Halos and Heroes Ch. 09

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Ass

Thank you all who have been reading and following along. I always appreciate getting feedback. It helps with becoming a better writer and it’s always an ego boost, so feel free to reach out. I will always respond!

The usual spiel: This isn’t a stroke story, (more porn with plot.) Be warned, it’s very long. 33+ chapters, and many sexless ones to come before it gets sexy, which is why it was originally published under novels/novellas, but readers asked for it to be put under gay male due to content, so here we go.

This book is dedicated to all of the brave service members and their families who sacrifice so much every day so that the rest of us can enjoy the liberties that they swear to protect and uphold.

Although references in this novel may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are complete works of fiction. They are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental. In an effort to do the United States Army justice, and to show my respect to my country, I have applied all possible efforts to merge fact and fiction to entertain, while portraying the military, and the hardships and achievements of soldiers, with respect, dignity and accuracy to the best of my abilities. It’s my hope that I’ve done you all justice, and that all of the creative licenses taken with this novel are understood to be the efforts of imagination, and not any judgment or disrespect against the U.S. military. Thank you all for your service.

***

I hope life isn’t a big joke, because I don’t get it.

—Jack Handey

“Honey, I need you to keep still. You’re bleeding all over the place.”

“What?” I blinked, feeling slow and stupid as the effects of the alcohol hit me like an Acme baby grand piano. “What’s going on?”

“You shattered your beer bottle. We’re calling an ambulance.”

“I don’t need an ambulance. I’m fine.” One good shove scraped my chair across the floor with a harsh sound. I stumbled back. The world dipped around me, and I stared down at my hands and the bright red blood.

Red like Devlin’s.

Like Connor’s.

Their blood all over my hands, because I’d walked away and hadn’t been there to protect either of them.

My stomach heaved. The rank acidity of bile gagged me as I threw up into the nearest garbage can. I puked until there was nothing left, but I still couldn’t get rid of the sick feeling polluting my insides.

Coolness spread over my neck as the bartender laid a damp cloth over my skin. “Deep breaths, sweetie. We need to look at those hands.”

“No ambulances,” I said, my words so slurred that she had to kneel down to hear me. “Call…”

Who exactly? Max was in Afghanistan, and I’d be damned if I’d call Sofia. “Call Ben… Benjamin Santiago. His number’s in my cell.” I fumbled in my pockets for the phone.

“Okay, but only because wanting you off my floor trumps worrying about you suing us.”

“Not going to sue. But I need to sit down.”

“No problem,” she said, looping her arm through mine on one side, her male counterpart on the other side. The scent of his trendy cologne made me gag. It was nothing like the clean scent of Ben’s skin.

Ben.

I could hear the bartender speaking to him after she set me up in the office in back. With my head between my legs and the blood rushing to my ears, sound was muffled. Yet somehow I still heard her every word clearly. Ben was coming for me.

My hands curled into fists, the pain focusing me with sharp toothed clarity. It helped me keep from hurling again as I waited for the door to re-open. By the time it did, the cuts in my hands had almost stopped bleeding, but my new friend still forced me to rinse them with hydrogen peroxide. She wrapped them in fluffy gauze from a first-aid kit after I rinsed my mouth out with some water from the bottle her bar partner gave me.

“I got the glass out, so you should be fine. Doesn’t look like you need stitches, but I recommend washing and rewrapping them when you get home.”

She snorted when I glanced up in question. “All this,” she waved a slim hand, “is a night gig to get me through med school.”

“I’m sorry about the mess.”

“Don’t worry about it. I knew you were trouble. Those eyes and that smile…trouble.”

“I’d have to agree.”

Ben’s voice brought both our heads up. The bartender’s carefully plucked brows arched as she looked between him, poised and handsome in his uniform of black and white, to me, hunched over on a chair with the blood on my white shirt quickly turning dark brown.

“You don’t want to call a doctor but you call a priest? Please wait till you’re outside to drop dead on me.”

“He’s not going to die,” Ben assured her. “Though he might wish he had in the morning.”

I saluted him with my middle finger and then wondered what the penance was for flipping off a priest. Ben ignored me. I had a feeling that was going to be the theme tonight.

“Can we leave through the back?” he said, gesturing to a door. “I parked my poker oyna truck in the alley.”

“Sure. I hate to sound mean, but I need him out of here. He’s freaking out my customers.”

“Understood. We’re going. Come on, Sam.”

