Note: this is book #3 of a trilogy
Funeral of Sergeant Brett Michaels
Physical dread furled in Sergeant Cory Foster’s stomach as he took another step toward the flag-draped coffin. His palms were slick with sweat, and he rubbed them on his military dress uniform. The muted sounds of a hundred people mourning pressed against his chest, and it was an effort to focus on the people standing to the left of the coffin.
Why couldn’t they just be still? Just for a minute. It’s all he needed to pull everything back inside…
He felt Maddy’s hand graze his and he grabbed onto it as he came face to face with Brett’s parents.
“Thank you for coming.” The woman’s voice was flat, as if every word required a monumental effort. Her eyes played over the medals on Cory’s uniform, then fastened on his name. “Foster.” Her eyes jumped from his chest to his face. “Cory! Please. You were there, when my boy…” Her breath shuddered dangerously. “Tell me what happened. Please!”
“Anne.” Her husband—Brett’s father—stood beside her, looking like he was the only thing holding her upright. His voice was low and raw. “You know what happened.”
“No!” she cried. “It wasn’t enough!”
Cory didn’t know how to respond to the grief pouring out of this woman who’d lost her only son.
“I’m so sorry.” His throat was tight with his own grief, his voice threatening to break.
“Wasn’t there anything else you could have done?” she cried.
Her words hit him like a slap to the face, and he nearly took a step back. He’d asked himself the same thing a thousand times; if he hadn’t been focused on Chase, could he have done something more for Brett?
Chase would be here if he could. Doing this far better than Cory…
“Anne!” Cory heard the shock, the hurt, and the disapproval all in that one word spoken by Brett’s father.
That didn’t make it any easier to respond, but he tried. “He didn’t suffer…”
Anne collapsed into her husband’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably.
Maddy leaned into the older woman as she murmured words that were far more comforting, no doubt, than his had been. Her dark hair spilled over one cheek, and a sharp need stabbed through his center. He longed to give up control again. To Maddy. Just for a little while...
A vise tightened around his chest, forcing his breath to go shallow. He glanced toward where they’d parked the car.
I have to get away.
He gripped Maddy’s shoulder with more force than he’d intended. “I’ll wait for you in the car.”
He felt Maddy’s eyes on him, but he couldn’t stop his feet from carrying him away from the accusing glances. Away from the palpable grief.
Only to find himself locked out of the car.
He wanted to scream. To scrape his insides out with a primal howl. Instead, he gave the tire nearest him a vicious kick that only served to radiate pain through his ankle. He swore at his foot. He swore at the car. He swore at the mud he’d somehow picked up on his dress shoes.
And shit, he could not catch his breath. What was wrong with him?
He slumped on the hood of the car, one hand pressed to the scar on his side, which seemed to throb with its own energy.
“Hey.” Maddy hoisted herself onto the hood next to him. “You okay?”
He nodded as he studied the mud on his shoes.
Gonna have to clean those when I get home.
“What Anne said, she said out of grief,” she said. “You know that, right?”
“It was a valid question,” he said.
“No.” Her voice had an edge he’d never heard before. “You did everything you could. You all did. Sometimes there just isn’t a way to save them.”
Without warning, the weight on his lungs went from mild to crushing. His body bent forward, his mouth sucking in harsh breaths.
“Cory.” She laid one hand on his shoulder. “I think you’re having an anxiety attack.”
“Don’t diagnose me,” he snapped. “You’re not my doctor.”
She reeled back as if he’d slapped her. He cursed himself as he pressed one hand against his chest. Holy hell, it felt like a heart attack!
He just needed it to stop. All of it. He wanted to apologize to Maddy but he didn’t trust himself to speak. There was too much twisted and rioting inside him, and he couldn’t let her see.
After a few moments, she drew a deep breath. Still, he heard the hurt in her voice when she said, “Let’s go home.”
Six Weeks Later
“Home sweet home.” Sergeant Chase Richards’ mom flipped the light switch, then stepped aside.
Chase maneuvered the wheelchair over the threshold of his apartment but was stopped by a memory so vivid he had to clench his jaw: Ella, meeting him here, at the door, in nothing but a thong. Ella in his arms, pressed up against the wall…
He glanced at the leg that ended just below his knee, then at his left hand, which sported a heavy-duty bandage that bristled with pins.
He would never be able to press her up against a wall like that again.
The weeks at Walter Reed had been hell. The constant pain had worn him down, but it was the reliance on others to do even the simplest things—like getting his pants on—that had turned him into someone he didn’t recognize.
