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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.

***

The good die young—because they see it’s no use living if you’ve got to be good. —John Barrymore

Things were always clearer in hindsight. When Sofia and I’d first arrived at the funeral home, the straight-backed, hardwood chair had seemed the obvious choice to keep me both relevant to the conversation and in an upright, seated position. But as the funeral director droned on about floral arrangements and headstones, the overstuffed armchair way off in the corner seemed like it would’ve been a smarter decision.

The last time I’d been to a funeral home was after my mother’s death. All I remembered about that day was that I’d been wearing my oldest, scuffed-up sneakers with the hole above the big toe. The gritty texture of the brick had chafed the exposed skin in that spot every time I’d kicked the wall. Not even the harsh smoke from the cigarettes I’d snagged from my old man’s stash, could purge the scent of the funeral home flowers from my nose. I didn’t have the sneakers anymore, but I was still nauseated by the heavy perfume of the gardenia plants meant to distract the grieving from the fact that Death lurked beneath all these elegant surfaces.

“¿Sam, qué piensa usted?”

Sofia’s soft tone broke into my thoughts. I blinked, not sure what she was asking my opinion about until I glanced over at the funeral director, and he indicated the brochure she was looking at. Perfectly coiffed from the top of his head to the tip of his toes, his tasteful pinstriped suit and green tie looked expensive. Dealing in death was lucrative.

“I don’t know, Sofia.”

Her eyebrows drew together as she stared down at the brochure. This was an unnecessary hardship for her to go through. The casket that Connor had been transported in was already more than my brother deserved. If I’d been bolder, I would’ve told Sofia to dig a hole in the backyard, dump Connor’s ashes into it, and call it a day. But I deflected instead. “Lo que usted piensa es la mejor, Sofia.”

My sister-in-law didn’t look convinced that the choices she made would be the right ones, but she finally pointed at the page with a fingernail that was bitten down so far her skin curled over the ragged edge. “We’ll go with this one.”

A few signatures put an end to that portion of the conversation, but the process of selecting a headstone came next. Though the military was picking up some of the burial cost with all the honors and trimmings, funerals were expensive.

When Sofia and Evan started discussing the flower arrangements, I felt my ears begin to ring like fucking recess had been called.

I excused myself, squeezing Sofia’s shoulder to let her know I was taking a walk before I ended up curled in a screaming ball by the gardenias. “I’ll be right back. Le prometo,” I promised.

She nodded, reluctantly releasing her death grip on my hand so I could wander down the hall to find a bathroom. The scent of perfumed corpses mocked me from every corner. Knowing it was in my head didn’t help, and I gagged as I entered the bathroom, clutching the edge of the sink as a lifeline.

The tops of my ears felt hot, and sweat slid down the back of my neck. I let my head dip below my shoulder blades, and forced slow, long breaths, focusing on not passing out as the room spun around me.

I was getting better at handling the panic attacks when they hit, casino siteleri but last night’s nightmare coupled with this morning’s confrontation with Adelyn annihilated any pretense that I was in control of my shit. Gagging around the bile rising in my throat, I stumbled into the nearest stall. Since Adelyn hadn’t fed me, nothing came up, but after a few minutes, my throat felt rough and raw from the dry heaves. I closed my eyes again, ignoring how unhygienic it was to lean my forehead against the cool porcelain of the toilet bowl. I’d have licked the inside if it would’ve helped orient me.

The knock on the bathroom door echoed loud as a gunshot. I went for my firearm instinctively, forgetting that I’d had to give up my weapon after I was released from duty.

My head thunked back against the bathroom door hard as I tried to regain my bearings. Just breathe, Sam, I thought. Breathe, dammit. You’re not in the Army anymore. You’re on civilian ground. You’re safe.

“Hello? Are you all right in there?”

The voice was male; deep and whiskey smooth. A subtle accent softened it, hinting that his otherwise perfect English wasn’t his native language.

