Sunday, July 19, 2015

Heroes by RJ Scott

A Reason to Stay #1
When SEAL, Viktor Zavodny, left small town America for the Navy he made sure he never had a reason to return for anything other than visiting family. He wanted to see the world and fight for his country and nothing, or no one, was getting in his way. He fights hard, and plays harder, and a succession of men and women share his bed.

But a phone call from his sister has him using his thirty day down time to go home instead of enjoying his usual thirty nights of random sex and sleep.

What he finds is a mystery on the Green Mountains and the only man attempting to make sense of seemingly unrelated deaths. His childhood friend and first love... Lieutenant Aiden Coleman, Sheriff.

There were reasons Viktor left his home. Not least Aiden Coleman with his small town innocence and his dreams of forever. Now Adam and Viktor need to work together to save lives and prove there is a hero in all of us.

When it's done, if they make it out alive, can Aiden persuade Viktor that he has a reason to stay? Maybe forever?

Loved the whole concept of this plot. The fight within both Aiden and Viktor to balance what is the right thing to do as a whole and what's right for themselves. The mystery flowed beautifully and kept my interest from page one to the last, which I never wanted to come. The connection between the two men is obvious, both instantaneous and distant, even if the distant part is of Viktor's making all on his own. Definitely a must read.


Last Marine Standing #2
Former Marine Recon, Mackenzie ‘Mac’ Jackson has secrets. The things he did for his country, the things he saw, must never be spoken about. Until that is, his team is targeted.

A shift in political alliances means one particular mission undertaken by Mac and his Fire Team needs to be wiped from the history books. Starting with the team itself.

Forest Ranger, Samuel Larson wants to find the Marines who saved his life. He just wants to say thank you. What he can’t know is that he's walking into a firestorm of betrayal and murder.

When Samuel arrives at Mac's place he throws Mac's plans for hiding out of the window. Abruptly Mac has to protect a man that threatens his heart, only this time he can't be sure he will succeed in keeping Sam alive.

When the people you trusted turn on you, when you are the last one standing, should you take your secrets to the grave? Or make the murderers pay?

This story had me from the beginning.  From Sam's painful past and Mac and his team's rescue to having a glimpse at what the future holds for Viktor and Aiden from A Reason to Stay all the way through Sam finding Mac and himself smack dab in the middle of a very dangerous situation.  Sam's need to say thank you leads him to love but are they willing to let that love blossom considering everything they are facing?  There is intriguing mystery and involving characters from beginning to end that captured my heart and nothing was able to draw my attention away, not even eating or sleeping.  I am eagerly awaiting book 3, Deacon's Law.


Deacon's Law #3(Expected Release March 2016)
Undercover cop Deacon Shepherd lost everything trying to maintain his cover - the man he loved and the future he craved. He walked away and never looked back because it was the only way to keep Jay alive.

The last thing he needs is to be dragged back in that world, but an attempt on his ex-lover’s life is enough to make him risk everything again.

Jayden 'Jay' Ramirez wakes up in hospital, the victim of a hit and run. He’s stunned when the first face he sees is that of the man who betrayed him and left him for dead three years before. Witness protection had stripped Jay of his family and friends and now it seems his sacrifice to bring his Uncle to justice was for nothing.

Someone wants Jay dead and the only way he can stay alive is to go with the murdering drug dealer who broke his heart. But how can he ever trust Deacon, and how can Deacon protect Jay without blowing his cover, jeopardizing his new assignment and risking both their lives?

A Reason to Stay #1
Chapter 1
Two Years Ago
“You remember Aiden Coleman?”

Viktor Zavodny looked up at the name he hadn’t heard in a long time. His sister was making cookies for some school event and talking aimlessly about everything she thought Viktor should know was going on in Steepleshend. He’d advanced to a new level of Angry Birds on his iPhone and had spent the last hour attempting to get past it. His sister’s talking was a backdrop to his concentration, and all he had to do was grunt occasionally. Aiden Coleman’s name, though, tore him away from deciding the angle and velocity of his exploding bird. Aiden Coleman was his first love. Or, rather, Aiden Coleman’s first love had been Viktor. Viktor’s first love had been the Navy and a very definite plan for his life that didn’t involve Aiden in any way, shape, or form. Still, Aiden had been cute.

“Yeah,” Viktor began cautiously. “I was a couple years above him in school.”

We kissed quite a bit before he started talking boyfriend status and I pulled back. He didn’t say that part aloud.

Monika tipped chocolate chips into the latest batch and concentrated so hard at scraping the mixture to include them that she stopped talking—just at the moment Viktor became interested.

“Moved away to be a cop up in Essex,” she continued, “but he’s coming back here to take up a deputy position in the sheriff’s office. He’s taking over his old house after his parents retired to Florida.”

The white house on the green, a sprawling, artfully decorated showpiece, was the pinnacle of the large houses around the center of this small town of only a thousand people. Aiden was that close? Viktor fidgeted in his seat and wondered how to get Monika talking without making it obvious he was curious about Aiden. It had to have been fourteen years since he’d last seen the boy who’d caught his eye. He was lying if he said he hadn’t caught himself thinking about the tall, skinny, dark-blond, blue-eyed rich kid on more than one occasion over the years. Sometimes, when he was in the direst of situations, it was good to focus on the parts of his life that remained unblemished by his career. Like his sister and his nephew and his school days. And all the potential that had been Aiden and what he represented.

“Really?” Viktor finally said in his most practiced noncommittal tone. “Have you seen him?”

“No, Mandy told Stacia, who told Abbey, who then announced it at coffee last week. He had some huge falling-out with his parents, but apparently they reconciled just before they retired to the panhandle, the parents that is, not Aiden. Rumor is that he’s single, and Mandy had it on good authority that he’s gay, which is probably what caused the falling-out all those years ago.” She looked pointedly at Viktor. “Did I mention he was single? And gay?”

Viktor knew exactly where his sister was going with that. He could almost script it in his head. She would make some throwaway comments about the fact that Viktor was single and that while he was in town he was more than capable of picking up a boyfriend.

“Stop that,” he said irritably. Glancing at the clock, he realized he was two hours past his need for painkillers. That explained the knifing pain in his thigh. It seemed like Angry Birds must have been akin to a drug if stopping it made the pain come back with a vengeance. Maybe he should look into having cell phone games added to the list of pain-killing options for the team. He bet Joseph or the LT would go for that one.


“Stop what?” Monika asked innocently. “I wasn’t saying anything. Just that there’s a guy you used to know who’s in town, he’s available, and he swings at least one of the ways you appear to swing.” She laughed as she said that.

So sue me if I like everything on the menu, Viktor thought irritably. Doesn’t mean I’m interested in catching up on old times with every single available gay man in the town.

He’d compartmentalized Aiden into good times had at school, and he wasn’t ready to let those memories out of the box.