Didn’t want to recognize.
“Chase?” His mom’s voice pulled him back to his living room. “You need to take your meds.”
The pain medication that he couldn’t function without.
Even with it, the edge was never completely off. And his hand? It was worthless…
With the fingers of his good hand, he pressed the lever to turn the wheelchair toward the bedroom. “Can you bring it to me? I just want to lie down.”
The best thing about the medication is that it made him sleepy. And—at least for a short time—it allowed him to escape his new reality.
He rolled himself to the bed and eyed the disparity between it and the wheelchair. He set the brake on the wheelchair, then used the nightstand and his right hand as leverage to get himself on his feet.
Check that—on one foot.
He hitched his hip onto the bed, then twisted his torso to slide his body onto the mattress. He bit back a groan as he lifted his stump onto the bed. Yes, it was definitely time for meds.
His mom entered, and he reached for the sheet.
Yes, cover it up.
His mom dropped the pills in his hand and handed him a glass. “You should call Ella.”
He grunted as he handed the glass back to her.
She crossed her arms. “If you won’t, I will,” she said. “She deserves to know you’re back. You know she wanted to be here.”
Chase closed his eyes, let his head fall back. “Mom. We already talked about this.”
“And I told you what I think,” she said.
It was easy for his mom to have an opinion, but he was the man, damn it. He was supposed to take care of Ella, not the other way around. He hadn’t wanted her to see him—to know what he went through at Walter Reed—so he’d sent her away. He thought he’d feel better when he was released.
The bed dipped as she sat on it. “Sweetheart.”
“Mom, please,” he interrupted. “Can I just sleep for a bit? Please?”
She brushed a hand over his brow. “Yes, you need to rest,” she said. “Because tomorrow, you get your prosthetic.”
His new leg. Everyone said that was progress—a major step—but he couldn’t help thinking it was just one more thing that others would have to help him with.
That Ella would help with?
After all, his mom wasn’t going to stay forever. And how the hell would he put it on himself, with a porcupine for a hand?
His eyes burned hot behind the lids, and his body remained rigid. After long moments of his mom fussing with the blankets, he heard the soft click that put the room into darkness.
Ella Foster pounced on the phone the moment it rang—like she always did these days—then swallowed her disappointment when she saw it wasn’t Chase, but his mom.
“Hello, Virginia,” she said. “Is everything okay?”
“Ella, honey,” Virginia said. “How are you holding up?”
“I…” Tears sprang to her eyes. I miss my man with every fiber of my body. I ache for his touch and sometimes I cry myself to sleep at night.
“I’m hanging in there,” she said. “How’s Chase?”
“Well…” Virginia paused. “We’re home.”
“Home, as in Augusta?”
“As in his apartment in Savannah,” Virginia said.
Her heart leapt. Chase was here! “I can be there in twenty minutes.”
Something in Virginia’s voice made her blood chill.
“He’s not ready to see you,” Virginia said.
All the breath left Ella’s lungs. “I… I don’t understand.”
“Honey, all I can say is he’s not in a good place.” Ella heard the strain in Virginia’s voice. “I pray he finds it, but right now…”
Things hadn’t been good at Walter Reed. She’d thought by leaving—by giving Chase the time and space he claimed he needed—things would be better between them when he came home. It had been one of the hardest things she’d ever done.
And now he’d come home without even telling her.
He didn’t want her there.
The realization hurt so much it made her feel nauseous. She sank down onto the couch.
“Ella, I know you mean well, and I know you want it badly,” Virginia continued. “But coming over here won’t help. He’s just not ready.”
“Ready for what?” How could he not be ready to see her?
“For what his injuries mean to him long-term,” she said. “Ready for… well, who he is now.”
Ella didn’t care that Chase couldn’t go back to the Rangers; she was just glad he was alive.
But he would care. He would care a whole lot…
“You know Chase loves you,” Virginia said.
Ella sniffed. “Does he?”
“I know my boy, and he wouldn’t have asked you to marry him if he didn’t,” she said firmly. “I know it’s hard, but you have to be patient with him. Men are… well, their egos are much more fragile than they let on.”
Chase? Fragile ego?
“He’s vulnerable and needy and he hates it,” Virginia said.
Ella leaned forward, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “What do I do?”
“Give him time,” she said. “He’ll come around.”
How much time will it take?
“You think so?” Ella said.
Ella pulled in a long breath. “Okay. For now. But I’m not going to do this living-in-limbo thing forever.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to, honey,” Virginia said. “And when the time is right, you’ll have my blessing to kick his butt into gear.”