I turn from Rory Talbot to look into the camera. Smile, Wilder. People are watching.
“I want to remind everyone planning on attending the Fayetteville Bridge Day Festival on the New River Gorge Bridge that registration for BASE jumps begins July third. So, don’t forget to register before the festival.”
In my earpiece, Drake asks, “Hey, Finn. You haven’t jumped in the past few years. Will you ever do it again?”
Breaking from my news-mode consciousness, I remove my attention from the camera and freeze as I consider his question. Do I want to jump? Hell, yes. It’s only legal once a year, so I’ve missed so many opportunities since you can jump all you want that day. Instead, I’ve had to cover the event, standing on the sidelines like an average fucking spectator, watching everyone else BASE jump, while fielding nonstop questions about why Richmond’s Finn Wilder is abstaining yet again this year. It’s a good thing Hank is leery of me jumping off anything. I’ve made up excuses to fans who asked why I can’t jump, back spasms, and a sinus cold. The first year Becks and I were together, I jumped and nearly ended our relationship.
However, nothing is stopping me now because she threw the previous rules out the car window at ninety miles per hour.
The sudden thrill of jumping brews like a storm in my gut. I purposefully look back at the camera. “Yeah. I am doing it this year.”
Not expecting that answer, Drake says, “You are? That’s great!”
I smile into the camera at his response. I know I’m in for an immense fight, and I eagerly nod as the weight of my declaration sets in more. “Yep. I am. I can’t wait. It’s been way too long.”
Drake asks, “Did someone dare you to jump?”
“You could say that.” Indirectly dared me, I suppose.
“Can you tell us who?”
Keep smiling. That person just might be watching. “Uh, I’d rather not this time.” Drake says something else, but my mind buzzes. When I’m cleared, I switch off my mic and exchange a few more trivial things about white water rafting with Rory. We then shake hands, and I work on removing the mic attached to my clothes.
“Are you serious, Finn?” Milo skeptically asks.
Not looking up as I work on the wire, I reply with my own question, “Serious about what?”
I warily glance up at him and shrug as I unclip the pack. “Yeah. Why not?”
“Because I practically had a coronary!” He then deliberately pats my chest, over my tattoo. “And because of that.”
I arch my eyebrow. “So?” As I hand the mic off to Kyle, I observe people milling around the park as the crew packs up. There are some curious onlookers, but nobody approaches us, which is good because I’m not in a sociable mood. I reach into my polo pocket and pull out my sunglasses, deciding to put them on just in case, not that I’m staying long anyway.
Milo says, “You said you wouldn’t be jumping from it again because someone asked you not to.”
I mumble, “Things change.” He follows me as I walk to the cooler to grab a bottle of water. Something harder will have to wait until later at my apartment.
“Oh, no, Finn,” Milo gloomily deduces from my disposition. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Snapping open the bottle lid, I say, “Not particularly.” I take a swig to escape his penetrating stare that even my sunglasses can’t thwart. Still feeling it, I curtly shrug to cast it off that way. “There’s nothing to tell.”
Milo puts his hand on my shoulder, and I reflexively look at him. He asks, “Why don’t we grab some beers?” Beer won’t do. I need to get plastered hard and fast, just like last night.
I pivot and dodge his concerned face again. “No, thanks. I have plans. I need to get going.”
“Okay. Well, let me know if you change your mind.”
“Yeah, sure,” I evasively agree, twisting the cap onto my water. “See you later.” I brush past a few people and stride to my car. Today was supposed to be my day off, spending it in Kentucky with Becks, but after that fucking letdown, I picked up interviews for this week, needing to keep my mind busy, and as tempting as it is, drinking the entire day away is counterproductive. I need to be sober long enough to get some shit done and not lose my job. But I sneak a few sips to loosen up before going live on air.
As I walk, I yank my phone out of my jeans and call Ricky. When he answers, I spout, “We still on?”
“Yeah, man. You sure?”
“Yep. Pick me up in twenty. My place.” I hang up and unlock my car.
There are twelve of us in line. Ahead of me, Ricky is next, but before he can go, I cut in front of him and leap out of the C90 Super King Air. The blast of air encompassing every molecule of my body cushions me like an inflatable raft in the incredibly choppy water. This is the best cure for all my woes. The only thing I think about is the speed whooshing around and through me, while the air exploding in my ears submerges the incessant thoughts. The adrenaline coursing through my blood gives me the ecstasy I need.
