Thank you all who have been reading and following along. I always appreciate getting feedback. It helps with becoming a better writer and it’s always an ego boost, so feel free to reach out. I will always respond!
The usual spiel: This isn’t a stroke story, (more porn with plot.) Be warned, it’s very long. 33+ chapters, and many sexless ones to come before it gets sexy, which is why it was originally published under novels/novellas, but readers asked for it to be put under gay male due to content, so here we go.
This book is dedicated to all of the brave service members and their families who sacrifice so much every day so that the rest of us can enjoy the liberties that they swear to protect and uphold.
Although references in this novel may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are complete works of fiction. They are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental. In an effort to do the United States Army justice, and to show my respect to my country, I have applied all possible efforts to merge fact and fiction to entertain, while portraying the military, and the hardships and achievements of soldiers, with respect, dignity and accuracy to the best of my abilities. It’s my hope that I’ve done you all justice, and that all of the creative licenses taken with this novel are understood to be the efforts of imagination, and not any judgment or disrespect against the U.S. military. Thank you all for your service.
The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other.
It took me almost an hour to get home. Local bus lines were not kind to those without schedules, and by the time I got inside, I was sweaty and cranky. A dose of horny wasn’t helping, but I triaged the situation by turning up the AC before I ambled into the kitchen. Making a stop at the refrigerator for the cold orange juice I drank right from the container gave me a chance to calm down. My shower and shave afterward made me feel more human, though it was a near thing. A fresh tee shirt and jeans, and a small mountain of aspirin, helped the cause a little more. By the time I walked out of my room again, my wristwatch read half past seven, but the house was still quiet.
Sofia’s door was closed. So was Adelyn’s, though I could hear the faintest hum of music coming from the other side. Emma’s door was open. She had her head buried beneath a small mountain of plushy sentries. The floorboards creaked in soft welcome as I stepped in and gently closed the door behind me.
My niece looked younger in sleep, closer to the toddler of my memories. When she shifted restlessly, the blanket covering her little body slid down, exposing pink pajamas with dancing bears on them. The scent of strawberry shampoo and baby lotion wafted up to me as I leaned in to tuck it back around her bony shoulders. Relaxed and trusting in sleep, Emma pressed back gently against my hand when I swept it over her forehead to push her bangs back.
Ben thought I was stable? Not a chance in hell. But I’d get real good at pretending because there was no way I was going to fail Emma.
I don’t know how long I sat there. Emma was still sleeping when I snuck away. Sofia and Adelyn were nowhere to be seen. Without the hustle and bustle—slamming doors and all—the house felt empty. It was amazing how accustomed I’d become to the chaos.
Since sitting on my hands wasn’t accomplishing much, I relied on my limited repertoire to pull together breakfast for the family. Bacon, eggs and cold cereal were the only three things I could make well, so the fact it was still morning worked in my favor. Lured out by the scent of sizzling pork fat, Emma padded into the kitchen a few minutes after I started. She helped me crack the eggs into the bowl to scramble them, only to opt for cereal once they were plated. I did coax her into a side of bacon though. All hail, Uncle of the Year.
“Emma, where’d you put my purse? I told you to stay out of my stuff.”
Adelyn’s voice floated down from the upstairs, the thump of her footsteps adding angry percussion overhead.
Emma shrugged at me as she swiveled on her stool. I took the piece of bacon she extended, trading it for the marshmallows from my cereal bowl.
“I think I saw you throw your bag in the dining room when you came in yesterday, Addie,” I called out. Adelyn didn’t answer, but I heard her coming down the stairs. A few minutes later, she popped into the kitchen with her bag slung over one slim shoulder.
Today’s outfit was a far cry from the demure black dress Sofia had wrestled her into for Connor’s funeral. A sheer, low necked, white tee shirt and denim shorts—made shorter by the sky high heels on her wooden sandals—were appropriate for the weather, but too hot for my peace of mind.
“Ah, you’re finally back.” buca escort She paused, looking me over. “Have a nice night?”
I should’ve been flattered that she noticed I was gone, but the dark look Adelyn cast my way prompted me to watch my words.
“I’ve had better, but I went for a run with a friend this morning and that helped clear my head a little.” I cleared my throat, trying to keep the focus off of myself. “Are you going somewhere?”
