Friday, April 4, 2014

EXCERPT: The Only One Who Matters

Title: The Only One Who Matters
Author: Cat Grant, L.A. Witt
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Format: ebook, paperback


Coming home was always weirder than it should have been.

With every completed mission, Lieutenant Commander Josh Walker thought that feeling would go away, but it didn’t. Sliding into the driver’s seat of his Mustang—after blasting the A/C to cool it down after four weeks in the sun, of course—felt like climbing into the cockpit of an alien ship. Feeling the seat belt through his shirt reminded him he was no longer wearing a protective layer of body armor. When he glanced in the rearview and side mirrors, he was so caught up in checking for insurgents and IEDs, he nearly forgot to check for pedestrians and passing cars. He remembered, though, and just in time not to back over a pair of civilian contractors.

He paused, elbow on the steering wheel, and rubbed a hand over his jaw. Even his goddamned face felt weird, with a few weeks’ worth of scruff now absent, replaced only by about twenty-four hours of stubble. He was so used to his hair tickling the back of his neck, it was strange to feel cold air on it now. The haircut, the air-conditioning, the lack of the Middle Eastern sun—welcome home, Josh.

Home. That thought brought a smile to his lips.

He checked the mirrors again, this time for passersby and cars instead of phantom insurgents, and backed out of the parking space.

Traffic was lighter than usual, thank God, and he sped past the familiar-but-strange scenery. It was good to see a landscape that wasn’t desert, and, even better, something that wasn’t the drab, bare-bones inside of a cargo jet.

He parked in front of the one-story rental house, killed the engine and got out. He didn’t even bother pulling his rucksack out of the trunk. He’d carried men who outweighed him by a good hundred pounds through hellish conditions, but just the thought of picking up that bag made him tired. Between the long, miserable flights home—it took a hell of a storm to make a dozen SEALs airsick—and this afternoon’s debrief, he was exhausted.

Though the ground floor had been picked out for other reasons, he was sure thankful for it today. If he’d had to drag his ass up any stairs, he might’ve just napped in the damned car.

As he was putting his key in the door, a neighbor’s dog started barking. Josh rolled his eyes. Great. All he wanted to do was sleep, and now there—

He opened the door, and a huge German shepherd rushed at him.

“What the—”

“Major! Down!

The dog instantly dropped onto its haunches but whined softly as it wagged its tail so hard it almost toppled itself. Josh stared at it for a moment.

Then he raised his gaze, and in spite of his surprise at the strange dog in his house, grinned.

Leaning heavily—but not nearly as heavily as a month ago—on a cane, David returned the grin, green eyes shining just right to make Josh almost forget how exhausted he was. “Hey. Didn’t realize you’d landed already.”

Josh shrugged. “Thought I’d surprise you. I just, uh…” He glanced at the dog. “Wasn’t expecting Cujo here.”

David laughed. “Major, go lay down.”

The dog whined again, but then trotted over to the recliner and lay beside it, head on his enormous paws.

Josh kicked the door shut and closed the distance between him and David. Damn, it had been a while, hadn’t it? David was obviously getting around better now. His sandy blond hair was a little longer—still within regs, even though he’d been retired for months, but longer than when Josh had left.

“God, I missed you,” Josh whispered, wrapping his arms around him.

“Missed you too,” David murmured and kissed him. He put one arm around Josh’s waist and rested the other hand, the one still holding the cane, on Josh’s hip. His kiss was soft, not as demanding as it could be when he was turned on, and Josh was grateful for it. Sometimes he came back from missions and wanted to fuck until they couldn’t move, but sometimes, he… Hell, he already couldn’t move.

David broke the kiss and touched his forehead to Josh’s. “Tired?”


He drew back enough to meet Josh’s eyes. Then he nodded down the hall. “Why don’t you go get some sleep?”

“I will.” Josh touched David’s face. “But I want—”

“Josh.” David gave him a look that took Josh back to the days of SEAL training, back when they’d been Chief Flint and Lieutenant Walker. “I could tell the second you came in the door that you were dead on your feet. Just go get some sleep.”

“But you—”

“Will be here when you get up.” He nudged Josh toward the bedroom. “Go.”

Josh wanted to argue. He hadn’t seen David in a damned month. He wanted to catch up. Just be with him. Find out how his physical therapy was going and his leg was healing and…

And he was too fucking tired.

He kissed David softly. “Just a few hours.”

David smiled. “Enjoy it.”

Josh startled awake in a pitch-black room. Heart racing. Panic running through his veins. Fear. Adrenaline. The cool air didn’t feel right. Not on sunburned skin and—

No, he wasn’t sunburned.

And the sand in his mouth was gone.

The dream faded. He couldn’t remember what he’d dreamed about, only that he had, in fact, dreamed, and his blood was still pumping from it. Whatever it was, it was over.

Except that Josh was immobile. The sheet draped over his body from the waist down was tight. Heavy. What the hell?

He squinted in the darkness as some faint light spilling in from down the hall illuminated his familiar surroundings. The mismatched silhouettes of a couple of craigslist dressers. The outline of the footboard. The dark rectangle that he finally recognized as a framed print his mom had given them as a housewarming gift.

Home. He was home.

And the warm, solid shape beside him was David, sound asleep, snoring softly, and safe. Josh closed his eyes and exhaled. A few fleeting images from the dream flashed through his mind, and he remembered being back out on the last mission, except this time, David was with him. Still a SEAL. Still running like the best of them, or crouching along a wall as they crept into a building, or carrying one of the guys. Then there’d been a grenade.