“You know exactly what you’re saying.” Viktor gestured at his leg, foot up on a stool and bandages peeking out from under his long shorts. An IED had sent shrapnel through the meaty part of his thigh—nicking an artery and causing him to code on the operating table—coupled with another piece embedded in his kneecap had him on enforced sick leave for six weeks. He was only a week in and already his sister had come up with twenty different ways to keep him occupied. Hooking up with someone from his past was a new one, though, even for her.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she said with a grin. When she changed the subject to Ben’s science project, Viktor lost himself back in Angry Birds and refused to recall anything about Aiden or that long, hot summer where he almost decided, on the strength of a few heated, innocent kisses, that going into the Navy could wait.

“You still coming to the science fair tomorrow? Ben wants you there.”

“You didn’t have to add the emotional blackmail, you know. I told the kid I would go and I will.”

“You’re Mr. Grumpy this morning,” Monika commented cheerfully.

Viktor grunted, then ignored her. He liked being grumpy. People didn’t talk to him if he was grumpy.

* * * * *

Viktor stood by Ben’s science project, leaning on his crutches and wishing the ground would open up and swallow him. The pills that were supposed to alleviate the pain left him feeling nauseated, and his leg ached like a bitch. If there was one thing that Viktor didn’t do well, it was inactivity, and that was all he was capable of at the moment.

“Oh look, Aiden is here,” Monika said at his side.

Viktor groaned silently. “Did you know he’d be here?”

“His dad used to be on the judging panel, so I thought maybe he’d show his face.”

“Monika, I don’t need my big sister organizing my dates.”

Ben arrived back at his table, looking both nervous and excited. For a few seconds Viktor focused on Ben, but he couldn’t fail to see Aiden straightaway, milling around the tables amidst the crowd. He was still taller than Viktor, a couple inches maybe, and that skinny sixteen-year-old had become a man. Boy, had he become a man. With broad shoulders and a muscled back, Aiden was solid, and when he crouched down to look at something by the door, his jeans stretched obscenely over an incredibly fine ass. Viktor wished he could still run, preferably in the opposite direction. Aiden had been a temptation too far when Viktor had been eighteen and Aiden sixteen, and he was still that in his thirties. His dark-blond hair was cut short and he had designer stubble. Not the scruff that Viktor had, but stylish shaved-that-way stubble. He wore a pale blue-checked shirt and those sinful jeans. It seemed like a lot of people were reacquainting themselves with Aiden Coleman.

From his vantage point in the shadows behind Ben’s project, Viktor observed as Aiden moved closer and closer. From the way he stopped and talked to all the kids, he looked to be part of the judging panel on those damn projects. Had Monika known that? Was that why she insisted on Viktor supporting Ben in this thing?

Aiden clearly hadn’t noticed him, and Viktor shuffled back a little farther in the hope that it could remain that way. After the way they’d left everything all those years ago, Viktor felt nothing but embarrassment. The kid had professed love, the kind of love only a teenager could feel, and all Viktor had done was laugh. That had been one of the regrets that piled up in his head, but it didn’t mean he could fix it today. Aiden reached Ben’s table with its environmental project all laid out, looked directly at Viktor, and suddenly Viktor’s embarrassment turned into instant lust.

Jeez. Those eyes. That face. Aiden had become something more than he ever was. A man. A man who stared at Viktor like he was debating whether to acknowledge he even knew him. Aiden’s gaze moved to the display, and he engaged in a short question and answer session with Ben. Then he left. He said nothing to Viktor, didn’t even look at Viktor a second time.

Viktor wasn’t sure how that made him feel. Happy? Pissed? Relieved? Finally he settled on accepting. He’d humiliated a young, naive Aiden by laughing at his desire for them to be high school boyfriends, and the guilt still swirled inside him. Aiden had only been sixteen and he’d had stars in his eyes, but Viktor, on the other hand, was already in the mindset of keeping his sexuality a secret. The Navy wouldn’t willingly accept a guy with a boyfriend.

“I came in second,” Ben said with a wide grin, and Viktor showed his pride with a quick sideways hug for the kid. Ben must have got the science brains from his absentee dad, because Viktor and Monika were never known for their skills in science at school. It was weird given that Viktor was now an ordnance expert. He knew almost everything there was to know about the ways an explosive device could kill or how he could neutralize one before he was dead and forgotten. He had an excellent understanding of the math and science behind keeping his team alive.

As the fair settled down toward the handing out of certificates, Viktor chose a chair toward the back of the rows in the church hall and scooted a second chair back so he could elevate his left leg. Monika sat next to him.

“You okay?” she asked, concerned.

“Yep,” he answered. Then he lowered his voice. “I just had sex with Aiden in the bathroom,” he said.

She looked at him startled. “You did? Jesus, Viktor…” She seemed to realize what she had just said, in a church as well, and blushed. “Tell me you are yanking my chain.”

Viktor shrugged. “I’ll leave you to imagine how I could have sex while not actually being able to stand up for longer than five minutes at a time.” He winced as Monika slapped him on the arm.

“Asshole,” she whispered loudly. A couple a few rows ahead of them turned around at the noise and glared at Viktor and Monika disapprovingly.

“Veteran,” Viktor said firmly, just loud enough for them to hear.

They immediately appeared guilty and turned away.

“You can’t do that,” Monika admonished him, although she was laughing.

Viktor shrugged. “They tried to guilt us. I played the only card I have.” Then he too was smiling and he leaned in to bump shoulders with Monika. At least Aiden hadn’t walked over and punched him for what had happened the last day. Viktor chalked that up to a win.

Coughing over the microphone pulled his attention to the front. Viktor recognized Mr. Arnold, his old math teacher, standing on the slightly raised platform. “…welcome Aiden Coleman, who has recently moved back to town to take up a new role in the sheriff’s department. His family’s sponsorship of this annual event is something we thought we would lose when Annabelle and Richard left for warmer climes.” The crowd laughed at the obviously inside joke. “So I give you Aiden Coleman.”

Aiden moved onto the small stage and Viktor found himself straightening in his seat to get a clear look. No one would question him staring at Aiden when Aiden was up there talking. Viktor didn’t visit home much and he hadn’t physically laid eyes on the guy since school. How did that happen? They’d been friends, before the friendship turned to heated kisses and exploration, that was.

They’d had choices back then. Viktor always wanted to go into the Navy. He knew where he was going as soon as he finished school. He didn’t care about college. Aiden wanted a degree. Viktor didn’t want to stay in his hometown, but Aiden always said he wanted to stay local and make a difference. Viktor sighed as he listened to Aiden talk.

“…always a science nerd.” Aiden finished and left a pause for the people in the room to insert the appropriate response, in this case, laughter. “Someone once said to me that nerds were born to rule the world.” He looked pointedly around the room until his gaze rested on Viktor. “I’m not sure about the world, but having an education with science and math at its core is going to get you places.”