“Let’s hear it for the stellar communication level of teenagers. Where are you going?”
“To the mall,” Emma volunteered. “We’re going shopping for summer clothes. Want to come with us, Uncle Sam?”
Adelyn and I spoke in synchronized discord, eyeing one another over the counter. I ignored her outrage when I spotted the car keys she was looking for and grabbed them first, tucking them into my pocket.
“You’re so not driving me there!” she snarled.
“Why not? You planning on secretly taking your sister to a nightclub? Explains the outfit.”
Adelyn’s cheeks flushed hot pink. “We all dress this way. It’s called cool.”
“Ah.” I nodded. “Lemming syndrome. Gotcha.” I held out my hand to Emma, bending low in a bow that set her giggling. “After you, Madame.”
She bowed back and giggled. “Addie’s dressing up for her booooyfriend,” she sang.
“Shut up, Emma!”
“Watch the language,” I warned. “What boyfriend?”
Adelyn glared at Emma, then turned the hostility back on me. “Jake’s not my boyfriend, just a guy I hang out with sometimes.”
“Mami doesn’t like him,” Emma volunteered. “He smokes.”
“Cigarettes,” Adelyn cut in. “He’s allowed. He’s in college.”
“And he’s dating a sixteen-year-old?” I could feel my eyes narrowing. Sofia had been the same age when she’d had Adelyn, so a college kid’s hormones and my teenage niece didn’t fly with me.
“Chill out, Uncle Sam. He’s a freshman. Just give me the keys.”
Like that was going to happen. “I want to meet this kid.”
“Why not? He’s a good kid right? Only smokes cigarettes? What’s wrong with me saying a friendly hello?” To the potential juvenile delinquent interested in my niece.
“This is bullsh—” Adelyn trailed off when my eyebrow cocked and held.
“Hey, you’re the one that said I wasn’t around enough. This is me being relevant for my niece who needs a ride.” And the boyfriend I wanted to check out.
“I can drive myself.”
“And that would leave your mom and me without a car in case of an emergency since I haven’t gotten a rental yet. Not happening.”
“You’re worried about emergencies after leaving us alone all night? Seriously?” Adelyn snapped.
That stung, but I sucked up the truth. “Growing up lesson number one kiddo; try to learn from the mistakes of others. I need to get some shopping done anyway since I don’t have the simplicity of uniforms to fall back on anymore. Emma and I won’t crowd you and your friends. We’ll grab ice cream or something. Call me on my cell when you’re ready to go home.”
“You’re going for ice cream in the morning?”
I shrugged. “Why not? It’s time for ice cream somewhere in the world.”
I watched for rolling eyeballs as Adelyn huffed her way to the door. “This is retarded. I’m not some little kid you need to drive around.”
“Really? I guess I missed that memo when you stomped your foot like that.”
“Whatever.” The time tested answer for all teen problems was hurled at me with contempt. “I’m going to wait in the car. When we get to the mall you have to drop me off at the corner. I don’t need some soldier guy freaking out my friends.”
I looked down at my faded blue jeans and vintage Bert & Ernie tee shirt—a gift from Emma that couldn’t wait for any specific occasion. God forbid the man with cartoon Muppets on his shirt, his dignity in the toilet, and a hangover that would not quit, be allowed to say hello to impressionable teens.
“I’ll be wielding an ice cream cone and a five-year-old. I highly doubt anyone will run away screaming.”
“Fine. I’m just not going to go!”
“Whoa, slow down. I already told you I’ll give you space. Relax, Addie.”
“I’ll relax when you go back to Afghanistan,” she snapped. “Go kill babies or something.”
I felt the heat rise to my ears, slowly going deaf as my senses were overloaded. Before I could say something I’d regret, Emma’s little voice cut in.
“No!” We both turned as she said it again. Fists curled beneath her chin in small balls. “I want Uncle Sam to stay! Don’t be mean because you’re sad, Addie!”
Adelyn stiffened. “I’m not sad! Dad’s dead because he wasn’t a good person and he”— She pointed at me—”is just like him.”
“Hey,” I protested. “You don’t know the first thing about me, kid. I’m trying to fix that. But if we turn every talk into a fight, that’s never going to happen.”
“I alsancak escort don’t want to talk. I want you to leave.”
