"Nora, are you listening?"
I turn my attention away from the cars driving slowly by on the small town's Main Street to look at my father. Maxwell Greene's piercing eyes are trained on me now, the silver at his temples glinting in the sun, and I gulp.
"Yes, of course," I lie.
He nods, pacified.
"Good. I know this last year of law school was difficult, but it's over now. I want you to take the summer off, rest here in Angel Bay with your mother, then in the Fall, you'll take over the legal team at Green Corp as planned."
He's ecstatic, of course, because it's everything he's ever wanted. It's always been the plan, since the moment I started elementary school. Probably, actually, since before I was born.
"What about Peter?" I ask him hesitantly, picturing the middle-aged attorney who until now has been the Vice President of Legal Affairs for our company. He's always been nice to me, always showed me pictures of his pretty wife and four daughters.
My father rolls his eyes. "He'll be cut loose. He's known this was coming for a while, I'm sure. Everyone knew you were at Stanford studying law. They can connect dots, Nora."
He's so blasé about ruining someone's life. I swallow hard, fiddling with the straw in my glass of lemonade. The umbrella from our little bistro table on the wide sidewalk casts a shadow across my shoulders, and I almost shiver. I'm not sure if it's from the chilly lake breeze, or if it's from my father's cold attitude.
He stares harshly at me now.
"Nora, you've got to grow a set of balls. There's no pu**y-footing around corporate law. You have to kill or be killed. I need you to be a Greene and do what it takes. Be who I need you to be."
His voice is even colder than his stare. I shirk away from it out of old habit.
"Okay," I whisper.
My mother pipes up finally, from across the table, smiling a magnificent smile. Out of all of us, she's always been the kindest. The sweetest. And she knows I need rescuing right now. I see it in her soft blue eyes.
"Ma belle fille," she sings, reaching over and grasping my hand. "We'll have a glorious summer. You can ride Rebel, you can rest on the beach, we'll get manicures and pedicures... we'll have tea and croissants. It will be lovely. You need the rest."
My beautiful daughter. My mother's French accent is as strong as ever, even though she's lived in the states since she married my father twenty-five years ago. It charms everyone who hears it.
I smile at her, genuine now.
"Thanks, maman. I'm looking forward to spending time with you. I've missed you."
That's not a lie.
What I haven't missed is my father. And the constant lectures about being "a good Greene" and how I need to do what I can for the greater good of the family and our business.
No matter the personal cost.
And my personal cost has been great.
Not that anyone cares.
But the bitterness is welling up again and if I don't tamp it down, it will overwhelm me. That won't help anything.
She doesn't know, I remind myself.
"How's Rebel?" I ask my mother, purposely changing the subject to that of my old horse. I haven't seen him since last summer. My mom chatters about him, about how fat he's getting and I turn away again.
To make my resentment recede, I look at the clouds, at the cars, at the quaint little shops, at the intersection. Anything to distract me, anything to make the bitter taste of what happened to me go away.
She doesn't know.
But my father does. I glance at him, and the anger rears its head again. Yes, he knows. Do what it takes, Nora.
I grit my teeth. It's over now. It's over. No one can fix it anyway. All I can do now is be a good Greene.
With a hard stare, I focus on the intersection again, willing myself to find interest in something else.
A red car comes to a stop, then goes through. Angel Bay is so small that there's only one major intersection and it's right here in front of the cafe. There's not even a light, just a four-way stop.
If you want to people watch, this is the best place to do it.
My mother chats in her charming voice, and I absently stare as a white suburban turns left. A yellow Beetle then lets a young mother pushing a stroller cross the street before he goes. He waves as he passes, a friendly stranger.
I smile. Angel Bay is full of friendly strangers. They're used to summer tourists, and they're friendly to each of them, happy to have their tourist dollars, happy to share their little town by Lake Michigan.
Down the road, a faded white bus coasts down the road. Signs are fastened to the sides and I can just make one out.
Honk for the Annual Troop 52 Camping Trip.
I smile again at the little cub scouts who have their faces pressed to the windows. They're probably headed for Warren Dunes State Park... so they're almost there, and as little boys often are, they're getting antsy.
Behind the bus, a huge navy blue pick-up truck follows at a respectable distance. The windows are tinted, but I see a glimpse of sunny blonde hair. I stare a bit harder, out of idle curiosity. People watching has always been a hobby. Watching other people's lives distracts me from my own.
It's pathetic, but true.
As the truck draws closer and I get a better view of the driver's face, I almost gasp aloud.
It can't be.
I peer closer, my eyes narrowed behind my sunglasses. The driver of the truck is also wearing sunglasses, which makes it harder to see for sure.
But that blond hair... honey blond hair that it looks like it has been kissed by the sun. The chiseled cheekbones, cleft in the chin, the strong jawline, the proud nose. I would recognize that profile anywhere, even through a heavily tinted windshield, even though the last time I'd seen it was almost ten years ago.