I closed my eyes to try and focus on anything except the strength in Ben’s broad shoulders as he looped my arm over them. His arm went around my waist and I had a moment of déjà vu as we made our way to the spot he’d parked his vehicle.

“Is rescuing me going to become a theme with you?”

“I don’t know,” he said as he stuffed me into the front and worked on my seatbelt. “Is doing something stupid a theme of yours?”

I grinned. Someone was feisty.

“Don’t puke in my car,” he warned, “or you will pay for the detailing.”

I leaned my head back against the upholstered seat. “I’m fine.”

Ben snorted. “You’re not fine. Your hands are shredded, you smell like a still, and you can barely hold your eyes open. You, my friend, are a hot mess.”

“I buried my brother today. I think I deserve one free pass.”

“Newsflash, Sergeant Trammel, but your family buried a father and a husband today, too. And where did you leave them?”

He couldn’t have sobered me up faster than if he’d flung a bucket of ice water over my seat. “Ben…”

“Shut it, Sam,” Ben said, his hands tightening on the steering wheel. “I’ll take you back to my place to shower and change while you sober up. You made the mistake of reaching out, so now you’re stuck with me until I deem you fit to return to duty.”

I’d have rolled my eyes if it didn’t hurt so much. “I have a headache.”

“There’s aspirin at my place.”

“Are we far?”

“About thirty minutes out, and yes, that’s where we’re going. Period. The end. Sofia has enough to deal with tonight. Close your eyes and we’ll get there faster.”

I doubted that. Instead I glanced over at Ben, tracing the contours of his face. His jaw was set tight and he looked annoyed with me. But beneath that, there was another emotion that tugged at my stupid heart.

Disappointment.

I’d disappointed Benjamin Santiago. And for some goddamn reason it mattered to me. Dammit. “Ben…I’m sorry.”

He didn’t look at me, and I felt that much crappier.

“Don’t apologize to me, Sam. I’m not the one who’s going to have a serious hangover tomorrow.”

“If you didn’t insist on a sleepover, I could be getting coffee right now.”

“Or you’d be wrapping yourself around a telephone pole, at which point I’d be dragged out of bed to give you last rites, making me a very unhappy man.”

“I walked,” I said, my indignation sounding weak even to my own ears. “I only let them call you because they’d have called 911 instead. But I’m good. I don’t need you to make sure I get safely tucked into bed to sleep it off.”

“Who said anything about sleeping?”

Though innocent in tone, the hint of something more in Ben’s eyes when he looked over at me made me wonder what was going on in his head. My throat went dry when we stopped at a red light and the temptation to lean over and see if what I felt building between us—that subtle buzz that was like a small electric shock when you dragged your feet backward over a rug—was actually there, or if I was just drunk. My mouth tingled when Ben stared at it for exactly three agonizing seconds—I counted—before he looked away.

“You’re a mess,” he said, his tone gentling. “I knew I should’ve checked on you earlier. I meant to come by and invite you out for that cup of coffee, but that situation at Maplewood that I mentioned to you earlier at the funeral carried over into tonight, and I lost track of time.”

“Maplewood?”

Ben clicked his turn signal, waiting for the stoplight to change. “It’s the halfway house for teenagers that I work at.”

I swallowed around the dryness in my throat. It never failed to surprise me how dehydrated I got after drinking my weight in booze. “What happened?”

“Cayden, one of the kids, got into it with his roommate. He’s been having a hard time adjusting,” Ben said, leaning over me to get to the glove compartment. He tossed me a small plastic box of cinnamon mints before turning back to the road. “He’s a former Marine. Wasn’t even in for two years when his unit was taken out by an IED. He lost all the hearing in his right ear.”

“Damn. How old is he?”

“He’ll be nineteen next month. Joined with his mother’s consent at seventeen.”

“I have tee shirts older than that.” I’d been only a couple of years older when I enlisted, and still remembered those first few years when you didn’t know your ass from your elbow. Adding major trauma just complicated the mix. “He didn’t want to go back home?”

Ben shook his head. “He’s told Tara, one of our counselors, that his mom is an alcoholic.”

“Tara from the funeral?”

Ben nodded. “She’s a child therapist and a mutual friend of mine and Sofia’s. Good people. The kids adore her, but she’s having a hard time getting Cayden to open up about his home life, so it’s got to be bad.”

“I know that feeling,” canlı poker oyna I murmured.

“Did your father drink?”

