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The 13 of Hearts

The Heart Stories

esKape Press

Heat Rating: SENSUAL
Word Count: 120,000
Available Formats
ePub
Mobi

Lin is a mother on the run from a painful and deadly past. She’ll do anything to protect her children. But a damaged marine with PTSD and a bad case of superstition threatens their safety when he grows close enough to uncover her secrets.
US Marine Pete “Rabbit” Kincaid only wants to go back on deployment, but after his most recent injury, he might not make it back into the fight. When he meets Lin Doyle, a young mother of two, he quickly realizes the fight has come to him.
TAG: Is his heart big enough to save them from her past?

Excerpt

Prologue
War. It’s not just a string of constant bloody battles. More often than not, you find yourself watching… and waiting… Because that other shoe? It will fall. ~From the Deployment Survival Journal of Pete “Rabbit” Kincaid
Friday, December 13, 2013
WAITING ALWAYS FELT as pleasant as swimming in a stagnant pond. Rabbit hated it. Some nights, though, he wished the waiting would go on for just a few hours longer. Memories and possibilities had blended together into nightmares that had driven him from his cot into the night. Experienced dictated that he’d get no more sleep. Not until the calendar page flipped over and erased the number thirteen.
Abbott had mentioned a poker game earlier. A shiver traced the length of Rabbit’s spine. He’d passed on that one. His luck had been running hot lately, built on a reputation the guys were beginning to count on. If he won the night before he led them on a mission, they tended to be successful. But the odds were always strong the pendulum would swing back the other way while they were in the field. If he didn’t play, the lucky streak didn’t seem so long… so worn out.
As he exited the latrine, the door sprang closed behind him with a dull thud. He cupped his hands together and blew on them, spilling warmth into the chilly air around him in giant white puffs. Who knew the Afghanistan desert could get so freeze-the-six-off cold? It should have been hot as hell. The ground on which he stood was surely the same stuff the devil’s own playground was made out of.
Even the Afghan people referred to the Helmand Province as the Desert of Death. The densely packed sand beneath his feet wouldn’t be any softer in the blistering summer months to come than it was currently, in the depths of the harsh winter. The barren ground produced little in the way of nourishment for the people, but it did somehow manage to support drug habits worldwide with its bountiful harvests of white poppies.
“I need a smoke,” he muttered to himself, passing the pitiful shelter of the guard shack at Checkpoint Four with a nod to the corporal on guard duty. Instead of cigarettes, though, Rabbit pulled out a roll of hard candy and eased it open. He checked the color in the dim ambient light, and breathed a sigh of relief that the first one was too dark to be orange. He popped the disk into his mouth and sucked on it, the sour cherry flavor stimulating his salivary glands, reminding him he’d skipped his dinner MRE. He squeezed his eyes shut and then pushed them open again lest the horrors of his dreams somehow manifest while he was awake.
“There’s been reports of sniper fire outside of the perimeter after dark, Lieutenant,” reported the guard.
“Understood, Corporal,” Rabbit replied with a brusque nod. “I won’t go far.”
“Yes, sir.”
The candy wasn’t cutting it. His nerve endings burned as though thousands of embers had sparked to life beneath his skin. Need for nicotine clawed at his brain like a living entity. Spitting the cherry flavored circle into the dirt, Rabbit dug out the red and white pack containing his last few smokes. Then he patted his pockets seeking his lighter.
“Damn it,” he bit out. He’d thrown the thing away earlier after he’d used it for the third time — better to toss it than risk accidentally using it a fourth time. He paused and glanced over his shoulder at the guard. “Got a light?”
The corporal tossed him a disposable lighter. Rabbit cringed at the pale color — white or yellow from what he could tell in the dim light — definitely not his usual lucky black.
But he accepted it with a smile of thanks, the need to light his cigarette outweighing the need to keep his luck running with him. Then he jammed his hand into his pocket and tapped the green rabbit’s foot three times while he lit up.
