Jason swung the ax for the dozenth time, wishing his muscles burned more, ached more. He wrenched the ax’s blade free from the trunk of a cypress tree and swung again, harder this time. He wanted—no, craved—the pain of physical exertion. His goal was simple: eradicate all thought. Usually it was easy for him to enter his preferred state of mental and emotional numbness. Usually the walls went up easily. Usually she wasn’t around. But Dani had a knack for obliterating his carefully constructed walls.
Pausing his relentless attack on the tree, Jason propped the ax against the trunk and tugged off his T-shirt. He had shed his jacket before he’d even started. He was sweaty and breathing hard, but not nearly enough. More. He needed more. After quickly wiping his forehead with the back of his wrist, he picked up the ax and resumed his work. Swing. Thunk. Pull. Swing. Thunk. Pull. Again.
He couldn’t figure out why he was so twisted…so messed up. Why her? Why couldn’t he get her out of his head? Why had he done it—kissed her—when doing so would only hurt her…and him, he admitted reluctantly. He swung the ax again, appreciating the jarring motion as its blade lodged into the tree trunk. Dani didn’t need him screwing with her already screwed-up life—not only had she lost her boyfriend and her grandma, the only family she had left, she’d suffered through death threats that could easily have been laid at his feet, fought off an insane attacker, and was struggling to control some sort of telepathic ability. What she needed was for him to keep her safe, to make sure she didn’t do anything stupid like running away again. She needed him to help her survive this hell.
He’d been so good at keeping women at a distance, ever since the accident. His mom’s car accident. She’d been there one day, then gone the next. He’d never loved anyone so much, and had since refused to let himself ever feel that way again. He refused to make himself weak, vulnerable, because eventually whoever he loved would leave. He refused to feel that pain again. Instead, he swung the ax with more and more vehemence, attempting to push Dani out of his thoughts…attempting to forget the taste of her, the feel of her pressed against him…
“What are you doing, Jason?”
He paused mid-swing. It was her. Dani. Of course it was her. She was behind him, but he didn’t look over his shoulder at her. Couldn’t. She’d asked him what he was doing. Whatwas he doing? Trying to banish her from his mind? Trying to abolish the need to take her into his arms and never let her go? “Chopping firewood,” he said before swinging the ax again. And again.
It was impossible for him to not think about her when she was standing right there. Watching him. He couldn’t help but wonder if she liked what she saw. Most women did. But she’d been different since…everything. She’d become withdrawn and somber, almost fragile. Which was exactly why he needed to keep his distance. He was really good at hurting women—not physically and not on purpose—and they tended to despise him when they realized how little he would allow himself to care. But the problem with Dani was that he already cared. He’d known her since she was a little girl, had looked out for her even if she didn’t know it, but now she was a grown woman. The only woman, according to his heart.
“This is kind of far from the house,” she said behind him. From the sound of her voice, she was moving.
Again, Jason paused. “Yep.” He raised the ax to swing again.
As Dani came into his peripheral vision, he was careful to alter the angle of his swing so wood chips and splinters wouldn’t hit her. He was also careful not to look at her. Maybe if he brushed her off, she’d leave him alone to his exhaustive task. But he could tell how closely she was watching him, even though he wasn’t looking at her.
“How will you get it all back to the ranch?” she asked. Her hands were in her coat pockets, and her shoulders were hunched. She was cold.
He fought the urge to cease his chopping and to wrap his arms around her. “I’ll carry it.”
“It’ll take a long time…lots of trips,” she said.
She wanted something. She was avoiding saying something. She probably wanted to yell at him for the abusive kiss he’d forced on her back in the stable. It would be better for them both if she just went away, let him deal with his emotions until they were once again buried and manageable. “Yep,” he said, keeping his face blank of everything except determination. He swung again. “That’s the point.”
With a huge, adorable sigh—she reminded him of an exhausted kitten—Dani said, “We need to talk.”
“Can’t. Busy.” He hated his dismissive tone.
“Stop being such an ass!” Dani snapped in his mind.
He loathed himself for causing such a reaction from her. The corner of his mouth turned up, giving him the ghost of a bitter smile. “But I’m so good at it.”
“This is important…and difficult enough without you flinging that thing around!” she practically yelled. When he didn’t respond, she stomped her foot and shouted, “Dammit, Jason!” And then she started crying.
If there was one thing Jason couldn’t just brush aside, it was Dani’s tears. And these were tears he’d caused. “Shit,” he muttered, lowering the ax so it rested on the ground near his foot. He looked at her, his eyes wide in horror at what he’d done. He’d hurt her, just like he’d know he would. “Don’t do that…I didn’t mean to…I shouldn’t have done what I did back there.”
“What?” she asked, hanging her head and crying harder.
Reluctantly, Jason approached her. “With Cam and everything…and my sister…I shouldn’t have—”
“Oh shut up!” she shrieked. “This isn’t about that!”
That stumped him. He dropped the ax. “It’s not? Then what?”