“NO!” Emma shouted it this time, a tiny warrior with eyes blazing as she planted herself between her sister and me. “He’s staying, because he promised. Right, Uncle Sam?”
“Right.” I felt Emma’s hand slide into mine, and my voice gained the confidence it had lacked when Ben and I’d been speaking earlier. “I’m staying, Addie, so we’ll both have to learn to deal. Period. The end.”
I expected retaliation, not the trembling of Adelyn’s lower lip. She turned away, but not before I saw her eyes well with tears. I sighed as she stalked out.
“That went well,” I muttered, looking down at Emma, who stood rigid at my side. “What flavor ice cream should we get, Gorgeous? I’ll even spring for a double scoop.”
“Strawberry with sprinkles? Her hopeful look eased some of the tension in my chest, and I gave her a squeeze until she relaxed into my hip.
“Sure. We’ll go big with extra sprinkles. Go get ready. I’m going to let your mom know we’re leaving. Then we’ll see if we can muzzle Addie long enough to get out of the house.”
Emma’s giggle followed me up the stairs as I made my way toward Sofia’s room. Her door was still closed, and after knocking three times, I eased it open slowly, giving her time to call out if she was undressed or in the shower.
I found her sitting up in one of the overstuffed chairs at the window. She didn’t turn when I said her name, too out of it to move quickly enough to get rid of the wine glass in her hand. Less than half full, it was still impossible to hide in the accusatory rays of early morning sunlight.
I knew what I should say. The hands on the clock didn’t even read ten yet, and from the lines of strain written across the pale oval of Sofia’s face, I knew she hadn’t slept much if at all. But I also knew the fate of people stupid enough to throw rocks in glass houses, so I just closed and locked the door behind me in case Emma came looking for us. “Sofia?”
She didn’t turn around. “Father Ben called last night to tell me he’d picked you up.”
“You and I had similar ideas,” I said gesturing to her glass as I inched closer. “Mine didn’t turn out so hot. How are you doing?”
“Not drunk enough to figure that out yet. At least you had company. If you’d stayed with me last night, we could’ve finished this bottle together.”
As tempting as it was to point out that two drunks with underage kids in the house guaranteed a visit from Child Protective Services, I held my tongue.
“Sofia, the girls are already awake. They want to go to the mall. You should come with us.”
She ignored me. “Sam, he’s dead.”
“I know honey. I’m sorry.”
“Are you? Connor never told me what happened between you guys, but I knew it was bad. You two were so close, and you love the girls so much…it had to be something terrible to make you avoid your family.”
“Sofia…” I paused, but she spared me the effort of trying to come up with the right words by turning my way to offer me the picture frame she was holding. The photograph showed Connor, Sofia and me standing on a beach with an endless backdrop of blue sea behind us; a picture taken on the last road trip we’d taken together, before Connor and I’d joined the Army.
“You remember when we took the Camaro to California?”
It wasn’t something I could forget. I’d loved that that car. A 1988 Camaro IROC-Z convertible had been the epitome of cool in my world, even if it had fallen into the category of “a piece of crap,” after years of abuse from previous owners who hadn’t appreciated her. Connor and I enlisted in the Army before we got a chance to restore the car completely, but she’d run well enough to take us cross country after we graduated from high school.
Having that level of freedom after growing up in a house where we were constantly torn down was liberating. There were no worries about an alcoholic father going on an epic bender, or staying up all night with a needy baby girl who was born to parents who were still kids themselves. Sofia’s parents had watched Adelyn while we were gone, and my father couldn’t have cared less about where we were, so it had been just the three of us against the world.
In the particular memory my mind focused on, we were driving with the top down. I remembered looking out at the blue water stretching out for miles, reflecting a flawless sky. Sofia sat in the back seat, wearing a yellow halter-top and oversized sunglasses. Her hair blew like a banner in the breeze as we whipped around rocky corners too fast. She leaned forward between the seats to steal a kiss from Connor as I drove. He winked at me over her head then dragged her petite form over the seats. Sofia squealed, and I cursed as the car swerved a few times before finding the grip of the road again. bornova escort Their laughter echoed in my ears. We were untouchable for the two weeks it took to make the trip out and back. But you always need to come home.
“I remember. Best time of my life.”