The thirteenth had begun, and its hours stretched ahead of him — a Friday on top of everything else. A day he’d rather spend holed up in his bunk, not coming out until the clock hit zero-hundred hours on the fourteenth. But that wasn’t an option. Of course, when the entire year ended in a thirteen, every date became potentially hazardous anyway. Thankfully, that particular phenomenon was about to end in just a couple of weeks with the flip of the calender to January first.
He kicked at a frozen puddle until the ice broke free, sending a huge chunk flying through the air to shatter with a loud bang against a fifty-five gallon drum that was usually lit with a warming fire. No blaze graced the barrel, not with sniper fire in the area. Rabbit glanced at the stub of cigarette between his fingers. Even that small light could draw the wrong kind of attention. With a final puff, he dropped the stub into the dirt and ground it beneath his heel.
Around him, Checkpoint Four began to stir. The waiting game was almost over, whether or not he wanted it to be.
The predawn hour passed in a blur of equipment checks and gear stowing. Three men stood together near a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, the first vehicle in line behind the mine chaser that would lead their convoy.
Chuckling, one of the men handed a picture back to the guy next to him. “She looks just like you, man.”
The kid grinned and smoothed a hand over his carrot-red hair. “Yep. Got her daddy’s good looks. And as soon as I get off this deployment, I’m putting a down payment on a house. Can’t raise kids in that cracker box we’ve got.”
The third man clapped a hand on the ginger kid’s shoulder. “If that’s the first thing you’re gonna do with a wife as pretty as yours, you and me need to have a talk about priorities, son.”
“Come on, Vince.” The first guy slugged Vince in the arm. “Not everyone’s a horndog like you. Besides, you know he knows how to do it. He’s got a kid!”
The group broke into easy laughter, but it fizzled quickly at the approach of their sergeant. Rabbit turned away. The guy shouldn’t be going on an op. Family men should be home. With their families.
All too soon they were Oscar Mike — on the move — and then Rabbit found himself focused on the world of gray and tan he could see through the armored window of the MRAP in a blur of another sort as they traversed the Desert of Death.
The mine chaser at the head of the pack found nothing for a couple hundred klicks, but the first stop wasn’t unexpected. The farther out from a checkpoint, the more apt an IED would be buried where it might score a hit on a vulnerable personnel carrier.
The third time they halted to disarm a roadside bomb in as many kilometers, Rabbit got out and stretched. They were near their target according to the GPS unit on board. Might as well do a quick recon.
He eased away from the side of the giant armored vehicle with its rumbling engine and instantly lost his comfort zone. Too exposed. Changing direction in mid-stride, he angled his steps toward a low outcropping of flat gray rocks. The winter sun gave off scant heat, and he shivered even under the weight of all his protective gear. The chill racing up and down his spine didn’t help.
They had traveled a line just under the top of the ridge known locally by some unpronounceable Arabic name that loosely translated as Eternal Torment, also known as Hell among the ranks.
As he scanned the stretch of ground above them, he rubbed the back of his neck, trying to ease the sensation of wasps swarming beneath his collar. A scorpion scuttled around the largest rock. The attack was swift and unexpected. A tan speckled lizard, about as long as Rabbit’s hand, exploded from the loose sand and stone at the rock base and devoured the scorpion. After a satisfied flick of its long blue tongue, the reptile shimmied back into its dusty hiding place. Nothing else moved.
Gradually, Rabbit’s heart rate adjusted to a more normal pace.
The earlier wind had kicked up dust devils in the dry sand beneath his feet, but even that had stilled, leaving the air heavy with silence. No human sounds, nor any expected so far inside the perimeter of the Desert of Death.
Yet something about the silence was different, eerily so. Chief Warrant Officer Keith Sanders joined Rabbit to look out across the monotonous expanse of grayish tan that made up the landscape all the way to the horizon.
“Ever seen such a lack of color in your life?” asked Sanders in the Alabama drawl that never quite left his voice.
Rabbit snickered. “Don’t know what you’re talking about. I see plenty of color — it’s just all butt-ugly.”
Sanders sniffed and made a face. “Smells like ass, too.”
Blowing out a slow breath through pursed lips, Rabbit concentrated on relieving his anxiety. It had to be nothing but the usual Friday the thirteenth jitters trying to grab hold of him. He couldn’t let them win.