Yes. I’ve been skydiving again. And yes, as accused, I’ve been diving for a while. I tried giving it up, and I did for seven months. But with the building guilt taking ahold of my life and the stress from recent events, I’ve done what many other recovering addicts have done. I relapsed. I needed a hit. It’s six to eight minutes of pure bliss.
Damn it. Bliss.
Ricky and I started small, maybe once a month, but then we increased it. I had to be careful because too many absences on the weekend draw too much attention.
This is one of my favorite feelings in the world, to jump out of a plane at 13,500 feet, watching the world beneath me as I free-fall at one hundred and twenty miles per hour, which is the terminal velocity of a human being. I sense God up here.
Still, the New River Gorge Bridge further ups the ante. Although it’s only an eight hundred and seventy-six-foot plunge, BASE jumping is far riskier than skydiving. You have to be lightning quick with the chute since the fall is shorter. There are zero margins for error, or you’re dead. Goodbye, cruel world. And since the descent is quicker, many jumpers, including myself, rarely pack a reserve parachute. There’s no use for one. By the time I’d notice there’s a problem with the main canopy, it’d be too late. The adrenaline is an in-your-face punch. There aren’t many places to legally jump from because it’s so dangerous. That’s why when I gave up New River, it was a blow. I used to look forward to that third Saturday in October like it was Christmas morning. I missed two years of BASE jumping.
Well, now I’m back.
After about sixty seconds of free-fall and at 2,500 feet, I pull the pilot chute, which drags out the main canopy, and I’m jolted up as the powerful updrafts catch, filling the rectangular chute. I look up to check to see it inflated enough and pull on the toggles connected to the lines to steer myself to the open field below, knowing Ricky is close behind. If my chute ever failed to open, my automatic activation device, or AAD, which is a little computer attached to me, would automatically deploy my reserve chute at seven hundred and fifty feet, if I fail to before then.
I land with low impact as if I just stepped over a hole in the ground. Listening to Ricky whooping behind me, I grin and release the canopy from the container on my back, savoring my high that will last for a little while, yet not long enough.
Amongst other fellow divers landing, I hear Ricky yelling, “Real smooth, Wilder! You’re going to pay for that!”
Taking off my pack, I taunt, “Yeah. I’m so scared, officer!”
“Rematch, you dick!”
My grin is unwavering. “You’re on, slowpoke!”
I grab the bottle of Jack to fill our glasses, sloshing some on the coffee table.
Ricky doesn’t move to grab his glass but gawks at me. He says, “You know. We could’ve gone to a bar.”
“Nope. I’m good here. I’d rather no one bother me.”
“Yeah, but you don’t usually get wasted in public. Well, except for last month…” I glower at Ricky, slashing him with a hard glare, hoping he’ll just shut his damn mouth. Succeeding, he takes a deep breath and changes topics. “So, when are you telling me what happened?” Unfortunately, it’s another topic I don’t want to discuss.
“I already told you.” I look up at the living room clock for a distraction, but it only reminds me of where I would be right now had things gone differently yesterday.
“No, you didn’t. You showed up at my door at 10:30 Tuesday night after you came home from your trip. I asked you what was wrong, and you told me about Kentucky being screwed. That’s all you said before you raided my bar and got too trashed to care. I had to pry you up off the floor at 1:30.” His disapproval irks me, and I look back to my drink. “It’s obvious you need to talk, man.”
I raise my drink to my mouth, and over the lip of the glass, I say, “I’m good.” He whacks my arm, which jostles me, splashing JD down my chin. Holding the glass away, I angrily swipe at the dribbling drops of whiskey. “What the fuck, Ricky?”
“You’re fucking blowing me off?”
Reaching to the table, I lift the bottle. “I have my buddy, Jack, here.” I pour more into my glass, and he groans.
“Then why am I even here?”
Before I take another sip, I shrug. “Shit, you got me.”
Ricky clasps his hands together, abnormally bothered, that I hesitate for a few seconds before taking a drink. “Why’d you do that very public confessional earlier?” I don’t answer him as I stare at the Jack Daniels label. “So, you’re jumping New River with me again?”