Josh shuddered. All the dreams were different, but the recurring theme was the same—David was healthy and mobile, and then he was down, and then he was gone.

But he was okay now. Josh was home, and David was asleep beside him, his cane probably propped up against the nightstand and his leg scarred from the bullet that had ended his career.

Josh started to roll toward him so he could put an arm over him, but the sheet was still pulled tight. He couldn’t move. Something heavy was pressed up against him. What the fuck was going on here?

He felt around, and his hand met thick, coarse fur.

The dog. Right.

Wait, the dog was in bed with them?

He pushed himself up onto his elbows, and sure enough, the dog—Major, wasn’t that what David had called him?—was sprawled out beside Josh, his paws hanging over the side of the bed. Seriously?

He dropped back onto the mattress and stared up at the ceiling. Then he rolled over, which was a challenge when he was between David and Major, and draped an arm over David’s waist. David stirred a little, grumbling something in his sleep, and put a hand over Josh’s.

Closing his eyes, Josh kissed the back of David’s shoulder. This felt so weird. The dog was new, of course, but even sleeping in his own bed with his arm around David was…strange. Warm skin against warm skin made him feel vulnerable. Much like the seat belt against his thin shirt, David’s body against his reminded him he no longer wore that protective shell of Kevlar and trauma plates. The blackout curtains over the window behind his back didn’t make him feel any less like a pair of eyes or a sniper scope might peer through it. The air tasted strange without the coppery tinge of blood or the sour bite of sweat.

Sleep was a very real possibility here. No dreamless catnaps whenever he could get them. He could fall asleep. He could dream. Pressed against David, he shuddered.

He was home, damn it. Home and safe.

Why the fuck did he feel like he’d landed on another planet?

When Josh awoke again, he was alone. David was gone, and so was the dog.

He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Every muscle in his body ached, but it was that ache that came from sleeping too long, so he couldn’t complain. He stretched a little, then got up, put on a pair of shorts—holy fuck, it felt good not to be wearing sandy, sweaty camos for once—and shuffled into the bathroom to take a leak. He considered grabbing a shower but desperately needed a cigarette and some coffee first.

He headed out to the kitchen. There, David was standing at the counter, the dog sitting beside him on the mat in front of the sink with its tongue hanging out and tail wagging. Glancing over his shoulder, David smiled. “Mornin’.”

“Mornin’.” Josh squinted against the bright sunlight. “How long have I been out?”

“About sixteen hours.”

“Jesus.” That was probably more than he’d slept in the entire four-week deployment. Now he remembered why he preferred those short-and-sweet missions that had him home before the fatigue had a chance to catch up with him.

As his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he realized David was standing unassisted by the counter. A month ago, he’d been glued to the cane.

“You’re getting around a lot better, I see.”

David smiled halfheartedly. “Still can’t quite leave that thing behind”—he gestured at the cane propped up beside the kitchen table—“but I can get further away from it.”

“That’s progress.” Josh smiled. “What else has been going on?”

David leaned against the counter, subtly taking some weight off his injured leg. “Same as when you left. Physical therapy. Still trying to find a fucking job.”

“Any bites there?”

“Nah.” David shook his head. “Not exactly qualified for much behind a desk, and can’t stand long enough or move well enough to do anything I am qualified to do.” He paused. “On a positive note, my physical therapist is cutting me down to once every other week.”

“Really?” Josh grinned. “That’s great.”

David managed a somewhat more enthusiastic expression. “Yeah. Only getting tortured twice a month now.”

“Glad to hear you’re getting better.”

“Something like that,” David muttered. Before Josh could press, David reached for him and put a hand on his waist. “How about you? You doing all right?” He never asked for details about the mission. He knew better. It was against regs to discuss it, and Josh suspected he didn’t want to know anyway.

Josh nodded. “Yeah. I’ll be fine.”

At their feet, the dog fidgeted, his tags jingling.

Josh regarded him curiously. “Didn’t realize you’d found a dog already.”

“He was Hanley’s dog. The wife was getting overwhelmed keeping up with a puppy and two toddlers, and now with a new baby on the way…” David gestured at Major. “I said I’d take him off her hands.”

“He seems pretty happy here.”

David glanced at the dog. “I like him. What do you think?”

“Not sure yet. Is he, uh, friendly?”

David threw him a good-natured glare. “No, Josh. I got us a vicious biter who’s going to tear your throat out if you look at him cross-eyed.”

Chuckling, Josh flipped him off. He knelt in front of the dog, careful not to look him straight in the eyes, and held out his hand. Major sniffed him, then licked his fingers.

“How old is he?” Josh asked as he petted him.

“Little over a year.” David came closer, resting his hand on the counter to make up for the absence of the cane. “Sort of halfway between a puppy and not.” He paused. “Housebroken already, thank God.”

“Well, that’s good. Especially if he’s sleeping on my side of the bed.”

David laughed, eyes darting away. “We can, uh, get him his own bed. I hadn’t meant for him to get in the habit, but…”

Josh rose. “It’s okay. I really don’t mind.”

“You sure?”

Josh nodded. “It was just something to, you know, get used to. Kind of, uh…” He hesitated. “Just kind of startled me the first time.”

David locked eyes with him. “You still having nightmares?”

Josh swallowed. “You telling me you aren’t?”

They held each other’s gazes.

Then David broke away, clearing his throat. “Coffee’s ready. You feel like having eggs or anything?”

“Sure. Eggs sound good. I need to have a smoke first.”

As David went to the refrigerator, his limp less pronounced but still unmistakable, Josh sighed. He looked down at the dog sitting at his feet and absently scratched Major’s ears.

Coming home really was always weirder than it should have been.

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