He swept his gaze right to left, then left to right, and saw nothing. Maybe there was nothing to see. Although intel had pinpointed the crashed drone as having gone down in the Sangin district of the Helmand province, they still hadn’t found it. Problem was, insurgents could strip abandoned planes and helicopters quicker than a neighborhood gang could strip an abandoned car in Detroit.
“You think the drone’s even out here?” asked Sanders, scanning the landscape.
“I think if it was, it’s likely not here now,” admitted Rabbit with a shrug.
“It’s quiet.” Sanders put his field glasses to his eyes and aimed them at the landscape again. “Too quiet — even for Helmand.”
Rabbit cringed. Damn. He hated that it wasn’t just him thinking those things. Especially on what had to be the unluckiest day for a mission. “Yeah, been too quiet for the past five klicks,” he murmured.
Sanders froze. “What’s that? About two hundred yards straight out.”
Rabbit lifted his binocs but stopped at the soft, warbling whistle from behind him — Gunnery Sergeant Hector Chavez’s unique warning cry. Rabbit glanced over his shoulder.
Chavez gave a surreptitious nod in the direction they’d been heading. “Foot mobiles incoming,” he said quietly.
Shifting, Rabbit aimed the binocs on the road. At first glance, the ragtag band of men appeared fairly benign.
Which is exactly why the hair at the back of Rabbit’s neck stood on end. The figures traveling in their direction — four men and a boy in his early teenage years — all wore the traditional pale-colored Afghan payraan tumbaan, plain with no embellishment. A lot of grunts referred to the people as “pajamas” based on the look of the loose-fitting pants and knee-length shirts. For himself, Rabbit tried to steer away from derogatory terms. Indulging in bigotry only made their goals that much harder to achieve when they couldn’t relate to the people of the region.
The group had to know they were approaching U.S. troops. A small convoy of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles was hard to miss. Yet they walked with confidence, not hesitation. Definitely not showing fear. The spotter in the turret on top of the first MRAP turned his focus — and his rifle — to the approaching group.
Satisfied no surprises would arise from that sector for the moment, Rabbit turned toward the anomaly Sanders had seen and raised the binoculars again. Sure enough, in the middle of the tan-grayness of the dormant landscape, he could see the barely discernible outline of a wing. The same color as the terrain surrounding it, only its smoothness made it stand out. Two figures — locals, from their clothing — moved from behind the ruined aircraft, each carrying what could only be electronic components of the downed drone.
“Son of a biscuit-eater,” murmured Sanders. “They’re stripping it like a dang car.”
That boy sure did like to state the obvious. Heat erupted along the back of Rabbit’s neck. Ever since their unit had taken a hit and lost two members to injuries a month back, they’d all been on edge, and the date sure wasn’t helping the pangs in Rabbit’s gut. But it was more than that. Something was off.
The sound of laughter and loud voices speaking in Arabic drew his gaze back to the road, and he frowned. A couple of the approaching men were acting like drunken dockworkers with their coarse and rowdy behavior, a neat trick since the Afghan people were forbidden to drink. Too much poppy juice?
“Looks like me and my brother when we got into our daddy’s ’shine.” Sanders confirmed the assessment.
The people in the region tended to a more conservative show in the presence of foreign troops. Why would those men want to draw attention to themselves?
“Diversion,” muttered Rabbit.
“Decoys,” Sanders said at the same time.
Both men turned back to the wreckage in time to catch more men scurrying away from the site. The sudden silence from the men up the road brought Rabbit’s head up. Not a soul could be seen. The group seemed to have vanished into thin air.
“Where’d they go?” Sanders squinted up the road, a frown creasing his forehead.
“I don’t know.” Rabbit’s fingers twitched. He readied his M16, double checking the magazine and giving the stock three pats. “Okay, Lucille, this just might be show time.”
A high-pitched whine began to the north and drew closer.
“Incoming!” came a shout from the lead MRAP.
“Get down!” screamed Chavez from somewhere behind them.
