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 0and 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 secret to getting away with lying, is believing with all your heart; that goes for lying to yourself even moreso than lying to another.
Sometimes being guided by a moral compass was a pain in the ass. Had mine pointed more south, I wouldn’t have found myself standing outside the community center where Ben’s support meeting was being held, trying to work up the courage to go inside. I’d be at home, hiding behind my original plan of avoidance with my youngest niece and a Disney marathon. Ben wasn’t expecting me tonight, so the fact that Emma had fallen asleep on the couch before the first movie had even begun shouldn’t have made me feel I’d be lying to him by staying at home. Shit happened and plans changed all the time. I didn’t owe him anything.
I’d been able to fly that argument for exactly three minutes before I texted Ben to let him know I was coming after Adelyn got home. The smiley icon Ben had texted back before sending me the community center’s address had made telling the truth worth it. At least until I got out of the car and looked up at the plain brick building guarded by a chain link fence and some town mandated trees. From the outside, the community center looked innocent enough. Four walls. A roof. A floor. Not a place that would suck me in and spit me out incoherent and dejected. But I knew better. Checking my phone and seeing another text from Ben saying that he was glad I’d chosen to give the group a chance, was all that made me walk through the front door instead of bolting back to the car.
Inside the lights were on in strategic patterns, no doubt leading me to the main meeting area like a trail of cookie crumbs. I knew what happened to Hansel and Gretel in that story, so I was in no rush to reach the doors at the end. As I wandered down the hall, I set the timer on my cell phone to go off in twenty minutes. If I needed to flee the group before then, I’d have to come up with another excuse.
A mural against the far wall caught my attention. Pictures had been cut into various shapes to create a cluster that formed a massive photo puzzle.
Benjamin Santiago’s face peered at me from a group shot with a bunch of kids at some kind of fair. In another picture, dressed in formal black, complete with collar, he presided over a baptism. In one shot after the next he appeared, always exuding confidence and that easy smile. My favorite was the photo of him wearing a giant buffalo chicken hat at a barbecue festival with a group of teenagers.
Startled, I glanced up to see Ben standing a few feet away. It made me feel off kilter that he’d snuck up without me hearing him. I was off my game, and seeing him in the flesh wasn’t helping matters any.
Tonight he was in dark-wash jeans and a black tee shirt. His outfit was lightened only by his white collar. He was a blend of professional and casual, done up in a package that made the long neglected parts of my body take notice even quicker than they’d dismissed Max earlier.
“Hey.” Not my finest line ever, but at least I wasn’t in the middle of a panic attack, or in an buca escort alcohol induced stupor.
“Hi. I’m glad you made it. I thought you said you were going to hang out with Emma tonight.”
“That was the plan, but she fell asleep and I didn’t have anything else to do.”
“You could’ve kept that to yourself and I’d never have known otherwise. Thanks for being honest with me, Sam.”
I shrugged, fidgeting when Ben flashed me a genuinely happy smile. “Lying to a priest isn’t kosher.”
“Is that the only reason you came?”
“I’ve told you before that talking about myself isn’t my thing.”
A slow quirk to his mouth was the reward for my deliberate obtuseness.
“Whatever the reason, I’m glad you’re here. Let’s go meet the gang. You came on a good night. Almost everybody was able to make it.”
And that was how I found myself standing in the middle of a room holding Ben’s hand, just like Emma had predicted at the funeral. I wasn’t sure where the hand holding had come in—before or after my inclination to run—but nine sets of eyes stared back at me. There was no hostility, only curiosity on their faces, but I still tensed.
I’d known that listening to Ben was a bad idea, but the man’s smile was lethal. Just one, and you swore you could do anything— like face down a roomful of civilians you couldn’t shoot to make your life easier. Add in the solid warmth of his hand wrapped around mine, and I was a goner.
“Hey, everybody. Say hello to Sam. Sam, this is everybody. We have nametags but don’t usually wear them in here. Maybe we can just go around the room and quickly introduce ourselves.”
Ben smiled like it was the greatest idea and one hand went up. It was attached to a slim wrist that jingled from the army of bangle bracelets around her arm. I recognized Tara’s white fedora before I did her face.
“Hey, Sam. Father Ben caught you, too? He should be named Peter, for all the fish he reels in.”
Beside me, Ben snorted. I grinned. “Yeah, it went something like that. I’m sorry to intrude.”
“You’re not intruding. We haven’t even gotten started. Have a seat.”
The invitation came from a man about my age with more salt than pepper in his hair. He gestured to the two empty seats beside him. I didn’t accept the invitation, not sure if I was coming or going yet.
“Sam.” Ben voice was soft, and I realized he hadn’t let go of my hand. I focused on the warmth of his palm as I met his encouraging gaze. “Just join us. You don’t have to talk today if you don’t feel like it.”
“Come on, soldier boy. We only eat newbies on their second session,” Tara said.