I hadn’t heard anyone come in, which indicated how far gone I was. “I’m fine,” I lied. My knuckles were whiter than the grout between the tiles dancing beneath me. “Just a stomach bug or something.”

“Or something,” the man agreed. “Why don’t you open this door so we can talk?”

“Dude, I’m okay.” Anxiety reduced my vernacular to a teenage whine. “Seriously.”

“You seriously don’t sound okay, dude. If you don’t open the door, I’m going to get someone.”

“I just need a minute.”

“Can you open the door?”

Despite the phrasing it wasn’t a question, and I exhaled hard. Jesus H. Christ! Couldn’t a guy just pass out in peace? I eyed the edge of plain black sneakers beneath the door, but they remained still.

Sighing, I somehow made it to my feet and reached for the door. The narrow stall space became more claustrophobic as I tried to unlatch the lock with clumsy fingers that jammed the simple mechanism. All that kept me from hitting the floor when the door opened were the lean, strong arms that steadied me when I staggered out into them.

“Careful now,” my Good Samaritan said when I stumbled. His arm tightened around my midsection. He was close enough that I could catch a whiff of his cologne—something woodsy and masculine.

“Survey says you’re definitely not fine.”

Gentle humor laced the man’s voice. He didn’t let go as we maneuvered awkwardly through the halls to the outside doors. The sunshine was too bright, but the breeze cooled the sweat on the back of my neck.

“Watch your step there. I keep telling Evan, the funeral director, that he needs to replace those paving stones, but he believes letting people break their necks out here will help his business.”

Laughing stole too much precious air, so I just nodded.

“Easy, almost there. A nice firm bench to plunk down on while I call 911.” I wheezed out a breath. “Don’t need an ambulance. Panic attack. Will be okay… give me a minute.”

“Panic attack?”

He sounded like he was gearing up for twenty questions, but I freed one hand to fumble at my collar, hoping a little show and tell would do a better job of getting my point across. The dog tags jingled against my chest as they plopped free.

Long, fingers slid into my line of vision as he rolled them in his hand. “Ah, all right, this makes some sense now.”

Thank fuck because I had my head between my legs and couldn’t be bothered to give him the play by play.

“PTSD?”

I nodded, and felt him squeeze my shoulder.

“Take slower breaths. Nice and easy. If you hyperventilate, I’m going to have to call EMS, and you won’t be able to stop me, passed out like a big rug on the grass.”

That amusement was back in his voice, but the long sweeps of his palm against my back were so soothing, I didn’t care his humor was at my expense.

“That’s it. Just let yourself ride it through. This sometimes happens to someone I know. He’s not on active duty anymore, so it’s gotten easier over the years. When do you go back?”

“I don’t.”

It was obvious he read the tightness in my tone when he paused for a long stretch.

“Ah… I’m sorry,” he said finally. “Are you doing all right?”

His tone of genuine concern stung worse than the derision I usually reserved for myself. By nature, I’m a private person, and years following military protocol of not telling even when they asked, didn’t help. Aside from Max, I hadn’t told anyone about the forced discharge. Not even Sofia knew, and I didn’t plan to tell her until I knew whether or not I was going to cut and run or stay in Florida.

Max was the person I trusted most in this world, and not even he’d been able to break through my walls last night. But for some reason they felt weak right now; like they were going to crumble. I tensed, because I suddenly slot oyna wanted to reveal every secret I’d ever kept to this stranger with the kindest voice I’d ever heard.

I bit the tip of my tongue and gave just enough of an answer to be an appropriate follow-up, without removing an entire level of my protective mortar.

“My brother, Connor, was killed in action recently. I’m home for the funeral.” That wasn’t the only reason, but sharing more than that would steer this conversation deeper into territory that was already uncomfortable. It was time to make my exit. “Listen, thanks for your help bu—”

“Sam Trammel?”

Even though I’d been answering to my name for thirty-two years, it took a second for me to register it. A half-dozen questions were on my lips when my head snapped up so I could look into his face, but they never made it out of my mouth.

