Authors: Serenity Woods
A Secret Between Friends
Treats to Tempt You Book 6
Copyright 2015 Serenity Woods
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is coincidental.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Genie couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see. She felt as if she’d climbed into a washing machine, and someone had shut the door and started the cycle. The world spun, and her arms and legs flailed, bouncing off metal and glass.
Nothing made sense. Clouds of dust filled the air and stung her eyes. Someone was screaming, the sound morphing into the screech of twisting metal. The tang of iron coated her tongue, and she had a mouth full of grit. Gradually, she realized the spinning movement was the truck, rolling and rolling, the floor becoming the ceiling, the view through the window showing sky, then ground, then sky again. It felt like the end of the world.
Finally, the truck stopped. It hung in the air and balanced on two wheels for an eternity before tipping onto its side with an almighty crash.
Genie hung suspended from her seatbelt, disoriented and dizzy. Desperate to free herself, she punched the clip at her side, fell across the person in the seat next to her, and landed in a heap on the window.
Above her, rain fell through the cracked glass, dripping onto her face. She wiped it away, then stared at her hand, shocked to find it smeared with red. Looking up, she saw the liquid oozing from the body hanging from the seat belt. Her best friend’s face was white, although the cut on her neck was scarlet.
Playing cards fluttered in the air around her, and they were all the Ace of Hearts.
She jerked awake. Her chest heaved, and she looked around in confusion. She wasn’t upside down in the truck—she sat in the window seat of the tiny plane from Auckland to Kerikeri that was beginning its descent to the airport. Her heart raced, as always happened when she had the dream. Had she spoken in her sleep? Or screamed?
She turned to the seat next to her, half-expecting to see Ciara’s face, but of course Ciara wasn’t coming home this time. The elderly man in the process of putting away his book glanced over with a sympathetic smile. “Bad dream?”
She nodded. “Sorry. Did I yell or anything?”
“No, no. Just the odd twitch.”
“And dribble.” She touched her hand to her chin, half-worried she’d lower it to find blood, but it was just standard drool. She gave the old man a rueful smile as he chuckled.
“Nearly there.” He gestured out of the window.
Genie pressed her nose against the glass and looked down at the vibrant landscape of the Northland of New Zealand. It was a beautiful evening. The scenery was so different from the part of Afghanistan in which she’d been stationed. There, the flat, dusty countryside had been ringed with mountains, beautiful in its own way, but so different from home. The sight of the rolling hills, thick forests, and the sparkling blue of the Pacific Ocean in the distance was as refreshing as a glass of cool water in the desert.
She should have been joyful, but the brief swell of pleasure was quickly overridden by sadness and guilt at the thought that Ciara should have been returning home with her. Her eyes burned with unshed tears. Although it felt good to be home, returning to the Bay of Islands brought with it a whole new set of problems. She wouldn’t allow herself the luxury of mourning Ciara until those problems were resolved.
The plane descended, and she readied herself for landing, putting away her tablet and adding a smear of gloss to her lips. She hadn’t had a shower for…jeez, was it twenty-four hours? Yuck. But there was no time if she wanted to make it to the party.
She watched the small airport appear beneath them and the tarmac loom, and then the wheels touched down. The plane taxied around and headed back down the long, single runway to the lone terminal. A few people stood in the arrivals yard. She recognized her brother immediately, tall and slender, his long, light brown hair that probably hadn’t seen a comb for days fluttering in the wind.
The plane drew up and stopped, and a woman wearing a fluorescent vest ran across to shove blocks beneath the wheels. The old man next to Genie got to his feet and turned with a smile. “Would you like me to get your cane for you?”
Her cheeks warmed. He must have been at least seventy, but there he was, asking her if she needed help. As if sitting in the disabled seats hadn’t been bad enough.
“I’m sure the flight assistant will get it for me,” she said. He waved a hand, opened the overhead compartment, retrieved the cane, and handed it to her. “Thank you,” she said, trying to sound gracious.