The world seemed to spin in sluggish motion. Time slowed, events dragged out.
The freckle-faced ginger kid in the gun turret of the MRAP looked up. His eyes widened and he slid from his straps, scrambling to abandon the vehicle.
“Get out!” shouted Rabbit, waving his hand. “Get out of there!”
The explosion flung him several feet. He landed on his ass with his back against a low mud wall. Searing pain scissored along his right side. The acrid smell of burning rubber scorched his nostrils, but it was the screams filtering through the ringing in his ears and the smell of cooking flesh that made his stomach heave up what was left of his breakfast MRE.

Chapter One
Ante Up
Never eat cereal or candy named “charms.” ~From the Deployment Survival Journal of Pete “Rabbit” Kincaid
Friday, September 5, 2014, 0613 hours
HEART LIMPING IN an uneven sprint, Rabbit bolted straight up into a sitting position, fighting to suck in enough oxygen. A bright yellow glare blinded him as he struggled for his footing and sought a visual on his men. The ginger kid in the MRAP — where had he gone? The ground beneath him was wet… and too soft, impeding his movements. A persistent thumping sound interrupted Rabbit’s thoughts. He pulled his feet under him and prepared to stand when a giggle interrupted his progress.
He blinked once… closed his eyes again then opened them slowly. Around him, rainbow colors collided as they whirled into shapes. A table, a window, a mantel with a snow globe at rest. The brilliant overhead light chased shadows back to their corners.
Next to him, the small child giggled again, and Rabbit jerked his stare toward the sound.
“You cannot — stand up in — your bed,” said the little girl in a halting, breathy voice. “And you spilled your water. Mom will — get very mad.”
Rabbit dragged a hand over his chin and rubbed his jaw, concentrating on slowing his racing heart while he struggled to put a name to the face.
A dream… It was just a dream.
This time.
It hadn’t originally been a harmless dream, though. It had been a very real nightmare nine months back. And the ginger kid in the MRAP — Rabbit’s heart stuttered as a fist of emotion clenched tightly around it — had never had a chance. The vehicle had taken a direct hit from the rocket-propelled grenade, right into the turret the lance corporal had been frantically diving out of. Rabbit hadn’t even known the kid’s name.
His wife just had a baby…
“North Carolina.” Rabbit’s whisper sounded like a shout in the silence of the room. “I’m in North Carolina. It’s September… September…” What the hell’s the date?
The little girl giggled again. Her sandy-colored hair caught the light when she shook her head. What was her name? Rabbit pinched the bridge of his nose. Concentrate. You’ve been here a while. You know these people. Why did his mind have to hold onto information with all the consistency of a sieve lately?
“Bella, where are you?” called a woman’s voice from beyond the open door. A shadow formed in the opening followed by a young woman with a scowl on her face. “Bella! How many times have I told you that you must not bother the guests?” The woman settled her hands on the little girl’s shoulders and directed her from the room. “Now, scoot!”
“Okay — Mom. He wet — the bed.” Bella trotted into the hallway.
I didn’t wet— “Hey, I didn’t wet the…” But Bella had disappeared. Rabbit sighed. “…bed.”
Bella’s mother flipped the wall switch and the overhead light went out, leaving them in dingy shadows. Then she turned to Rabbit. Trish, his brain supplied belatedly. Major Conway’s wife.
“I’m sorry. I lost track of her.” Trish moved to the window and rolled up the dark-out shade. “She’s not an easy child to pin down. Never has been.”
Golden fingers of light poked through the glass, and Rabbit frowned as he tried to gauge the time. Early, judging by the low angle of the sun glinting in the east.
“It’s okay,” he mumbled. “I was ready to get up anyway.” Beyond ready. He eased his legs out from under him, realizing he must look like an idiot crouching on the bed in his boxers, a busted up water bottle at his feet. “And I didn’t wet the bed. My water bottle spilled.”
“I was going to change the sheets anyway.” Apparently unfazed by any of it, Trish crossed the room and paused with her hand on the doorknob. “Dan had to go in to work, but Nick said you could hike down to his place whenever you… um, got out of bed. He said to remind you about the game tonight.” She stepped into the hallway and pulled the heavy mahogany door shut with barely a sound.