Although I’d been raised Catholic, it’d been a while since I’d prayed. After everything I’d lived through over the years, it was obvious that if there was a God, He wasn’t listening to me, so His whens and whys were a moot point. But the Almighty seemed determined to reassure me of his existence today, emphasizing that whole bit about everything He created being good.

My savior smiled as if he could read my thoughts. He hooked his arms over the back of the wooden bench, his body language as open as his smile under my scrutiny. The wide-set eyes I looked into were a rich hazel that leaned more toward green, framed by thick lashes. They stood out against skin bronzed a light honey gold. Thick, dark hair was clipped longer than mine. Bright teeth in a chiseled jaw were framed by day old shadow.

The Almighty had outdone himself, but that need to keep us humble showed when the sun turned the slightly oversized curves of his ears, and their placement into pink half-moons like the plastic ones that belonged to Mr. Potato Head. That small flaw would’ve made me smile if I wasn’t so focused on how the hell he knew who I was. I’d have remembered meeting a man this hot.

He must have caught the confusion in my expression, because he held out a hand. I eyed him for a moment before I slid mine into it.

“Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to catch you off guard. I’m Ben Santiago, a friend of Sofia’s.”

“Doesn’t explain how you know who I am.”

“I didn’t know until you mentioned Connor’s name. Sofia’s told me that her brother-in-law was in the Army, and that he was coming in from Afghanistan for Connor’s funeral. She and I are close, so we talk often.”

His words were casual, prompting me to cock an eyebrow. The scenery was pretty, but if he was interested in my family, the number of hoops he’d have to jump through would be epic.

“I see.”

Ben’s smile lifted higher on one side than the other. “We’re just friends.”

“I didn’t ask.”

“But you were thinking it.” He looked unfazed by the defensive note in my voice. “And I understand. I’m a stranger to you. They’re yours, and you’re the type of man who protects his own.”

My eyes narrowed. “Are you a shrink?”

He grinned. “No. But you’re long-time military. So it stands to reason that you probably looked out for the men in your unit like brothers. Those protective instincts would naturally carry over to your own family.”

“For someone who says he’s not a shrink, you talk like one.”

“My best friend is a child therapist. I work at the local halfway house for teenagers, and I read a lot, so I guess that’s a killer triumvirate.” Ben smiled at my obvious skepticism. “We do offer counseling services at Maplewood, but I don’t have a medical degree, so all I offer are my ears. We’re just a safe place for kids who need someone to listen. Everyone has to vent sometimes.”

The subtle emphasis he put on that last part made my brow quirk. “Are you saying you think that’s what I need?”

“I don’t know. Do you get many chances to talk about your feelings when you’re doing the stoic American Hero routine in bathroom stalls?” Ben reached into his pocket for his wallet. “I run a broad spectrum adult support group on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Both are open sessions. Anyone is allowed to come by and share. Nothing leaves the room.” He extended a small white card to me.

“Sort of like open mic night,” I said, ignoring the card.

“Only with better coffee.” Ben patted my knee. It was a casual touch, but I felt the heat lingering long after he’d reclaimed his previous position. He left the card on my knee and I smirked. Very smooth.

“I’ll think about it.”

“Okay. I’ll take what I can get. Maybe you can get Sofia to join us, too. Adelyn just joined our youth nights.”

My lips twisted into a wry smile. “Prepare to hear plenty about how much she hates me. She’s not shy.”

“Her dad just died. She’s allowed to have angst be her middle name for a while.” Ben leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “So are you. It’s probably going to be a difficult transition for you, conflicted canlı casino siteleri as you are about where your loyalties should lay. Sofia called me last night and said you knew about the abuse. I’m sorry. He was your brother, but they’re yours, too.”

I stiffened immediately, putting the card on the bench between us. “What’s the point of going to this group in the first place? You’ve already got my number.”

“I like to get my information from the source.” Ben’s tone was a gentle contrast to my defensive one. “Sofia’s always said that you’re a very private person. I respect that, but between your PTSD and losing your brother, there are bound to be some intense feelings that can bubble up and choke you if you’re not careful.” He paused, not breaking eye contact. “Are you having any nightmares since leaving the field?”