Varying levels of laughter encouraged me to the seat beside Ben. His face immediately creased into a smile.
“Ok, so you know Tara. That’s Hank. Then we have Veronica…” He continued on with the introductions, but I only heard half of it. I was focusing on the sudden surge of my heart rate.
I closed my eyes and forced a slow breath, trying to convince myself that the panic attack would subside. When I opened them again, Tara was looking right at me from her spot across from me. She was the only one. The rest of the group was listening to Hank, who was telling a story about the loss of his son. It was touching, heartfelt, and I couldn’t stand a word of it.
I was set to run when Tara inclined her head slightly toward the door. My eyes narrowed in confusion, but I caught on when she got up and headed for the door.
My legs felt wooden when I stood and glanced over at Ben. His subtle nod gave me permission to follow her. The moment I got outside, I felt like I could breathe again.
“Feeling better?” Tara smiled. “You looked like you needed a Calgon moment.”
“Sorry. I wasn’t expecting that many people.”
“Because you think you’re the only one with issues?”
I stiffened. “I didn’t mean to offend anyone, Ma’am.”
Tara waved a dismissive hand. “I’m impossible to offend unless you call me Ma’am again. I get why you ran. It’s not easy going through the seven stages of grief, especially the real first stage no one talks about—being a self-centered wuss.” Her hand touched my arm when my jaw twitched. “But better a wuss afraid to face his feelings, than an asshole who wallows in self-pity. Believe me, I know. I was said asshole.” Her expression gentled. “You look like you need to recharge. There’s a good diner across the street.”
“You’re totally not interested in women. I know, and that’s perfect, because I’m feeding you greasy spoon fare, not my girl parts.”
Her am looped through mine before I could continue my protest. “You alsancak escort don’t know your ass from your elbow right now, handsome. Consider this your first official intervention.”
She grinned as I allowed her to lead me like a toy duck on a string. “C’mon. I told you I don’t eat people, but that can always change if I don’t get a burger soon.”
* * *
After Tara turned the waitress away from our table for the second time because I hadn’t made up my mind about my order, I set the menu down. “What’s good here?”
“Are you a vegan or anything else that may hinder my enjoyment of a slab of still mooing cow?”
I grinned before I caught myself. “No. Burgers are fine with me.”
“Perfect.” She flagged the waitress down with the ease of someone who was familiar with the routine. “Two ‘Black & Bleu’ burgers cooked medium rare, with a side of Matt’s Onion rings for me instead of fries, please. No kissing happening on this date.”
She handed back the laminated menus and picked up her root beer. “So are you ready to tell me your story, or are you just in it for the food?’
Tara grinned. “You’re a big, tough guy. You can handle it.”
“We might have to disagree if you’re the one dishing it out.”
“Meh, that’s what all the boys say.” She gave herself a little shake that rattled her bangle bracelets again. “But you forget I saw you in action at the funeral.” Tara made a rude noise. “Some people shouldn’t be allowed to breed. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. No charges were pressed.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. Father Ben does a lot of charity work for the police department through the church. Your police report probably got ‘lost’ in the same place socks disappear to from the dryer.”
I chuckled. “I wasn’t expecting him to intervene like that.”
“He must’ve felt you needed a protector. Though I’m not really sure why since you’re the definition of “Army Strong.'” She eyed my bicep and instinctive vanity made me flex a bit. “How long were you in the military?”
“Thirteen years. I was honorably discharged before I came back to Florida for Connor’s funeral.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Sam. Is that what brought you to the group?”
I smirked. “I think you saw what brought me to the group—the kicking and screaming was over by the time we walked in. What about you?”
“The same, though I’m an open book after so long. The rest of the crew has heard my drama so many times they’ll love you for the fresh meat alone.”
“So I have to hear your story secondhand?”
“Unless you’re a man who can stomach tales of more woe than that of Juliet and her Romeo.” Tara shrugged as I stared at her over my glass. “Sorry, I was originally a lit major before switching to psychology. Women are suckers for poetry, so I was quite the catch.”
My surprise must have shown because she chuckled. “I did tell you I was okay with you not having any interest in my girl parts. I put most men in the same category as monkeys in the zoo; fun to watch, but I don’t want to take one home with me.”
I grinned. I liked her lack of bullshit. “My ears are ready for you.”
Tara nodded. “Here’s the Cliff Notes version… After many failed endeavors in college and my career, 2001 was the culmination of a life well crapped on.”
Her eyes met mine. “I moved to Florida from Alabama after a failed relationship, and I lost my brother the same year. ” She took a long sip from her glass. “Nate was a firefighter in New York City…a first responder…”
She didn’t expand any further, but I read between the lines.
“I’m sorry, Tara.”
“Don’t be. People like you tried to set things right, and I’m grateful for that. It was just…an adjustment.” She raised her glass.