I realize that I'm holding my breath and I inhale, still staring at him.
He still looks like a Norse god, still like the boy I had fallen in love with so many years ago. He didn't know, of course, because I'm four years younger. I was so not on his radar. But he was always on mine...for a couple of reasons.
One, because he's always been the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.
Two, and even more importantly, he makes me feel good. Safe and sound. Like when I'm with him, nothing can hurt me, nothing can touch me.
I fantasized about him every single summer, and then one year, I came back to Angel Bay after a long winter, only to find that Brand wasn't here. He'd gone away to college and then joined the Army.
Every summer after that, I watched for him to come home.
Every summer after that, he wasn't here.
People chattered, of course, because Angel Bay is so small and that's what small town people do. In the tiny grocery, I heard that he became some badass special ops soldier, that he was in the Rangers in Afghanistan. In the café, I heard that something terrible happened to him there, that he'd come home after that.
But much to my disappointment, he never came back to Angel Bay.
Butterflies explode in my stomach, their wings tickling my ribs, their writhing velvety bodies pressed against my diaphragm, making it hard to breathe. It's like even they know the reverence of this moment, the absolute miracle that it is.
Brand Killien is here.
A farm truck pulling a flat-bed trailer lurches forward at the intersection, blocking my view momentarily. I lean forward, trying to subtly find Brand again, just to make sure he's there, that I hadn't just imagined him.
That's when I see the problem, and even though it happens too quickly for me to even scream, it seems to happen in slow motion at the same time.
A dump truck barrels through the intersection from the other side, slamming into the ammonia tank on the farm truck's trailer.
The explosion is immediate and severe.
I feel the intense rush of heat before I hear the boom. But when the boom comes, it splits apart the sky. It's so loud that it reverberates in my chest, rattling each of my ribs and setting the butterflies free. Suddenly, I'm in the air. My legs dangle like a pitiful rag doll and the breeze is all around me. I'm in the breeze. I am the breeze.
Things come in visceral snippets now as I fly.
My flight is short and I slam into something hard, my head cracking against the floor. The floor?
When I open my eyes, I'm not sure how much time has passed, only that my head feels heavy, a splitting pain coming from the back of it. With shaking fingers, I touch it, and my fingertips come back covered in blood.
I look up.
The heat is from fire. And the fire is all around.
I'm in a pile of rubble in what used to be the café. Boards and ceiling and tables are piled around me, and people are on the floor. Dust is everywhere and I can hardly see through it. But I can see the fire.
And I can see Brand.
Like some sort of magnificent and fierce angel, he strides through the dark smoke, and I see him pry the school bus doors open. He leaps inside, and a scant moment later, he emerges with a child in his muscled arms. He hands the child to someone, then goes back into the smoking, charred bus. Over and over, I watch this process.
Some of the children he carries out are bloody, some are limp. But he continues to make the trips.
Finally, he comes out empty handed.
He stands still for a moment, and I see how his shirt is ripped down the front. I can see a chiseled washboard behind the large tear. I see how soot is smeared across his cheeks, and the same soot has turned his hair black.
I see him take a deep breath, I see him look around at the carnage on the street, looking for someone else to save.
And then he sees me.
I do need saved. More than he'll ever know.
His eyes are a blue so bright that I can't even name it. Sapphire, maybe? They shine through the soot, through the flames. He focuses on me, then with long steps, he comes to me. Straight to me. Through the chaos, through the havoc.
"Miss, are you alright?" his voice is husky, probably from the smoke. I can't move.
"I'm stuck," I manage to tell him. "My legs."
My legs are beneath splintered boards, boards that used to be a café wall. As I glance up at Brand, I see my parents on the street, standing with an EMT. I can see my mother's frantic arm movements, and I can read her lips.
I take a breath, but there's no way she'd hear me if I called. She'll have to wait.
Brand draws my attention back to him, back to his brilliant blue eyes, by speaking.
"I'm going to get this stuff off of you. I'll try not to hurt you," he tells me calmly. With muscular arms, he lifts the jagged boards off of me, one by one. True to his word, he doesn't hurt me.
When he's finished, when I'm free, he doesn't help me stand.
He bends and scoops me up instead.
My head rests against his chest and I can hear his heart as he carries me effortlessly through the mayhem.
His heart is as strong as he is.
I focus on that, on the strong beats, instead of looking at the people on the floor. Instead of looking at the blood, or smelling the smoke, or having a panic attack.
"Are you okay?" Brand asks me, looking down at me. His face is confident, his voice calm. "You're going to be all right."
I nod because I believe him, because how could I not trust a voice that sure of itself?
But then it doesn't matter.
Because out of nowhere, I hear a nauseatingly loud crack, and all of a sudden, the wall next to us comes down in a mass of metallic shrieks and groans and shards.
It shears my arm, and I can smell the blood.
I'm knocked free from Brand's safe grasp, yanked from his arms, and I'm falling, falling, falling.
Then it all goes black and stays that way. <br />