The war is over. The battle for love has just begun.
As Marines, Cal and Jim depended on each other to survive bloodshed and despair in the Pacific. Relieved to put the horrors of war behind him, Jim went home to his apple orchard and a quiet life with his wife and children. Knowing Jim could never return his forbidden feelings, Cal hoped time and an ocean between them would dull the yearning for his best friend.
But when Jim’s wife dies, Cal returns to help. He doesn’t know a thing about apple farming—or children—but he’s determined to be there for Jim, even as the painful torch he carries blazes back to life. Jim is grateful for his friend’s support as he struggles with buried emotions and dark wartime memories. Then Jim begins to see Cal in a new light, and their relationship deepens in ways neither expected. Can they build a life together as a family and find happiness in a world that would condemn them?
***Note: Contains scenes of violence and post-traumatic stress. 95,000 words***
What can I say about this story? It's freaking amazing! I loved the blend of wartime and postwar dramatics. Some might find the alternate wartime and 1948 POVs to be a bit of a flow issue, but I did not. You can't help but love both Cal and Jim. Cal's wit is a perfect companion to Jim's straight-laced by-the-book way of life that you just know when the moment comes, they will be adorable and explosive at the same time. I was pleasantly surprised how the author took Sophie, Jim's daughter. When we first meet her, she's not exactly too keen on welcoming "Uncle Cal". In my reading experiences, there are usually 3 kinds of ways to write kids. The first is super sweet and immediately accepting of all things new. The second, complete brats that never come around until the last page. Then the third, bratty turned lovable after some kind of crisis or disaster. All three types have a place in stories but I found Semper Fi fell into the third category, although "crisis" is a little strong for the scenario that starts to warm Sophie to Cal, and done expertly. I really thought I wasn't going to be too fond of Sophie but I came to love her. This is the first time I've read this author but I can safely say it won't be the last.
Cal’s throat felt drier than the dirt road as he steered his Cadillac past the painted sign reading Clover Grove Orchard in neat script above a faded red apple. Gravel pelted the undercarriage of the car, which had only ever driven down paved city boulevards. The laneway took a few gentle turns before ending at a two-story farmhouse. He pulled up next to a rusted red pickup and killed the engine.
The white wooden house had a red door and a few small windows, and the shingled roof rose to a peak above the second floor. To Cal, it was exactly what he imagined a farmhouse should be. Simple and unadorned. Workmanlike yet homey. Off to the left was a small barn, its dark green paint peeling. A cow and two horses wandered a fenced-in area of brownish grass beside it, and a large storage shed stood behind the barn.
Beyond that the ground sloped down to the orchard, where row upon row of apple trees grew into the distance. Cal got out of the car and stretched, breathing the spring air deeply. He caught movement at the top of the rise, and Jim walked over the crest of the gentle hill, his light hair gleaming in the sun. Breath caught, Cal forced his lungs to expand.
He should never have come.
Tall and lean, Jim had the body of a man who worked the land from sunup to sundown. The sleeves of his plaid shirt and light jacket were rolled to the elbows, and his dungarees fit his slim hips snugly. He walked with an even, measured stride—not too fast, not too slow. Steady as always.
It was all Cal could do not to run to him. The longing burned his chest, and his heart thumped. In the past three years, Cal had almost convinced himself his feelings had faded. Almost.
A big shaggy brown dog bounded out of the orchard, barking loudly. Jim whistled and brought it to heel as he reached Cal. Smiling softly, Jim extended his hand. Cal tried to ignore the flare of excitement that skittered up his spine as their palms connected, keeping his smile relaxed.
They hugged briefly, slapping each other on the back. They were both just over six feet, with Jim a little taller, and Cal couldn’t help but think of how perfectly they fit together. Jim’s scent sparked a hundred memories that flitted through his mind like a newsreel.
Concentrating on an easy tone, Cal stepped back and let the dog smell his hand. “I see you’ve got quite a guard dog here.” After a cursory sniff, the animal licked Cal’s fingers and rubbed against his leg.
“Oh yeah. Finnigan’s a real killer. His bark is a heck of a lot worse than his bite, but he does keep the deer away from the trees.”
“Deer give you trouble? Hey, you don’t have any bears out here, do you?” Cal put on an exaggeratedly serious expression.
“Tons of bears. They love city slickers.”
“They are known for their refined palate.” Cal crouched down and scratched behind Finnigan’s floppy ears. “This guy keeps the deer from eating your crop?”
“Yep, he patrols the orchard. I built him a little house out there, and he does a real fine job. Comes and sees us every so often throughout the day, but always does his rounds. Best employee I’ve ever had.”
