What started out as a bit of research for a sociology paper quickly turns into much more than Cindy ever expected. But can she survive Danny’s PTSD long enough to form a relationship with him?
Cindy Waymire, a college senior in search for a topic for an upcoming sociology paper, finds more than a topic when she meets Army veteran and college freshman Danny Flynn outside the student union. An undeniable attraction to this troubled veteran leads her on a difficult and winding path that brings her to a crossroads — get into a relationship with a man who has serious mental health problems or turn her back on one of the best men she’s ever met.
Can Cindy set her fears aside and follow her heart, or will the ghosts haunting Danny’s mind end their relationship before it begins?
The late August heat wrapped around Cindy Waymire like a thick blanket as she walked toward Whitcomb University’s student union. As much as she loved New Castle, days like this made her wish she lived in Yellow Knife. The guy standing on the sidewalk just ahead, however, made her thankful she was in Indiana.
A dark-haired guy with an athletic build, not more than an inch or two taller than her height of five foot nine, stood scanning the area as though he was lost. Clean-shaven, with just a hint of a five o’clock shadow along his jaw, he wore a T-shirt and jeans, both fitting just tight enough to hint at lean muscles. Cindy considered taking a candid photo and sending it to her girlfriends, but her cell phone was in her purse and digging it out would be too obvious. Maybe she could find another way to share this cutie with them.
His actions reminded her of her own during her first semester there. She’d had to ask someone where to find buildings so many times. Without those sympathetic upperclassmen, she would have been perpetually lost.
If he was a new student, that made her the sympathetic upperclassman. She stopped near him and smiled. “Hi, can I help you find someplace?”
He didn’t seem to hear her. She moved closer, thinking he might not realize she was talking to him. “Excuse me.”
He twisted and grabbed her wrist with startling speed. She screamed as he spun her around, bringing her arm behind her and forcing her to the ground as he said something unintelligible, but undeniably commanding. As he put a knee on her back and pulled her other arm, she heard people running toward them and prayed they could help. The guy was strong and no amount of struggling did any good. He just tightened his grasp on her wrists and applied more pressure with his knee, making it difficult for her to draw in a breath.
“Danny, let her up!” a male voice said as the running steps stopped beside them.
“He’s a threat.”
He? Before Cindy could figure out what the guy was talking about, she felt some of his weight lift from her back.
“She’s a noncombatant, Sarge,” a third male voice said.
The grip on her wrists loosened. “What?”
“You’re in the States, man.”
“Crap!” He released her wrists, and his weight lifted from her completely.
She scrambled to her feet, grateful she could breathe easily again. Turning around, she found two guys flanking the one who had attacked her.
“Are you okay?” the one on the left asked, his brow furrowed.
She drew in a shaky breath and tried to calm her racing pulse. “Um, yeah, I think so. Thank you for rescuing me.”
The guy in the middle looked so remorseful that she couldn’t help a bit of sympathy as he spoke quietly in a pained tone.
“I am so sorry. I didn’t realize what I was doing. Are you sure I didn’t hurt you?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.” Her wrist was starting to ache where he’d held it, but the way he hung his head made her hesitant to admit it. From the look of him, he didn’t need any more guilt. She noticed the two guys on either side of him looked unusually concerned when they glanced at him. Were they worried she’d file charges against him, or was it something more? “Are you okay?”
He dropped his gaze.
The first rescuer nodded toward the student union.
The other guy touched her attacker’s arm, and they walked to the building.
Cindy watched them go, and then returned her attention to the remaining rescuer.
“Danny’ll be okay,” he said, moving closer.
“He had a flashback. By the way, I’m Josh Teague.”
“Cindy Waymire.” She rubbed her wrist. “What did he flash back to?”
“Probably Iraq. He just got back from his third tour about a year ago.” He motioned to the wrist she still gently massaged. “Are you sure he didn’t hurt you?”
She stilled her fingers. “It just aches.”
“Let’s go inside where there’s better light. I’ll take a look at your wrist.”
“Are you pre-med?” she asked.
“Nope. I’m a former army medic.”
Cindy raised her eyebrows as he held the door open. “What is this, Military Day at the student union?”
“No, the student veterans’ group is meeting here in a little bit.”
“I didn’t even know there was such a thing.” In the bright light of the student union, she got her first good look at Josh. He had short blond hair, hazel eyes, and looked remarkably familiar. “Are we in a class together?”