Viktor moved uneasily. He had been the one to say that to Aiden about nerds, likening Aiden’s abilities in exams to a glimpse of genius. He’d been teasing. Jeez. He felt himself growing warm. They’d been kissing and touching while watching Star Trek reruns in Aiden’s basement TV room. He remembered that very clearly.

“Anyway,” Aiden continued, “in third place…”

Viktor waited for Ben’s second-place award and clapped the loudest in the room, putting his fingers between his lips and whistling his approval. Ben waved and returned to his seat.

“He likes having you here,” Monika said as soon as she could be heard over the clapping. “He kinda misses out, not having a dad.” Viktor squeezed his sister’s hand. The anger that flared in her expressive green eyes made Viktor feel useless. He couldn’t handle her anger: he didn’t know what to say. Daniel had left the picture not long after Ben was born. Too young for responsibility was his excuse. In Viktor’s opinion, his sister had a lucky escape from the fucker who was way too happy to use his fists to solve issues. He may never have touched Monika, but there was something about him that seemed dangerous. Thank God they never tied the knot like Monika had wanted. Daniel had left in the night with nothing more than a scribbled note, but Viktor had tracked him down with his team’s help a few years back. Needless to say, Daniel Hillier had shown his true colors when Viktor found him in prison for GBH. Having an entire SEAL team visit him was enough to have him reconsidering ever getting back in Monika’s life. Viktor didn’t feel guilt—he’d seen the photos of the woman that Daniel had beaten. There was no way the fucker was having access to Viktor’s family.

People began to move, indicating the event was over, and Viktor tried his best to help Ben dismantle the project and pack it all away in the box. It was kind of difficult when he needed the crutches to keep him upright, but he did try. Monika had gone off, helping the organizers clean up.

“I’m proud of you, Ben,” Viktor said. He clapped his thirteen-year-old nephew on the back and ruffled his hair.

Ben screwed up his nose. “I wanted to beat Henry this time,” he said. Then he lowered his voice in an action so similar to Monika’s it made Viktor smile. “He always has the best ideas, but he’s an ass and no one likes how rude he is.”

“Maybe you will next time,” Viktor reassured him.

“Maybe next time you could help me?” Ben said suddenly. “We could do something about bombs or something.”

Viktor shook his head. The thought of his nephew anywhere near what he did was enough to send icy chills scurrying down his back. “Let’s leave the explosives for another day,” he said.

Ben looked disappointed. “It would be so cool if we could blow something up one day. Together.”

Viktor hoisted the last of the project into the box. Uncle/nephew bonding time over C4 and timers? Only in his world was that even possible.

“One day, maybe.”

Ben carried the large box to the car, and Viktor struggled alongside him. His leg ached like a mother and he knew he’d pushed too far today, but hell, he was sick of sitting around feeling like an axe was hovering over his head. The more he walked and proved he was okay, the more likely it was that he was damn well getting cleared to go back to the team. This was not holding him back.


Viktor turned as quickly as he was able to on uneven ground with a fucked leg and two crutches. The one thing he’d been hoping to avoid was staring right at him.

“Aiden,” he said simply.

“Nice to see you after all this time,” Aiden offered. He held out his hand, and carefully Viktor released the hold on his right crutch to shake it.

“You’re looking well,” Viktor countered. Fit, toned, sexy, grown-up: a man.

“Wish I could say the same to you,” Aiden offered with a half grimace, half smile. He gestured at Viktor and Viktor knew what he was seeing. The IED had sent gravel and dirt slicing into his neck and face, and his left eye was still swollen with the resulting infection. Viktor was limping and relying heavily on the crutches. He looked as bad as he felt.

“Yeah” was all he could think of to say.

“What happened to you?”

Viktor shrugged. “Walked into a door,” he deadpanned.

Aiden shifted his stance a little. “We should catch up,” he said.

“Beer,” Viktor suggested.

“I’ll call you.”

And with that, Aiden left.

Left Viktor standing like an idiot with his sister in his peripheral vision, smirking. That didn’t go how he’d expected. Finding himself on his ass in the dirt was how he’d expected it to end up. It wasn’t like he could defend himself, injured as he was, and Aiden had grown up.

After all, he was the one who did the leaving fourteen years ago. He was the one who fucked it all up. He was the fucker who laughed in Aiden’s hopeful face.

Chapter 2
The beer was cold but Viktor wasn’t drinking. He couldn’t, not with the meds that he was on for at least the next two days. The beer in his hands was a prop, something to focus on and to stop people asking stupid questions about why he’d been sitting in the bar for the last half an hour on his own. True to his word, Aiden had called the house and had left a message with Monika: beer at the only bar in town at eight pm. So that was where Viktor was sitting, at the rear of the room with his back to the wall and the cold beer sweating in his hands.

Aiden arrived ten minutes after the agreed time. In his uniform he looked good, if a bit more than just tired, and he stopped at the bar for a drink, then sat down opposite Viktor.

“Coke?” Viktor asked, indicating Aiden’s drink.

“In uniform,” Aiden answered. He slid an object across the table and Viktor picked it up. He recognized the watch as he turned it over in his hands. Jeez. It was his granddaddy’s watch, still showing the correct time and still solid and strong in his hands.

“You left it at my place,” Aiden said. “The day you left.”

Aiden’s voice was even, but mentioning that morning was a sharp poke in Viktor’s ribs. “And you kept it this long?” he asked instead of apologizing for what happened all those years ago.

“I only found it again when I was moving a couple weeks back. I always meant to give it to Monika.”

Viktor pocketed it, the only thing he had left of a grandfather he’d idolized. He’d thought he’d lost it in the scramble to leave for his new life. He’d never put two and two together that it was left in Aiden’s room. “Thank you.”

“So, a SEAL, then,” Aiden commented. There was no question in the words, just a simple statement of fact.

“Eight years.”

Aiden nodded thoughtfully. “Congratulations. It was what you wanted. I remember you saying you wanted the Navy and that one day you’d be good enough to be a SEAL.”

“Monika said you were a cop? Up in Essex County?”

Aiden nodded. “Wanted to make a difference. Got my degree, went straight to the Academy. Decided to come home when Mom and Dad said they were retiring to Florida. Got a job in the sheriff’s office.”

Viktor felt uneasy at the short sentences they were using. Clipped and summarized, each comment was finite and there was no room for discussion. Viktor picked up on the only piece of what Aiden said that he thought he could expand on.

“So you said Mom and Dad moved away?”

“Mom always wanted to live in the sunshine state,” Aiden said. Then he leaned back in his chair and nursed his Coke. Evidently that subject was finished with. “You being discharged?” he asked.

Viktor shook his head and copied Aiden’s stance, leaning back until his shoulder blades touched the wall. He was trying for relaxed, but the pain in his leg and the awkward conversation were messing with his head.

“I have another five weeks. Bullet nicked an artery, is all. R&R, PT, and I’ll be back to Oceana by the end of August.”