The question was asked casually, Ben’s tone giving me the impression I could change the subject if I chose to. For that small courtesy—and the fact he’d come to pick up my stupid drunk ass—I said, “He was a ‘recovering’ alcoholic who never reached the stage of making amends.”

“Sofia told me that you and Connor had a difficult time growing up.”

“If you’re politely trying to ask if our dad smacked us around, yeah he did. At least until we got old enough to hit back harder. Two to one put the odds in our favor.”

Sympathy softened Ben’s expression. “I’m sorry, Sam.”

“No need to be. He’s out of the picture, lost in a bottle somewhere,” I said flatly, popping three of Ben’s mints into my mouth. I recognized the spicy sweet scent as the same one that I sometimes caught a whiff of when I was close to him. “Is the kid going to be all right?”

Shadows shifted on Ben’s face, hiding his expression, though I could hear the regret in his voice. “If he keeps getting into altercations with our other kids, we’ll have to ask him to leave. I’m trying to avoid that because I think he needs a stable home right now.” He paused, thick brows knitting together in thought. “Maybe you can drop by Maplewood one of these days and talk to him.”

“And say what?”

“I don’t know. Just talk. You and Cayden both have a military background. That’s a common denominator that none of the other counselors or I share with him. See if you can find out what, or who, keeps egging him on. I have my suspicions, but can’t do anything if he doesn’t let me help him.” Ben’s lips tightened into a grim line.

I popped another mint into my mouth as the previous ones melted into a glaze on my tongue. “I’m not good with kids.”

“I disagree. I saw you with Emma today.”

“She’s five. It’s easy to be a hero to a kid when Care Bears make them happy.” I turned to look out the window. “Besides, if someone is messing with him, I’m afraid my moral compass points due south on this one anyway.”

Ben’s reflection in my window cocked his head to one side. “What do you mean?”

I bounced my fist lightly in staccato tempo against my knee. “When Connor and I were growing up, a lot of the local kids thought that because our old man beat us, it was open season.” I turned back to meet Ben’s steady gaze. “We had to set a few straight before the rest thought twice about messing with either of us.”

I expected a preachy response, but Ben nodded. “I get what you’re saying, Sam. I just can’t let something like this slide.”

“So don’t. Just make sure you find the real guilty party.”

He smiled. “I bet you were the kid who stood up for the underdog in school.”

“Once in a while. I don’t like bullies.” I paused when I saw the change in Ben’s expression. Looked like someone had told him more than he’d first let on “Go ahead and ask.”

To his credit, Ben didn’t play stupid. “Did you know your brother was abusive toward Sofia?”

“No. Sofia doesn’t open up about the tough stuff.”

“I suspect that’s a family trait.”

I shrugged. “Sometimes lying to yourself is the way to go. It fools other people long enough for you to come up with a plan B.”

“So if you’d known what was happening here, would you have left the military and come back to Florida the first chance you could?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“A valid one,” Ben responded, his tone mild enough to make me bristle over everything he didn’t say.

“Of course I would have. If I’d known Connor was hitting Sofia, let alone Adelyn, I would’ve kicked his ass out the front door. I’ve made a lot of excuses for Connor over the years, but that’s one thing I’d never have allowed.”

I didn’t expect the hand Ben reached out and curled over my knee. It shook slightly from the vibrations running from my skin to his.

“I knew he hit her,” he said, glancing over at me. “Can’t count how many times I told her to leave him, but she stayed.”

“Sofia’s always been loyal like that. She sticks,” I said, distracted by his hand still on my leg. I’d have to adjust to the fact that he was a toucher. We hadn’t gotten much of that growing up.

“Sometimes you need to know when to walk away, Sam.”

“And other times you should keep your ass right where it is.”

“Are we still talking about Sofia?”

I didn’t answer, but the question seemed rhetorical anyway when he said, “Sofia told me you two fell out of contact a while ago.” He paused. “Though we’ve just met, I can’t understand why a man who believes in honor the way you do stayed away from your family for this long.”

When I tensed, the fingers on my knee squeezed lightly. “And I don’t need to know. We all have our pasts and I’m not judging yours. All I’m saying is Sofia chose to stay with Connor. That decision wouldn’t have changed whether you were here or not.”

I swallowed hard against the rising lump in my throat. “If I’d just finished my last tour and come back to Florida, internet casino Connor wouldn’t have gotten the chance to lift a hand to any of them.”

“And you might’ve ended up in jail on an assault charge or worse.”

