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CHASING WATERFALLS

“Where are you going?” Charli glances out the side of the window, down the road to our cottages just up ahead. My truck is in no state to slow down for our turn.

“To the woods, I thought we could hike to the cliffs.”

“Do you really think I can hike in what I’m wearing?” She motions down her trim figure hugged by a summer dress and her sandaled feet.

“I guess not.” I chuckle before turning down our road.

“We should take Koda too. I’m sure he’d enjoy the day out,” she adds, glancing out the window.

 

“Good idea, I’m sure he would.”

 

Charli is back out and ready, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt that hides the feminine figure her sundress boasted. The hiking boots she wears tells me she takes trips like this seriously. As usual, I really can't take my eyes off of her. Even dressed down like this, she is simply stunning.

“What?” she asks as she piles her dark hair on top of her head in that signature messy bun.

“Nothing.” I shake my head, reminding myself that getting caught up with her romantically would be a mistake.

 

Finn is right. She is too good for me and doesn’t need my baggage to deal with on top of her own. This is an outing with a new friend. Nothing more. But the way her loose hair trails down her slender neck tests my self-control. Her hair looks so soft and all I want is to untie that bun and run my hands through it while...

I catch myself and blink away the image. She is just too tempting. Especially the way she makes herself right at home in my truck. Koda’s head is on her lap while her slender legs are crossed at the ankle.

“A penny for your thoughts?” she asks, glancing over while running her hands through Koda’s fur.

I shake my head with a "Nah" and continue focusing on our journey. I need to learn the roads here, anyway. It will be a good distraction until we reach our destination. No more thoughts of kissing Charli Cross.

Yeah, right? My subconscious mocks.

“Turn left right up here.” She points at the next road.

The views are even more spectacular than I had imagined. Rugged cliffs hug the ocean tide as the waves crash against the shoreline. Charli walks at a brisk pace, clearly not as excited by the view as I am. To be fair, she has been here a good bit by the way she navigates the woods to get us here. So, I guess over time I wouldn’t be as excited by the views.

“Hurry up, slowpoke!” she taunts, yards ahead of me with Koda right on her heels.

“Sorry Shortcake, I’m just taking in the view!”

She doesn’t turn around for my obvious come on, but picks up her pace, forcing me to jog to catch up.

When she finally stops, I lose my breath. She stands at the top of a waterfall, the water beneath a clear, crystal blue-green. The pebbles at the bottom are as clear as day.

Turning around to face me, she opens her arms and inhales a deep breath before taking a step back. My heart stops when Charli falls backward, dropping parallel to the waterfall into the pond below. Koda, clearly just as worked up as me, barks and whines before jumping in after her.

“Charli!” I scream before running over to the side to peek down. Expecting the worst, I feel my heart beat again when she pops up from the water with a grin so bright she shames the sun. Koda pops up next, his tongue hanging out as he barks and licks Charli’s face, making her giggle. Her laugh is a girly sound that turns me inside out.

“Come on in, PJ! The water is perfect!” she shouts.

“You’re gonna get it, Shortcake!” With that, I peel off my shirt, socks, and shoes and toss them to the side, making a mental note to grab them before we leave.

 

Diving in, adrenaline pulses through my veins. Being a diver in high school doesn't compare to the rush I have dropping into the pond far below.

The water rushes around me, and I open my eyes in search of her. Quickly, I find her legs beneath the surface and tug her down. She squeals and squirms as I pull her under with me. Those big blue-green eyes pop open beneath the water and I have to remind myself to breathe when her hands touch my bare skin. Using my shoulders as a springboard, she pushes me down while shooting herself up out of the water.

I stay beneath the surface, using my years of swim practice to hold my breath. Only seconds pass before she’s back under and gripping my shoulders. Clear fear sketched in her eyes. She grips my shoulders again and shakes; I decide not to scare her anymore, but instead embrace her and drag her to the top with me.

When we arrive at the surface, she inhales a big breath before squirming out of my grip and smacking me on my chest.

 

“Were you trying to give me a heart attack?”

I shake my head. “No, just a taste of your own medicine.”

She narrows her eyes at me before swimming off with Koda, disappearing behind the waterfall. I follow her, the pathetic man I am, totally hooked on the unattainable Charli Cross. It's clear my heart refuses to follow my brain’s warnings. I shouldn’t want her. I shouldn’t pursue her, but here I am, chasing her down like a lost little puppy dog, hoping she’ll give me a scrap of attention.

I find her staring at a cave wall, deep in thought with Koda sitting next to her. She must hear my footsteps and she turns. The mere sight of her in wet clothes that cling to her like a second skin makes my mouth go dry. She smiles, a genuine smile, and it takes all my restraint not to close the gap between us and claim her lips.