“After you.” He stepped back and gestured for her to precede him.
Genie hesitated. She’d planned to wait until everyone had disembarked before she struggled down the steps. Glancing behind him, she saw the other passengers waiting for her, too polite to ask her to hurry up, but their faces were etched with impatience.
She smiled at the old man, pulled the strap of her hand luggage over her head so it rested on her hip, and limped to the door of the plane.
Getting down the steps proved a trial, but she refused to think of everyone watching her and negotiated them carefully. A sigh of relief left her lips when she made it to the ground without falling flat on her face.
Several people dashed past her as she walked across to the arrivals area, but she fixed her gaze on her brother and pinned a smile on her face, raising her free hand. He crossed the tarmac, pointedly ignoring a sign that told visitors to wait behind the yellow line, and saluted.
“Lieutenant,” he said formally. “Welcome home, ma’am.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “Don’t be an ass.”
He chuckled and wrapped his arms around her. “Christ, I’m glad you’re home.”
“Jonah.” She buried her face in his shoulder. He smelled of sun lotion with a faint whiff of ash—he must have been out on a call that day, saving a helpless blonde from roaring flames, no doubt. She swallowed hard. “I’ve missed you.”
“Damn, I wish I’d recorded that. Never thought I’d hear those words coming out of your mouth.”
She gave a half-hearted laugh and pushed him away so she could look up at him. “Have you missed me?”
“Nope.” He kissed her forehead, then hugged her again, belying his words. They’d always been more likely to arm wrestle than cuddle each other, so the hug was extra poignant.
He pulled back and cupped her face. His green eyes bored into her. “You okay?”
She nodded, touched by his concern. Someone was glad to see her, at least. “Yeah. Good to be home.”
“Come on, let’s get your bag and then we can head off.”
They waited for the luggage to arrive—no moving belt here, just a guy lifting the cases onto a trolley he then drove the ten yards or so from the plane into the lounge. Jonah found her bag—distinctive with the NZ Army tag clipped to the handle—and carried it outside.
“Stay here. I’ll get the car.” He left the case by the bench.
“No, I can walk to the…” She bit her lip as he strode off, ignoring her. The sooner she got used to be treated like a cripple, the better, because clearly that was how everyone was going to label her from now on.
Jonah brought the car around and parked in the disabled space, making Genie roll her eyes.
“You’re supposed to have a badge to park there,” she told him as he came to get her bag.
“Don’t care.” He lifted it into the back, rebellious as ever.
“Good to see you haven’t changed.” She raised an eyebrow as he opened the passenger door for her, and she snapped, “For God’s sake, Jonah. I can get in the car myself.”
He hesitated, and she saw it then—a glimpse in his eyes of uncertainty, of pain, even, at seeing his sister wounded, and of not knowing what to say or how to treat her. It disappeared quickly, though. He didn’t want her to think he was worried about her. “Get in and stop moaning.” He took the cane from her and laid it between the front seats. “And don’t think you’ll be getting special treatment because of this.”
She pushed away her resentment and touched his cheek as he moved back to let her get in. “Thank you.”
He didn’t reply, but he did offer her an arm to hold as she maneuvered herself into the seat, bending her right knee awkwardly.
She clipped in her seat belt and waited for Jonah to get in. Her stomach was still fluttering from both the dream and the notion of the coming confrontation, and she felt the familiar hard knot inside her as if someone had reached in, grabbed her solar plexus, and squeezed it. Her heart raced. She had to distract herself or she was going to have a panic attack.
On her right wrist, she wore a simple bracelet made of colored beads joined with elastic. Closing her eyes, she ran her fingers over the beads, counting them. First in twos, then in threes, then in fours… Gradually, like an autumn leaf floating to the ground, her stomach settled.
Conscious of a rising silence, she glanced over to see that Jonah had got in and started the car. He was watching her, frowning, but he smiled now. “Ready?”
