So After the War is finally off to copyedits. I’m nervous about this one, gang, for a couple of reasons.
First, Sean and Sarah are the first characters I ever wrote and though this version has been edited and revised a lot, it’s still a version of the first story I ever put on paper. I started them way back in 2007, when my husband was deployed for the second time and I was in officer candidate school. The first scene I wrote in this book ended up in Shane and Jen’s book Because of You. I remember the first day I wrote the first line. I was sitting in Building 4, waiting for class to start. One of my classmates who’d deployed was ripping one of his platoon mates a new one for something that seemed so trivial at the time. But it wasn’t. It was something he’d seen matter downrange. And that was the spark that started everything: what does war do to men and women who lead soldiers, knowing they are going back to war.
Second, this is probably the darkest book I’ve ever written. I don’t expect everyone to love it. There is a dark issue explored in here, the realities of war that I haven’t tackled directly before. So I expect there will be mixed reviews of this one, if not outright hatred of this book.
Third, Sarah is probably the most difficult character I’ve tried to write. Without spoiling it, she’s made choices that people probably won’t agree with and may even despise her for. But they are choices that women in the military – especially mothers in the military, have to make all the time.
Fourth, I wrote this book out of fear. My husband was on his second deployment. We knew what that meant. His first tour in 04 was bad. When we decided to stay in, we knew it meant he was going to war and that I too, would get my turn. We stayed knowing we had two little girls counting on us. So this book is an exploration of those choices and the fear that comes with them along with the pride and fulfillment that comes with being a soldier.
I hope you’ll read this book, if for no other reason than it’s taken me almost 8 years to get it right. I hope it resonates with you and I hope that even if you hate it, you’ll think about it long after you finish it.
I hope you enjoy.
Lieutenant Sean Nichols looked away from the fire and at the soldier holding him back. “Let me go.” A direct order, laced with violence.
Specialist Kearney shook his head. “Getting yourself killed isn’t going to do anyone any good, sir.”
Sweat ran from beneath Sean’s helmet and into his eyes, fogging the lenses of his eye pro. He dragged his gloved hand beneath his glasses and took in the chaos around him. Thunder from the fifty cal vibrated through his chest. The heat burned through his flesh to the bone. At the end of the street, one of the aircraft overhead let go with the main gun and pushed the approaching militia back.
The entire fucking city was burning. Smoke from the fire seared his nostrils and tore at his lungs.
Greeted as liberators, my ass.
Chatter and intermittent screams flooded the airwaves over the radios as everyone tried to get medical and fire support.
But the truck in front of them was all he could see. He started toward the truck again.
“Stop, goddamn it!” Kearney smashed his palms into Sean’s chest, knocking him back a step. “They’re already gone.”
The front end of the truck was melting into the asphalt.
The war surrounded them. Hot. Violent. A brilliant flash blinded him followed by a wave of heat and sound that drove his skin into his bones
He hit the deck, Kearney slamming into the pavement next to him.
Ammo started cooking off from inside the burning truck, tearing through the thin skinned Humvee and slamming into the concrete around them.
Gravel bit into the skin of his cheek as a round ricocheted off the concrete. Sean closed his eyes, and for a moment, all he could see was the fire. He hoped Kearney was right. He hoped Jack and his boys had died in the initial blast. There was silence as he pushed to his knees. Or at least the appearance of silence. It wrapped around him and made the battle seem far away
He looked up, his brain slowly registering the beat up white sedan weaving through the wreckage and burning trash toward them. He punched Kearney in the shoulder and pointed. Kearney nodded once, his lips moving. Sean felt the vibration from the M249 on his vehicle where his gunner opened fire. The sedan rolled to a stop near the burning Humvee.
He reached for the hand mike on the seat of his truck as all the sound came rushing back.
