps were followed by her hand on his arm. “Ben's dead—”
“Because of me!” He spun, breaking her hold. “Ben is dead because of me. Because of the choices I made. Those are the facts.”
“The damn bullet ricocheted. It hit that fugitive's skull and veered off. It wasn't your fault. It was a freak accident. They've already cleared you—”
“You think I give a shit whether the Marshal Service clears me? Whether they deem it a clean hit? Justified? I killed my fucking partner, Cass. No one and nothing can clear me of that.”
She moved in front of him when he tried to push past her. “Don't. Don't walk out on this. I get that Ben's death has killed something inside you. I know you're hurting. But don't shut me out. I've given you space. Waited for you to come to me. But you won't talk to me let alone touch me.” She brushed at the tears that washed down her cheeks. Cursing. “I could have lost you. Do you know how many times I've died inside picturing that? Please. Baby. Let me help you.”
She reached for him, a gentle caress of her fingers along his arm. He clenched his jaw, closing his eyes as he fought not to jerk away. To give her just a small measure of what he knew she needed. She waited, seemingly judging his response until he looked at her again. Those blue eyes pleaded with him as she smoothed her hand along his forearm, stepping forward, her body slowly pressing against his.
His chest heaved, his lungs refusing to open, to draw in any significant amount of air. Panic crawled just beneath his skin, lurking. Waiting for him to weaken. Her scent surrounded him, the warm, sweet essence like a slap to his face. He didn't deserve this. The forgiveness. The love.
Her head rested against his shoulder, her hands palming his ribs. Tears stung his eyes, the steady beat of her heart drawing him under. He didn't resist when she led him down the hall, taking him into their bedroom. The bed shifted beneath him as he fell onto it, her body spooning into his. He stared at the ceiling, feeling her slowly give herself over to sleep. His gut clenched, the images taunting him from the shadows, and he knew he'd never be free.