Authors: Sharon Sala
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."
Copyright © 2004 by Sharon Sala.
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher, MIRA Books, 225 Duncan Mill Road, Don Mills, Ontario, Canada M3B 3K9.
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.
MIRA and the Star Colophon are trademarks used under license and registered in Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, United States Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries.
www.MIRABooks.com Printed in U.S.A.
Then God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation,
plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit
after their kind, with seed in them, on the earth,"
and it was so.
And the earth brought forth vegetation,
plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees
bearing fruit, with seed in them, after their kind,
and God saw that it was good.
It was never meant for man to try to improve
upon God's perfection. I dedicate this book to
my grandchildren, who are perfect in my eyes.
To Chelsea, Logan, Leslie and Daniel.
That inner part of a soldier that tells him when he's being watched was going off big-time in Wes Holden's head. His face was hidden beneath a layer of menthol-scented shaving cream, which gave him a false sense of anonymity, yet, despite his disguise, they'd found him again.
As he looked up, his eyes narrowed to slits, staring first at his own reflection in the bathroom mirror, then into the room behind him. When his gaze centered on the woman standing in the shadows, he stifled a groan.
He should have known.
It was Margie.
The fear on her face was palpable. He knew he'd caused it, but unless he changed what he did and ignored who he was, he didn't know how to help her. He'd known her since childhood, had loved her since high school— and, for the last fifteen years, had called her his wife.
He started to acknowledge her presence but changed his mind. There was tension between them that had nothing to do with his most recent tour, which had sent him first to Afghanistan, in search of Osama bin Laden, then, after the president had declared war, into Iraq.
Like every soldier's wife, Margie knew that he served his country at the risk of his own life. But this time it had been different. This time they were at war. Every day she'd watched the news on CNN in silent desperation, partly hoping to see his face, partly praying, if the filming was in the midst of conflict, that he was nowhere around.
The day she'd answered the door to find two army officers and an army chaplain standing on her doorstep, she'd started to scream. It had taken valuable minutes of their visit to calm her down long enough to explain that her husband, Colonel John Wesley Holden, wasn't confirmed dead—only missing.
Missing in action.
Three words that had almost brought sanity to an end.
The next month of her life had been a blur of fear and numbness. She admitted to Wes later that, if not for the presence of their son, Michael, she would have gone mad.
At that point Wes quit thinking about the weeks he'd spent as a POW, not certain he would ever see his family again, and shifted his focus from her face to his own.
There were still whiskers that had to come off before his meeting with a base psychiatrist at 0900 hours, and while the pace of life might be slow and easy in Georgia, it was a different story at
Before he could resume shaving, he heard the sound of running feet. Moments later, he heard Margie cautioning their son not to run in the house; then Mikey burst into the bathroom, landing with a none-too-gentle flop on the closed lid of the commode.
"Easy, buddy," Wes said. "You almost missed the landing pad."
Five-year-old Michael John Holden giggled, then shoved the hair out of his eyes as he gazed longingly at his father.
Wes pulled the razor through a patch of shaving cream and whiskers, twisting his chin to accommodate the blade.
"Someday will I have whiskers like you?"
Wes hid a grin as he sluiced the razor beneath a steady flow of hot water.
"Yeah.. .someday, but not anytime soon. You have to grow up some more before you get whiskers."
"Is it as long as Christmas?" Michael asked.
Pain wrapped itself around Wes's heart as he looked down at the earnest expression on his little boy's face.
"Yeah, Mikey, it's at least as long as Christmas."
Satisfied with the answer, Michael settled back for his front-row seat for the ritual they shared, where Daddy shaved and Mikey watched, interspersing the moment with a constant barrage of comments and questions that soon had Wes laughing.
Mikey was so enthralled with the process that Wes finally caved in, took the blade out of an extra razor, handed it to his son as he stood him up on the lid of the toilet seat, then put some shaving cream on Mikey's face.
"This is just for practice, okay, son?"
"Okay," Mikey said, then took the razor with all the ceremony due a first shave and peered at himself in the mirror. "Look, Daddy, I'm 'most big as you."
"Yeah, buddy, you sure are," Wes said gently, then watched his son scraping the shaving cream off his face with the empty razor, twisting his chin as Wes did, and grimacing with great elan. A few minutes later, he pronounced himself done and settled back down on the toilet seat with a wet washcloth to his face while Wes finished his own shave.
Wes's thoughts wandered, trying to come to terms with the fact that when he'd left for Afghanistan, Michael had been barely four and his biggest interest was watching Bob the Builder. Now he'd come back to find him only months away from his sixth birthday and concerned about growing whiskers.
It was enough to stagger a normal man. For Wes, it enhanced his guilt about leaving his family, and reinforced his concern about the nightmares and flashbacks he'd been having.