“Punisher Main, this is Warlord Blue. MEDEVAC follows.” Sean read off the lines required to get the MEDEVAC bird in the air. The number of wounded. Their location. The information rolled off his tongue line-by-line, ingrained with practice. His voice locked in his throat and he forced the words through the blockade.
When he was done, he doubled over, throwing up the little liquid and food he had in his stomach, heaving his guts out on the streets of Iraq. Heaved until his ribs ached and his throat burned from the bile or the smoke, he didn’t know.
When he was empty and hollowed out, he felt it again, slamming into him. The cold violence in the pit of his stomach. The rage churning in the empty space his soul had just abandoned.
His hand tightened around the butt of his weapon and all he wanted to do was kill.
On another base in the center of Baghdad, Lieutenant Sarah Anders answered a knock on the door of her CHU.
Her company commander stood on the top of the rough wooden step. The chaplain stood behind her.
Sarah’s heart caught in her throat. She took a single step backwards, shaking her head slowly, denying the hard, ugly truth of what those two visitors meant.
“No,” she whispered.
She fell to her knees.
Far away, she heard someone screaming.
It was a long time before she realized it was her.
“You are officially the worst friend on the planet.”
Captain Sarah Anders smiled at the sound of a familiar voice. Captain Claire Montoya stood behind her trying to look offended and failing miserably. Sarah squealed as she hugged her friend close.
“You are the only thing good about being at Fort Hood,” Sarah said, holding on a little too tight. “God but I missed you.”
“Funny way of showing it, you ass,” Claire said, with a grin. “How long have you been here?”
“Long enough to get settled. I was going to call,” Sarah said, knowing Claire wasn’t actually offended. She was that kind of friend. The one you didn’t talk to for ten months because of a deployment and when you finally did, you picked up right where you left off.
Claire waved aside Sarah’s half-baked apology. “How’s the munchkin?”
“She turned five while I was gone.”
“Wow, that goes by fast. Wasn’t she just in diapers a second ago?”
“Feels like it. Now, though, sometimes I feel like she’s going on fifteen. She can be so dramatic.” Sarah pulled Claire into her tiny nook that passed for an office. She was new here which meant she had a shitty desk in a shitty space, but she wasn’t going to complain.
“Bet you can’t wait for puberty, huh?”
“I’m sending her to boarding school and volunteering for another deployment,” Sarah said. “Man, I missed you. How have you been since the epic disaster also known as Colorado?”
Claire pulled up a chair. “Oh, fine. Got thrown out of this brigade and sent over to the Cav Regiment. Ai-ee-ya, and all that,” she said pointing to the patch on her left shoulder.
“You sound like you’re enjoying it.”
“Of course I’m enjoying it,” Claire said with an evil grin. Claire was a warrior, through and through. There was nothing she enjoyed more than leading soldiers in combat. And she was damn good at it, too.
“And how’s Evan?”
A warm flush crept over Claire’s face, matched by the smile that transformed her. “He’s good.” She held out her hand, revealing a square cut diamond ring.
Sarah bit back an excited sound. “Now who’s the shitty friend? You didn’t tell me you were engaged!”
Claire flushed but the smile never left her lips. “Well, he pretty much had to hold me down to get me to agree.” She shrugged. “He’s…a good man.”
“I’m happy for you,” Sarah said,
Claire folded her arms over her chest. “Okay, so spill. What the hell happened? You were leaving for Iraq the last time I saw you, and now you’re here. Which means mostly not good things as far, as I can guess.”
Sarah looked down at her desk, the shame of failure a hot flush on her skin. “I got fired.” She looked up at her friend. “Training accident in Arifjan. I never even got to take my team into country.”
“Shit.” Claire sank back into her chair. “Is that why you’re limping?”
Sarah nodded. “Yep. Fuel exploded. Boss didn’t want to hear that it wasn’t my fault even though I was literally topping vehicles off. Contractors deliberately failed to properly ground the fuel stop.”
“So what you’re saying is you’re lucky to be alive, and instead you’re bitching about being fired?” Claire said dryly.