He was right, but I felt the sudden need to assure him that while Connor and I were identical, there were some major differences between us.

“I got into a lot of fights before the Army straightened me out, but I’d never lay a hand on Sofia or the girls. Ever.” I leaned my head back against the seat. “I’m sorry I interrupted your night. I just didn’t know who else to call. My friends are still in Afghanistan, and the girls don’t need to see me like this.”

“It’s okay,” Ben said as he made a left onto a narrow street. “I’m like a bartender—I keep late hours. Not everyone can do nine-to-five confessions.”

“So you just go around town rescuing men plastered to the front of bars like bad siding?”

“Some people do macramé. I go on holy hunts for the spiritually haunted. It’s my ‘thing.'” Ben smirked, making another left turn.

I was so far out of the familiarity of Sofia’s neighborhood that I’d never be able to get back unless he gave me directions. “Are we almost to your place?”

“Yes. It’s right along the coast. I like watching the sun rise over the ocean in the morning.”

My eyebrow cocked. “You can afford waterfront property?”

“When I bought the place, I had some money saved and it was affordable. Still is, if you’re looking for a place to set down roots.”

“Sofia and I haven’t talked about anything permanent,” I said, relieved when Ben read the tight note in my tone and let it go.

We pulled into a small neighborhood with an old painted sign indicating the name of the complex. It was too weathered to make out more than the word “Beach.” As Ben had said, he was right on the waterfront, and inky-black ocean spread out on all sides. Even at night it was an amazing view, but as we crept down past the pier to a strip of small homes, I began to see why Ben had gotten his place for a bargain.

The older ranch and bungalow styles reminded me of the neighborhood I’d grown up in. More dilapidated than the sleek new beachside condos out by Sofia, the wood and stucco exteriors of most of the buildings were in serious need of a face-lift. A few were missing clay tiles from the roofs. Shutters showed wear from sea and sand, and most had private decks that looked about as safe as walking on a balance beam in my current inebriated condition.

We stopped in front of an old but attractive beach house that looked out of place among the other less-maintained buildings surrounding it.

“This is me,” Ben said, killing the engine. He must’ve seen my expression, because he smiled. “It’s still an up-and-coming neighborhood.”

“Yeah, in crime statistics,” I muttered.

“We’re in a recession. A lot of the older neighborhoods went downhill with foreclosures.” He shrugged, setting the car alarm with the traditional double beep. “But its home, and you’re welcome to hang out as long as you need to.”

“I can’t stay, Ben. Sofia and the girls will worry.”

“I called Sofia on my way to pick you up.”

Tension immediately settled between my shoulder blades. “What did you tell her?”

“Aside from the truth?”

“Dammit, Ben.”

“You want me to say something different, make other choices. I won’t lie for you. Come on.”

I followed under protest because I didn’t have much say, seeing as I had no idea where the fuck I was.

The wide foyer had seen better days. Carpet beneath my feet squished in spots with an unsavory sound, and the air felt more humid inside than out.

“Sorry about that,” Ben apologized, when I tested a piece of flooring with my boot to make sure it wasn’t me that was off balance. “We had a big storm a few weeks back that flooded this area, and I haven’t had time to completely strip it down.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll feel less guilty if I puke here than in your car.”

A sound that could’ve been a laugh or a sigh escaped Ben as he bypassed the stairs, and led me toward the main living area. Two steps in, I found myself in a sanctuary that was a hundred-eighty degrees out from the mess in the foyer.

Ben’s living room was less of a show room than Sofia’s was, but the rugged, hand-carved wood tables, and dark brown leather couches looked both tasteful and comfortable. Instead of stark white walls and the ominous wooden cross I’d envisioned, I found myself ensconced within warm neutral colors, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that took up two full walls and the better part of a third. They were jammed with framed photos of friends and family, and other little tchotchkes that told the story of his life. On a wood accent wall hung artful black and white photographs and small paintings of both religious and mundane themes. They gave an eclectic vibe to the room, and a glimpse of the world through Ben’s eyes.

I paused at a beautifully shot photo of a homeless woman kneeling in prayer, clasped hands held high above the sea of trash bags around her. Captured in black and white with heavy contrasts in light and dark, only her face was out of the shadows, revealing reverence in her expression. Ben’s initials were sketched in the lower left corner in black ink.

Ben Esra telefonda seni bosaltmami ister misin?
Telefon Numaram: 00237 8000 92 32

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