Can't Hold Back

By: Serena Bell


“Is this seat taken?”

From her perspective in the grass, he was a giant, with broad shoulders and a luminous smile. She’d always thought it was an exaggeration when women said they lost their breath in a man’s presence, but she just had.

She got a grip and shook her head. “Pull up some turf.” She patted the lawn beside her, and he sat.

He was vivid, like a soldier in a movie: ripped, swaggering, grinning, golden-haired. He’d smiled in her direction earlier, and for a split second she’d thought, Who me? before she remembered that she was standing next to Becca. Her sister was a man magnet. All the two of them had to do was idle in a patch of sunlight admiring the garden, and sexy six-foot-plus men in butt-hugging jeans and black T-shirts materialized from nowhere—

Abracadabra! Hot guy for Becca.

In the car on the way over here, she’d told Becca that Jake’s picnics boasted not just amazing food, but other earthly delights. “We’ll get you back on your feet,” Alia had promised, sneaking a glance at her sister, slumped in the passenger seat. Ever since Becca’s boyfriend had left her three months ago she rarely smiled.

Becca had been hoping for a proposal, and Alia was almost as disappointed as Becca was. She wanted her sister to be happy. Settled. Cared for.

Hot Guy for Becca set his plate on the grass. He sat cross-legged, and his thighs and calves, which looked like they’d been hewn from wood, were generously decked with curly golden hair.

“My sister just went to get some food,” she told him, pointing.

He cast a glance at Becca, standing by the salad table, loading her plate with potato chips. Tall, beautiful, blond, and glowing with vitality.

“You guys don’t look anything alike.”

“We don’t.” She forced a smile. It wasn’t only blindingly obvious differences, like Becca’s blond and Alia’s dark hair, but everything else, too—Becca was slim, with hourglass curves, while Alia was “athletic”; Becca had porcelain skin and Alia was generously freckled; Becca’s features were classic and even, and Alia was—well, she’d be kind to herself and say “cute.”

She sighed.

“Nate Riordan.” The man beside her reached out his hand for a shake.

“Alia Drake.”

Big hands. Warm. A moment ago, the world had smelled like summer. Like grass gone somewhere to seed, roses in bloom, and the mingled marvels of mesquite smoke and grilling meat.

Now her head was filled with a different scent entirely—soap, shampoo, the faintest whiff of some spicy male deodorant or cologne.

He was going to have no difficulty making Becca forget her romantic troubles. He could probably make any woman blank on her own name.

She retrieved her hand before she could reflect any more on that. He was Becca’s hot guy.

Alia worried about Becca a lot. Probably too much, considering they were now both adults and capable of standing on their own. But it was an old, old habit, born after their father’s death and during their mother’s long depressions, when Becca had struggled to keep her head—and her self-esteem—above water.

They were both adults now, but Alia totally got what parents meant when they said your worry didn’t vanish just because your kid had taken off for college.

“You friends with Mira?” Nate asked, hoisting his burger for a bite.

“Jake. We went to PT school together.”

“You’re a physical therapist, too, huh? I’ve always thought that was a cool job.”

“I love it. Love the work, love the people.”

“Yeah? You’re lucky. Not too many people get to say that about their jobs.”

“You don’t love yours?”

He laughed. “Caught that, did you? I don’t have a story like Jake’s, all that post-Nine/Eleven conviction. Going to college for me meant a staggering amount of debt, and the only way I could hope to get myself out from under it was to join up. So that’s what I did. And it’s not that I hate it. I just…I guess…you find meaning where you can, you know?”

She did, or thought she did, and it made her want to glide straight past small talk and delve in, but instead she asked, “Are you a Ranger, too? Is that how you know Jake?”

“No, actually—Army grunt, between deployments. And I met Jake when he gave a talk. ‘A Life of Purpose’ or something like that. I was a senior in college, it was career week, and I almost didn’t go because I knew I was enlisting, so I figured I knew my purpose, or at least my purpose for a little bit.” He gave a wry shake of his gold-streaked head. “But some of my friends were planning to go, and I thought I should at least check it out. And I was, like, okay, here’s a guy, a Ranger, out of the Army, missing a leg, doing all this great stuff—competing in triathlons, going back to school, helping other soldiers—”

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