Aiden lifted his Coke in salute. “Good news for you. I’d hate for you to lose being a hero.”

Viktor heard the sarcasm in the tone and snorted. “I’m not leaving the team unless it’s in a box,” he said.

Aiden considered his Coke and swished the brown fluid from side to side in the glass. “That’s kind of morbid,” he said finally.

Viktor waited for more words, any kind of words, but Aiden was still staring into his Coke and evidently wasn’t hurrying to start a conversation. Seemed like it was up to Viktor to carry the conversation.

“And you’re a sheriff now?”

“Deputy. I started a few weeks back.”

“I remember you said way back that you always planned to come back to Steepleshend one day.”

Silence again. Then in a dramatic motion, Aiden slapped his glass to the table, ignoring the Coke that sloshed over the sides. “Fuck me,” he cursed. “This is stupid. Come with me.”

Viktor didn’t argue. Awkwardly he stood up, leaning heavily on his crutches as his body adjusted from sitting to standing. He followed Aiden out of the bar and down the alley to the side. The night was warm and stars littered the black sky like scattered diamonds. The path took them onto the green, getting closer to Aiden’s house. It seemed like that was where they were going. Viktor wasn’t sure what he was walking into. Aiden evidently wanted somewhere private to call Viktor on the fact he’d left so suddenly without much of a goodbye and with so much unspoken between them.

Aiden opened the front door and gestured Viktor in. As soon as the door was shut, Viktor stumbled as Aiden shoved him back against the door. He exhaled noisily in pain, but Aiden’s expression didn’t change. He was focused, intense, and there was a spark of something in his eyes. Temper? Frustration? Viktor couldn’t tell. When Aiden crowded close and cupped Viktor’s face with his hands, Viktor realized what he saw in Aiden’s eyes was something more than these two emotions. It was lust. He kissed Viktor, but it was less a kiss than a branding, hot and deep and dark, and with Aiden’s big body covering him, Viktor did everything that he could to relax into the kiss.

Aiden backed away a little. “I needed that,” he said. “I’ve wanted to kiss you goodbye for fourteen years.”

Viktor raised a hand and traced his bruised lips with his fingers. “Are you done, then?” he asked softly. He would walk, or limp, out of the house with his dignity intact, even if the kiss had him hard in his pants and needy for an awful lot more. Aiden exuded confidence and Viktor had the sudden irrational urge to kill every single man that had been anywhere near Aiden to make him so damn bold. Where was the sixteen-year-old boy who talked of a forever relationship? The kid who made Viktor happy and sad at the same time?

“Do you want this to be done?” Aiden asked, curious. “We had the start of something all those years ago. Don’t you want to see where it goes now?” He rubbed his thumbs along the top of Viktor’s cheekbones in a gentle, rhythmic fashion. His blue gaze was intense in the dimly lit hall, and he was so still Viktor looked down at the rise and fall of his chest to check that Aiden was even breathing. His kink for bigger men, the height of Aiden and the bulk of him, and the startling blue eyes, and Viktor could feel himself falling without a parachute. He was confused and turned-on and angry and lost and a million other different emotions. He was only here a few more weeks, but Aiden was like a match to kindling. Viktor wanted more.

Finally he found his voice. “I didn’t say I wanted it done.”

Aiden leaned closer to whisper against Viktor’s lips. “I always wondered what would have happened if you hadn’t left. When we kissed, we were good together, you can’t deny that.”

“I don’t.”

“I always wonder what I missed out on. I should just get you out of my system once and for all.”

Viktor could get on board with that, but he wasn’t sure if his body was going to let him. “If you’re talking about sex, I can’t do a fucking thing with this leg.”

“I’ll give you a few weeks to heal,” Aiden said.

“That’s generous of you.”

“Then…” Aiden crowded him again, all pushy and hard. “Then I’ll bend you over and show you what your blast from the past has learned since he was sixteen.”

Aiden sounded angry and confident at the same time. Viktor hated the tone of Aiden’s voice. He was throwing the very words Viktor had spoken back at him.

You’re a naive little kid, Aiden, no one thinks about forever when they’re only sixteen.

Viktor closed his eyes briefly. “You think this is a good idea?”

Aiden ground his hard cock into Viktor’s and smirked. “I’ll wait until you can walk without a stick, then have me a few days of getting you out of my system with no-holds-barred sex and no expectations. I think it’s a damn good idea. Don’t you? From what your sister says, you like to share it about, so I’d kinda like my share now.”

He stole another kiss, this time harder, more insistent, and Viktor melted bonelessly into the wall, the only thing holding him up Aiden’s body weight. He moved a little to release the pressure on his leg and went with the flow. He may not be able to fuck or be fucked tonight, but he could surely enjoy the ride while it lasted.

* * * * *

Viktor woke suddenly with the vestiges of a nightmare leaving his breathing ragged. Aiden moved in his sleep, and for a second Viktor held his breath. They’d fooled around ever since that first night after the bar. Subtly the dynamic had changed. Aiden had started the whole thing like he had something to prove, but he’d softened. He seemed to conveniently forget the fact that Viktor had left him just when things were getting good when they were kids. His kisses had become less punishing and more loving, and when they finally had sex, only two weeks ago, it had been angry sex that quieted to a connection that unnerved Viktor. The change was marked as each day passed.

His cell vibrated, and Viktor wondered if that had been what had woken him from the heated dreams where he was running and shooting and attempting to stay alive. He scrambled for the phone and pressed the button to read the text. There were two. The first was from Command, acknowledging a situation, and the second was openly demanding from Joseph.

Wheels up in 48, you done lazing around?
Aiden rolled onto his back reached out to Viktor’s side of the bed. His fingers curled into the pillow Viktor had just left. For a second Viktor simply stared at the man he’d gotten involved with. And for that short amount of time, he even allowed himself the luxury of imagining staying here with Aiden, or at least coming home to him when he could. Aiden was hot, and they had a spark in bed that Viktor couldn’t categorize as anything less than explosive.

“Yeah, I’m done being lazy,” Viktor whispered to the night. The thought of being back with the team, back with his friends, was the driving force behind the PT and the mind over matter on his last assessment. He was good for the team, and the team wanted him. They needed him.

“You okay?” Aiden said with a wide yawn and a stretch. Early morning light filtered in through the thin drapes, and Viktor could see the lines of the man he’d been kissing for five weeks and—when his body finally allowed him to—fucking with for the final two of them. Aiden spoke words last night that Viktor had pretended not to hear. I love you. Okay, it had been at the very peak of him coming over Viktor’s stomach and abs, but still, an I love you was just that, a statement of way more commitment that anyone in Viktor’s line of work could commit to.

Another text came in, pulling him from the words he was trying to ignore. A single question mark, this time from Luca.

Aiden glanced from the phone to Viktor, then reached over and turned on the small lamp. “Time to go back to work?” he said gently.

