“Let me ask you a question.” There was a rough edge to him now, as though he was clinging to his civility by the slimmest of spiderwebs. “Why did you stop writing to me?”
A new feeling began to prickle along her spine: dread. “That’s a pretty random question, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t think. Why did you stop?”
She hesitated, thinking hard for a simple explanation, which refused to materialize. “I—I was with Paul, and I’d just gotten my diagnosis, and I…I—”
“You were scared,” he said flatly. “You were starting to feel something for me, and I was a soldier in a war zone and that scared you. You didn’t want to get too wrapped up in me if I was going to go off and get myself killed, did you?”
The terrible certainty of truth settled over her, not that she was ready to admit it now or ever. “No,” she said too quickly. “That’s not true—”
Tony moved up again, positioning himself back in her face. He didn’t touch her, but that terrible look in his eyes—part understanding, part recrimination—trapped her just as his hand on her wrist had.
“You weren’t worried about what would happen to me? You weren’t scared to care too much?”
This time, when she opened her mouth, the denial wasn’t so quick to come. “I— Of course not.”
Another one of those periods of painful silence passed, during which it felt like they were both digging trenches and preparing to settle in for a long and bloody battle. No big deal, right? Battles were fine. God knew she was used to them. What she couldn’t deal with was the sudden hot flare of hope burning inside her, as though peace could be an option. As though they might find a way to be together after all.
“What do you want, Tony?”
He shrugged. “That’s easy. I want us to get past our mutual bullshit and fear. And I want you.”
She shook her head automatically, but the hope had gained a toehold inside her and it didn’t feel as though it was going away anytime soon.
“We’re a bad fit. We’ve both got too many issues. I don’t see how things can work.”
Something in his expression softened, and his eyes crinkled at the edges with the kind of absolute understanding that always made her unravel.
“I’m going to tell you the truth. Even though it makes me look like the world’s biggest coward, I’m going to tell you. Okay?”
No. It was not okay. They did not need to head down this path.
That hint of a smile faded away, leaving only naked intensity and a man who was having a terrible struggle opening his mouth and getting the words out. She watched, disbelieving, as his nostrils flared and his chin quivered before he pressed his lips together and focused in on all his emotions.
“I’ve been scared before. Once or twice.”
Talia waited, straining to hear him over the heady beat of her heart inside her ears.
“I’ve never been scared like I was when you told me you had cancer.” He swiped a hand under his eyes and nose, whooshing out a harsh breath. “I shut down. It would be easier to go back and spend another year in Afghanistan than to manage my fear of something happening to you, Talia. I’d do anything for you to not have to go through any pain or suffering.” He paused, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “I don’t know how good I can be in a crisis.”
Unbidden, Gloria’s words came back to Talia.
I’d trade places and be sick for you if I could.
And she stared at Tony, her heart melting.
“I don’t plan to die, Tony.”
“That’s good, because I don’t plan to live without you.”
Well, that was something, wasn’t it? Was it safe to feel hopeful now, or should she make him swear a blood oath?
“I need someone I can count on,” she warned him.
“So do I.” He let out a shaky laugh. “Because, in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve still got a few post-traumatic stress issues I’m working through.”
Staring at him, she felt the wild urge to laugh and cry, all at the same time.
“Oh, well. PTSD. Is that all?”