Her inquisitive eyes study me closely and glance down my bare torso before her eyes go wide and she quickly turns back to face the cave wall. I step right behind her but don’t touch, just close enough to feel her body heat radiate in the cold, damp cave.

She turns her head and our lips are so close I can almost feel them; they look so soft and inviting. Noticing, she glances to my lips before gulping and looking back into my eyes.

“What are you doing?” She sounds as breathless as I feel.

“Trying to get your exact view. You’re clearly fascinated.”

I don’t miss the blush she tries to ignore by saying, “I’m not looking into a mirror PJ, eyes up front.” She grips my chin and forces my head to turn to face the cave wall.

Ancient markings are scribbled onto the surface in a language I've never seen before. Ornate flowers decorate the scene of what appears to be a wedding ceremony.

“It’s amazing.” Charli breathes out.

“What’s amazing?” I ask, fighting the urge to put my arms around her waist and pull her back into my arms.

“How they had so little back then, yet could make such beautiful art.” 

* * *

By the time we reach my truck, we’re dry from our swim. I help her into the cab after Koda jumps in and I make my way to my side. Before we’re back on main roads Charli is asleep. Apparently, a day of hiking and swimming really tuckered her out. I glance over and smile as I pause at a stop sign. The moon shines into her window making her skin glow and her hair appear lighter. Her long eyelashes fan across the tops of her cheekbones and her lips puff out in her sleep.

I touch the gas but before I can gain back speed; I hear Charli scream out and watch as her arms slam against the back of the seat. Koda hops into attention and puts his paws on her lap, attempting to calm her down. Her arms appear locked into place, as she’s unable to move them in her dream state and instead she thrashes back and forth as if she’s trying to break free.

Quickly pulling off of the road, I get out of the truck and run to her side. I open the door and go to pull her out when she screams again and arches her back in pain.

“Please! Please! Don’t—” she stops and her head falls to the side.

I have the urge to wake her up, but not knowing how she'd react or the proper procedure for night terrors, I go back to my side and hop back in.

 

Not feeling comfortable to drive again, I wait it out. She shivers as the temperatures drop outside so I turn the dial to heat.

Resting my head against my steering wheel, I pray. As the words float through my thoughts, my eyes water, and a tug pulls at my heart at the mere thought of Charli. She's been through so much. On the outside she's closed off, but I know buried beneath the stone beats a heart of gold. She pours herself into everything she does, that's why everything she does is amazing.

Time seems to fly by as I pray. Thoughts I’d kept bottled since meeting Charli turn into prayers as I work through the issues I allowed to fester in the open wounds Julia left. It was like the rot is dug out and replaced with a healing salve. When I was home, Julia consumed my thoughts. All I could do was be angry that she smashed our dreams into pieces and decided my brother would be a better replacement. But when I'm with Charli, none of that matters. The pain vanishes and my past life is just that--in the past. Charli helps me see life in the here and now, not in the past.

“Reed?” Charli asks.

I turn to face her and find her looking terrified.

“What happened?” She crosses her arms and rubs her hands up and down her arms, trying to warm up. 

“I think you had a nightmare,” I answer before reaching behind my seat and pulling out my academy sweatshirt and handing it over to her.

“Here, put this on. It will help warm you up.”

She doesn’t fight or question me, but quickly tugs it over her head. The sight of her in my clothes replaces the anger I had towards Julia and awakens something new and primal.

“Thanks,” she murmurs.

“Are you okay?” I ask before reaching across Koda and lacing my fingers in hers.

She breaks her hand away from mine and shakes her head before quickly turning away from me but, not fast enough to hide the tears that slip down her cheeks. Allowing my pride to take that hit, I reach across the space again and grab her hand. This time she lets me and I rub circles on the back of her hand with my thumb.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

She remains quiet for a while, and I allow the silence to consume us. Internally, I pray.

“It’s like anytime I’m happy, the nightmares return and remind me of that night.”

“Like your subconscious refuses to keep the past in the past and wants you to continue suffering through the pain.”

At those words, her eyes snap to meet mine and she says, “Exactly.”

I don’t respond for a few moments, not wanting to say the wrong thing.

“They say time heals all wounds and time may soothe sorrow in the light of day, but in the darkness, nightmares have a way of digging up the most painful of memories.”

The streetlights reflect off of her perplexed expression; she nods her head. “Yes. It’s the darkness where the most painful memories lurk.”

I had seen my fair share of dark things. Big-city detective work is not for the faint-hearted, but something deep down tells me what Charli has been through is worse. Without thinking, I switch on the light, temporarily blinding us both.

“Then, let’s stay in the light.”