“I hear you.” I tapped my glass against hers. “Connor and I enlisted together, but he went into the explosives sector, and I became a Ranger. Our teams supported one another a few times, but I was assigned to a new unit a couple of years ago.”
Tara looked sympathetic. “That kind of separation must’ve been difficult, being twins and all.”
“Not really. Connor and I never really had that ‘psychic twin thing’ that people talk about. We were just able to read one another really well because we were alike.”
“But not in every way.”
She made it a statement, not a question. Our gazes locked in a moment of understanding.
“Not in every way,” I agreed. “It’s been hell trying to prove that sometimes.”
“I can imagine. I don’t have a twin, but I’m now the only child of a mother who wants grandchildren with a permanent, ring-wearing sperm donor bornova escort in my Christmas card photos.”
“Sounds like you have it harder than I do. Our mom died when we were kids. I haven’t seen my Dad since I was eighteen, so he doesn’t have any hold over what I do.”
“I miss Nate a lot.” Tara swallowed visibly. “He was the best. Only guy I’ve ever known who deserved the sainthood status he was awarded during his funeral.”
Tara’s hand covered mine when she leaned across the table. Like Ben, she was a toucher, but the feel of her hand didn’t make my heart skip a beat.
“Sofia and I used to chat if Father Ben was busy when she came by Maplewood. I tried to get her to go out with me for drinks a few times to see if I could really make her open up, but I think the whole lesbian thing scandalized her sensibilities.”
“I’ll bet it was the idea of opening up that intimidated her more than who you sleep with. Sofia’s always supported me.”
“Maybe. Or she could know that I secretly fantasize about her playing the Mary-Ann to my Ginger on a deserted island somewhere.” Tara grinned, stealing a fry from my plate as the waitress set them down.
“Totally not interested in hearing your perverse fantasies about my sister-in-law.”
I chuckled, then reached for my food as the waitress left us alone.
Tara and I made small talk as we ate, lightening the mood. The voracious way she chowed down on her burger amused me, because I had a feeling it wasn’t her literary knowledge that made her popular with the ladies.
“So—” Tara reached over to grab another fry from my plate, ignoring the onion rings on hers for the time being. “Now that we got the ugly necessities out of the way, let’s move onto the good stuff.”
I eyed her and she grinned. Another one of my fries went the way of his predecessors, dipped into the mountain of ketchup Tara had squirted onto her plate.
“I’ve never seen him act this way, just so you know.”
I knew what she was hinting at, surprised only by her subtlety. But I kept quiet about my relationship with Ben, if it could even be called that. One real kiss, a run and a few conversations—only two of which I was completely coherent for—hardly classified as a relationship. Not counting the fact that he was a priest, we came from different worlds. It was true that we both guided people into the light, but his way was with sermons, and mine usually involved a bullet.
“Even lesbians can’t get away from the gossip gene can they?”
Tara flipped me off. “Oh come on, it’s obvious to anyone with eyes. Father Ben never held my hand in a group before. He likes you. It’s not your immortal soul he wants.”
I tried to steal an onion ring from her plate to cram it into my mouth to avoid answering, but she slapped my hand with a grin and tucked her plate closer to her like a prison inmate.
“I’m a natural matchmaker. Why waste forty bucks a month for an online dating service when you have me?”
“Not a good plan,” I said. “I’m the worst candidate for a real relationship right now.”
“Oh please. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
“I’m seeing someone already.”
“Is it serious?”
I felt like Pinocchio with all this truth telling. “No, but Ben deserves someone who can give him a hundred and ten percent.”
“Don’t you think you should leave that decision up to him? I know Ben pretty well, and he’s not the type to go blindly into anything.”
“Tara, my brother just died. Having a boyfriend is the last thing on my mind.”
It was a cheap shot, and not entirely true, but selfish self-preservation kept me from following up with anything to still the embarrassment sweeping over Tara’s features.
“You’re right, Sam. I’m sorry. My mouth got ahead of my brain. It’s just…” She hesitated, and I nodded my acknowledgement of the unspoken.
“I know the man my brother was, Tara. But he was all I had.”
“Not anymore. You have Sofia, the girls, and now the cherry on the cake in me.”
I smiled, then reached for the bill before she could snatch it.
After the crap I’d given her, it was the least I could do. “I’ve got this. You can get the next one.”
“Oooh, there’s going to be a next time? Father Ben will be so jealous. And here he thought I wasn’t competition.”
I took the phone she held out to me so I could program my number into it, while she did the same with mine.
“Now that we’re BFFs and all,” she said. “I need you to promise you’ll do something for me.”
Tara’s eyes smiled at me. “Cut yourself some slack. Remember that shit happens, and then we die. That’s a depressing as fuck outcome for any life unless it was well lived. So live it. Carpe diem and all of that.”
“Deal,” I said. “As long as you don’t mind holding a garbage can for the pieces along the way.”
“Sweetheart, I have stock in Hefty bags.”