Beneath This Mask (Beneath #1)(15)


by Meghan March

I sucked in a deep breath and exhaled slowly as I shut my door. In the morning, I’d make a call I’d been putting off for years. It was time.

The night was endless. Bouts of sleep interrupted by flashes of Huck’s collision with the street sweeper and everything that came after. Then my disordered mind would insert snippets of my parents and the angry faces of my father’s victims into my dreams, and I’d jolt awake. I was exhausted and staring at the blank white ceiling, trying to clear my thoughts, when I heard a shout followed by a loud groan.

Simon.

He sounded like he was in pain.

I threw back the covers, and dressed in his T-shirt and boxers, I padded down the hall to his bedroom. The door was closed.

“Simon?” I whispered. Another pained moan and garbled words. Fear gripped me. I didn’t think; I opened the door and slipped inside. A shaft of early morning light cutting through the open drapes highlighted his contorted face. He thrashed against the covers, hands clenching the sheets.

“No. Fuck. No.”

A nightmare. That was something I could understand. I crossed to the side of the bed, my only thought to wake him up and free him from whatever horrors were haunting his sleep. I shook his shoulder.

“Simon, wake up.” His hands released the sheets and grasped my shoulders, yanking me onto the bed and rolling us both until I was pinned beneath him. I cringed at the pain of his hold. His muscles were flexing and clenching. Fear bubbled up inside me.

“Simon.”

When he didn’t respond and his grip tightened, I acted on pure instinct—I reached up and slapped him across the face. His eyes snapped open, and he looked down at me, blinking and confused. I wiggled to get out from under him, and as he realized he was holding me down, his eyes went wide. His chest heaved with ragged breaths.

“Holy fuck. Charlie. What the hell are you doing in here?”

“Get off me,” I said.

Simon rolled and flopped onto his back.

His chest continued to rise and fall, and he buried his fingers into his hair. “Jesus, fuck. I can’t believe…” He glanced over at me, eyes wild. “Did I … did I hurt you?”

I didn’t respond, only rubbed my shoulders where he had grabbed me. “I’ll be fine.”

“Jesus. That means—fuck. I did hurt you.” He sat up and reached for me. Reflexively, I flinched. “My God. I’m so sorry. I’m—”

I sat up and slid off the bed, legs a little shaky. “It’s fine. I should’ve left you alone. It’s my own fault.”

Simon sprang off the mattress, scrubbing both hands over his face. “I’m so sorry. I…” He looked up at the ceiling, fists clenching. “I … fuck. I’ll take you home.”

I shook my head. “It’s okay.” I sidestepped toward the door. “I’m just going to go back to bed.”

“Charlie, wait. Let me explain—”

“You don’t owe me an explanation. It’s fine.”

He crossed the room, and I felt behind me for the door handle.

“Christ. You’re fucking terrified of me. Because I hurt you.”

I shook my head again. “It’s okay, Simon.”

“Fuck. Please, just let me explain.” He glanced at the clock. “It’s almost six, and I’m not going back to bed. If it’s okay with you, I’ll make some coffee and tell you what the fuck just happened.” He paused. “It’s about time I told someone.”

Well, that was cryptic.

He reached for a pair of USNA sweatpants and shoved his muscled legs into them. My eyes were riveted to him even as I told myself to look away and give him privacy to dress, but it was a losing battle. Although he’d scared the shit out of me, I was still drawn to him. Simon’s outward appearance screamed perfection, but the idea that maybe he wasn’t quite so perfect on the inside intrigued me even more.

I followed him down to the kitchen and took a seat at the table in the breakfast nook. I watched as he ground the beans and set the coffeemaker up to brew. He leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms over his chest. “How much do you know about me?” he asked without preamble.

“Enough,” I said, even as I thought, not nearly enough.

“So you know I was in the Navy. I flew Super Hornets in Operation Enduring Freedom. I spent six years in the cockpit on missions. Almost all highly classified.” He rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “I was young, cocky, and thought I was invincible. Until I saw the first one of my brothers get shot down. That’s a lesson in human fragility you never forget. I lost six more over the years, and I should have been one of them.”

I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to respond. So I didn’t.

He continued, voice haunted. “I can’t tell you the whole story, but I can tell you that a man I considered a brother picked up on a surface-to-air missile locked on me before I could even react. Kingman flew into it, trying to catch it on one of his tail fins so he’d at least have time to eject, but he miscalculated. We’d been flying missions non-stop for days, and we were all dog-tired and off our game. I watched him explode in a ball of fire. And I can’t stop seeing it happen. It was my fault—a misread of my instruments—that we were even there, where they could get a clear shot at us, and he was the one who paid the price. He had a daughter he never got to meet, and I made his wife a widow.”

His hazel eyes were shining with unshed tears when he finished. He turned to fumble with the carafe, hand shaking as he poured two cups. He reached into the fridge and pulled out cream. “How do you take your coffee?”

It was such a mundane question after the emotionally wrought confession. But I rolled with it.

“Black, please.”

He fixed his coffee with cream and sugar, sat both mugs on the table, and dropped into the chair across from me.

I decided to ask the obvious question.

“Do you have PTSD?”

“Not officially.”

“So … what does that mean exactly?”

“It means I gave all the right answers to every shrink the Navy made me see.”

“So you…”

“Lied? Yes.” He took a sip of his coffee.

I was stunned, holding my mug to my lips, unable to drink. Yes, stunned by the confession, but more so stunned by how open and honest he was with me. Someone he barely knew. Someone who could never be so honest with him.