Halos and Heroes Ch. 02

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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, 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.

I will also post disclaimers when appropriate about any potentially triggering content given the PTSD themes Sam deals with.

This story 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.

***

Experience is a brutal teacher, but you learn. My God, do you learn. —C.S. Lewis

Things could change while remaining exactly the same. By the time we’d driven for what seemed like forever to arrive at the tree-lined street in my old neighborhood in West Palm Beach where Sofia’s house was located, I felt like we’d gone through a time warp.

The old theater was still there off Jackson Avenue, though there was a new drugstore to the right where the bike shop used to be. Caffeinated mornings wouldn’t be an issue around here since I’d counted at least five coffee shops within walking distance, plus two bakeries. Gated complexes filled the empty lots Connor and I’d played in as kids. At this time of night, there was almost no traffic. Aside from the soft, distant howling of someone’s dog, the streets were quiet; the better to enjoy the awkward silence that’d descended between my sister-in-law and me after we’d left the airport.

It started to rain as soon as Sofia casino oyna killed the engine in the driveway. The droplets splattered sporadically in quick succession—one of those minute summer storms that was already passing, leaving streaks of clear dark sky peeking out from behind the gray haze. While we waited it out, I glanced in the review mirror. Both Adelyn and Emma were asleep which explained the lull in hostility. Emma’s dark hair blended in with her sister’s, her little head cushioned on Adelyn’s shoulder. The smooth lines of Emma’s face, more like Sofia’s than Connor’s and mine, were illuminated briefly by the headlights of a passing car.

I leaned back in the seat, looking out through the water dappled windshield. Give me an enemy target and I could react with steady hands in less than fifteen seconds. Put me in the middle of a sea of manicured lawns with two kids, and I broke into a sweat that had nothing to do with the ridiculous humidity outside.

Sofia’s fingers tapped in restless rhythm against the steering wheel before she turned to me. “I’m sorry about what Adelyn said to you, Sam—”

“Sofia, don’t. If we start with the apologies we’ll never finish.”

She flinched at the harsh note in my voice when I interrupted and I sighed.

“If anyone should apologize, you know it’s me. I’m sorry,” I said. “Sorry it took me so long to come home. Sorry that I had to bring Connor back this way, and sorrier still that I didn’t get him away from you and the girls before he was able to hurt any of you.”

Before my niece looked at me like the monster that lives under her bed.

I scrubbed my hand over my face, feeling lines of stress etched into the skin like a topographic map.

Sofia looked like she wanted to say something else, but thought better of it when Adelyn’s sleepy voice drifted up to us.

“Are we home?”

Both she and Sofia watched me, waiting for me to make my move. I glanced back at Emma, then got out of the car to carry her inside. Tonight, I was home.

* * *

Hot water sluiced down my body like heaven, giving me some private time to decompress. The olive branch Adelyn had extended in the car remained in place only until she stormed up to her room. Slamming the bedroom door was a satisfying win for a teenager, but the noise had startled a drowsy Emma into an exhausted crying jag. It lasted long enough for me to unpack before Sofia came to my room on a wave of new apologies. Forty-five minutes later, Emma was asleep, Addie was in her room, and Sofia was off somewhere with a cup of tea. I was just trying to keep it together.

The plumbing in the canlı casino house was new and the water came down in a satisfying, hard pummel across the coiled muscles of my neck and shoulders. My eyes closed and one hand supported my weight when my forehead touched the cool tiles.

Adelyn had been justified in her intense reaction at the airport. Although my last deployments into combat zones put me in a different country, the convenience of modern technology created plenty of ways to remain in touch with my family, even if I hadn’t physically come to Florida. Skype, texts, and emails provided ways to keep connected. And while getting leave could be difficult, it wasn’t impossible. Sofia had been a military wife long enough to know that.