“That’s none of your business.”

He ignored the hostility. “I’ll take that as a yes. Try the group, Sam. All our people have been through something that still haunts them, including me, and sometimes I have to share too. I practice what I preach so if you come by one day, maybe you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, you might find a place there, since I can see in your eyes that you’re unsure about whether you have a home here anymore.”

“Wow.” My smile felt forced. “You can’t help yourself with the shrinky talk, can you?”

An uncomfortable silence slid between us. The sun had finally broken free of the haze that had blanketed the sky this morning, and I could feel its warmth along the back of my neck. I didn’t turn toward it, afraid it would trigger memories of my nightmare… Connor’s skull glowing bright in the golden rays …

Ben sighed, dragging my attention back to his face. “You’re right, that was intense. I’m sorry, Sam. I just like your family, and want to help you all get through this as best I can.

“Yeah, I get it. You’re a bleeding heart who needs to help, but I’m doing fine. Just had one rough day.”

I was startled when Ben leaned into my personal space. Not touching, but close enough that I could smell sweet cinnamon candy on his breath.

“Want me to call you on that bull? I warn you though, I’ve had plenty of practice with teenagers who perfect the art.”

“What the fuck?”

He grinned. “If we were at Maplewood, I’d have to fine you a quarter for that. Normal curse words are a dime, but the F Bomb gets special monetary consideration.” Ben slid to his feet. “Come to the center one day. With Sofia or by yourself. There’s no shame in needing help.”

Ben looked like he was going to say something else, but, at that moment, Sofia exited the funeral home and made a beeline for us. Her expression brightened when she saw Ben.

“Aquí estás, Sam. Fui preocupada de usted cuando usted se fue.” She slid a gentle hand along my arm and smiled at Ben. “¿Está todo bien?”

“Everything’s fine,” I assured her, knowing she only slipped into complete Spanish when she was nervous.

“Estamos muy bien. Sam y yo acabamos de hablar. ¿Cómo usted está soportando todo esto, Sofia?”

Ben assured her that we were fine, and Sofia responded to his question about how she was coping, but I got no more than a gist of the conversation after that as they went back and forth for a few minutes in rapid-fire Spanish. I was fluent, but when their lips kept in sync with the speed of Sofia’s graceful hands narrating her words, I just admired the pretty noise.

Ben was the one to end the conversation. “I hate to run, but I need to get going. I’m meeting someone here in a bit to help her with her mother’s funeral sermon. I can’t say that writing moving eulogies is my strongest skill, but it’s one of the priestly duties I can’t get out of.”

He had my full attention now. “You’re a priest?” I knew I’d been out of it when the panic attack hit, but to miss that sort of detail might be an indication of bigger problems.

Ben caught me eying the smooth column of his bare throat and chuckled. “Yes, I’m an Episcopal priest. I don’t usually do Sunday sermons though. I’ve only been here a few years, and I prefer working with the youth group.”

“You didn’t mention this group was a church thing.”

“Did I have to?” He arched a thick eyebrow, catching the curt note in my voice. “Anyone is welcome, whether they believe in our faith or not. And on that note, I really have to go. Sofia, I’ll call you to go over the final details, okay?”

“Si, Padre Santiago. Gracias por todo que usted ha hecho.

“It’s my pleasure, Sofia. You have my number. Feel free to call if you need anything at all.”

Ben’s amber-green gaze returned to me, and though it had to be my imagination that the smile he turned on me was warmer than the one reserved for my sister-in-law, my body still heated in instant response.

“It was nice to meet you, Sam. Have a blessed day, you two.”

We both watched Ben walk away, but I’d have bet my life it was for very different reasons. I foresaw a cold shower in my future. I didn’t need a ghost of Future Lover haunting me when I was already dealing with Devlin as my past and Max as the present.

Sofia turned toward me. “Are you really all right, Sam? Your face went white in the funeral home.”

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