Rabbit snickered. He had little doubt the words Nick had used hadn’t been nearly as polite as the paraphrased report he’d just received. Nor did he doubt that the message had been more order than invitation.
As for the game… yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. Nick’s weekly poker nights were low-key, intimate games for just a handful of friends. Penny-ante stuff. Nothing at all like the games of desperation some of the guys ran on deployment. They’d played for smokes and candy, cookies from mothers, even the occasional Amazon gift card, as they’d struggled just to hold on to a semblance of home and sanity.
He’d rather eat a bowl of sand than play another game of poker. Ever.
Stiff muscles protested when Rabbit stood, and he winced. As he dug through his duffle for a clean shirt, his gaze landed on the bed. It looked like he’d fought a war there.
Which, given his nightmare, he supposed he had. The little girl was lucky he hadn’t walloped her a good one. He’d killed the bedside lamp months before, during his first night at the bed and breakfast, when the mantel clock had awakened him at midnight, each stroke of the hammer on the chime becoming an explosive gunshot in his mind until he got his bearings. By the time he had, the porcelain lamp had been lying in shattered pieces on the floor, a victim of his martial arts-trained fists. The clock had disappeared the next day.
A week and a half until his date with the head wizard for the results of the battery of re-qual testing he’d taken at the beginning of August. A week and a half until he could start making plans for his next career move. Things were mopping up in Afghanistan, but starting again in Iraq. And Syria was looking hot. So was North Korea. Or possibly Somalia.
Rabbit chuckled silently. If he wasn’t kicked out of Montgomery House with a hefty repair bill before then, it would be a miracle. He pulled the olive green T-shirt over his head and smoothed it over his abdomen, being careful not to catch it on the five-inch scar along his right ribs. It was finally healing, with no more planned surgeries to dig out remaining shards of metal lodged in his muscles, but the peculiar sensation that was half numbness and half burning it had developed irritated the crap out of him.
~~~~
“NATE, DON’T FORGET your backpack,” called Lin before her son could slip out the door of the tiny motel room they currently called home. When he didn’t stop, she spoke a bit more sharply. “Nathan. Your book bag.”
With a roll of eyes that managed to involve his entire head and one shoulder, Nate turned around, grabbed his pack without looking at her, and shrugged into one strap. He lifted the hood of his gray sweatshirt and hunched over as he stepped outside with a skulk that had become all too familiar lately.
Lin bit her tongue rather than remind him not to slam the door — such prompts never worked anyway and sometimes had the opposite effect. To her surprise, though, he pulled the door shut behind him with only a soft click.
“Nay…” The red-headed baby at her feet pointed at the door. “Ba’bye.”
“Yeah, your big brother didn’t say goodbye again, did he?” Lin straightened the toddler’s little red T-shirt, poking the picture of a truck. “Beep-beep. Bye-bye.”
JR giggled. “Bee-Bee!”
Lin heaved a sigh and brushed a lock of ginger hair out of her little one’s eyes. “Your hair’s getting long again, isn’t it? I guess we’ll have to do something about that after I get off work.”
She tucked her white T-shirt into her black pants and picked up the pale blue smock with the words Tidewater Motel forming a graphic of ocean waves on the shore printed just below the right shoulder in navy and white. If she was lucky, a few of the motel’s guests had checked out early, and she’d get a head start on her day. Not that she could complain about having too much work. Not many people frequented the out-of-the-way motel except during deployments and homecomings. Lin was well aware Mrs. Dalton was being charitable by not only allowing them to live there, but also paying an hourly wage for her to clean what few rooms needed cleaning.
She slipped into her uniform and zipped it then glanced around the room seeking JR’s denim jacket.
The place was a disaster, with clothing spilling out of the tiny closet and towels from Nathan’s shower the night before lying on the floor. A bag of clothing JR had outgrown sat next to the door. Lin hoped she’d get a chance to take the things to the Goodwill. Sometimes they allowed her to make an even exchange for larger sizes, but even if they didn’t, she had to pick up a few heavier things for the colder weather, and Friday meant dollar day on children’s clothing. Finally spotting the jacket half under the bed, Lin sighed and scooped it up.