Post-traumatic stress disorder.
A nice four-letter acronym for a bitch of a problem.
Fancy words for trying not to go crazy from the hell of war.
He'd accepted the diagnosis with little emotion. It was his opinion that army doctors, like all doctors, preferred to categorize their patients' health issues. It was easier to treat them if their symptoms fell within certain parameters, so they gave everything a name. Wes would like to give the name back, but he had yet to figure out how to shake it.
It should have been simple.
They had rescued him, sent him home to heal, and one day soon, when he was pronounced ready on all counts, they would send him back to Iraq. But it wasn't simple. There were days when he wasn't sure he would ever be healed. For now, he would make love to his wife, watch his son grow, and take all of the fierceness of their loving with him when he went.
He was almost finished when a trash truck backfired on the street outside. Wes's stomach lurched. His instinct for survival told him to duck and run, but reality surfaced. He could still see his son's face and smell the citrus scent of his own shampoo, which meant he was in a safe place.
Still, by the time he realized it was a false alarm, he had pulled the razor too close to his skin. When a tiny dribble of blood suddenly appeared on his neck, he cursed beneath his breath.
Mikey saw the blood and cried out in quick dismay.
"Daddy! You're blooding!"
Wes studied the tiny droplets. Considering where he'd been and what he'd seen, they were nothing, but he couldn't seem to break his gaze, or stop the memories of bloody bodies and lifeless eyes from flooding back into his mind. A knot began to form at the back of his throat as a cold sweat beaded across his forehead. He knew where he was. He could feel the cold tile against the bottoms of his bare feet, but he couldn't seem to pull away from the dark.
Then, suddenly, Mikey's hand was on his forearm.
"Don't cry, Daddy," Mikey said. "I can fix it."
He bolted out of the bathroom as Margie came back into the bedroom with a stack of freshly laundered towels. Ever cautious that sometimes her son's swift exits were because he'd done something wrong, she hurried into the bathroom where Wes was still standing.
"What happened?" she asked.
He swallowed the bile at the back of his throat and then took a deep breath, willing his voice not to shake.
"I just nicked myself," he said, as he pressed a washcloth against the spot.
"Let me see," Margie said, and moved his hand aside. "It doesn't look bad," she said. "I think I have something that will stop the bleeding in the medicine cabinet."
Wes slid his arms around her waist and pulled her close before burying his face against the curve of her neck.
"You have everything I need right here," he murmured, then kissed the spot just below her right ear.
Margie moaned, then sighed, savoring the feel of him in her arms. She'd loved him forever, and having him home—even for a short time—made her whole again. But before anything went further than a kiss, Mikey was back.
"Hold that thought," Wes whispered as Margie grinned.
"I got it, Daddy. I got it!" Mikey cried.
Wes knelt down on one knee and put his arms around his boy.
"Got what, my little man?"
"A Band-Aid. Mommy puts 'em on me when I get blood. This will be good, but you have to be still."
Wes nodded and sat down on the side of the tub, wondering how Barney the purple dinosaur was going to blend with his uniform. Now they were face-to-face and only inches apart. Wes could see his own reflection in Mikey's eyes and was slightly surprised he looked no different. He would have thought it would be evident that he seemed to be coming undone.
"Just a minute, Daddy," Mikey said as he peeled the wrapper from the small antiseptic bandage.
Wes looked at his son, taking strength from the tenderness of his little boy's touch. The mint from Mikey's toothpaste was still strong on his breath, and there was a tiny bit of scab just visible on the curve of his chin that his pseudo-shave had not disturbed. His hair was thick and black, with a swirl in the crown just like Wes's, and when he smiled, the gap left from his missing tooth was too heart-wrenching for Wes to take.
He took a slow, deep breath, swallowing past the knot in his throat. His child was growing up without him. His commitment to serving his country and to the military was strong—as strong as it had been the day he had enlisted—but he had to find a way to honor his commitment to his family, as well.
"Sit still, Daddy," Mikey said. "Dis won't hurt."
Wes closed his eyes to hide tears and made himself smile as he felt small fingers pressing against his neck.
"You're a good little doctor," Wes said. "That feels great."
Mikey nodded but kept staring at his father's neck. Wes sensed there was more to come, and when his son slowly rubbed his own little neck, Wes suddenly got it.
"Better let me have a look there," Wes said. "Well, that's just what I was afraid of."
Mikey's eyes widened. "What, Daddy? What do you see?"
"Darned if it doesn't look like you need a Band-Aid, too, and right in the same spot."
Mikey sighed. "Yeah, that's what I was afraid of, too."
Margie quickly hid a smile.
"Since I'm the only one in the family who's not part of the walking wounded, I will get another Barney Band-Aid, ASAP."
As she left the room, Mikey scooted between Wes's knees and then slid an arm around his father's neck.