Seeing the turmoil so evident on her face, he couldn’t resist going to her, comforting her. He raised his hands to her pale, cold cheeks and tilted her face upward so he could see her eyes. He always felt more alive when he was looking into their emerald depths. At the moment they were bottomless pits of sorrow. All he wanted to do was fix whatever was hurting her. He felt a desperate need to take away her pain. “What is it?”
Dani closed her eyes and spoke in his head. “I…know what happened to your dad.”
In an instant, Jason felt like all the oxygen had disappeared from the air.
Opening her eyes, Dani said, “He’s dead.”
At first, Jason couldn’t understand the meaning behind her words. It unfurled, slowly, and he felt like he was choking. “How do you know?” he rasped.
“Grams left a note for me before she…died.”
He heard so much sadness in her voice that it almost broke through his own torrent of despair—an infuriating mixture of hatred, rage, and regret. His dad was dead. His dad, who he’d been fixing things with, was dead. His dad, who no longer hated Jason for his life decisions, was dead.
“She found your dad sitting near the ocean. He was already gone,” Dani said silently.
“Oh…I…He…We…,” Jason stammered. He suddenly couldn’t stand himself. He should’ve made better time, bypassed all those stops along the way to get to Bodega Bay—to his dad—faster. If he’d arrived sooner, he could have helped his dad, nursed him back to health like he’d done with the tiny woman in front of him. Like she had wanted to do. His dad was dead. He couldn’t help but think it was his fault.
Unable to bear Dani’s pitying eyes on him any longer, Jason turned away, picked up the ax, and threw it as hard as he could. A wordless roar burst out of him from somewhere deep inside, and he watched as the ax crashed against one of the cypress trees.
A gentle hand touched his shoulder, and he spun, bursting with hatred for himself. He fully expected to see his emotions reflected on Dani’s face. After all, her grandma was dead as well, and she likely blamed him. If he’d only moved south faster…
But all he saw in Dani’s eyes was empathy. She grieved, but she didn’t blame him. She understood him. As Jason’s rage dissipated, a single tear escaped from his eye and glided down the left side of his face. She understood him. Only she understood him.
Jason fell to his knees before her, wrapping his arms around her hips. He held her as tightly as he could without hurting her and pressed his face into her down jacket. He no longer cared about his past…no longer cared about the danger of letting himself have real feelings for someone. She would be his.
With her safe in his arms, Jason allowed himself to feel his sorrow over losing his dad. He sank into it, waded through it, embraced it. “I’d hoped…I’d thought maybe, just maybe…but it was stupid. Hope is for fools.”
With surprising firmness, Dani gripped the sides of his head and made him look up at her. He’d never seen this fierce side of her—not even when she’d ambushed him on the lawn back in Gold Hill—but he liked it.
“No Jason,” she whispered. She continued silently, “Losing hope…that’s for fools. What do you think happened to all those people who survived the virus and then killed themselves? They lost hope. They’re the fools. But us…we have wants and desires and people we believe in. We have hope, and when we lose it, we might as well lie down and die.”
Jason stared up at her, thinking she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. He studied her pale, slightly freckled face with its delicate features—her perfect little nose, brilliant green eyes, rosebud mouth, and fiery red hair. He drank in the sight of her, memorizing every detail. It was time; he was ready. He had to have her, and if she wasn’t ready, well, he’d just have to convince her. He smirked. He could be really convincing.
As Jason loosened his hold, moving his hands to Dani’s slender hips, he felt her shiver. At first, he thought it was because things were going well—because she was willing and ready—but then she started swaying from side to side.
“Dani?” When she didn’t respond right away, Jason repeated, “Dani, what’s wrong?” He watched confusion cloud her face, watched her eyelids droop.
“My Ability…used to much…” Her voice was barely audible.
Jason hooked an arm behind her knees as she went limp. He stood, cradling her against his torso and having no idea what was wrong with her. He didn’t think he’d ever been more scared, and he’d experienced a lot of scary shit. Was she just fainting? Or was it something more? What the hell was he supposed to do?
“Cold,” she whispered. “It’s dark.”
With a quick glance up at the overcast sky, Jason muttered, “It’s the middle of the day.” He started walking back toward the ranch. If she was cold, he’d find a way to warm her up. He was fairly certain Chris had mentioned that the water heater at the ranch house still worked.
“So cold…tired,” Dani mumbled. Her head lolled back.
“No Dani. Shit! Stay with me,” Jason urged desperately. It was difficult for him to keep his voice steady; he felt so much rage, he wanted to scream. This was what happened to him—what always happened and always would happen. If he let himself care about someone, that person would be taken away. Not her. “I need you to wrap your arms around my neck. Can you do that?”
“I think…maybe…,” Dani said weakly.
“Good,” he said, feeling her comply. “Now hold on.” Tightening his grip on her trembling body, he broke into a run. He would not lose her, too.
To have early access to the next After The Ending extra, make sure you sign up to receive THE ENDING NEWS directly in your email inbox. The next issue goes out this Sunday (9/29) and includes a scene from Jake's POV.
You can sign up for the newsletter by entering your email address here:
If that doesn't work for you, try using this link: http://eepurl.com/zJZxf
If that doesn't work for you, try using this link: http://eepurl.com/zJZxf