“You’re my competition, huh, Finnigan?” The dog eagerly flopped on his back and Cal rubbed his tummy. “Which breed is he?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. He showed up one day a few years ago, limping and awfully thin. We couldn’t turn him away.”
“And now you’ve got another stray at your doorstep.” Cal stood, grinning.
Jim grinned back. “I guess I do. Did you find the place all right?”
“Yep. It looks great, Jim.” Cal waved his arm around to indicate the orchard. “This is all yours?”
“All sixty acres.” He shrugged. “It’s not much, but it’s home. I’m sure it’s awfully…basic compared to what you’re used to in the city.”
“Hey, in case you’ve forgotten our jaunt through the Pacific already, I’ve roughed it with the best of them.”
Jim chuckled. “True enough. Look, it’s not the jungle, but are you sure you’re up for this? Not that I don’t appreciate your help, but I’m sure I could find someone local. I don’t want to put you out.”
Cal clapped a hand on Jim’s shoulder. “After being cooped up in New York and London, I’m ready for a little fresh air and hard work. Point me to the nearest shovel. Or whatever I need to take care of apple trees.”
Jim’s eyes twinkled. “Let me show you around first.”
They fell into a comfortable stride as if no time had passed at all. Jim led the way into the barn past a small coop where several chickens clucked. The dim, hay-strewn interior of the building revealed farming equipment, several stalls for animals, and a well-worn ladder leading to a small loft.
It smelled of animals and musky earth with the hint of manure, but wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, Cal’s blood stirred as Jim leaned close to him to point out the chicken coop. It had only been minutes, and simply being near Jim set him off. How was he going to spend hours a day with him and not humiliate himself?
“I know it needs a good cleaning. It’s just been at the bottom of the list.”
Cal realized he was frowning, and quickly smiled. “No, no, it’s great. So the cow and horses live in here?”
As Jim explained the daily schedule for milking the cow, Mabel, and caring for the horses and chickens, Cal nodded and tried to pay attention. But his belly flip-flopped, and he felt like a schoolgirl going to her first dance. He truly had been a fool to think time and distance could change anything.
He followed along into the house through the kitchen door. Pale yellow curtains fluttered in the breeze over the sink, and a round wooden table fit neatly in the corner by the pantry. A gas stove stood in the other corner with a pot of something that smelled like oniony beef stew simmering on top.
Cal inhaled loudly. “Are you telling me you could’ve been whipping up gourmet delights all those years we were starving in the jungle?”
Jim feigned offense. “Hey, no one unwrapped a D-ration bar quite like I did. But I can’t take credit for this.” He motioned toward the pot. “Courtesy of Mrs. O’Brien. She helps out with Adam during the day and cooks dinner. She’ll be meeting Sophie off the school bus now before she heads home. There’s frozen applesauce too. You’ll be sick of apples soon enough, but I thought you’d like it tonight. Tastes almost like ice cream.”
“Sounds great.” Dessert was swell, but at the mention of Sophie and Adam, Cal’s stomach knotted. He hadn’t spent more than five consecutive minutes with children since he’d been one himself. He hoped they wouldn’t be too…complicated.
By the stove stood a starkly white refrigerator. Cal smiled. “Look at this. First electricity and now a refrigerator. Next you’ll tell me you’re getting a phone.”
Jim’s forehead furrowed. “Who would I talk to out here?”
“The rest of the world? People who might want to buy your apples?”
“I already have people to buy my apples. Wilson’s grocery stores buy all the apples I can grow. I don’t need the rest of the world. Besides, I had a shower head put in last year. Things are plenty modern around here.”
“Very true. Although you could have talked to me on the phone.”
“I wrote you letters, Cal. It’s not my fault you’re a terrible correspondent.”
“Moi? I take offense at that insult to my fine, upstanding character.”
Chuckling, Jim led him through a dining area and sitting room off the main hall. The walls were covered with faded floral wallpaper—small bouquets of pink, white and yellow on a blue background. A fine layer of dust covered the figurines displayed in a hutch by the dark sofa. Cal suspected the furnishings were Jim’s mother’s choices when the house was built after World War I.
Upstairs were three bedrooms. The first at the front of the house contained two small beds, with an open toy chest beneath the window. Several dolls spilled out, and Jim tidied them up as if embarrassed by the clutter.
Next was the neat and spare guest room. A double bed filled the center of the room, and a wooden chair sat in the corner. The oak dresser rested against pale blue wallpaper.
“Hope this’ll be okay for you.”
Cal smiled. “Of course. It’s perfect. Everything I need. Nice big window and everything.”
Next was the bathroom, and then the main bedroom at the back of the house. Jim’s headboard was simple dark wood, and Cal breathed deeply as he took in the bed. Jim would be sleeping here every night. So close but so incredibly far away.
