“It’s been over a year, and I still wake up screaming,” the guy huddled on the couch across from me said, his gaze practically boring a hole in the ugly brown carpet. “My girlfriend doesn’t get it, and I can’t tell her…” He made a helpless gesture and ran a hand over his hair, buzzed nearly bare on the sides with maybe half an inch of bristly brown on top. The same “high and tight” haircut I still wore. “The only ones I can really talk to are the guys from my unit, and they’re all as fucked up as me, or worse.”
“I’m glad you came in, Corporal…”—I stole a glance at his intake form—“Sullivan. I think we can help you here.” At least, I hoped we could. I’d seen my fair share of broken, traumatized military men come through the clinic in the past few weeks, most of them self-referred. Guys at the end of their rope with nowhere else to turn.
“That’s more than the fucking VA’s done.” Adam’s apple bobbing, Sullivan glanced up at me for the first time since he’d walked into my cramped cubbyhole. The clinic did good work, but, being financed mostly by public donations, the offices were strictly no-frills. As for Sullivan…his eyes looked like two burned holes in a rug, his hands shaking. He couldn’t be much older than twenty-one, the same age I’d been when I graduated from the Academy. Too young to have three tours under his belt. Way too young to be such a fucking wreck. “I don’t even know when I’ll get an appointment there.”
I’d heard that plenty of times by now, and every time it made my blood simmer. I’d gotten lucky—evidently being an ex-SEAL had fast-tracked me through the system. But these guys were hurting too, and nobody in charge was listening to them.
“I know there are things you can’t talk about,” I said. “But I’ve been through my fair share of firefights. I know what it’s like to hear bullets whizzing past your ears, to have to carry a wounded buddy out of a war zone…”
Or in my case, to be carried out myself. I still remembered that bloody, terrifying night in North Korea like it happened last week. That bullet tearing through my leg right before I hit the ground. Josh bandaging my wound and dragging me out of that prison camp, into the fucking jungle where I’d come that close to dying…
Sullivan clearing his throat jolted me back to the present. “Sorry.” I forced a smile. “What I meant is, I’ve got an idea what you’re going through.”
Sullivan nodded warily, until a loud bump from the hallway outside made him jump.
“It’s okay.” I reached out to him, but he pulled away. “You’re fine. You’re safe.”
But the look in his eyes screamed, There is no safety. There’s just living in this hell I can’t escape.
“It’s not your fault,” I said softly. “You’ve served with courage and honor, and—”
“What the fuck d’you know about it?” He jerked his chin at the file I’d been jotting notes in. “You got my service record there? No? Then you don’t know shit.”
Slumping over, he buried his face in his hands. I leaned in closer, hoping he wouldn’t interpret it as an aggressive act and freak out again. “Whatever happened, you can for—”
“Forgive myself? No fucking way.”
I glanced at his file again, looking for his first name. “Alex, listen to me—”
“Why don’t you fucking listen to me?” Sullivan’s head snapped up, eyes shiny-moist. “The things I’ve done…I can’t forgive myself because they’re unforgiveable. Everything I ever learned about right and wrong, every law of common decency, I flushed it all down the toilet in fucking Afghanistan.”
I’d seen this way too much of late. Practically every military man I’d talked to here seemed to be suffering from not only a damaged psyche, but a damaged sense of self—no, a damaged soul.
I thought I was a good person, but I’ve done terrible things. Monstrous things.
How the hell was I supposed to heal that?
“Are you sleeping?” I asked.
“What do you think?”
I made another note in his file, hoping he didn’t notice how tightly—angrily—I was gripping the pen. How many times had I been tempted to drive over to the local VA and give the administrator in charge a piece of my mind? God knew, these men needed someone to advocate for them. “I can give you a referral to Dr. Tierney across the street, if you want. She’s authorized to prescribe for our clients.”
“A mild tranquilizer, maybe? To help you get some rest?”
He weighed it for a second or two before shaking his head. “Better not. I’d probably swallow the whole fucking bottle.”
An icy lightning bolt shot through me. “Have you been seriously considering”—I had to stop myself from saying “suicide”—“hurting yourself?”
“Every fucking day. The thought of going to hell’s the only thing that keeps me from doing it. That and my girlfriend.” Monroe’s expression softened. “The whole time I was over in the sandbox, all I could think of was coming home. Going to college on the GI Bill. Getting my life on track. Now I can barely haul my ass off the fucking couch.”
Panic attacks, check. Irritability, generalized anxiety, check. Insomnia, nightmares, double check. Hello, crippling PTSD. “Is that what brought you here?”
He nodded. “I don’t want to hurt like this anymore. I don’t want to hurt my girlfriend either.”
“Have you hurt her?” I tensed, not really wanting to know. If yes, I’d have no choice but to report it to the police.
Thank God, he shook his head. “I can usually feel the urge creeping up on me, so I go out for a walk ‘til it passes.”
Even in the midst of his suffering, he’d taken steps to make sure he hadn’t inflicted harm on anyone—well, no physical harm. I could only imagine the emotional toll…
Like when Josh helped you get through a year and a half of physical therapy?
Still, I didn’t think Sullivan posed a danger to himself or others. His body language had relaxed a bit, which I took as a good sign. Then I caught a glimpse of the clock over the door. Ten after five. Shit. I’d gone over again. “Looks like we’re out of time, but like I said, I’m glad you came in.” I set aside his file. “Shall we make another appointment? I’ve got some time free Thursday afternoon.”
“You want me to come back again this week?” He dug in his pocket and pulled out a ragged twenty and a handful of loose change. “I, uh…money’s a little tight right now…”
“We operate on a sliding scale. Whatever you can afford is fine.”
I held out my hand. Sullivan looked at it like he was afraid my fingers might turn into snakes and bite him, but he took it. His palms were still clammy-moist. “What branch did you serve in?” he asked.
“Navy. I was a SEAL, stationed right here at Coronado.”
I’d been sitting down when he came in, so he hadn’t seen me limping around. This time I gave him the full effect, grabbing both arms of my chair to push myself up. My bad leg got stiff when I’d been sitting too long, so I wobbled a bit, until I grabbed my cane. “That’s what my leg says.”
“Oh, Jesus…” He rubbed a hand over his face. “I had no idea. That sucks.”
“See? I wasn’t shitting you about having combat experience.” I ushered him down the short hallway to the reception area and laid a cautious hand on his arm, half expecting him to shake me off. When he didn’t, I added, “There’s no shame in asking for help. That’s what we’re here for.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Thanks, man. It’s good to know somebody gives a shit.”
Strong. Sexy. Sizzling.
There’s nothing like a man in uniform, and thirteen of today’s hottest gay romance authors are celebrating military heroes and the men brave enough to love them.
These brand-new novellas feature all branches of the service and offer something for every reader. Almost 300,000 never before published words!
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Lucy Felthouse – Desert Heat
Amelia C. Gormley – The Houseboy: Initiation
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Cat Grant lives by the sea in beautiful Monterey, California, with one persnickety feline and way too many books and DVDs. When she’s not writing, you can usually find her watching movies or TV (Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries are among her favorite shows), singing along to her favorite band (30 Seconds to Mars), or fantasizing about kinky sex with Michael Fassbender and/or Jared Leto.
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