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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.

***

Try again, fail again. Fail better.

—Samuel Beckett

As I looked around the crowded mall, I found it difficult to remember I’d volunteered for this circle of hell.

It’d taken longer than I’d expected to get out of the house between Adelyn’s sulking, and Emma’s insistence on getting ready without anyone’s help. We’d arrived at the mall just as it had opened and we still couldn’t get a spot close to the entrance.

People packed every store like they hadn’t gotten the memo that there were still more shopping days left in the calendar year.

By the time I’d dropped Adelyn off a safe fifty feet away from anywhere that could destroy her social standing, picked up some casual clothing without cartoons on it for my own closet, and gotten Emma into the food court for a massive ice cream sundae with the promised extra sprinkles, I was exhausted. It wasn’t even noon.

When we’d first arrived, I’d kept looking around hoping to catch a glimpse of Adelyn and her mystery miscreant, but she was keeping herself scarce. It wasn’t difficult with hordes of people trolling around on a mission for the best deals, and an exuberant five-year-old needing my constant attention.

I closed my eyes for a moment, but was afraid to maintain that position long since Emma was riding the carousel in the center of the mall. Blocking out visuals didn’t help with the noise levels anyway. I’d never been an avid shopper, but a mall on the weekend during the end-of-school rush increased my appreciation for doing it all online.

Emma was oblivious to the chaos. She was smiling gleefully as her purple unicorn bobbed up, down, and around for the fifth time. There were still smudges of strawberry ice cream on her mouth. Evidence that would have to be wiped off before we went home.

I glanced at my cell as it buzzed. Bouncing around poker oyna in my jacket pocket must have set the volume to vibration only. There was a missed call from Max, and also a text message from Ben.

Glad we had a chance to talk this morning. Wouldn’t mind a repeat soon. 🙂

My thumb hovered over the message for a moment before I deleted it. Tempting as it was to hit call-back on Ben’s number, I resisted. Instead, I dialed Max, not bothering to listen to his message.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Max. It’s Sam.”

“Sam, hi. What’s up?”

“You called me, man.”

“Ah, that’s right. Shit, I forgot. I’m sorry. Had a rough night here. We had a bomber hit the hospital yesterday.”

Cold tightened my heart at once, but my voice was even when I spoke. If he was talking, he was okay. “What happened?”

Static crackled over the line. “Crap this connection’s bad. Guy came in as a patient and tried to detonate in the ER. I caught one in the arm when we took him down, but there were no casualties other than the terrorist, thank God. We’re on high alert but stable, so they sent me home to get some sleep.”

His breath was a noisy release over the line. “He’s dead, Sam. I’m supposed to fix people not kill them, but I had to shoot him, and he was just a kid. Fifteen tops.”

“You did what you had to, Max. Kid or not, he was aiming to kill people, and you stopped that from happening.”

“I know.” That was all he said, but I could feel his emotional turmoil even through the phone. “How’d the funeral go?”

I let him have the out because I’d been there myself and knew there was no how-to-book about coping after killing someone, even if it was deserved. “You didn’t miss much—a hole in the ground and some noisy protestors.” My head tipped a little more to the side to hold the phone in the curve where my neck met my shoulder. “I survived the daily morning hate fest from my teenage niece, and now I’m in the middle of a mall, clothes shopping with a five-year-old.”

“So just a typical day of dysfunction at the Trammel household. Nice.”

“I’ll survive.”

“Course you will, Sergeant. Need a hug? Or maybe just my giant cock up your ass?”

I grinned. “You’re a dick.”

“Only the best for you, handsome. So what’s your next plan of action?”

“Fuck if I know.”

Leaning back in the plastic chair, I watched as Emma got off the carousel and scampered over toward the play area crawling with kids her own age. A little hand waved at me, and I waved back.

“You should see Adelyn,” I said. “She walks around in clothes that will get me arrested one of these days for killing every teenage boy she knows. Emma’s a doll though. I’ll have to send you a recent picture.”

“I have the school photos Sofia sent me. Emma still have the crazy bangs?”

I paused. “You kept in contact with Sofia?”

“Of course.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Sam, Sofia’s my family too. So I kept in touch. Every so often she emails me photos. She’s asked about you every time.”

“You never told her about Connor and Devlin, did you?”

“What? Of course not, man. I’d never tell her something like that. It was light stuff—birthday party updates and first days of school. Why? Does she know?”

“I’m not sure. It seems like it, but you know Sofia doesn’t like to talk about the painful stuff.”

“And I know you won’t press because canlı poker oyna you’re part ostrich yourself.” He paused. “Are you still drinking?”

“Not after last night.”

“What happened last night?”

“I got drunk off my ass and ended up having a sleepover with a priest.”

A snuffle of sound that was probably a laugh at my expense crackled over the connection. “Do I even want to know the punchline there?”

“I’m fine. Ben made sure I didn’t break my neck, and I dumped all the booze I could find in Sofia’s house after I got home. Neither of us needs the temptation.”

“Good. I’ve heard kids always benefit from one responsible adult. Who’s Ben?”

“The priest.”

“By priest, I hope you don’t mean Catholic, because that’s not going to end well.”

“No, he’s Episcopal.”

“Ok…so you know I have to ask…how the hell did you end up meeting a priest at a bar?”