Viktor nodded. They both knew this time would come when Viktor left to be the person he was supposed to be.

“I need to talk to you about last night,” Aiden said a little desperately. “Before you go.”

“I don’t have time to talk,” Viktor said. He didn’t mean to cut Aiden dead so damn finally, but he needed to get away before Aiden laid any more frightening statements on him.

Aiden forged ahead without stopping. “I know what I said last night freaked you out, I get that, but when you come home again, you could come here, we could let everyone know we’re seeing each other, could make this seeing each other work.”

Viktor clung hard to the image of his bags at his sister’s house and the Jeep in her garage that was fueled and ready to go. Luca and Joseph had dropped it off to him two weeks ago when they checked in on him. He never told Aiden they’d visited. There was no point. Aiden wouldn’t want to know, as he did nothing but talk about how he wanted more from Viktor. Commitment. The dreaded C word that sent fear skittering down Viktor’s spine.

“No talking,” Viktor said firmly. He leaned over and kissed Aiden full on the lips. Aiden looked torn between chasing the kiss and arguing the case. “It was fun—”

“Don’t you do that,” Aiden interjected heatedly. “We could be real. I really think I’m in love with you.”

Viktor shook his head. Love? What the hell was that about? They had a connection, one stretching over many years, they’d come together in heat and lust, but I love you? That wasn’t right. “No you don’t,” he laughed, although the sound was hollow. “You’ve had all your goodbye kisses. It’s balanced out, and it’s nothing more. I don’t love you, you don’t love me, but we fuck well.” He climbed out of bed and began to dress, pulling jeans on quickly and pocketing his cell before dragging his shirt over his head.

“Christ, Zavodny,” Aiden cursed. He got out of bed and pulled on his own jeans. “Why can’t you be honest? You know we have something here.” He reached over and gripped Viktor hard. “Don’t lie to me.”

Viktor stopped. His heart twisted in his chest. Aiden accused him of lying? He wasn’t lying. What kind of relationship could a SEAL have with anyone? He’d been close to dying so many times he’d lost count, and no one understood that, no one could know what it was like to be him, to be part of a SEAL team.

“I’m a SEAL. We kill and maim and do shit you can’t even imagine in your worst nightmares and we do it well, but we don’t do love,” Viktor snapped. He conveniently forgot Dexter and his Em. That was different—they’d been a couple since school.

Then with nothing else spoken between them, Viktor left the room, sending a quick ‘ok’ text to Luca, knowing his teammate would pass it on to Joseph. In ten minutes he’d said a quick goodbye to Monika, who stared at him, dazed at the early morning awakening. Ben wasn’t even up yet, but Viktor couldn’t wait around to say his goodbyes to his nephew.

In another ten he was on the road south, and his heart finally stopped beating double time when he passed the sheriff’s department on his way out of the county. The sight of Aiden’s workplace caused sadness to take hold of him.

He’d lied about not being able to love, to Aiden and, most importantly, to himself. But it was for the best. SEALs didn’t have forever. If they didn’t die then they had PTSD, nightmares, and a fucked-up psyche. Love was just something else for him to lose.

Always protect your heart. Serve your country, solve problems, and stay alive. Always try to stay alive.

Never admit to falling in love.

Last Marine Standing #2
2004, in Japan
“You’re the sensitive one. You do it.”

Mackenzie ‘Mac’ Jackson glanced at Bear, then took a second look when he realized the idiot was talking to him. “What?”

Bear’s tone was deadly serious as he spoke, but his eyes sparkled with amusement. “It’s genetic, right? You people have a sensitive side that the rest of us men don’t.”

Mac was instantly up in Bear’s space. The asshole had done nothing but rip on Mac since he’d come out to the team, and today was no different. Most of the time, Mac could ignore the teasing. After all, none of it was meant to hurt. But all four of them were still on a high after extraction, and Bear should know better than to push the limits.

“Do I look like the sensitive type?” Mac knew exactly how he looked: tired—no, exhausted—with the start of a beard and his fatigues, while clean, torn in places, evidence of what they’d done. The four of them on the team had been taking turns watching the kid in the hospital room, since no one was entirely sure the threat was over. They paired up, one inside the room, one outside. This was handover time, only this time… this time it was different. This time all four of them had heard the kid and the doctor talk. And what the doctor said had left them all quiet.

Bear put his hand on his hip and sashayed a little, which looked ridiculous.

Mac shoved him. “I will kill you.”

Bear squared his shoulders and smirked. “You could try.”

Mac weighed the pros and cons. Bear certainly lived up to his nickname—broad, strong, straining the damn fatigues—but Mac knew his teammate’s weaknesses. He estimated he could take him in about five minutes, but he’d probably get a few broken bones in the process. He relaxed his stance, ready to go toe-to-toe with Bear, but Spider put a hand between the two men.

“The kid’s crying,” Spider pointed out helpfully.

Mac shot his friend a shocked look. Did Spider really think the best thing for the poor kid in the bed was to have some idiot go in and tell him everything would be okay?

“That doesn’t mean he needs one of us to talk to him,” he asserted.

Bear crossed his arms over his impossibly broad chest. “You saw the results of what they did, heard what he said. One of us should say something. Threaten to go kill someone or something.”

“We already killed everyone who hurt him,” Spider said evenly. “No one left to shoot.”

Mac and his team could have been back stateside, or at least on to another mission. But no, instead they were outside the kid’s room, where they had been over the last few days. They had no official reason to go home, there was no next mission yet, and the Under Secretary had demanded they stay. Something about the kid and his sister possibly still being in danger had all four Marines required to unofficially stand guard—at least they had something to do.

“I should say what?” Mac snapped. He was furious at himself for even being here in a situation he couldn’t control, let alone listening to the rest of his team who felt he should be interfering. Samuel Larson and his sister had nearly died, and what the Marines had found when they rescued the kids was more than enough to have Mac sick to his stomach.

The damn politician wanted to get Sam on camera thanking his rescuers. Mac doubted Sam was in any position to say thank you. If anything, this was merely a photo opportunity for Graeme Larson, the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security.

Not one of the four of them said anything or indicated, even to each other, that they had heard anything. Not for the longest time. Then the doc left, and all of them were more than aware that the kid they’d rescued was in there. Distraught. And there was no sign of his dad, who was holding a press conference on the ground floor.

“So what do we do?”

Mac wasn’t surprised when Bear spoke. It was always Bear who vocalized everything as a way of rationalizing a mission or the consequences of said mission. He was the loud one, but he was also the one with an uncanny understanding of what should happen next. Mac valued his input. Until, of course, Bear had pointed out that Mac was the sensitive one.

“What do I say?” Mac asked a little desperately. He turned to the one member of the team he relied on for levelheaded advice.