The corner of Sofia’s mouth lifted just short of a smile. Her fingertips traced over Connor’s grinning face. “Connor said life over in Afghanistan, doing what he did, was like going 180 miles per hour on the PCH; that endless rush of adrenaline you feel around every turn. He said everything was more real there, and that coming home to the girls and me…” She paused. “Coming home to us…he said it felt like hitting a wall.”
“I tried Sam,” she insisted. “I swear I tried to make things work between us, even after my father got sick, and the girls and I had to move back to Florida. Each time we argued and it got ugly, Connor said he was sorry, that he’d try harder. I believed him. But then he started getting abusive… I hid it as long as I could, but then he went after Addie too.” She looked up at me and the pain in her eyes broke my heart.
“I should’ve protected my daughter, Sam, and instead Adelyn had to defend me. She was just a little girl and she stood there that night and threatened to castrate him…and when Connor just walked away, she sobbed. I haven’t seen her cry since that day. She just shut off.”
“Sofia, I’m so sorry. I swear I didn’t know he was abusing you and Adelyn. If you’d called me, I’d have come back as soon as I could.” Even as I said it, I doubted the truth of my own words. Would I? Or was wounded pride stronger than blood?
“I don’t blame you, Sam. It was Connor’s fault, not yours. Sometimes I feel I didn’t know him at all.”
Sofia leaned back in her chair. Her hand went limp, and I caught the glass before it hit the floor. Her eyes were closed, but I could tell she wasn’t asleep.
Silence lapsed between us. I didn’t mind, because it meant that words didn’t have to be found. Sofia’s soft breathing gave me something to focus on as I smoothed my hand over the silkiness of her hair. To my knowledge, my sister-in-law didn’t know about Connor switching teams. I might’ve followed the unspoken protocol of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but Connor had been an artist at subterfuge. Even I hadn’t suspected he might be gay until I’d found him with Devlin.
I stopped that train of thought before it could derail.
“We were twins, and even I didn’t know everything about him, Sofia. People are complicated.”
“Was whatever happened between you two the reason you stopped coming home?”
I’d known that would come up eventually. Adelyn had raised the question with vitriol, but Sofia’s hesitancy made it more difficult to answer.
Eventually I said, “Yeah, it does. But please don’t ask me why, Sofia. Please.”
I wasn’t prone to begging. Only once in my life had I really pleaded with anyone. I’d been eight at the time, watching my father put my mother’s head through a wall.
For an awful moment I thought Sofia would push. Tension flowed between us. If she asked again, I knew I’d tell her everything. I owed her that much.
When her hand came up to rest along the edge of my jaw, I was sure she could feel my teeth grinding themselves into dust.
“Okay… Just promise that it wasn’t me.”
I shook my head. “It wasn’t you. There wasn’t anything you could’ve done to help Connor. Sometimes we just come back from our tours as different people.”
“I hope so.”
Sofia’s eyes met mine, lips curving slightly, though sadness diminished its usual shine. “I wish he’d just talked to me,” she said softly. “Maybe I’d have understood better than he thought.”
That was all she said, but in that moment I knew she’d known about Connor, or at least suspected. I also knew she’d never make me say it out loud just because I’d asked her not to.
“I’m sorry,” I said. It was weak, but more appropriate words evaded me.
Sofia didn’t fight me when I pulled her forward into my body, settling her head on my chest. I rested my chin on top of it, one hand smoothing down her back. I could make out the outline of every one of her ribs beneath the thin layer of her nightgown, and felt the vibrations running through her slim frame to mine when she started to sob without any sound.
“It’s going to be okay.”
Weak, clichéd nonsense, but there wasn’t much more I could say. My brother had been a complicated man, a shitty husband, and a lousy father. Now he was dead. Making meaningless, soothing noise seemed as good a solution as any.
I waited till Sofia’s breathing evened out and slowed into the steady pace of sleep. When I was sure she was out, I scooped her up and put her back into bed. I snagged the empty bottle of wine on the nightstand, and the second one from the wastebasket. I did a quick tour around the house to make sure there weren’t any other bottles hidden in the spots I’d have put them. Even my flask was tossed into the outside trash. Neither of us needed the temptation.
The one bright side was that our chances were good that Sofia wouldn’t remember any of this later. I could always hope.