Swallowing, I inhale inside my glass and reply with an echoed, “Yep.”
The cop in him surfaces, and he sticks to the facts. “And you announced it on the air.”
I lower my glass and repeat, “Yep.”
“That was a little…” I smirk at his uncertainty because it’s unlike audacious Ricky Tesco.
He quickly shakes his head. “Stupid.”
“It was a shitty thing to do.”
“Kiss my ass, officer.” I take another swig as he sets his drink down on the table.
“Why’d you announce it like that?”
He watches me as I lean back against the couch, bestowing him a challenging glare. “I don’t need anyone’s permission.”
Ricky puts his leg up on the couch and shifts to face me. “If you didn’t tell Hadley, why didn’t you tell me?”
My eyes fall to my lap, where my drink sits. “It was a last-minute decision. I want to jump again.” That’s the truth.
“Stop bullshitting me!” he yells, making me glance from my drink, halfway to my mouth. He sighs. “Look, I know you’re scared—”
I drop my hand, pulling my glass away. My voice is as hard as steel. “Scared? Nope.”
“Finn, come on, man. You don’t have to put up a front with me.”
Annoyed he knows me so well, I mutter, “I’m great.” He’s deliberately working my temper. I rub my hand over my mouth in frustration as I use the other to swirl the golden liquid around in my glass.
“You two need to really talk. Maybe you should see a—”
His continuing insistence triumphs in rousing me. I drop my hand and fling my head in his direction, growling through gritted teeth, “Could you just shut the fuck up? Shit, Ricky! Go home!” Closing my eyes, I lay my head against the couch as I listen to the clock ticking in tune with Ricky’s grating breaths.
After a minute of silence, Ricky says, “You’re incredible.”
With my eyes still closed, I lazily grin. “That’s what I hear from all the ladies.”
“All the ladies. Uh-huh. You don’t want all the ladies. Did you buy the ring yet?”
My eyes fly open, and I swiftly sit up to slam my empty glass down on the table. “Shit, this damn question? From you now? What’s with the interrogation? No! I did not buy a ring, and I will not buy a ring. Drop it.”
With his arm resting on the back of the couch, he sighs. “Just get it over with. You said you were proposing to her last week. So, do it already! You’re making it so much harder than it has to be. If I can do it, so can you.”
I pour more Jack with a chuckle. “Yeah. You’ve done it twice so far. Thanks for the pep talk. You’re a paragon of virtue.”
He gripes, “Hey, everyone makes mistakes.”
I motion to his glass with the hand holding my own drink. “And I think I did by giving you my JD. Your grandma drinks more than that.”
“True, but I’m not in a drinking mood tonight.”
“Well, you’re no fun, Tesco.” I shrug and take his glass. “More for me.”
“You are not okay.”
“I’m quite okay, Richmond.”
“Finn, you’re worrying me.”
I take a few gulps from his glass. Setting it down, I playfully lean over him, getting close to his face. “You are so fucking cute when you’re all concerned and shit. Is this your police officer face? Do you give it to lost children before you hand them a lollipop and let them wear your hat?” I snicker at his frown, and he irritably pushes me away, which is even funnier.
“For the past month, you’ve been drowning your sorrows. It’s not good, man.”
I roll my eyes, which makes the room tilt. “It’s all good. I’m just chilling out.” I finish off his drink with a satisfied sigh. Putting the glass down, I grab the bottle for a refill, draining the rest of it.
“No, it’s more than that. You act like it’s over with Hadley. Is it?” Grinding my teeth, I struggle with answering that question because I don’t know the answer. Understanding my weighty silence, he asks, “Did you at least call her last night?”
“I was busy.”
“Oh. I forgot. You and Jim Beam.”
“Huh-uh. The Captain entertained me last night.”
“Did Hadley call you?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t talk to her.”
“Why are you blowing this up into something bigger than it is?”
Sighing, I pick the empty bottle up and shake it at him. “That I’m out of Jack. There’s a liquor store down the road. Can you go pick me up some?”
“You’re cut off.”
“No way! This was my last bottle, and I don’t even have a good buzz going!”
His judgmental gaze treks over me. “You’re already drunk, Finn.”
