The Strength to Fall (McKinnon Brothers Book 1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Bradley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The world breaks everyone,

and afterward,

some are strong at the broken places.

 

Ernest Hemingway

 

 

 

Prologue

              There are times in every women’s life that are imprinted on her memory, like words etched in stone on ancient tablets. They are always there even if faint and worn from life’s ever-changing roads. The route that was set before me in the form of a legal document in the office of my Aunt Claire’s lawyer is one of those times. I have just been informed I am to inherit over a million dollars and as if that wasn’t enough to alter my universe, I will also inherit an apartment—a co-op—in a city far from my current and the only home I’ve ever known in Mississippi. My silence after this revelation has caused my aunt’s lawyer to repeat himself.

              “Ms. McLeod? Do you understand? I need you to sign these documents.” His voice pulls me from my thoughts. On this cold January day, the gray light filtering in from the windows framed in antique stained glass matched my mood.

              “Um, yes, I’m sorry. This is all so, so overwhelming. I had no idea Aunt Claire was willing me anything this substantial. I…I don’t know if I can take it. What happens to the apartment if I don’t want it?”

              “Let’s not make any decisions just yet.” My grandmother, Olivia Stuart---Gran to me, is sitting to my left. She patted my hand like she has my whole life. It’s comforting but I am still numb. Why was she not shocked by this?

              “If Adira doesn’t want the money or the apartment, I’ll be glad to take it off her hands.” I cut my eyes at my brother Jacob when his twin, Joshua, hit him in the arm at his outburst. “Ow! I was just offering to help her out.”

              “Yes, thank you, Jacob, but Claire was quite adamant that Adira give life in the city a try.” My Uncle Mark was sitting to my right. I could see him bouncing his knee up and down as he spoke. He was nervous but trying to be strong.

              “Why didn’t she leave it to Gran? She didn’t have any children or a husband. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Gran to inherit?” I couldn’t wrap my mind around the enormity of the gift, especially since my aunt had been so distant the past six years.

              My aunt’s lawyer, Mr. Jones spoke, “I know this can be overwhelming, Adira, but you should know that I spoke to Claire quite frequently before her passing and she was very insistent that you not only take the money but move to her apartment and try life in the city. I had asked her if she wanted to delay the payment of the money until you complied to move, but she told me no, that as much as she wanted this for you, she wanted you to make the choice to go. I can only relay her words. May I?”

              He held a typed letter in front of him as he sat in his green leather high back chair behind a large mahogany desk. I nodded to give him consent to read the letter. He cleared his throat, “The last will and testament of Claire Rose Stuart.”

To my family, know that I love you all, even if I have not seen you in the past few years, you were always in my thoughts and heart. Adira, my sweet niece. It is my last wish that you take the gift of money and move to the city to live in my apartment. Many great adventures await you there. Please give life in a new place a chance. You will never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.

Joshua and Jacob, my amazing nephews, please take the money you will inherit and spend it wisely. Invest and think of your futures. You are both intelligent young men with so much to offer this world, let this money help you on your journey.

Mom, you know how I feel and you know my wishes. Please help them come to fruition. I leave you all my greatest personal possessions, my memories from travels and life. Look at them and know at every venture you were with me in spirit. I love you.

Jackson, my little brother. Even when you grew taller than I, I never let you forget I was your older sister. I’m going to boss you one last time. Take the money I have gifted and go somewhere you’ve never been. Travel. See the world. If your heart brings you back to Mississippi, then that is where you belong, but you will never know until you leave.

I love you all, more than words could express. I will tell Elizabeth and Matthew how much they have been missed.

Go into the world and make your marks, all of you,

Claire Rose Stuart

 

              Tears fell uninhibited from my eyes. Gran and Uncle Mark were holding each of my hands. Jacob and Joshua were wiping their eyes, trying to be brave and hold in the pain. I knew what I had to do, being Aunt Claire’s last wish for me, how could I refuse? Now to summon the strength to go. I felt like I was falling, I just pray someone will catch me before I crash to the ground, broken in unrepairable pieces.