“Nothing,” Spider said. “We could leave it. You and Bear take your turn on guard while Wade and I go downstairs and stand at the periphery of the Under Secretary’s press junket, look like hardass Marines, and make sure we don’t get our pictures taken.” They’d only been in Japan as ornaments anyhow. The joint op with the Japanese Ground Defense Force was more about promoting military interoperability and honing individual skills than being something the Marine Recon fireteam was used to.

Still, thank God they’d been here, given how quickly everything went to hell with the Under Secretary’s kids being kidnapped. Japan had no war constitution, but they were strategically positioned as a counterweight to China’s growing regional power. Japan and the US were friendlies, and the situation was delicate. The hard line was that the Japanese didn’t negotiate. They wouldn’t be pulling their troops out of Fallujah, even if kids were involved. The softer line, the one whispered in shadowed doorways, was get the Marines in, get the kids out, and destroy all evidence.

Thankfully Mac and his team had been in the right place at the right time.

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Wade said. He was the fourth in the team and the man of few words.

Mac looked from Bear to Spider to Wade. Bear had given him a way out, Spider had challenged him to consider what he was doing, and Wade had implied he’d support anything Mac wanted to do—just the way it always worked.

“Fuck.” Mac straightened away from the wall, brushed himself down, and turned to face the kid’s room. He’d go in, say his piece, come back out, and then he could go back to being the team leader and kick some anti-US butt. Simple.

Spider clapped him on the shoulder. “Go do that sparkly thing.”

“Fuck you,” Mac muttered tiredly but with heat, “all of you, and for fuck’s sake, go watch the sister.” His team melted away, Spider patting his arm as he passed.

Mac pushed open the kid’s door, and the first thing Mac noticed as he shut the door behind him was how cold it was in the room. The window overlooking the parking lot was wide open. The second thing Mac noticed was that Sam was leaning out of the window, too far over, the pivot of the balance on his tummy on the sill. A lift of his bare feet and the kid would topple out of the window. Mac saw a thin trail of blood from the bed to the window—Sam had pulled out his IV. Trying not to spook him, Mac moved to stand close enough to Sam to be able to grab him if he did anything stupid.

Sam’s shoulders stiffened, but he didn’t look at Mac.

“Go away,” he said softly. There was no emotion in the words. They were flat, not grieving, not angry, not hyper. Just nothing.

“What are you doing over here?” Mac asked conversationally. He moved a little closer to peer out the window. They were five floors up, plenty enough height to get Sam killed on the concrete. How was it even possible that the window was open this wide? Surely, even in private rooms like this one, the hospital would cover themselves against jumpers? Then he noticed the shards of a plastic knife, probably left over from dinner, and the screws on the floor. There was intent in the knife and the screws and the open window. Sam was pale, near white, and covered in bandages, his left ankle in a cast, and his breathing labored.

“You wanna talk?” Mac began.

Sam didn’t move to look at him. “Nooo,” he slurred from what Mac assumed was a combination of pain and the meds he was using to control it.

“I think you should.”

“Leave me alone.” Sam’s face flushed scarlet against the white as he spoke, but he still refused to look at Mac.

“I think I’m okay here,” Mac offered gently. He didn’t know what else to do, but he knew one thing for certain, he wasn’t going anywhere. He had been handpicked for the team he was in charge of. He might have only been twenty-five, but he was the best. He was a Recon Marine, and he led a fireteam with three more of the best. They did things that never got reported in the press and few people even knew about. He’d seen things that would make a normal person sick to their stomach. None of that prepared him to deal with the aftermath and the victims, though.

“How long did you watch?” Sam asked after a long silence.

Mac observed a bead of blood bubble where the IV had been pulled out and said nothing as it slid down Sam’s hand and to the floor. Sam wasn’t bleeding out, but hell, he needed something to stop the loss or protect it from infection, surely. Mac had heard of a fellow Marine losing a pint of blood in an unrelenting drip that he’d never even realized had been happening. Slow, persistent loss could make Sam dizzy, and then he’d fall right out the damn window.

“What do you mean watch?”

“Me and Jo, in that place. You have to do that, right? Do recon and stuff where you count the insurgents and form a plan of action.”

Mac paused before answering. Sam wasn’t asking how long it had taken the team to intervene, but just how long they’d watched what was happening in the camp.

Mac could lie. He could say they turned up and instantly took the camp members out, but they’d been there two hours before night had fallen because the lack of light would make a difference to a successful mission. Sam was screaming and sobbing as he was dragged over rough ground and thrown into a room next to his sister, his pants in his hands and blood everywhere. So much blood.

After an uncomfortable silence, Mac couldn’t keep back an answer, and something told him he needed to be brutally honest. Sam deserved that. “An hour, maybe a bit more.”

Sam moaned, the sound coming from deep inside him, and he bowed his head in the cold air. The movement shifted his center of gravity, and for a second Mac thought he was going to tumble out. He reached out to grab him, but Sam stopped his own momentum and instead he gripped hard to the windowsill.

“Oh God, you saw them, what they did. Oh God, what do I do?” He was broken and crying, and his grip on the sill lessened.

Mac was out of his depth, and he glanced over his shoulder at the door, wishing that someone with a psychology degree and the ability to deal with this would walk through.

“We saw them put you back in the room. We saw you and Jo get out. We saw you run. We saw bravery and how you pushed your sister out of the way of the bullets. That is what we saw. That is all we saw.” He wasn’t lying. Even with infrared, they hadn’t seen what the guards did to Sam, just the aftermath.

Sam finally looked at him, his eyes swimming with tears.

“I didn’t mean to,” he said on a sob. “I wasn’t trying to be a hero. I was terrified, and I just pushed her.” Sam clutched at his stomach and winced. If anything, he looked even more unsteady on his feet.

Mac moved a little closer, near enough to grab Sam and stop him from falling.

“Fuck, kid, being a hero isn’t always about slow-motion and the ability to consider things rationally, it’s about living in the moment and acting on instinct.”

Sam shook his head, so Mac didn’t push. Sam wasn’t going to be convinced in the space of a few seconds that what he’d done was heroic.

“I’m glad it was me and not Jo.”

And there it was again, the quiet heroism that Sam had inside him, that instinct he had to look after his sister.

Sam continued, “She’s a clever one, going to be in government one day like Dad. I’m just an artist, and I’m a man, I need to do that stuff, don’t I?”

Mac hesitated. He seemed to be doing a lot of that. His normally quick reactions to situations were lost in the need to say exactly the right thing to Sam.

“You’re important as well,” he said. “And no one is just an artist. What do you like drawing?”

“People. And trees and things, nature, y’know?” Sam offered quickly. He looked shy and had the most intense sincerity in his eyes. When he grew up, when he was legal, he’d be a looker. He was all soft smiles and gorgeous dark green eyes, almost forest green and brown in this light, framed with long sooty lashes.

“How do you think they knew?” Sam half whispered. He was staring down at the parking lot again.