I shove his arm. “Well, then I can’t drive. Aren’t you supposed to be a public servant? Serve me!”
He snatches the bottle out of my hand and roughly deposits it on the table. “This doesn’t fall into that realm.”
“Okay. You’re my best friend. It falls into that one. Now get me more booze.”
He firmly states, “Finn, you can’t depend on liquor to get you through shit.”
I suddenly laugh. “Liquor. That’s a funny word. Lick her.”
“I’m fucking serious, Wilder!”
I shrug as I pick up the last of my JD and look into my glass. The answers have to be somewhere at the bottom. “What’s it matter? Nobody cares.” Ricky tries to steal my drink, but I move out of his reach in time. See? Not that drunk.
He punches the back of the couch and shouts, “I care, you asshole! And you know very well who else does, so don’t give me that damn shit!”
I cock an eyebrow as I gape at the blue cushion he just assaulted. “Whoa, officer. This sofa could accuse you of police brutality.” Returning my attention to my glass, I mutter, “Just let it go. I want to be alone.”
Losing my own patience with him, I pound my fist on my leg in frustration. “I don’t want to talk, think, or even dream about it!” Returning to my drink, I tip the glass, still feeling his inquisitive police-officer search of my thoughts, infringing upon my right to remain silent.
Ricky is quieter when he says, “I know you’re about to lose it, man. You’re barely holding it together. That’s why I’m here.”
I keep my eyes on my glass. “I’m not. I’m feeling better.”
As I take another drink, he leans closer to me, and I tightly swallow the JD as he says, “I’m like a fucking lie detector. I know when you’re lying. I hear your heart breaking. What for? A friend was in need—one of your ballplayers! That’s all!”
I close my eyes, wishing Ricky would become a mute. “Shut up, Tesco.”
He pushes my leg. “I know! Maybe you’ll talk to Mommy.”
I angrily face him. “Fuck, no! She doesn’t need to know shit!”
He sits back, which is probably wise to put distance between us when he asks, “Do you think Hadley is having an affair with him?”
I finish my burning gulp before I testily shout, “Fuck, Ricky! I told you to shut the hell up!” Slamming my glass down, I hang my head over my legs as my head spins.
He doesn’t let up, carving into my soul. “I don’t believe for a second Hadley would cheat on you, so why do you?”
Resting my elbows on my legs, I thrust my hands into my hair. “I’m not good enough for her! I’m nothing but a waffling asshole full of fluffed promises! She deserves better than me! Fuck! It’s not just the possibility of her cheating! She’ll give up and leave me!” I turn my bent head to look up at him. “Okay? Happy? Now get me more damn booze or go home!”
“Why are you so fucking insecure? That’s not the Finn Wilder I know.”
Dropping my head, at the floor, I angrily snap, “Really, Ricky? Really? Have you visited my life lately? She’s been pressuring me to change my mind!”
“You’re working through your issues. You’re getting there.”
“No, I’m not! Every time I feel like I’m getting closer, I get yanked back like I’m on a bungee cord.” What I told Becks on Sunday when she was asleep echoes in my head: “Baby, please forgive me for not being the man you need. I’m trying. I’m getting closer, but I’m not there yet. I want to give you everything you want. It would undoubtedly kill me if you found someone else. When I’m ready, I want to marry you. I love you to the stars, Becks Wilder.”
When will I ever be ready? And if I never will be, will she really accept that?
Knowing the answer, I reach over to pour the rest of the Jack into my glass, forgetting I already finished it. Frustrated I’m now boozeless, I shove the bottle across the table with a loud clatter until it falls onto the floor.
Ricky looks from the coffee table to me and takes a deep breath. “What else?”
“What else, what?” My head hurts from asking that. I lean my forehead into the palm of my hand and close my eyes.
“Do you think Hadley saw your broadcast this afternoon?”
I tiredly sigh and scratch my forehead. “I don’t know. She hasn’t called. She may have watched it online. I’m sure Morgan couldn’t call her fast enough. Fuck. Hadley’s already mad at me. She heard us talking about skydiving.”
“Holy shit, Finn. She knows?”
I nod at the floor. “Yeah.”
“I told you to tell her what we were doing months ago! Then, you fucking announce on live air you’re BASE jumping again? That has to be the dirtiest and most idiotic thing I’ve seen you do.”