“Well, when you put it that way,” Sarah said. She grinned and shook her head. “The boss was looking for a reason to fire me and he found it.”
“Well, I’m not going to complain if that means you’re here. I have a shortage of female friends who can put up with me.”
“Ha! That’s just because you’re terrifying.” Sarah let the conversation drift away from her failure as a commander. She couldn’t face the memories, not today. Not when she needed to get her head in the game and focus on her new job here at Fort Hood. If she was planning on staying in the Army, she needed to get used to riding a desk on the staff.
One of the lieutenants in the ops stuck her head in Sarah’s cubicle. “Excuse me, ma’am?”
She glanced over Claire’s shoulder at LT Picket and felt positively ancient. The Army was a young soldier’s game, and at thirty, Sarah hadn’t been a young soldier in half a lifetime or more.
“What’s up, LT?”
“Ma’am, Major Wilson directed me to hand this to you.” The lieutenant looked like she expected Sarah to rip her throat out.
Sarah hadn’t had a run in with Major Wilson yet, but that didn’t mean the battalion executive officer’s reputation didn’t precede her. She was not a warm and fuzzy kind of leader, apparently. She ruled by fear and intimidation. Always a fun mix with a superior officer.
“Thanks. What is it?”
Pickett folded her hands at the small of her back at the position of parade rest. “You’ve been appointed as the investigating officer for an incident that happened this past weekend. A fight between a lieutenant and a sergeant in Chaos Company over in Death Dealer battalion. Drunk and disorderly with assault. Some sergeant got drunk and was involved in a fight with his company XO. Now the brigade commander wants answers.”
“So much for getting integrated with the battalion’s logistics mission,” Sarah said. Being an investigating officer took time, time she could be using to establish herself as a valuable asset to the logistics planning team. Now she was going to be out chasing sworn statements and picking through lies, instead of doing her job, which was working logistics for the upcoming deployment to Iraq. Fights weren’t usually serious incidents, contrary to what most folks outside the Army thought. Why was this one being investigated?
Sarah frowned. “What kind of unit has officers and enlisted men fighting on the weekends?”
Claire smiled. “Oh, trust me, Death Dealer battalion is special.”
“And you know this, how?”
Claire leaned back in her chair. “Evan is the ops officer there. Trust me, when I say special, I mean ‘entire chain of command was relieved a few months ago’ kind of special.”
“Oh wow. That’s really serious.”
“You have no idea. New command teams are on board, but they’re busy trying to clean house and get the unit prepared for the next deployment coming up in—” she glanced at her watch “—seven months. I haven’t met any of the new commanders beyond Bandit Company but Sarn’t Ike says they are an interesting mix of characters.”
“Well, that ought to be interesting then.” Sarah flipped open the folder to look at the memorandum appointing her as the investigating officer.
Cold prickled over her skin. Her stomach twisted into knots violently as she read the name of the company commander again and again. It had to be a mistake.
Had to be.
“Dude, what’s wrong?” Claire’s voice came from very far away.
She said nothing, handing Claire the paperwork, her heart caught in her throat.
“Oh shit.” Claire’s expression hardened as her eyes scanned the paperwork. She looked up at Sarah. “Sarah—”
Sarah covered her mouth with her hand, a thousand memories storming forward all at once, flashing back to a terrible time years ago. Before she’d met Jack. Before she’d lost the man who’d filled the dead space inside her with love and laughter and understanding. Things she’d thought she’d lost forever when Sean Nichols had walked out on her.
The man she’d been engaged to marry. The man who’d left her when she refused to give up her career to be his wife.
“Goddamn it, Sean, I thought you were getting your men under control?” Lieutenant Colonel Gilliad jammed a finger in Sean’s chest and Sean deliberately kept his expression blank.