He led her out of the way of a student heading outside and studied her. “I don’t think so. Why?”
“You look familiar.” After three years at the university, nearly everyone on campus looked vaguely familiar. “Maybe I’ve just seen you around.”
“It’s possible. Now, let me see your wrist.”
She held it out, and he gently examined it. Despite a little redness from Danny’s strong grasp, there wasn’t any excruciating pain as Josh probed and flexed the joint.
Finally, he released her. “I think you have a mild sprain. I can get something to wrap it with to help with the ache, or I can walk you to the medical center so you can get it looked at by a doctor. What would you prefer?”
“I think I’d prefer to know why you’re so worried about taking care of me.”
“I’m hoping I can convince you not to call the campus police on Danny. He meant it when he said he didn’t know what he was doing. When a flashback happens, the real world disappears and he sees what happened in the past. It’s like he’s there all over again.”
“And I happened to take the place of a bad guy?”
“Yeah, it kind of looks that way.” Josh studied her, a glimmer of pleading in his eyes. “So, are you going to take pity on him and not report him to the police?”
Should she call the campus police or not? The university would want a report of the incident, but Danny hadn’t attacked her with any malicious intent. She was fairly certain he hadn’t even realized she was female. And he’d apologized and seemed to feel true remorse. After a little more deliberation, she felt peace about her decision. “I won’t report him, but I do want to talk to him. I have an insatiable curiosity for what makes people tick.”
“You probably don’t want to know what caused him to suffer from flashbacks.” Doubt filled Josh’s face.
“Actually, I do.” She made a quick decision. “I have to write a paper for my sociology class, and I’d like to write it on what it’s like for soldiers coming home and trying to adjust to life after the military.”
“That sounds more like something you’d write for psychology.”
“No, my professor has pointed out how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan affect everyone more than we realize, and I think he’d be interested in finding out how veterans handle coming here while trying to recover from being deployed.”
“Recover… that’s an interesting word to use.”
She shrugged off a flutter of nerves. “Maybe, but it makes sense to someone who’s never been involved with the military and doesn’t know anyone in it. Going by what they show on the news and the psychiatrists who get interviewed occasionally, everyone who serves in Iraq or Afghanistan has to recover at least a little before life is normal.”
Josh searched her face. Finally, he gave a single nod. “I know where you can find a group of veterans who can help with your paper. But first, you need to take care of your wrist.”
“Would it be too much trouble for you to wrap it? I’d rather not deal with the medical center.”
“I’d be happy to do it.” He slid his backpack from his shoulders and dug inside it, coming up with a chemical ice pack. After squeezing it a couple of times, he handed it to her and slung the pack over his shoulder. “Put that on your wrist. It’ll help with the ache and any swelling. Come with me to the meeting room, and I’ll wrap your wrist. That should give the ice long enough to do its job.”
Cindy pressed the plastic pack to her wrist, and the chill spread, numbing the ache. Although curiosity rose, she wasn’t comfortable asking why he carried an ice pack.
“Are you busy this evening?” He gave her a questioning look.
“Not really. Why?”
He wasn’t going to ask her out, was he?
“You can hang out with the veterans’ group and maybe get what you need for your paper. So far this year we only have combat veterans, but there were a couple of guys last year who never left the States during their enlistments. They may come back at some point. Anyway, we’re usually out of here by nine, although sometimes we go somewhere else and hang out for a while after the meeting.”
“Will anyone mind me being there?”
“It’ll be fine. I’m sure they’ll be interested in helping you with your paper, too.”
Cindy followed him into a meeting room with half a dozen men in their mid-twenties to early thirties sprawled in chairs at round tables. She spotted Danny off to one side, talking to her other rescuer and an older man.
Josh led her to a black guy with glasses. “Hey, Corbin, you got a roll of self-adhering elastic bandage on you?”
Cindy glanced at Josh, her mind on high speed. She’d expected him to go to the tiny general store on the first floor to get something to wrap her wrist, not ask a friend for it. What kind of guys carried first aid supplies with them?
“Yeah,” he said, his gaze sliding to Cindy. “Who’s your friend?”
Corbin reached into the backpack lying on the floor and pulled out a rolled, light brown bandage. “Here you go.”