A cheval glass stood in the corner by the window, and two dressers of matching dark wood filled the rest of the room. The closest was Jim’s, with a simple comb resting on top, alongside—
Cal’s heart skipped a beat. Beside the comb was the gold watch. He swallowed hard. “You know you’re supposed to wear that. It tells time and everything. That’s why I gave it to you.”
Jim’s lips twitched. “Yes, I heard a rumor. But I don’t want to get it scratched up out in the orchard. It’s for special occasions.”
“Guess you use the position of the sun to tell time, huh? Like Davy Crockett?”
Jim smiled. “Yeah, something like that.”
Beside the watch sat Jim’s battered dog tags, coiled neatly. Cal brushed them with his fingertips. In London he’d come close one night to throwing his tags into the Thames, but in the end he’d locked them away in a safe deposit box with his papers.
Cal’s eyes were inexorably drawn to the other dresser. Atop it sat several items on a yellowing lace doily. A velvet jewellery box that had probably never held anything like the diamonds and gold that adorned Cal’s mother. A gilded brush and comb set, neatly arranged side by side. A small bottle of perfume that Cal guessed smelled of some sort of sweet bloom. A pot of face cream.
The remnants of a life.
Cal turned to Jim, who wore the stoic expression Cal had etched in his memory since boot camp—only his eyes betraying a weary sadness. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it back for the funeral.”
“You were working in London. I understand.” Jim tried to smile, but didn’t quite make it. He reached for the other item resting on the dresser, a silver-framed wedding photo.
Ann wore a simple white dress without a veil, and only a sprig of delicate flowers tucked into her dark hair to match her small bouquet. She smiled widely on Jim’s arm, her eyes crinkling. Jim stood ramrod straight, posing seriously.
Jim straightened the frame’s position a fraction of an inch before stepping back. “I’m sorry you never got the chance to come out and meet her.”
“Yeah. So am I.”
Cal’s gut burned with shame. Standing in the woman’s bedroom six months after her death, deep down he still prickled with jealousy and resentment. She’d had what Cal never would. Never could. Part of him still hated her for that, as unfair as it was.
As much as he’d shared with Jim in those three and a half years of the war, it could never be this. The truth was, Cal had hoped he wouldn’t have to meet Jim’s wife, and had used every excuse in the book to avoid it. He’d often wondered what they’d make of each other. Now she was gone, and he’d never know.
He should tell Jim he’d made a mistake. Make his excuses and speed away from Clover Grove. Never, ever looking back. It would be best for both of them in the end. Cal would only mess everything up if he stayed, and Jim would understand if Cal left now. Jim always understood.
Squaring his shoulders, Cal took a deep breath. No. He wouldn’t run. He’d stayed away this long for his own sake. Now he had to put Jim first. Even if they couldn’t be together in the way Cal wanted, it would be enough. He hadn’t been here when Jim needed him, and Cal wouldn’t let him down this time.
“It’s a beautiful home you’ve got here, Jim.”
Jim exhaled. “Thanks.” The door slammed downstairs, and footsteps echoed. Jim’s solemn expression melted away, and his face lit up in a way Cal hadn’t seen in a very long time.
“Come meet the kids.”
“I’m beginning to think they’re out of boats.”
Jim kept his gaze forward and whispered, “What?”
As they marched on in close order drill in the gray afternoon, backs ramrod straight, legs striding in unison to the DI’s cadence, Cal didn’t turn his head either. “The only reason they could possibly have for marching us around this much is that we’re walking to Japan.”
Lips twitching, Jim fought a smile. “Right through the ocean, huh?”
“Yep. This rain is just a warm-up for the real thing.”
“Plaatooon, halt!” Tyrell bellowed.
The men staggered to a stop, rifles clattering together. Jim blinked the rain out of his eyes and waited to find out why Tyrell had stopped them. It could be safely assumed that the recruits had done something wrong. As always.
From the corner of his eye, he could see Tyrell slowly stride down the column of men, eyes sharp like a predator stalking its prey. Jim prayed he would pass Cal by just this once and pick on one of the other recruits. Not that Jim wished them any harm, but he hadn’t gotten to know them. Everyone knew that once their six weeks of training was through, their platoon would be scattered throughout the Corps. No sense in getting attached.
But it was different with Cal. As much as Jim wanted the time to go quickly so he could officially be a Marine—and not stuck in this purgatory—he dreaded the day he would no longer have Cal at his side to raise a sardonic eyebrow or give him a hand, strong and sure, when he struggled at the top of the climbing wall during PT.
As they set out again, it happened so quickly that Jim wasn’t sure if Tyrell tripped him or if Cal had unluckily stumbled. Jim could only catch the edge of Cal’s rain poncho for a moment before Cal sprawled forward in the mud, crashing into the man in front of him, who staggered but remained upright.