Mac wasn’t following the question. “Knew what?” He turned when the door opened. A nurse hovered on the threshold, but Mac held up a hand indicating five. She frowned, and he smiled reassuringly. The last thing Sam needed now was someone fussing over his IV. Mac belatedly wondered if she had psychology experience and he should be asking her to stay, but she had held up three fingers, left, and shut the door after her.

“How did they know I was gay? No one knows. Not even Jo.”

Mac tensed. He suddenly realized where this was going. Sam thought his captors had abused him in the way they did because he was gay?

“It wouldn’t have mattered—”

“They hated me, and they hurt me. I don’t want that with any man I’m with.” Sam was broken, his voice harsh and his tears tracking down his cheeks.

Mac laid a hand on his shoulder and tugged him a little to pull him close. “It doesn’t have to hurt, kid.”

Sam leaned into him. “I can’t be gay.”

“Sam, if that is who you are, you can’t not be gay. I’m gay, and that is who I am.” Mac winced as he said the words. He hadn’t meant to speak so bluntly, but he was out to his team, he was out to his parents and friends. He wanted Sam to see it was a good thing.

Sam lifted reddened eyes to Mac, and there were so many questions in them. Mac stared at him for the longest time and saw Sam’s misery abate a little. He couldn’t help the smile he gave. But he could help the instant shock when Sam moved that little bit closer and kissed Mac full on the mouth.

Mac reared back and heard the yelp of pain as Sam lost his support and grabbed at Mac.

“Jeez, kid.” He reacted quickly. Sam began to cry again. Fuck. “It’s okay, kid.”

“I’m sorry,” Sam said between sobs. He was clutching his stomach and keening in pain. It was time to get him back into bed.

Mac reached around Sam and encouraged him away from the window, pulling it closed behind him. Taking the weight of the young guy was easy, he probably didn’t weigh more than one ten soaking wet, and Sam shuddered and groaned in pain as Mac guided him to bed. The two of them, Sam and Jo, had been captives for three days, and God knows what had happened beyond what Mac and the team had observed.

“Hang on,” he said in lame encouragement.

He opened the door and let the nurse in, then watched as she fussed around Sam. To her credit, she didn’t criticize Sam or call him on his actions. Neither did she call a doctor or ask Sam how he was feeling. When it was just the two of them, Mac pulled a chair up next to the bed.

Mac felt like introductions were in order. “So, I’m Mackenzie Jackson.”

“You stood inside my room for a while,” Sam began. He wasn’t looking at Mac. He was staring at some point in the corner of the room. The tears had stopped, but Mac wasn’t stupid, Sam might have cried, but that didn’t mean he’d dealt with everything he’d gone through. “Dad said something about you visiting, but I thought it would be after the press conference.” Sam tilted his head in thought. “After the conference would make sense,” he added. “From a political point of view.” He blushed and looked down at his hands in his lap. “Thank you,” he mumbled. He pulled a cell phone over from the small table and turned it over and over in his hands.

“It’s our job,” Mac answered. There was something about this boy, a fragility in him that wasn’t just to do with the tubes and wires but more to the way he held himself. Shy? Introverted? They’d already seen Jo: she was up and around and had laughed and joked through an entire five minutes with the press and Under Secretary in attendance. Of course, she hadn’t been sexually assaulted nor left in a hospital room long enough to be able to jimmy the window open far enough to be able to climb out and kill herself.

“So, yeah, where’s Dad?” Sam looked past Mac.

“Still in the conference so I understand. We were waiting outside.” Mac scooted the chair near the bed. He wasn’t going anywhere until he was sure Sam was going to be kind of okay or until orders had him moving away. Sam frowned at the action and looked uncertainly at the door.

“What?” he finally said. “Was there something… Is it Jo? But it wouldn’t be Jo. They wouldn’t have sent in a Marine. It would be a doctor, right? To tell me she was dead?” Sam babbled with fear, and Mac held up a hand to stop him.

“Jo will be fine. She and your dad are like a comic duo. Despite the bullet wound, she’s in good spirits.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “She was doing okay earlier. I just—you know, things can happen, one minute everything is fine, the next you’re dead on the floor… or something.”

“She’s fine. I just wanted to come in and see how you were doing.”

“Dad’ll kill me for breaking a window.”

“I’ll tell him I did it. He’s smaller than me,” Mac teased. Anything to get a small smile.

Sam shrugged, and the movement caused the phone to slide toward the edge of the bed. Mac caught it and placed it back on the side table.

“One of those Sony Walkman phones,” Mac said conversationally.

“Dad left it with me this morning. It’s brand new and he said it’s the best thing to play music, but I don’t have any tracks on there yet.”

Silence. Mac had no idea how to further this sensitive subject with the kid in the bed.

“You’re fourteen, right?”

Sam tilted his chin. “June first I’ll be fifteen.”

“Cool,” Mac said for something to say. “Look, you probably need to talk to the doctor, about… things. About what happened to you, so he knows what—”

Sam’s smile dropped in an instant at the reminder, and all of Mac’s calming work was lost as temper flashed in Sam’s eyes. “I’m not telling anyone else. You’d better not say a word. Get out,” he snapped.

“I didn’t mean to—”

“I said, get out.” Gone was the shy, embarrassed, crying boy who’d kissed him. Instead there was confidence and anger.

“No,” Mac insisted. “Look, I’m sorry about… everything… I saw enough in the helo to know you’d been hurt, and my team… they thought… fuck, I wanted to talk to you.”

Sam grew agitated and yanked at a wire with a button on the end to call the nurse back in. “I don’t want to do any more talking. Forget everything.”

“I can’t. I came in here, and you were getting ready to throw yourself out a window—”

“I wasn’t, and I wouldn’t. I…” Sam’s face crumpled, and he began to cry. “It hurts and they… I wanted the pain to stop…” He yanked at his IV again.

Jesus. Mac grabbed his hand and stopped him from pulling the IV out. “Look. You can’t bottle it all up. Okay? Just because they thought it was fine to hurt a kid doesn’t mean that it will be like that when you meet the right person. Or that you’ll never come to terms with it.”

Sam covered his face with his hands, but not before Mac saw more tears in the kid’s eyes. “Please, go away.”

“I heard the doc say everything will be fine, and all you need to do is look after yourself—”

“You listened to what my doctor said? Fuck. I can’t do this.”

“I just wanted to say, your partner, when you’re older, he won’t care what happened if you tell him, explain to him. Okay?”

“Please—” Sam’s voice broke.

“And you should think about getting counseling.”

“Go away.”

Mac stood. He wanted to say something profound, even though the unsettling feeling that he shouldn’t have done any of this was stabbing him insistently. Damn Bear and his observations and Spider with his clever way of challenging Mac.

“I’m so sorry,” Mac said finally.

“Don’t come back,” Sam snapped, his hands still covering his eyes. Mac turned to the door and had taken a few steps when something whizzed past his head and connected with the doorframe. He glanced down to see the Sony phone in three pieces, the small screen cracked. He stooped to pick it up and placed it on a small table inside the room. Then he left.