I lift my head to shoot him a shitty look. “Fuck you, Ricky.”
“It’s the truth. You shouldn’t have done that, man, and that’s coming from me, a total dick.”
“I don’t blame her for being pissed off at you. She probably already heard about it.”
Rubbing the nape of my neck, I crabbily demand, “Why are you still here?”
Not answering my question, he instead asks, “What about Saturday? Are you coaching the game now since you’re here?”
I sit up and shrug. “I don’t know. I haven’t decided. You’re quite capable.”
“You need to be there. Not just for the team, but for–”
“I’m grabbing a shower.” I stand and unsteadily walk to the hallway, imparting, “You’re welcome to go home.”
“Gee, thanks. I love you, too.”
Friday, I gather some more interviews. It’s best to keep busy. If I don’t, I think, and thinking is not an option.
“Hey, there, stranger.”
Without glancing up from the files in the cabinet drawer, I banally say, “Hey, Cara. What do you want?” Nope. Not in the mood for stupid chitchat.
“Yep.” I slam the filing cabinet door shut and read through a folder, wishing she’d leave my hangover and me alone.
“You look like you had a rough night.”
I unenthusiastically look up at Cara. She’s wearing a tight, black blouse with two opened buttons. She’s pushing the office dress etiquette.
Peering back down to the paper I’m reading, I halfheartedly shrug. “It was rougher than I had wanted.” While I was in the shower, my good friend Officer Tesco took my last bit of vodka and all my beer. Every damn bottle. That fucker will beg to jump out of the plane later without a parachute when I’m done with him.
“I thought Finn Wilder liked it rough?” I look up from my folder and see her biting the corner of her lip as she smiles.
I narrow my eyes at her. “Who told you that?”
“Your legions of fans.” She grins, and her eyes wander over me. Is Ricky right about her having a thing for me?
I roll my eyes. “Like they would know something like that.”
Cara moves closer, and her perfume hangs over me. “They know what you’re like with all the dangerous stunts.”
“That’s all they know.”
“Why? Is there more to Finn Wilder than meets the eye?” I really don’t have time for this.
I impatiently ask, “Is there something you wanted?”
She perks up. “Did you have lunch?”
I shake my head and return to my folder. “Not hungry.”
She touches my arm, and I jerk my head up and glance down at her hand before I look at her face again. Smiling, she says, “Let’s get out of here. We can get coffee, and you can help me with tomorrow’s game plan.”
“Game plan? It’s not football. You have a batting roster and assigned positions. Not hard.”
“Please? Maybe you can look at my resume? Let me know what I have to change?”
I suppose I need to focus on the team. Sighing, I throw the folder down on my desk. “Why not, I guess? I can’t be gone long. I have shit to do. I’ll drive.”
She grins. “Okay.”
I pay for our coffees and walk over to sit down next to Cara on the corner loveseat near the fireplace.
“I love it here,” she comments as she takes her Styrofoam cup from my hand.
“I’ve been here once or twice,” I reply, trying to be affable and not a prick, but I just don’t have the initiative to care today.
She sips her cappuccino. “I thought you wouldn’t be in Richmond. Didn’t you have a trip or something?”
“Change of plans.” I take a sip of my coffee and hope she’s not delving any deeper. Thankfully, the place is nearly empty, but I still don’t want to be here.
“Will you be at the game tomorrow now?” At least it’s a reasonably safe question.
“I haven’t decided.”
She opens a folder, and the sound of paper rustling draws my attention back to her. She hands me one. “I brought the roster with me. Is there a trick to this?”
I shrug, and she leans against me to show me the list. Looking down at the roster, I point to it. “You want to put some of your best batters first to get a leg-up on the opponent, but also not leave yourself with a trail of weak ones, either. I know this isn’t a major or minor league team, but we still have some good hitters.” I take the paper and put it on the coffee table to start rewriting it, moving Cara with me. “The first batter should be Gloria since she’ll have the pitcher throw a few. That’ll give us a chance to see how the pitcher is throwing. Second, should be Brandon since he’ll at least get to second base. Grant needs to bat third since he’s our best hitter.”
“He is? I thought—”
“Grant is our best. After watching him during practice, he’s our most consistent batter. We can rely on him for some RBIs, at least. Fourth, is cleanup. That’s reserved for the batter who can hit the home runs, our most powerful hitter.”