              This is the story of my falling and how I found the strength to get back up. The exact city is not important to the story, as it was not so much the place that Aunt Claire wanted me to see as it was the people that she left there. As in all of life, home is where your heart is and where the people you love reside, be it a large city or a small country town. And my heart had been fractured too much to care where it was most at home…..or so I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

              “I can do this. I can do this. I   can   do   this.” I repeat this mantra in my head while my lips move to the words. “Ugh!!!! Damn it! No, I can’t. I just can’t,” I cry into my palms that are hiding my face from the humiliation I feel at this moment. It’s more than humiliation, its complete panic. I’m having a full blown panic attack while standing in front of the elevators in my new co-op building. Breathe in, breathe out and again, breathe in, breathe out. Ok, this is ridiculous. I’m a grown women. I’ll be 26 in two months. I can surely ride an elevator to the 40
h
floor. But that’s just it, I can’t. I haven’t been able to ride an elevator without a total meltdown in years, more like a decade. There is no rational explanation, I just feel so trapped, so alone, so, so….no, don’t go there or you’ll never get in this elevator. I take a deep breathe, square my shoulders and start to remove my hands from my face when I feel it. Pain. Sharp pain, that takes your breath away. And then I realize I’m no longer standing, I’m falling. The moment I open my eyes I brace myself for impact. Every muscle in my body tenses as I see hard travertine floor get closer. And then, I felt the strongest set of arms that have ever touched me save me from the fall and I hear a voice, his voice, strong, deep, pure testosterone.

              “Sorry!” I hear a grunt and the sound of his shoes squeaking on the cold tile. The sound of a phone, iPod, or some electronic device hitting the tile and skidding across the floor also registers in my head but I can’t understand how I’m aware of all this. It’s like time slowed down, like in The Matrix. I’m hyperaware of everything, especially him. He smells amazing, with a hint of sweat, but with a clean, crisp smell. My shoulder is cradled in his left arm and I feel pain again down my right leg and ankle and it makes me wince. The pain brings me back to reality rather suddenly and I hear him speaking to me but I’m slow to react.

              “I’m sorry! I didn’t see you, I swear. I was just cooling down from a run and I…I was looking down at my phone and had my earbuds in. God, are you ok?” He was rambling. I slowly turn my head so I can see his face. His eyes are hazel, but more blue-green. His black hair is short but a little wavy. Again, I’m shocked I can be so aware of him when I feel the pain radiating down my leg all the way to my ankle, which is now throbbing. He’s worried, I can see it in his expression. He has a slight wrinkle in between his eyebrows and his thin lips are tight. His tan skin is flushed and he’s sweating. Dressed in only a t-shirt and athletic shorts, I can see his biceps straining while he’s trying to hold me up. That snaps me out of this crazy slow-motion feeling. I place my palms on the ground quickly and attempt to pull myself up.

              “Ow, uh, ok, that hurts,” I say to myself praying I don’t look as ridiculous as I feel. I prop myself on my left forearm and glance to my right leg. My black wedge jeweled flip flops were thrown from my feet. That’s when I realize the flowy, floral skirt I’m wearing is pulled up to my waist exposing my favorite pair of boy cut panties in bright pink.

              “Oh, my God, Oh my God.” Humiliation sets in full force and I feel my face flushing a bright red. I push myself up, pull my skirt down, and attempt to roll to a sitting position. Pain shoots through me but at this point I don’t care. Mr. Hazel eyes has seen my panties and watched me ever so gracefully fall to the floor. This day can’t get much worse. Wait, don’t think that! I’ve just ensured that it will most likely get much worse just by thinking that.

              I’m sitting on my butt now and feel his arms touching the skin on my back….my bare back. I slowly look down to realize the light pink tank I’m wearing is pulled up on my right side to expose my midriff and my favorite pink bra that matches my favorite pink panties. Ok, now the full impact of the fall and my humiliation take hold and I feel the tears starting but I’m trying so very hard to hold them in. They win.

              “I’m ok, really. You don’t have to help me. Seriously, I’m…I’m…” I start sobbing uncontrollably and take the hem of my tank and wipe my eyes. I see the mascara stains on my tank and that just brings on a new wave of tears.

