Former Army Sergeant Deacon Hunter is trapped.
Trapped in the friend zone. Longing for the woman who captured his heart when they were deployed in Iraq.
Former Army Sergeant Kelsey Ryder has scars, the kind of scars she hopes that no one ever sees. Working around the guys at the Pint, she’s reminded of everything she lost when she left the Army behind.
But some scars refuse to stay hidden.
One fateful night changes everything and neither of them know if their relationship will ever be the same.
All Deacon knows is that he’ll be there to catch her when she finally falls.
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I let her go. I probably should stop fucking with her but with Kelsey, everything is complicated. And in the six months that she's been back in my life, it's only gotten more so.
"She's fine, you know," Nalini says softly. Her eyes are always bright and calm. I love Nalini like a sister and I love that she’s looking out for Kelsey because I no longer can.
I've known Nalini a while now, ever since I started grad school. She's a magnet to other vets on campus, kind of like Eli is over at The Pint. Between the two of them, they're the sun and the moon. The rest of us are caught in their orbit.
She smiles warmly and pats my cheek. "But you're not sure. If you were, you wouldn't watch her like that every time she walks away."
I grin and lean against the broad table behind me. I love that The Grind has broad, wide tables as well as smaller ones and comfy overstuffed chairs. "How much trouble are you causing on campus today?"
"As much as I need to," she says. She folds her arms over her chest. "When are you going to stop pining after her and do something about this awkward standoff you two have going on? I feel like I’m caught in no man's land between the French and the Germans in World War I."
"That is a terrible analogy."
"Yeah, well, you should try being caught between you two once in a while. Take pity on the rest of us who have to deal with your sexual frustration. You can practically touch it."
She follows for a few steps while I laugh and move to the line for coffee. "I don't even know what to say to that." I place my order. “Large latte, extra shot of espresso.”
"Well, that'll put hair on your chest," she says dryly.
I shake my head. "What are you poking at, Nalini?" Because she always pokes until she gets around to what she needs to say.
"Nothing much. Just wondering how things are out at The Pint?"
"They're good. I mean, I know you don't drink but you really should come out some time. There's a whole bunch of us out there, even a couple of new guys who came by last week who used to be in First Cav. You could come by and just hang out, swap war stories about Stetsons or whatever you Cav people do."
She grins and glances down at her watch. "I'm good, thanks. Though it's awful tempting. You 82d Airborne guys think you're all that with your raspberry berets."
"Bite your tongue." Damn, sometimes it feels good to walk back over familiar ground, harassing each other because of the units we've both served in. "I chewed the same dirt as you did in First Cav."
"Well, use that common ground to make some damn progress with her, why don't you?"
I sip my coffee and instantly, my blood cells are more awake than they were a moment before. "Does she say anything?" I want to add in about me. But I don't.
Because I'm a coward when it comes to Kelsey.
"You wish. And even if she did, I wouldn't break her confidence."
"I hate playing games. You know that, right?"
"No games, Deacon." Nalini turns suddenly serious. "I worry about her. About the things she doesn't talk about."
I glance toward the door that Kelsey disappeared through. "Yeah, me too."
I know the things she doesn't talk about, at least some of them.
I know what things keep her up at night.
I know how good things used to be between us, once upon a war.
And I know exactly the moment things got screwed up.
I can't fix any of those things now, no matter how much I might want to. Kelsey has to want to unpack that stuff herself. In the few months she's been back in my life, she's given me no indication that she wants to go anywhere near our shared memories of sand and dust and war.
Not that I blame her.
I leave Nalini at The Grind and head to the old Wilson building for my graduate seminar. I’ve got a relatively light load this semester. At some point, I have to stop avoiding my thesis and actually start typing.
I've become a master of procrastination, among other things. Funny how leaving the war and the Army behind makes you find other things to keep you occupied.
My old first sergeant would kick my ass if he knew how much I was avoiding this work. I grin, thinking of him. I should shoot him a note one of these days.
But I won't.
Lately it's been like I'm running some kind of test with myself or something. How long can I stay away from the lure of the familiar? The good memories.
And yeah, even the bad ones are good when you're talking to someone who speaks the same language. There's something comfortable about just talking to someone who's been there. Bullshitting about the stupid shit we or one of our soldiers did.
I'm pretty sure America would have kittens if she knew the kind of shenanigans her soldiers pulled on guard duty in the middle of the desert.
But I won’t make the call. I can’t. It’s like I’m trying to prove to myself that I can cut the cord between me and the Army, that I can truly function out here as a civilian and not constantly be reaching back to the guys I left behind when I left Fort Hood.
Besides, it’s not like I don’t have enough Army around me with Eli and the rest of the gang at The Pint.
I smile down at my phone, double-checking the room number for the class Professor Blake asked me to assist with. She was pretty vague about who I was going to be teaching with this semester.
I probably should have asked for more details but she's pretty much been my fairy godmother since I decided to go to grad school and get my master’s in public administration, so I figure I owe her whatever she needs.
The classroom is just inside of the old Wilson building. You can practically smell the history in this place, along with the chill from the stone walls and ancient windows. There’s too much history here for a working class kid like me. I suppose people who are used to this kind of place aren’t really awestruck by it like I still am.
I still have no idea how I got accepted here. Or how I haven't managed to be politely asked to leave.
I push open the door to the classroom, tucking my phone into my back pocket, and then stop short. The classroom isn’t empty.
"You've got to be shitting me." What's that they say about fiction? It's supposed to be believable, right? You can't make this shit up because no shit, there is Kelsey Ryder sitting in a corner, her back to the wall.
And she looks ready for war.