With the emphasis she’d always put on the importance of family, I knew my detachment had to have hurt her. But until tonight, I’d never thought about how cutting ties had affected Adelyn. That level of rage had built up over time. Since I couldn’t tell Connor’s family the real story behind what had broken the once strong bond between us, I didn’t see Adelyn forgiving me anytime soon.

Turning off the water, I grabbed a towel and dried off quickly, wrapping it around my hips before rubbing a clear spot into the steamed mirror with my palm.

A slightly crooked nose that’d been broken twice, still sat beneath my blue eyes, but stress had added a new gauntness to emphasize the sharp cut of my cheekbones. The set to my shoulders was tight, emphasizing the raised scar on the left side from a sniper’s bullet. I’d also taken two other bullets to scar my right side; both below my rib cage. Numerous other physical badges from an active military life adorned my torso. Max had once said the scars kept the hard landscape interesting.

That thought focused me for a minute, and I remembered I hadn’t called Max when I landed. My phone was resting on the side of the sink. I dried my hands and typed out a quick message to my best friend, telling him I’d arrived. The ping of his response was immediate.

Glad to hear it. Good luck tomorrow. Call if you need me.

I hit the power button to shut off the phone in case Max called to check on me later. Stuck halfway around the world, I missed him hard, and was too tired to keep up the level of careful inhibition that made our casual sexual arrangement work. I kept my mouth shut, we both got our rocks off, and I got to pretend I cared less than my heart did.

I shut off the lights in the bathroom and tossed the phone onto the bed when I moved back into the guest bedroom. The woman’s touch previously lacking in my life was kaçak casino apparent in the soothing, neutral blue-gray walls with white crown molding, and hardwood floors that gleamed wherever they weren’t covered by an attractive, abstract area rug. The bedding was some tan suede material that complimented the subtle blue and brown striped pattern in the throw pillows. Lush green plants sat in terracotta holders in the bay window and beautiful, modern expressionistic paintings adorned the walls. When I got closer, I saw Sofia’s elegant signature in the corners of each one.

The vibrant colors and magazine-worthy room were at odds with the broken woman I’d left downstairs. I wondered if Sofia saw a stranger in the mirror now, too.

Too tired to process anything that deep right now, I popped six aspirin. I chewed them dry to make the effects kick in faster and washed it all down with a slug of whiskey from the flask in my carry-on. The new three-ounce rule for all liquids was a hassle, but it was just enough to sate the urge without planting me on my ass.

I pulled a clean white tank top from the dresser Sofia had cleared for me, and the faint scent of cedar drifted up to me from the little sachet she’d put in the corner.

It was a leap above sand, sweat and a barrack bunk, but even with the alcohol in my system, I couldn’t sink into the comfort of the pillow-top mattress. Instead I laid back and curled one arm behind my head, the other reaching for the faded photograph I’d set on the nightstand when I’d settled in.

Four young men wearing military fatigues squinted at the camera against the sun, a backdrop of dusty plains behind them; our first deployment. Connor and I were easy to point out. Young and pumped, his right arm was slung over my shoulders. Max was on Connor’s left. He grinned without shame at the camera. Sandy brown hair fell at a cavalier angle over the top edge of his aviator sunglasses despite military protocol. Max’s mantra was to ask for forgiveness not permission.

At my right, my ex-lover, Devlin Rhodes, wasn’t smiling, but it didn’t detract from the fact he was a good-looking man. Thin lips and high cheekbones were set into a strong, angular face. All that lean, sinewy muscle was as golden brown as the sands surrounding us on all sides.

I felt the familiar bite of jealous anger as I gazed at the photo that was worth a thousand words I’d missed until three years ago.

I tossed the photo onto the nightstand and turned off the lamp before closing my eyes and letting fatigue finally take me. The last image in my mind as I fell asleep was of Devlin’s face as he looked over at my brother. It’d been right in front of me and I’d never seen it. Or maybe I just didn’t want to know. Sometimes ignorance is bliss and other times we realize just how far down the fucking rabbit hole we’ve fallen.

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