Captain Sean Nichols stood in his battalion commander’s office, hands at the small of his back in a parade rest stance. It was the preferred position for getting a wire brush run over his fourth point of contact. While the visual might have been funny any other time, at the moment, Sean wasn’t in the mood for a joke.
“Sir, I’m working on it. There’s a lot to unfuck in this unit, sir.”
“How exactly are you working on it? The lawyer tells me your company is the farthest behind on legal packets.”
“Sir, we’re processing the medical and mental health before we start the legal proceedings.”
The muscle in Gilliad’s throat pulsed visibly as he stood, leaning over the desk. “And now you’ve got sergeants picking fights with the officers?”
Sean ground his teeth. He was going to whip Kearney’s ass six ways from Sunday when he got ahold of him. And Sean’s executive officer? Oh LT Smith was going to be lucky to still have a job if Sean had any say so. But like everything, firing any lieutenant, let alone that particular lieutenant, was complicated. “Sir, I’m still trying to get the answers as to what’s going on there.”
“Yeah, well you’re out of options on that one. I’ve asked the brigade commander to direct an investigation on this clusterfuck since you can’t control your formation.”
Gilliad slapped a folder against Sean’s chest. Sean kept it from falling and dropped it by his side, feeling like now might not be the best time to read it and take notes. Not with flames shooting out of Gilliad’s ears, anyway.
“Roger that, sir.”
Gilliad sank down into his chair with a heavy sigh. He looked up at Sean quietly for a moment. “I hired you because you came highly recommended. I’m not sure what the problem is with this particular sergeant, but you need to get him under control or you need to throw his ass out of the Army.”
Sean ground his teeth. He really was going to kill Kearney. “Sir, he’s working through some difficult family issues.”
“Noted. Don’t care. He gets arrested one more time, and I’m coming for you. You want to put your ass on the line for this guy, you’ll deal with the consequences when he fucks up.”
“Roger that, sir.”
“Get the hell out of my office.”
Sean saluted sharply and left the office quickly before his mouth decided that discretion was not the better part of valor.
“That was fun.” First Sergeant Morgan fell into step with Sean outside the colonel’s office.
They stepped outside of the headquarters, and Morgan paused to pluck a fresh cigar out of the breast pocket of his uniform.
“A blast. We should do it again tomorrow.” Sean pushed his sunglasses on to shield his eyes from the brilliant Texas sunlight. The trees overhanging the battalion headquarters offered shade, but the heat was oppressive, and it wasn’t even summer yet.
“Heard from the XO yet?” Morgan asked.
“Nope. Where the hell did we get these lieutenants? Clown college?” Sean shook his head. “Fucking Tweedle Dum and his merry band of miscreants.”
“I love that you call your XO Tweedle Dum, sir,” Morgan said dryly. “It warms the cockles of my twisted little heart.”
Sean grunted. He’d nicknamed LT Smith Tweedle Dum out of sheer frustration. He and his buddies were all part of the same class at West Point. All but one had a mother or a father currently on active duty but somehow, they were the least competent officers Sean had ever seen. He’d never encountered more unprofessional behavior in his entire career.
God save him from lieutenants who thought they knew everything because they were related to someone who did.
“Probably time to strategically apply some pressure to their fourth points of contact. You’ve given them the benefit of the doubt, and, well, they’re not really rising to the occasion, are they?”
Sean shot his first sergeant a sidelong look that said no shit. “Does Kearney have a good story for this one?” Sean wished he hadn’t quit smoking. It might have been six years ago but, right now, he’d give anything to relieve the tension winding around his chest, and a cigarette seemed just the thing. Something. Anything to take the edge off.
Sean sighed heavily. “He still at the company?”
“Yep. Bleeding on the conference room table.”
“Well, it ought to give the medics something to do,” Sean said dryly. “Have them stick him with an IV and patch him up.”
“Want me to draw up the counseling packet? He needs a boot in his ass.” Morgan clipped the end off his cigar and flicked it into the bush. “Maybe taking some time and money will smarten him up.”