              “Look, let me help you get up and you can sit here in the lobby while I collect your things.” He speaks to me but I can’t make myself look him in the eyes. I’m so humiliated. If I had just got on the elevator the minute I came in the building none of this would have happened. I’ve always hated my anxiety, hated that I’m claustrophobic, especially since I don’t know why I’m so terrified, but that’s the thing about anxiety, it’s not logical. Out of the corner of my eye I see my purse and the contents scattered around me. My phone is a good 10 feet from me. Ok, get it together, put your big girl panties on, even if Mr. Hazel eyes has seen them, and get up and take care of yourself. After all, isn’t that why you’re here proving that you can do just that, take care of yourself. My stubborn side roars to life and despite the pain in my leg I push myself up off the floor to a standing position.

              “Whoa, wait. Just be careful. You took a pretty hard fall. Don’t push yourself.”

              “Well, if you hadn’t run into me, I wouldn’t be in this situation!” I say louder than I meant to. My leg suddenly goes weak and goes out from under me. I’m falling again put I grab on his shoulders and he grabs my waist. The heat from his touch burns my skin, even through my tank, and suddenly time slows again. I hear him speaking to me but I’m not really comprehending the words. The pain in my leg is much worse now and despite my intense desire to get away from this man and this horrible scene, I feel I have no choice than to accept his help.

              “Please, just help me to couch in the corner,” I whimper feeling the tears starting again. I sniff them back and put all my weight on my left leg. That eases the pain enough I can concentrate on what he’s saying to me.

              “After I set you down I’ll gather your things. Here, lean into me. Can you walk at all?” He looks at me with sympathy and that makes my anger spike. I hate that look! I will myself to hop to the couch on my own. I attempt to pull away but he must sense I’m trying to walk on my own. Suddenly, I’m in his arms. He lifted me as if I weigh less than a cloud. Instinctively, I wrap my arms around his neck and lean my head against his chest. That warm, clean smell hits me again, and again, I’m paralyzed by this stranger. This man that within a few minutes has made time slow to a crawl and left me dazed and confused. I’m beginning to wonder if I did hit my head and if I have a concussion. He speaks in my ear and I look up into those wonderful eyes.

              “Damn it! I’ll just have to carry you over there!” I’m too stunned to speak. His eyes are no longer sympathetic. I sense anger there. It stuns me and my mouth is just popped open. I’m so close to his face, I can smell his breathe. Its minty, like he just had a breathe mint. The small amount of dark stubble on his chin has flecks of red in them. The feel of the scratchy couch fabric on my legs jars me back to reality and I realize he’s been speaking to me, but I haven’t heard him. God, he must think I’m an idiot! Get it together! You may have to see this man again if he lives in this building. That thought immediately grabs my attention and makes me straighten my back and smooth out my skirt. I shake my head slightly to clear my thoughts. One deep breath and I’m ready to have my senses back. Speak coherently.

              I look up and see that he’s not near me anymore but has collected the contents of my purse, retrieved my phone, and is now talking to the attendant, a tall skinny man with a pointy nose. While Mr. Hazel Eyes is away I take a quick glance at myself. The dark purple of a bruise is already forming on my outer right thigh and my ankle is swelling.

              “Great,” I mumble to myself. I have to take the elevator to my 40
th
floor unit with an injury. I feel the panic setting in and my chest tightens. I place my hand over my heart and feel it beating wildly. My gray Fitbit is recording my pulse. It’s close to 90 and I know I need to calm down before I have another panic attack. I glance around for my purse and realize he still has it. He looks kind of adorable clutching my red leather purse and my mind wonders to him doing this for me on a shopping trip.

              “Get a grip!” I admonish myself. I don’t even know this man, however; I’ve never reacted to anyone like this. It has to be the emotional day and the pain, I tell myself. He’s motioning to me while talking to the attendant whose name I can’t remember. I met him yesterday when I tried to arrange to have my furniture delivered. I’ve never lived in a co-op, much less had an attendant. He told me I couldn’t have my furniture delivered on Friday because the elevators can only be used for moving furniture on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and I’m ashamed to admit I took my frustration out on him. Being a small town girl, I would have never known to even ask such a question. I only spoke to him about it because I was hoping there was a service elevator to haul my sectional couch and queen size bed. No such luck though and today being Friday means I have to wait four days before I have any furniture in my co-op. I bought a sleeping bag from a camping store down the road. I knew I needed something for my laptop and to eat on so I bought a dark wooden lap tray. I found a bean bag chair from a small trendy furniture store around the corner. The zebra print bean bag chair will not match any of my other furniture, but it was the smallest and cheapest alternative to sitting on the floor for four days.