“Thanks, man. I’ll bring this back in a couple of minutes.” Josh led Cindy to an empty table and had her sit down. He dropped into the chair beside her, and then loosened the end of the bandage. “Give me your wrist.”
She held out her arm.
The fluid movements of his fingers indicated he’d had a lot of practice. When he finished, he tore the material and gently pressed to make sure the bandage was secure.
“How does that feel?”
She flexed her fingers. There was enough support to prevent most of the discomfort. “Much better.”
“Good. Keep the ice on your wrist for a few more minutes. I’ll be right back.” He carried the remaining bandage over to Corbin.
A tingle of awareness lifted the hair on the back of her neck, and she glanced around, certain someone was watching her.
Danny looked even more contrite than the last time she’d seen him — something she wouldn’t have believed possible if she weren’t seeing it. He must have noticed Josh wrapping her wrist. He said something to the guys he was talking to, and then he walked over to her.
“Mind if I sit down?” Danny asked quietly.
“Go ahead.” She gave him a friendly smile and waved her hand at the chair Josh had vacated.
He lowered himself into the chair, his gaze on her bandaged wrist. “I thought you said you were okay.”
“I am.” She spoke gently. “It’s just a minor sprain, and it doesn’t hurt at all now.”
He glanced toward Josh and Corbin, who were talking a few tables away. “Did he tell you what happened?”
“He said you had a flashback and probably didn’t even realize I was there.”
“Would you believe I didn’t realize you were American until Alex told me you were a noncombatant?”
“Who did you think I was?”
“Doesn’t matter.” Danny shook his head and looked away. “The point is, I’m sorry. Most of the time I’m fine, but sometimes stress will get to me or something will trigger a memory and I relive some stuff.”
“Can anything be done to keep you from reliving it like that?”
“Therapy, time, maybe medication. I’ll know for sure if they ever figure out what works for me.” The vulnerability in his gray eyes made Cindy want to give him a hug. “I hope you don’t think I’m crazy. I’m not. I’ve just seen a lot of stuff, and I’m still trying to deal with it.”
“Josh said you did three tours in Iraq.”
“Actually, only the last two were in Iraq. I was in Afghanistan for the first.”
“I can’t imagine doing even one tour in either place.”
“It’s what I trained for.” He glanced around the room. “It’s what we all trained for. It was our job to go over there and fight for our country.”
She studied him for a moment, sensing his pride as a veteran, and her curiosity prompted her to ask another question. “Would you go back?”
He met her gaze and, for the first time, she saw strength and determination in it. “If they asked me, I’d go back right now. The job’s not finished yet.”
Josh stepped up in front of the group. “I’m glad you all came tonight. Before we take care of business, I’d like to introduce a visitor. Cindy, come up here for a minute.”
Why hadn’t he warned her he planned to bring her in front of the entire group? She’d thought he’d introduce her to a few veterans after the meeting. Fighting back a flutter of nerves, she set the ice pack on the table and joined him, noting the curious expressions. She prayed they didn’t think she was intruding.
“This is Cindy Waymire. She’s writing a paper on veterans going to college while adjusting to life after the military, and she would like to spend a little time with us as part of her research. All in favor of helping her?” Josh paused, and four hands lifted. After some hesitation and an exchanged glance, the other two guys raised their hands as well. Josh turned to her with a smile. “You have your guinea pigs. You can sit down now.”
She returned to her seat beside Danny, relieved they were going to help her. She’d been a little afraid they might feel insulted by being the subject of a paper.
“Now, I’ve been contacted by several local organizations and professors who want someone to come speak,” Josh said, picking up a piece of paper. “Anybody up for telling groups about the military?”
Cindy looked around the room as Josh paired volunteers with speaking engagements. With their apparent willingness to talk about life in the military, it wasn’t surprising they’d voted unanimously to help with her paper.
The older man nodded slightly as he watched the proceedings with an approving smile.
Danny leaned close. “That’s Dr. Logan. He’s our faculty advisor and a Vietnam veteran who went to college straight out of the army.”
She nodded as Josh moved the meeting on to their upcoming fundraiser: a dinner to help raise money to send care packages to those still serving overseas. Cindy remembered seeing the donation jars and boxes for the military for the three years she’d been a student here. Had these guys been recipients of any of the cards she and her girlfriends had donated?