“I doubt it,” Sean said. “And no, we can’t do a damn thing right now. The boss appointed an investigation.”
“What’d he go and do that for?” Morgan held the lighter to the tip of his cigar. “Kearney’s problems are pretty simple.”
“Guess he doesn’t believe me when I tell him that Kearney and his wife just enjoy making each other miserable.” Sean scrubbed his hand over his mouth. “How do we fix this, Top? This is five weeks running we’ve had boys arrested.”
Morgan blew out a smoke ring. He did his best thinking when he was smoking. “First, we need to figure out what the hell happened last night. Kearney getting into a fight with the XO is bad juju, but the more I think about it, the more I’m with the boss. We need someone else to take a look at this because clearly there’s some bullshit going on that we’re not seeing.”
“I love how you read my mind.” Sean grinned. “Want to snuggle?”
“Just because I read your mind doesn’t mean we’re going to be taking long showers together,” Morgan growled.
Sean laughed at the long running joke between them and some of the tension that had been squeezing his chest eased back. He released a deep breath.
They walked in silence to their company headquarters, a small, one story brick building, with bushes cut in the guitar pick shape of the First Cavalry Division patch. All of the company ops were lined up in the same building.
There was a lone female standing on the front steps. Her hair was tied back in a severe bun, her eyes masked by dark Wiley-X sunglasses.
“Lost?” he said.
She didn’t turn right away. There was something familiar about the curve of her neck, the line of her jaw. It nagged at him, just out of reach.
She turned, her face shadowed by the sun. “I’m looking for Captain Nichols.”
He stopped, his heart pounding hard in his ears. He stood for a moment, convinced that lack of sleep had him hallucinating. That he was hearing and seeing things he’d long ago tried to forget. He knew that voice. Hadn’t heard it in half a lifetime at least but it blasted him with a sense of knowing.
She shifted then, turning until the sun no longer cast a shadow over her features and reality slammed into him. A thousand brilliant points of pain exploded somewhere in the vicinity of his chest. The sounds from the world fell away, leaving him in a vacuum filled with memories and the silent regret of long ago mistakes.
“Yeah, Sean. It’s me.”
It had been nine years since she’d seen him. Nine years since his words had sliced into her skin with bitter anger and hurt and loss. Nine years since their lives had fallen apart, and she’d relegated Sean Nichols to a memory she tried to forget.
But in one moment, the intervening decade fell away, and she was suddenly that twenty-year-old sergeant again, her heart bleeding in her hands as she tried to put her life back together.
She swallowed the dryness in her throat, determined to keep things professional, then get the hell out of Dodge as fast as she could. This was not allowed to get messy. She’d done messy with him once before, and she’d be damned if she was going to repeat that mistake.
She couldn’t see his eyes behind the sunglasses, but for the briefest moment, his lips parted. A hint of emotion, then it was gone, his mouth pressed into a hard, flat line. His hands clenched into fists before they disappeared into his pockets.
He jerked his chin toward her nametape. “Anders?”
She nodded briefly. “I was married.”
“Apparently.” It was amazing how much bitterness could be packed into a single word.
“Well, now that the interpersonal hostilities are over, I’m the investigating officer for the incident in your company last night.”
“I figured that one out just now, thanks.”
She took a deep breath. So much for keeping things professional. She wasn’t going to get drawn into an argument with him. But the standoff continued. Neither of them moved and a thousand memories swirled between them, snapping like live things.
He’d changed. A lot. His shoulders filled out the gray ACU uniform much better than when he’d been a younger man. His jaw was stronger. His tanned skin was creased from the bright sun of Fort Hood and Iraq if his combat patch was any indication. His dark brown hair was longer than she remembered him wearing it when they’d been young sergeants together all those years ago.
So much for hoping he’d gotten a paunch and gone bald. Guess voodoo dolls didn’t work after all.
