The vast majority of Charlie’s being leaned into Luke’s touch.
A small portion of her mind reminded her that being too touchy with the soldier had caused problems in her marriage. That Sam had mentioned in passing plenty of times how he was thankful that she got along with her brother, but she saw the way his eyes lingered on their easy touches, the conversations where her laughter was loud and drew a hint of a smile from Luke’s mouth.
Charlotte couldn’t remember how many Christmas’ it had been when she’d overheard bits and pieces of hissed words and raised voices from the boys in the living room. The house hadn’t been close to finished yet and she’d answered a call from her best friend, Camille.
“How’s it going? Any better?”
Charlie had laughed mirthlessly. “You mean is my husband any less pissed after I whispered his brother’s name in bed?” She’d been asleep, in the middle of turning over and finding a body under the covers. She could still remember the way Luke’s name had fallen from her lips in her sleep induced confusion, fingers running over familiar shoulders until she realized what she’d done. “I’m going to go with a hard no.”
“It’s not your fault, Char. It’s not like you knew what you were doing.” No, she hadn’t, but there wasn’t any way in hell that she could say that it was okay for her to say Luke’s name as her hands had continued down, down, down...
“It doesn’t exactly inspire trust and confidence, does it? You know he asked me if we fucked.” Charlie had initially been hurt through that quickly transitioned into being pissed.
“And you said?”
“I said no! Jesus, Milly, I didn’t fuck my brother-in-law! Don’t you think I would have told you that?” the woman hissed into the phone, her nose scrunching. She hadn’t slept with Luke, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t thought about it. God, what type of horrible person was she? Maybe it was because they knew they would never act on it and there was something tantalizing about wanting something that could never be had.
“Well, yeah, but you gotta admit it’s the first question that people would ask,” Camille said, and Charlie swore she could see the shrug that her friend gave her through the phone.
“I guess, but not from the man I married. You’d think he’d have some trust -- “
“Yeah, Charlie, but even I’ve seen you all together and it’s damn incriminating.”
Charlie knew that. She knew that plenty of people in town mentioned that she’d married the ‘better choice’, the ‘safer option’. All she could do was smile and act like she wasn’t offended, but when push came to shove, she had known that it had been very much a choice. The woman could still remember how safe Sam could make her feel, how he talked her down off of ledges and averted crises that were now laughable. That didn’t mean she could stop herself from thinking about Luke when he was on tour, or from being excited when he came back.
He was her brother-in-law. She was allowed to care, wasn’t she?
So when Sam was so angry and announced he was going to bed, Charlie went to let Jake out onto the porch. Her eyes had turned to Luke, who had just sat there in the goddamn dark. She said something about how cold it was, that Sam got too drunk and went to bed, that Luke should have a cup of coffee with her, that she was so happy to have him home for the holidays.
The house didn’t look like it had on that Christmas. Redecorated and rearranged, it was like any other house in a magazine. The palette was of mints, sky blues, and calming grays and whites, with dark wood accents… coupled with an ugly recliner that looked very lived in. Charlie had begged Sam more times than she could count to get rid of the damn thing but now she wasn’t sure she’d ever bring herself to pull it out of the house and towards the fire pit like she’d once threatened.
Her jade gaze flickered from the black coffee in her mug and up toward Luke, studying him as he spoke. He looked tired, like he hadn’t slept in months; neither had she. Ever since she’d called him, she’d worried about him; but what could she do from a country away? And even if he had been here, what would she have done differently? Charlie wasn’t exact fit for company, despite the attempts of neighbors to prove otherwise.
Sam had always been the friendlier one. He knew everyone. He’d grown up here, and he was the only reason she’d felt like she fit in. Now, every time she went to the damn store she was stared at, and whispered flooded her with grief and uncertainty.
“You saw -- “ God damn the hope that surged through her at the thought of just seeing Sam again. What she wouldn’t do to feel his fingers trail over her cheeks or push strands of sable hair away from her eyes...
“Oh, yeah. No problem. I, uh,” Charlie searched for the right words but all of them would hurt. “I wanted him somewhere pretty but, I’ve got to be honest, I haven’t been since everything. I just feel closer to him here, I guess?” It made sense to her; she knew Sam walking through the doors, laughing as she cursed after she’d stubbed her toe on the corner of the kitchen island. She took a sip of coffee as bittersweet memories rushed over her.
Sam McCormick had been 33 when he’d been taken by her incompetence. She should have been there, searching for him. Making sure that he came to bed safely. Never whispering his brother’s name as her hands went to slide underneath the band of his boxers.
“I can’t ask you to do anything of that,” came Charlie’s hoarse voice, emotions causing her tone to lower. She couldn’t accept Luke’s help on the farm, even if everything he said was true. Because, truthfully, she couldn’t feed all the animals, run any of the equipment, or fight off people who wanted to buy parts of the land she knew she couldn’t tend to. “You’ve got your own life, Luke. I can’t pull you away from that.”
I want to be here.
“Look, I really appreciate the offer. But you can’t uproot your life to help me here.” Charlie tried to offer Luke a smile, though she was certain it turned into a grimace and attempted to hide in the cup of Joe. “And, for what it’s worth, everyone has kept away so far.” That time, a genuine smile found its way to her features, the corners of her lips twitching upward. “You gonna run ‘em off with a gun? Tell ‘em to get off your lawn?”