Chapter Two
Sam cried himself to sleep. He had to sleep because when he was asleep he didn’t have to think about a single thing.

What the hell was Mackenzie Jackson thinking? Sam didn’t want to hear about how some mythical future partner would totally understand how he’d been abused and kept in a windowless room with his sister.

What Sam hadn’t counted on was that the dreams would visit him again. When they came, they were intense and as clear as if they were happening now. Was it from the medication they were pumping into him? Or because his brain was struggling to process what had happened to them? He didn’t know.

The dreams always started at the point when the two of them ran from the camp. They’d made it some way from the guards as quietly as they could. In Sam’s nightmare, the night was obsidian black, and he couldn’t see what was chasing them.

To his aching muscles and his pounding heart, it felt like he had run a marathon already. Blood ran freely from the wound in his stomach, and the pain was blinding, his lungs burning and his focus blurred. Then there were the guns. The thudding of bullets into the tree he was using to support his weight. The bullets slowed down in his dreams, like he could avoid them if he ducked, but his legs were jelly and he couldn’t move in the molasses-slow playback.

“Jo, guns.” Even in the dream, he could taste the copper of blood from cracked, bleeding lips.

I’m so tired. You need to run.

“Hurry! Sam!” Jo yanked at his arm, and the excruciating snap of agony had him stumbling into her. He fell into a tree, and ropes of gray slithered out from the trunk with hands grabbing at him, separating him from Jo.

“Go,” he shouted, but even as he shouted, there was no sound, only Jo staring at him, trapped by the same hands, and she was smiling. As another thud split the wood to his left, he shoved at Jo, pushed her out of the way, and she yelped as she stumbled, a small sound, nothing to show what had happened. Then in startlingly slow motion, she gripped Sam and slid to the ground, taking him with her. She stared at him, pinning him with her body, and he couldn’t move her, couldn’t understand why she had stopped running. Then there was blood. It spilled and pumped and covered him as his sister began to die with quiet acceptance.

He screamed soundlessly in his head, panic pushing him to move, but she was a dead weight and he was falling under her. Nothing could stop him, he was dying, and he wanted to run and he couldn’t.

Please don’t die. You can’t die. Jo.

A blinding light ripped the air apart around him, shouting, screaming, and the noise of guns.

Take him down. Clear. On your six. Clear. Clear.

Jesus, fuck, we should have moved sooner.

Are they even alive?

Sam opened his mouth to shout. The voice was American. The man was real—in the dream he was as real as if Sam could touch him. He was pulling at Sam, yanking him back from the free fall, and Sam was so grateful. Look at me! Help me! Help Jo. But he couldn’t speak or move, and when the pain was too intense, too much, as they pulled his sister from him, all he could do was lose his grip on life. He would die here, but that was okay, because then the nightmare would stop. Every ounce of fight had left him. He could easily let himself die here.

Kid? Wake up for me?

Is he alive?

I have a pulse. What about the girl?

Through and through, lost a lot of blood, stopped it.

Bear? Get me ex-fil. Spider, take him. I’ve got the girl. Wade, recon, and Bear?

Five minutes to ex-fil, sir. Kid? Sam?

Abruptly the tone of the words changed. “Sam, you need to wake up.”

Sam heard the talking in his sleep, the words around him, a haze of firm, capable tones, but if he opened his eyes, the pain would be worse. He knew it would.

“Sam, wake up, it’s just a nightmare.”

With his eyes closed, he could try to push back the cramping in his sides and stomach, the agony of his ankle, the terror of what he’d seen. Jo had to be dead. His beautiful sister was lying on him, unmoving, her blonde hair matted and red with blood.

Sam’s whole world tilted as someone lifted him and threw him over their shoulder like a sack of potatoes. His stomach rebelled, and he retched in time with the waves of pain.

They stopped moving, and Sam cracked open his eyes in his memories. Four men stood in front of him, one cradling Jo. Americans. Then it was nothing but the movement and noise and chaos, but in all of it, he felt safe.

Come on, kid, I need you awake here.

Should you be waking him?

Fuck off, Bear, he’s pulling his IV out again.

Was the guy trying to make it worse? Sam didn’t want to be awake, and the pain in his arms grounded him. “No…” Sam moaned. Or at least he thought he did. He didn’t know whether or not it was loud enough for anyone to hear.

And the nightmare let him go.

* * * * *

The beeping was the first thing he noticed. The pain was there but at a distance, and there was no other noise. No shouting, screaming, or guns. Just peace.

“Hi, Sam. You hurt yourself.”

A light flashed in his eyes, and the murmur of voices had him attempting to move his head.

Jo? He had to know. Where is Jo?

“We told you, Sam, Jo’s fine. Can you hear me?”

I can hear you.

“He’s crashing.”

* * * * *

Sam blinked open his eyes, then closed them immediately. This wasn’t the first time he’d awoken, but every time he tried to open his eyes, the light was too bright.

He tried again, slower this time. He pulled his hand up to shield his eyes, but something stopped him. Weakly, he pulled at the cannula preventing him from moving his hand, but he gave up when the fucking thing wouldn’t move.

He’d been in this place five days. Somehow after his last memory of that Marine, Mac, talking at him about… God, he couldn’t think about that as the shame flooded him… Five days, that was what his dad had told him. Jo was awake and fine. She’d bled a lot, but she wasn’t dead, and at the end of the day, a shoulder wound wasn’t as impressive as the kind of damage Sam had sustained. The guards hadn’t kicked Jo or knifed her or used her as a punching bag. They’d left her alone. She just been shot, but even that had been a through and through.

Or that is what his dad said. Graeme Larson was happy enough to tell Sam all of this, about how brave Sam had been, about how not many fourteen-year-old boys would—or could—have survived.

Are you proud of me, Dad? Really? For not dying?

The way he felt, the images he had in his head, the shame and fear that dogged him and followed him into nightmares? Dying would have been easier.

Author Bio:
RJ Scott has been writing since age six, when she was made to stay in at lunchtime for an infraction involving cookies. She was told to write a story and two sides of paper about a trapped princess later, a lover of writing was born.

As an avid reader herself, she can be found reading anything from thrillers to sci-fi to horror. However, her first real true love will always be the world of romance where she takes cowboys, bodyguards, firemen and billionaires (to name a few) and writes dramatic and romantic stories of love and passion between these men.

With over sixty titles to her name and counting, she is the author of the award winning book, The Christmas Throwaway. She is also known for the Texas series charting the lives of Riley and Jack, and the Sanctuary series following the work of the Sanctuary Foundation and the people it protects.
Her goal is to write stories with a heart of romance, a troubled road to reach happiness, and most importantly, that hint of a happily ever after.


A Reason to Stay #1
B&N  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe

Last Marine Standing #2
B&N  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe

Deacon's Law #3:  GOODREADS TBR

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