Once the meeting adjourned, several of the veterans introduced themselves to Cindy, including Alex Dugan, her other rescuer. Alex invited her to join him and a few others for coffee.
Although her heart pounded at the thought of going anywhere with this many strange men, she set her nervousness aside and accepted the invitation. It would give her a chance to gather information for her paper. Besides, going out for coffee meant they’d be in a public place. She would be safe enough there.
These guys had all been through things she’d never be able to understand, and though they seemed willing to talk to her about their experiences, she worried it might bring up unpleasant memories for them as it had with Danny. She prayed the evening would be a positive experience for everyone.
As the group headed out of the student union, Cindy walked between Corbin and Danny. The falling dusk washed out the brilliant colors of the campus’s landscaping. A handful of stars already shone in the darkening sky, visible between trees and buildings. A few pedestrians strolled along the sidewalks, presumably taking advantage of the slightly cooler temperature brought by the arrival of evening.
Corbin lifted his eyebrows and waved his hand toward her bandaged wrist. “So, what did you do that required Josh to wrap you up?”
“Sprained my wrist on my way to the student union.” She didn’t feel right talking about Danny’s flashback, especially with him on her other side.
Corbin chuckled. “That takes talent. How did you do it?”
Danny sighed as he turned to Corbin. “I took her down.”
“One of those moments, huh?”
Danny’s jaw tightened and shadows darkened his eyes. “Fallujah, man. I saw flippin’ Fallujah.”
“Yeah.” Danny glanced at Cindy and dropped his gaze. “I’m not sure you want to use me for your paper. I’m a bit of a freak.”
Corbin slipped behind her to put a hand on Danny’s shoulder. “Hey, we all have our problems.”
“Maybe, but I have more than the rest of you. I just hope I don’t harm anyone else.”
What had Danny been through? Cindy wanted to give him a hug and maybe remove some of the sadness from his eyes, but she’d just met him — a meeting that had made the evening awkward enough already.
“What about Lacey?” Corbin glanced at the group crowding the sidewalk. “Hey, does anyone know where Lacey is tonight?”
“I think she had a date,” Alex said from behind them as the group parted to let a bicyclist through. “She mentioned something about someone named Matt.”
“She skipped out on us for a date?” one of the others asked.
“Hey, at least she’s going out with someone.”
Corbin sobered, the teasing tone vanishing as quickly as it had come. “I hope it goes well for her. She deserves to enjoy herself.”
What could cause him to look and sound so serious about a girl having a date? Cindy looked from Corbin to Danny and back, her curiosity flaring to life. “Who’s Lacey?”
“Our lone female veteran,” Corbin said, his expression lightening. “You should talk to her for your paper. Get the female perspective.”
“That would be cool.” New possibilities for the paper spread out before her.
“You know, I don’t think anyone ever said what your paper is for,” Danny said.
“Oh, I’m writing it for my sociology class. My professor spends a lot of time pointing out how the War on Terror has affected the way we live and the current state of the world. Lately, he’s started talking about the Department of Veterans Affairs and the issues it needs to deal with in order to provide services to the large numbers of veterans created by the war.”
“Who’s your professor?”
“Dr. Brixton.” A warm breeze blew a strand of hair in Cindy’s eyes, and she swatted it away as they turned onto the street leading toward the diner at the edge of campus.
“You’re writing this paper for Brixton?” Alex asked.
“Josh was in the same company as his nephew.”
“I should have remembered that.” She suddenly knew why Josh looked familiar.
“What do you mean?” Corbin asked.
“Dr. Brixton showed us a photo of his nephew and a couple of his friends. Josh was one of the friends.”
“Does he know you’re writing the paper for Brixton?” Alex asked.
Should she have told Josh who her professor was for before he offered to introduce her to the veterans group? “Not unless he knows Brixton teaches sociology. Why?”
“I figure if he knew you were writing it for his buddy’s uncle, he might have decided to stay out of it so no one can accuse Brixton of playing favorites if you get a good grade.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “If I get a good grade? Talk about a blow to my ego.”
The guys laughed as they dodged around a trio of students talking on the sidewalk.
She liked these guys and hoped she could develop friendships. With any luck, she could also meet Lacey. The way Alex and Corbin had talked about her made Cindy curious. Most people would consider it morbid curiosity, but she couldn’t help being interested in the human angle of war and all that went with it. If she could bring that down to a personal level, so much the better.