“That would be—”
“I guess he’s hit a few.”
“He has. With bases loaded, he can hit a homer and send everyone in, including himself.”
“I didn’t know there was a batting strategy.”
I nod as I scribble numbers with small notes next to their names. “There is.”
“So, what about everyone else?”
I place the list on her folder. “Just have them follow, whichever way you want. The cycle will eventually repeat if you can hold off the outs.”
“You’re so smart!”
I chuckle and pick up my coffee. “It’s softball, not brain surgery.”
Leaning against me again, she brushes her hand on my knee. “Still, smart is sexy.”
I shrug. “That’s what I hear.” Not sexy enough, apparently.
“Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?”
I inhale, and before taking a drink, I ask, “Why’s everyone asking me that?”
“Because there’s something on your mind.”
“Nope. Just softball.”
“How are things with Ha—”
I sharply look at her. “Don’t.” The pain creeps over me, and I grind my teeth to push through it. Damn it.
Cara offers a sympathetic smile at my brooding. “Oh, I see. Are things that bad between the two of you?”
Resting my elbows on my legs, I stare at the light-colored-wood laminate floor. “I… I don’t… I can’t.” I shake my head to finish that thought. Yes. It’s been two days since I’ve talked to my girlfriend. I’m just waiting with bated breath for the ax to fall, ripping my heart out and ending my life.
“I’m so sorry. What happened? Was it because of—”
“I can’t talk about it.” I restlessly furrow my hand into my hair and shakily sigh. It’s killing me not to talk to Becks and knowing she’s with a man who’s in love with her, too. I’m drowning here, and there’s no life preserver in sight.
She pats my knee. “Why not?”
With my forehead on my hand, I quietly mutter, “Because it hurts too damn much.” Fuck. In my mind, I can see them holding hands, kissing… Shit. I can’t do this.
“Finn, it’s okay. You have friends who care about you.”
I drop my hand and watch two people leave. I can’t lose it here. People might recognize me, and I’ll end up a top story at every water cooler in the Richmond viewing area. I impassively watch as an employee drags out a mop, taking it behind the huge potted plants dividing the small tables from the rest of the seating area, situated at the massive fireplace.
Cara says, “I don’t want you to be alone. I’m here if you want to talk.”
I blink out of my stupor and again shake my head. “Thanks, but I don’t.”
“Okay.” Leaning forward, she takes a paper from the folder on the table, brushing her tit on my arm. Feeling awkward, I move out of the way, and she glances at me with a smile. When she sits back, she says, “Well, here’s my resume if you want to look at it.”
She hands me the paper, and I examine it, but not really concentrating. Nevertheless, I need to before my mind wanders to other things. As I get to the middle of the page, I notice a word that makes me unexpectedly laugh. “Urine?”
She laughs. “I cleaned it up when I worked at that place!”
I laugh again, and it feels good. “You can’t put that on a resume, Cara.”
“I’ll change it.” I keep reading but stop to chuckle about it every other sentence.
Casually, she puts her hand back on my knee but then slides it up to my thigh. An alarm sounds in my head, stopping me, yet I don’t stop her. I’m not the one who ran off with… It feels nice to be consoled, even if it’s not the woman I want.
I clear my throat. “I don’t see anything else that stands out.” I lay the resume down on the coffee table, and her fingers squeeze my leg. Why does her touch feel good right now? I’ve never wanted her to touch me before.
Taking a deep breath, I peer at the coffee table and the counter, unsure of what to do. Part of me wants to jump up and drive straight to wherever the hell Becks is. While the other part of me just wants to shut everything and everyone out so I can wallow in my own madness alone.
She says, “That’s a relief.” I reluctantly glance at her, and she smiles as she strangely studies my face.
“Yeah. Just that one fix.” I chuckle again, thinking about what she had on there. Her blue eyes sparkle from a combination of the overhead lighting, and the sunlight coming in through the plate glass window next to us. Before I look away, she unexpectedly leans in and kisses me. At first, my mind goes blank like it does when I dive, but then the one thing I can’t stop thinking about floods my mind and the pain rages through me.
Do I kiss her back?
What if the pain doesn’t go away?
What if it does?