“I didn’t meet him at the bar. He came to pick me up from the bar after I called him because I was too drunk to pour myself into a cab. I didn’t have anyone else to call since you’re in Afghanistan, and I didn’t want Sofia or the girls to see me that fucked up.”

“Still doesn’t explain how the two of you met.”

“He’s a friend of Sofia’s.”

“And what is he to you?”

“Why are you asking?”

“Because the only person outside of your family I’ve ever known you to trust enough to spend an entire night alone with, is me. I love you, man, but you’re about as trusting as a feral cat.”

I could hear the affectionate amusement in his voice, and it took any sting out of the words.

“You like him.”

It wasn’t a question, so I didn’t bother with an untrue answer.

“A priest, Sam? Seriously?”

“I need something, Max. An outlet of some kind.”

“So go to a club and get laid. But don’t get involved in something that could be more serious than you’re prepared to handle when it goes south.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Take Ben out of the equation, and that still leaves behind Sofia and my nieces. I’d never walk out on them again.”

“Not on purpose.”

Dealing with a skeptical Max was even worse than listening to my own little voice of self-doubt. He knew me better than I knew myself most of the time, so if he thought I was incapable of making this work, I was pretty much fucked.

“Sam, I know you’re more loyal than Lassie. But losing Connor, and leaving the military, those are some big effing changes to adjust to.”

“And you think I can’t handle it.”

“That isn’t what I said.” There was a long pause, and when he spoke again, his voice was more solemn than I’d ever heard it. “You have a chance to yell, Plot twist!, and move forward to prove that Connor didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. I just don’t want to see any of you hurt again.”

Some of my anger faded at the tired note in his voice.

“Every morning I wake up scared shitless that I’m going to screw things up worse than I already have. But what else can I do?”

Max sighed. “I know you’re doing the best you can. I’d just be happier if you were taking it slower with Mr. Angels on High.”

“When have you been a supporter of going slow?”

“When it’s not with me.”

I wasn’t serious when I said “Jealous?” but there wasn’t a joke on Max’s end when he answered.

“Maybe.”

“What?”

“Hush, internet casino baby,” he said, dragging out the drawl. “I’m not going to go all Tom Cruise and hop on couches for you. Not my style. I’m just saying I miss you.”

“I miss you, too,” I admitted, with more truth than was probably a good idea considering the uncertain line we were walking. “I sleep like crap at night.”

“What if I came to Florida? Would you sleep better?”

My eyebrows lifted at the unexpected offer. “I don’t want you flying halfway around the world to check in on me just because you think I need an intervention.”

“If I make the effort to get the time to fly to another country, it’s because I want to be with your dumb ass, but it’s your call. You’re the one with the hot padre on the side.”

I wandered down the length of the play area, keeping an eye on Emma. “You can come anytime you want to, but if you waste your days on me, you won’t have any left to visit your mom and her newest vision for the future Mrs. Melone.”

Max’s snort crackled over the line, but he allowed me the dodge. “Didn’t you get any gilded wedding invitations yet? I have to say, the last one she introduced me to was a very sweet girl. Homely as hell, but worth the pity fuck I threw her way.”

“Still fashionably bisexual?”

“It gives me more options.”

“Gives you more headaches. If you weren’t a doctor, I’d worry about your lifestyle habits.”

“Because I’m a doctor, I know what the life expectancy is for men who have bullets flying at their asses. I’m determined to enjoy the time I have here on this planet.” He paused. “As bad an idea as I think it is for you to get serious about anyone now, life is short, Sam. I can’t be there with you even though I want to be, so if you’re not going to take your meds or go to therapy, having someone in your life with a direct connection to the highest power might be the best-case scenario.”

I sighed. “I don’t know what I need, Max. Like you said, I should just find someone to fuck me stupid and then get back to operation fix-my-family.”

“But?”

“I like the guy. When I’m with him, things just seem doable…”

Max whistled when I trailed off. “You’ve got it bad for him. Now I’m jealous.”

“Shut up.”

“It took you long enough.”

“What did?”

“To fall for someone after Devlin.”

“I didn’t say that I was falling for Ben,” I said, but my answer seemed hasty even to my ears.

Max laughed softly at me. “Yeah, you’re done. Just be careful. Devlin wasn’t worth it. I hope Ben is.”

“Since when are you Mr. Sensitivity?”

“I’m not, but who the hell else is going to listen to you? Besides, I have a vested interest in knowing how this all turns out.”

“Why?”

“My business.” He ignored my snort. “I have to go, Sam. The hospital just paged me. I’ll see about getting leave.”

“Okay. I’ll talk to you later.”

We hung up just as Emma flounced over.

“Who were you talking to, Uncle Sam?”

“To Uncle Max. He wanted to say hello.” I slid the phone into my pocket.

“Is he your best friend?”

“You’re my best friend, honey.”

Emma dimpled at me, sliding a sticky hand into mine. “I have four best friends. You, Mami, Addie and Father Ben.”

“Lucky girl. So Father Ben’s your best friend, too?”

“Uh huh. But I can share him,” she assured me.

Biting the inside of my cheek kept my smile in check. Barely. “Thanks for the offer kiddo, but all I need is you.”

“But you promised to play with him this week, remember? He said to remind you.”

From the mouths of babes…

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