“Come here, you. Time to go bye-bye ourselves.”
JR offered a toothy grin and ran for the bathroom. Lin groaned. It was going to be one of those days. Mrs. Dalton had already expressed some mild concern that the fifteen-month-old was having feisty days lately, and she was having trouble keeping up. Lin cornered JR in the bathroom and slipped the jacket on. She’d be lucky if the motel owner watched the baby for another week at this rate. And then what would she do?
~~~~
A WHACKED-OUT LEPRECHAUN on the front of the cereal box mocked him from across the table. The little man could laugh all he wanted. Even if Rabbit liked sugary cereal, he’d never eat one filled with marshmallow good-luck charms. He forced his gaze onto his plate and pushed the scrambled eggs around without scooping any onto his fork. A tow-headed toddler with luminous grey eyes watched in silence from his highchair across the table.
Don’t judge me, kid. Half of your eggs are on the floor.
Almost as if the boy had heard the thought, his chin began to wobble. Rabbit averted his gaze. Maybe if he didn’t make eye contact, the pint-sized human alarm wouldn’t go off. Across the room, Trish Conway hummed as she pulled the door open on her industrial-sized oven. The aroma of something sweet and baked wafted on the air, and Rabbit’s mouth watered. After a few moments, Trish set a basket of cinnamon rolls liberally topped with white icing in front of him.
“Maybe these’ll suit you better than the eggs,” she said, lifting his plate and setting a clean one in front of him.
“You didn’t make these especially for me, did you?” Rabbit only half joked. The woman seemed to cook unceasingly. Her husband often teased that he had to do extra physical training just to work off the additional calories.
A smile played around the corners of her mouth. “Would it make you feel better if I said I did?”
Rabbit returned the smile. “Not really. I don’t deser— don’t want you to go out of your way for me.” It was nice enough that Dan and Trish had opened their home to him, but to cook for him too and include him in their family meals… it sometimes proved overwhelming.
Trish took a seat across the table from him and picked up one of the rolls. She closed her eyes when she bit into it. “Mmm. Actually, I’ve wanted these for a couple of days now but only just realized what it was I’ve been hungry for.” She took another dainty bite and chewed.
“Ma-ma-ma-ma!” The kid in the highchair punctuated each syllable with a bang of his palms on the tray in front of him.
“Yes, Greg,” said Trish, laughing. “I know you want one, too.” She pulled a bit off her own, blew gently across it and handed it to the little boy.
Unable to stand it anymore, Rabbit picked up one of the sticky rolls and bit into it. For the first time in months, his gut didn’t twist at the first bite of food. “This is good,” he said quietly. He finished off the first roll and found himself reaching for a second before he had time to think.
“You know, Dan had problems with PTSD for a while after the IED caught him.” Trish licked the icing off her fingers.
Rabbit frowned at his empty plate. Why was she telling him that? It certainly wasn’t any of his business. But he didn’t stop her, and she continued.
“I didn’t meet him until he’d been in therapy for a while.” She looked up, and her smile seemed a little sad. “So I didn’t know him from before, but as active as he is now, it doesn’t take much to figure out he had a bit of a time adjusting to being blind. And he still had some problems with loud noises and stressful situations even after I met him.”
“Ahh…” Rabbit scratched behind his ear, not quite knowing how to respond. “I don’t…”
“You sleep with the brightest light in the room on so you can orient yourself the second you wake up, and you keep the blinds closed tight so you have cover from outside. You jump — hard — when you’re startled.” Trish stared at the basket of rolls and raised a hand as though to take another but pulled it back with a small shake of her head. “No, I’ll only regret it if I do.” She looked up and glued him in place with her clear blue stare. “It’s easy to connect the dots with you, too. You saw action with Nick, and you went back for a tour after that. I can’t begin to guess at what you’ve been through, but you came here banged up and jumpy.”