              Mr. Hazel Eyes is walking back towards me now and running his hand through his short hair. He looks frazzled or angry, not knowing him makes it hard to tell which one. Either way, I’m so embarrassed by this whole ordeal I look away from his stare. I glance down to my Fitbit to see my pulse is amazingly normal at around 60. Wow, that’s quite a drop in a few minutes. That’s never happened before, not without medication anyway. I look up as I see his feet and muscular legs standing near me.

“I tried to call Doc but he’s not answering his phone, as usual, so I asked Mark to use the intercom to buzz him. Doc can check your ankle. I mean, if that’s ok? It’s a Friday and most the clinics near here either close all day or close at noon and since it’s almost five your only option would be the hospital to get your leg and ankle checked out. Really, I wouldn’t attempt that unless you just want to sit in the ER for the rest of the day and night. Do you have someone here with you that can come assist you?” He seemed nervous and was talking very fast. I noticed he was grabbing the strap of my purse tightly. When I reached out to get it our fingers grazed and I swear I heard his breathe intake. Our eyes met at this point and a small smile crept to his lips.

“Oh, yeah, sorry. Here’s your purse and your phone.” He reached in his pocket and retrieved my pink cased iPhone. I silently thanked God I bought a shatter resistant case, I’m known for breaking my phone and moving to a new city I didn’t want to deal with replacing it. I took my purse and phone from him setting both in my lap.

“I think I picked everything up that spilled out of your purse. I, I wasn’t trying to look at your items so I may have missed something. I’m not an expert on the content of women’s purses so…”

“Thank you,” I interrupted him. It seemed to startle him because he stood up a little straighter. “Uh, I’m so sorry you even had to do that. I’m probably fine. I think it’s just a sprain and some bruises. I appreciate your help, really, but you can go now. I don’t want to impose on your time any longer.”

“Where are you from?”

“What?”

“Your accent, I mean, you don’t sound like you’re from here.” He glanced at me slowly as if I might take offense to that.

“Oh, um, I’m from Mississippi, the south. Well, of course you know that Mississippi is in the south.” I chuckled nervously and bit my bottom lip. I saw his hand twitch from the corner of my eye.

He cleared his throat. “From the south. That’s what I thought. Your accent, um, I like it.” He smiled shyly.

Not knowing what to say about that confession I just smiled back. The pain was really starting to become more unbearable and I winced slightly.

“Are you in pain?” He asked with a concerned look and urgency in his voice.

I wanted to lie but really at this point it was hopeless.

“Yes, I am. I thought I could bare it but really it’s starting to feel worse. I glanced at my ankle and swore under my breath. It had doubled in size.

“Ozias? What happened?” A man looking to be in his middle 50’s approached us. He was wearing light green scrubs like surgeons wear and had light blonde hair that was greying at his temples. He was serious and possibly even angry.

Ozias.
Is that Mr. Hazel Eyes’ name? Wow.

“Doc, oh, um, um” Ozias stuttered seemingly nervous with the man’s arrival.

“Well, spit it out son. I don’t have all day. What happened and who is this?” He glanced towards me with questioning eyes and I immediately felt under attack. I recoiled at his stare. Not a great bedside manner there, Doc, I thought to myself.

“Um, I, um, I had just come back from my run and I was still coming down….and I got a call so I look----

Doc interrupted Ozias with one hand planted firmly on his hip and the other flaying out toward me. “Distracted? And you plowed in to this young women causing this much damage? Damn it, son. When will you ever grow up? You can’t spend your whole life with your head in the clouds.” Doc was leaning over me now inspecting my leg and ankle with that look only doctors get. That look that makes me nervous. I don’t like doctors and I am quickly not liking this one.

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