She spoke at barely above a whisper as she rolled up the other leg of his jeans. "I read that you surrendered to the Taliban. Why? Can you share that part?"
Brandi washed and caressed the scar on his left leg. It was long, jagged, ghastly. It began at his toes and extended up the outside of his leg to above his knee. A separate scar just above the knee ran horizontally through the vertical one, thus forming a cross.
“I spent the night jammed up against a cliff with the SEAL team. At 0700 the next morning, we spotted about fifty Taliban bearing down on us. It was just a matter of minutes before they would find us. ETA for air support was one hour — not nearly soon enough.” He exhaled audibly through his mouth.
“That’s when I came up with a plan to walk toward the Taliban and surrender. It's a big deal for them — capturing a downed pilot. I thought it would create a diversion so the SEALs could quietly relocate to a secure place.” His eyes had refocused.
“I also hoped the enemy would take me where they had moved the helicopter survivors. That way, the SEALs could track at a distance and mount a rescue mission to save us all.”
“How well did your plan work?”
He took two more swallows and set the water bottle down. His eyes narrowed. “They put a bag over my head and —”
Brandi covered her mouth and caught her breath.
“I can’t go on.” He clenched his fists. “Harry died. Children...where they took me —”
“Children? What children? I don’t remember reading anything about that."
"And you'll never read about something that didn't happen."
He placed an unsteady right hand over his eyes in a futile attempt to hide wet streaks that now made their way down the rugged landscape of his face. “I didn’t know it would be this hard. I’m sorry.”
With Cody’s feet resting on the pillow, tears filling her eyes, she could find no words. He carried heavy baggage. He was honorable. He was trouble. One part of her wanted to bid farewell to him and pretend he did not exist. The other wanted to hold him in her arms and never let him go.
“I’m sorry, Brandi. I gotta stop. You’re the first person I've told since returning home.” He blotted his eyes on the sleeve of the blue shirt.
She shut her eyelids. Warm tears were building underneath them. Oh, God, what’s happening to me? A night so horrible. And a night so wonderful. Please don’t let him be the kind of man who will ask to stay the night, but please don’t let him leave.
They were silent and motionless for a moment. Then Cody's jaw stiffened. “I’ve said too much. I need to get back to the hotel.” He stood and put on his cap. “If you’ll give me your street address, I’ll send you back this shirt.”
Brandi's heart fell. She had enticed him into lowering his shield — the one that had hidden his secret pain. Had she intruded too far? Oh, God, I pray he won’t resent me for it.
She wiped her tears with her hands. “I’m so honored that you trusted me, Cody. Please don't feel uncomfortable with me. I didn't mean…Um, will I ever see you again?”
He glanced downward once more at the bruises, burns, and scrapes on her shins and ankles. Her feet were friction-burned with ugly abrasions, and her soft hands trembled again. Sasha’s last words filled his thoughts — She shouldn’t be alone right now, you know. Next time, they’ll have guns.
He downed the rest of his water bottle and then leaned against the wall next to the window. "Important? How's that?"
Brandi’s tongue was like a dehydrated sponge. Fools rush in, and she was afraid to say another word but couldn’t stop herself. She struggled down three swallows of water.
“First, come sit with me over here." She took his hand and led him to an antique chaise lounge chair.
"Okay, I'm listening,” he said. “What's the big mystery?"
They sat down on the chaise lounge.
"This chair is eighteenth century French baroque. My father’s ancestors were slaves near New Orleans during the Civil War. One night, five Union soldiers came onto the plantation for the purpose of stealing, killing and raping.”
“Slaves? Your ancestors?”
“That's right.” She wasn’t surprised by his puzzled expression. With Brandi’s light complexion and blue eyes, her ethnicity was never apparent.
“Daddy’s great-great-great-grandfather helped fight off the attackers and saved the plantation owner and his wife. When the war was over, the plantation was in ruin, but the owner gave my father’s ancestors this piece of furniture. It has been in the family ever since.”
“Impressive." He paused and looked into her blue eyes. "So what's the right question for me to ask?"
“No questions. Just listen. My ancestors on my mother’s side of the family had escaped to Canada before the war. They eventually settled in Pennsylvania in 1901. So that brings me to what I want to tell you. I’ll probably cry. But you should hear this even if I never see you again.”
She gathered a deep breath. “When my mother was just sixteen —”
Suddenly, terror seized Brandi’s face. She jumped out of her skin, electrified by a loud boom outside on the street. The lights in her apartment blinked and then went dark. She latched onto Cody’s injured arm like a hawk clutching prey.
“Was that an explosion?” A moment later, they heard another loud pop like a canon firing in the distance. She jumped again. Cody flinched.
“What’s happening? Cody, I’m scared!” Her voice quivered.
“Me too. But it sounded like a couple of transformers exploding.” He looked out the window. All the streetlights were off. “Might have happened because of the storm. I see more lightning in the sky.”
“Let’s go to the hotel.” She was frantic. “I’ll take you up on your earlier offer — uh, for security sake.”
"Okay, I can get you and your parents a room at the Marriott where the team is staying. The Astros' security will protect you."
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