“Yeah, let’s go.”
He took the road out of the airport, and they were soon on the state highway, heading for the Bay of Islands. They talked for a while about nothing—the weather, the rugby. He told her about the call he’d been on that morning, a fire in a warehouse, nobody hurt, just a lot of burned stock.
“No blondes to rescue?” Genie asked him.
“Nah. Much to my disappointment.”
“Who’s your latest conquest? I’ve lost track.”
“Meh. I’ve given up on women.”
He laughed. “No.”
“I didn’t think that sounded like you. So what’s her name?”
“Your latest conquest?”
“Well, actually I haven’t seen anyone since Ciara died.”
Her eyebrows rose. True, it had only been six weeks, but she’d never known Jonah go longer than a few days without a date. He always had some girl in tow. “Why not?”
He shrugged and didn’t say anything. Genie’s gaze lingered on him for a moment. Ciara had never said anything, but Genie had wondered if her best friend was sweet on her brother. Had Jonah known—was that why he wasn’t dating?
He cleared his throat. “What about you? Met any muscular army dudes while you’ve been away?”
She thought briefly of Ethan, considered whether to mention him, then discarded the option. “Nope.”
“No one at all?”
“Not high on my list of priorities either. Especially lately. Pickings in the hospital were pretty slim, and walking with a limp isn’t exactly a turn on for me or the guy.”
Jonah gestured to the cane lying between them. “You won’t have to use it forever, though, surely?”
“Probably not, although I think I’m stuck with the damn thing for a while.” It was impossible to stop resentment creeping into her voice, and she winced, tempted to slap herself.
It could have been a lot worse, Genie, stop complaining. You were luckier than some.
Jonah’s gaze left the road briefly to glance at her. “You’ll get rid of it. It’ll just take time, that’s all.” He spoke authoritatively, and she cursed herself. She’d forgotten he’d been in the same position. The car accident that had killed their mother when Genie was six had also badly broken his leg. He’d been eight years old. He’d had to learn to walk again, and it had taken years for him to get his fitness levels back to normal. She was so proud of the fact that when he’d applied to be a fireman, he’d not only passed the fitness tests but had come top in several of them—he was an inspiration, and she had to learn to follow his example.
She forced a grin onto her face. “Maybe, but I think I’d miss the cane now. It’s great for hooking around ankles and tripping people up.”
Jonah laughed, because he was supposed to, but his smile soon faded. He dropped a hand from the wheel to grasp hers where it rested on her thigh. “I know you well enough to understand that you won’t want to talk about the accident. But I’m here if you need me, okay? And I’m glad you’re back.”
She looked out of the window. She’d never ask for his help, but it was nice to know he was there, just in case.
A rosella swooped low beside the car, its bright colors dazzling in the evening sunshine—too dazzling. Genie’s head ached, and her eyes were gritty and sore in their sockets. The last thing she felt like was the confrontation she knew awaited her.
As if he’d read her mind, Jonah said, “You must be tired. Are you sure you don’t want me to take you straight to Beck’s house?”
Beck was their older brother, and they were on their way to a party at his cocktail bar,
Between the Sheets
. He’d called her in the hospital, and it had taken every ounce of strength she’d owned not to burst into tears when she’d heard his deep, calm voice.
Then he’d told her how angry Ciara’s mother was. “I need to warn you—she’s mad at you, Genie,” Beck had said. “She blames you for Ciara’s death.” Even now, the words sounded unreal.
Genie shook her head. She might be dreading this, but she’d never been the sort of person to bury her head in the sand. “No. I’d rather get it over with, and I’m kinda looking forward to the party. I’m just glad I got out of hospital a week early. I’d have missed it otherwise.”
Jonah didn’t say anything, and she glanced at him, her eyes widening when he ran a hand awkwardly through his hair.
She closed her eyes momentarily. “Shit. I’m so stupid. They
me to miss it.” Jeez, that stung.