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Fate is twisted, and karma’s a bitch. Maybe destiny will give us a second chance.
I’ve been best friends with Skye since we were ten years old. She was my life. We did nearly everything together.
Until graduation night. The night I f’cked it all up.
Escaping to the Navy, I found a new home with the SEALs. Then tragedy struck, and I lost it all, again.
Now I find myself face-to-face with the woman I’ve tried so hard to forget. But it seems I’ve made it impossible for her to stop thinking about me. I left a brown-haired, brown-eyed reminder.
Her secret. My son.
A powerful reminder of how love can overcome all. A reminder that I have someone who needs me. Almost as much as I need him. And Skye.
I won’t give up. This time I’ll give it all I’ve got. I’ll protect my new family as fiercely as I protected my country.
I just didn’t realize I needed to protect them from me.
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“On your mark…”
I smiled as I watched the small group of children get ready for a race, big smiles covering their faces. The New York Beasts’ mascot sauntered to his “mark” too, wiggling his big red monster butt to the delight of the crowd.
Hot dogs. Baseball. All that was missing was apple pie, and this would be the perfect American day. A normal day. I took a long sip of my ice-cold beer. Normal. I hadn’t had one of those in a while.
One little guy jumped his mark and took off toward first base. Everyone laughed as he was chased down by a staff member and brought back to the starting line to “get set” again. Even from where I sat in the plush box seat, I could see his pink tongue jut through the space where his missing front teeth were supposed to be. He looked like a happy jack-o’-lantern and had “little boy” written all over him. I could tell he was a stinker just from the way he wrinkled his nose as he laughed.
The Beasts’ mascot got in on the fun and plunked a big furry paw on the little boy’s sweaty head, clearly trying to hold him still. The announcer raised the starter pistol in the air while the children waited for their cue to run the bases, and—
The children took off, and in that same instant, I was transported back to Afghanistan…
The explosion came out of nowhere, followed by the distinct sound of AK-47s. Within seconds, our hostage rescue had turned into a baptism of fire.
Diving for cover, I brought up my SCAR to return fire to the enemy high above the alley. The rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire surrounded me from every side.
“We gotta move,” I yelled as I maneuvered to JTAC Mike, who was huddled in a doorway, manning communications.
Mike turned to me. “Apache’s in route. ETA six minutes.”
Shit. We didn’t have six seconds. We were totally screwed.
I began firing at the dark shadows above us again as my team started falling one by one. I was next, I realized. There was no way out of this alley.
“RPG,” I screamed the warning as I dove for what little cover was available. Pain bit into me as the surrounding world exploded and hell’s fury showed itself on Earth.
In front of my eyes, the building housing our hostages was annihilated, leaving us nowhere to run. As the burning shrapnel fell around us, I realized we’d been setup. The intel was bad. We were wedged in, essentially trapped.
A hand clamped down on my shoulder, and I was on my feet in an instant. I reached for my nonexistent gun, and the beer in my cup burst all over my face, the cold liquid and the smell of hops bringing me back to reality.
It was Rhett Hamilton, the owner of the Beasts, looking at me like I was an out of control animal. Maybe I was.
He raised his hands, showing me his palms as he took a couple small steps backward. “It’s alright, Jake,” Rhett said in a soothing voice and lowered a hand to push the beautiful woman standing next to him behind his back. Protecting her. From me. “Everyone step back and give him air.”
I looked back onto the field. The children hadn’t even reached first base yet, so I knew I’d only lost a few seconds of time. But a few seconds was too much. It was all too much.
I need to get out of here.
Forcing myself to laugh, I cringed at how brittle it sounded as I took the towel someone handed me to wipe the foam off my face and hands. “Sorry. I…”
How did I explain to these people what just happened? How did I ruin their day explaining how many of my friends died beside me that day? How did I explain how I survived? How I walked away when so many didn’t.
Was it luck?
If so, I didn’t know if it was good luck or bad.
“We were just about to refill. How about another beer?” Rhett asked, navigating me around the need to explain. I nodded, thankful for the diversion. He smiled down at the lovely woman next to him, and she smiled back, love shining in her eyes.
She turned those unique hazel eyes on me. “I’ll go grab them. Be right back.”
Before I could stop her, she was heading toward the bar.
“You alright?” Rhett asked with a lowered voice when we were alone again.
“Yeah. Sorry. Just had a moment there.”
“Completely understandable. I heard from Ace that your unit went through hell.”
It was an understatement, but I only nodded, appreciating the older man’s attempt at understanding and not throwing the crazy man — me — out on his ear. This was why I avoided crowds now. Avoided everything. I wasn’t a man who could be trusted anymore.