Realizing he had clenched his hands into fists, Rabbit concentrated on relaxing them. The woman kept a tidy house, and she could cook, but she was way, way out of line, calling him a mental case. And his looming date with the wizard would prove that. Only respect kept his tongue in check.
“It sometimes takes time to come off the field,” he mumbled, repeating the line he’d been saying in his head for the past several months.
“You’ve been here for months and haven’t even unpacked all the way. And you’re afraid you’ll hurt my children.” She smoothed a hand over her son’s pale hair.
“I’m not used to kids—”
She turned back to him and tilted her head. “You scan every room you enter like you’re looking for the alternative exit.”
“Look, if this is about the broken lamp—”
“I’m not worried about a broken lamp, Peter,” Trish said softly, sliding her hand across the table but stopping just short of touching him.
At the unfamiliar sound of his given name, Rabbit jerked upright.
“It’s the man sitting across from me who matters.” She pulled her hand back and stood. “Nick said you won’t go home to your folks and you refused to let them visit when you were in the hospital. Don’t you want to see them before you go back on active status? Are you afraid you’ll worry them?”
Rabbit’s heart stuttered. No wonder Major Conway didn’t seem to miss his eyesight. His intuitive wife apparently saw well enough for both of them. “My mom would worry. She gets it, understands if I’m too busy to go home.”
Trish picked up the basket of cinnamon rolls and raised her eyebrows in silent query, but Rabbit shook his head. Then she carried the basket to the counter and began loading the sticky treats into a plastic container. “So you’re hiding from your mom to keep her from seeing your jitters, and you think that keeps her from worrying about you?”
Put that way, the reasoning sounded stupid. Rabbit inhaled deeply and blew out slowly, forcing his nerves to stop jumping.
Trish finished stowing the rolls and turned around, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “Peter, I’m not bound by the guy code you and Nick and Dan seem to have going on. But I am bound by the mom code. If you don’t want to visit with her because you want to get your head together first, then you need to work on getting your head together.”
He should tell her about his re-qualification, ease her mind that he was about to see a head wizard. Rabbit opened his mouth to speak, but Trish held up her hand in a stop motion.
“You need help.” She slid the dishtowel onto a rack near the sink. “The guys are gonna tiptoe around it and trip over themselves because they’re more your friends right now than your superior officers. But I’m telling you to get help. Because if you don’t, you’re going to end up dead, and your mom’s gonna be a whole lot more than worried then.” She lifted her son from the highchair and settled him on her hip. Murmuring soft words to the boy, she strode toward the living room.
“Wait!” The word tore itself from Rabbit’s throat.
Trish paused and glanced over her shoulder.
“I won’t — hurt your children.” Rabbit swallowed over the emotion in his throat. Montgomery House was the closest thing to home he’d had in a long time. “But if you want me to leave, I can stay on base…” Where I’d better make damn sure I’m not found standing in the middle of a bunk. “…or… go to a motel.”
Her smile was instant, warm, and started in her eyes. “You won’t hurt my kids. Bella won’t let you. I’ve learned a lot about my girl in the past few years. She not only takes care of herself — she takes care of other people.” Trish shook her head. “You stay as long as you want. Just — you aren’t unbreakable. I know you marines are good at holding things together with spit and glue, but just maybe you need a bit more than that emotional duct tape that’s been holding you together.”
Without hanging around for an answer, she left him alone.
Except he wasn’t alone.
His thoughts screamed at him as though they were alive and separate entities. Rabbit struggled to pull his mother’s face from the depths of his memory and frowned when he failed. Had it been that long? Or was it a result of his injuries putting a mental block in place?
With Trish’s words about his mother fermenting in his mind, he needed to see her. But not in person. Not yet. He’d have to settle for the next best thing. A trip to his storage unit was in order.
He’d promised his friend Greg that he’d secure private, off-base lodging for him on his first night home. Since the storage facility was west of the base, right near the Tidewater, he could take care of Greg’s room and then swing by his locker. The motel was a bit of a dive, but it was private and cheap. Best of all, the owners didn’t ask many questions, and they didn’t want to put on a celebration for every marine coming off deployment.
The perfect place for decompressing.

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