Shouldering his rifle, Jim sank to his knees beside Cal, who sputtered, wiping mud from his face as he glared up at Tyrell looming over them.
Tyrell narrowed his gaze on Jim. “Recruit! On your feet!”
The words were out before Jim could stop them. “He could be hurt, sir.”
Jim had grasped Cal’s shoulder, but Cal shook him off. “I’m fine.” He hissed under his breath as he moved to his feet, “Get up!”
Clambering up as well, Jim stood at attention once more, eyes on the helmet of the man in front of him. They all waited with bated breath for Tyrell’s next move. The freezing rain pelted down, and all else was silent. Jim tensed from head to toe, wondering if Cal was hurt. Cal seemed to be standing fine beside him.
Finally Tyrell spoke. Instead of his usual red-faced roar, he addressed Cal with an eerie calm. “This is what happens when you don’t stay in step, recruit.”
“Yes, sir.” Cal’s voice was flat.
“You’re filthy, recruit.”
“Get out of that disgusting uniform.”
Cal hesitated. “Sir?”
With a swift intake of air, Tyrell unleashed at full volume. “Did I stutter? You’re a disgrace to this platoon! You’re not fit to wear that uniform, so get it off! On the double! Down to your skivvies!”
From the corner of his eye, Jim watched as Cal stripped, awkwardly shifting his rifle from arm to arm since he couldn’t dare put it down in the mud. He hopped on one foot as he struggled to yank his trousers off over his boots. Jim clenched his fists, pressing his arms to his sides.
Once Cal stood at attention again, Tyrell inspected him. He barked, “Pick up those revolting pieces of clothing. You think I’m gonna carry them back to the barracks for you?”
Cal did as he was told, balling up his uniform and tucking it under this arm. “No, sir!”
They were off again. Jim caught glimpses of Cal’s chest, the dark hair scattered across it matted down by the relentless, icy rain. As they marched on interminably, Cal began to noticeably shiver. Jim wanted to give him his own poncho and tell Tyrell to go to the devil, but knew it would only make things worse.
When they finally returned to the hub of the base, Marines laughed and hollered at Cal, whistling and breaking into a ribald song. Jim could see the stony set of Cal’s jaw as he ignored them. They were finally dismissed for an hour to write letters, but Cal headed straight to the head.
Although he was eager to write home, Jim followed. The empty shower room was large and open. Still in his muddy boots, Cal dropped his gear and clomped over to one of the showers and turned on the water. His soaked white briefs clung to his buttocks.
For some reason, group showers always made Jim strangely bashful and uncomfortable, even back in high school phys ed. He’d seen Cal and all the other recruits naked by this point, and didn’t want to be labeled a prude. Yet there was something about the sight of Cal in his boots and see-through skivvies that made Jim flush and turn away.
He realized Cal needed dry clothes, and hurried back to the barracks to retrieve Cal’s spare uniform and towel. When he returned, Cal still stood beneath the spray of water, his legs parted and arms braced against the wall.
Jim spoke, his voice croaking. “Cal?” He cleared his throat. “You’d better get dressed. Tyrell’s likely to call off the personal time any minute and get us marching again.”
With a nod, Cal turned off the water. A crooked smile lifted his lips when he saw Jim holding his spare clothes. “Thanks.”
As Cal bent to unlace his boots, Jim made himself busy at the sink, scrubbing his hands even though they didn’t need it. In the chipped mirror, he glanced at Cal toweling dry and dressing. When Cal swore under his breath, Jim turned around. “Okay?”
“Damn buttons.” Cal had on his undershirt, but struggled with his uniform.
Jim stepped closer and realized Cal’s hands were shaking. He reached out and covered Cal’s fingers with his own, wincing when he felt how cold they were, even after the warm shower. “Here. Let me.”
Although clearly about to argue, Cal acquiesced and lowered his arms to his sides. Jim inched closer, but found his own hands clumsy as he tried to button Cal’s shirt in the opposite way he was used to. “Wait, this’ll be easier.”
He moved behind Cal and reached around him, pressing against his back as he pushed each button through its hole. Cal seemed to be holding his breath, and didn’t move a muscle. When the last button was through, Jim stepped back and slapped Cal lightly on the back. “There you go. Ready for action.”
Cal mumbled a reply, face flushed. Jim was glad the shower and dry clothes had done the trick and that Cal was warming up again.
After writing for years yet never really finding the right inspiration, Keira discovered her voice in gay romance, which has become a passion. She writes contemporary, historical, paranormal and fantasy fiction, and—although she loves delicious angst along the way—Keira firmly believes in happy endings. For as Oscar Wilde once said, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”