The first sergeant standing next to Sean cleared his throat. “Anyone going to bother with introductions? Or am I supposed to guess what this awkward interpersonal hostility is all about?”
Sean sighed heavily. “Top, meet my ex-fiancé, Sarah Delany.”
Sarah stuck her hand out, annoyed that he’d deliberately misstated her name. She’d been Delany once upon a time but hadn’t been in a long time. “Captain Anders, nice to meet you, Firs’ Sarn’t.”
Morgan’s hand was strong and solid and felt like eighty-five grit sandpaper.
“Ma’am.” Morgan stepped around Sarah and unlocked the door to the orderly room, his cigar still smoking. “Well, you two kids play nice.”
She had the distinct feeling he was laughing at them, but she said nothing instead as the silence closed around them.
“Married?” he asked, his eyes going to where her left hand was wrapped around the strap of her bag. There was no ring on her left finger. Her hand felt more naked than it had in years.
“Seven years ago.”
“Kind of fast wasn’t it?”
She felt the old anger surfacing between them, crawling over her shoulder to whisper terrible things in her ear. “You have no right to question what I did with my life after you left me,” she whispered.
His smile was cold and hard. “So that’s how you remember it? I left you?”
She stepped away, out of his space, and sucked in deep breaths. His words hurt. They were supposed to. “Not much to misconstrue, honestly.”
His smile could have cracked glass. “Pretty selective memory you’ve got going there, Sarah. Let’s not forget who said no.”
“You know what?” She held up one hand. “I’ll get the MP and police reports from your first sergeant. It’ll be better if we interact as little as possible, since things obviously haven’t changed that much.”
She walked away before the situation devolved more than it already had. She stalked past the battalion headquarters and went straight for her car, surprised by the force of the anger threatening to choke her.
She’d taken a long time to get over him. Longer to get past the anger and the hurt.
She needed a few minutes, just a few, to put everything back in the box where it belonged. Chained and bound at the bottom of the void where she could pretend the life before she’d met her husband didn’t exist.
Because Sean Nichols was nothing more than a bad memory. One she was determined to leave exactly where he belonged.
In the past.
Sean let her go.
It was a long time before he unrooted himself from the spot and walked into his company ops.
He’d handled that about as poorly as he always handled everything with Sarah. He never had a chance to ask her how she’d been. The change of name had rocked him off his axis—and it was a name he knew, all too well.
That name carried far too many memories, far too much guilt and sadness.
It couldn’t be.
It just couldn’t be.
Kearney sat at the conference room table. He avoided Sean’s eyes, deliberately playing with his cell phone. Sean stopped at the edge of the counter.
“Did you ever meet Jack Anders wife?”
Kearney looked up sharply. “Talk about your random question, sir.”
Sean didn’t respond to the sarcasm from his sergeant. With a sigh, Kearney set his phone down. “Yeah, I met her once when we’d convoyed down the Baghdad with Anders’ platoon.”
“She was a soldier?”
“Yeah, another lieutenant.”
Sean felt the blood leaving his head. He needed to sit down.
“What made you bring that up?”
“Nothing.” He walked into his office and shut the door, needing a few minutes to pull his emotions back from the edge of the abyss.
He’d spent more than a few hours over the years wondering where Sarah had gone and how she was. The whole time, apparently, she’d moved on with her life. In the first years after she’d left, he’d often thought of what he’d say if he ever saw her again. Some days, the stupid part of his heart that never got over her would ask her how she’d been. She’d smile the way she used to, and they’d finally talk about how things all went to shit when she’d turned down his marriage proposal.
Other days…other days were darker. Other days, he imagined railing at her. Demanding to know why she’d said no when they’d been so damn good together.
But he’d never imagined this. Never imagined that she’d moved on with her life. That she’d remarried. Never in his wildest dreams would have thought that she’d been married to Jack. Holy fuck.
He sat at his desk, turning that revelation over and over in his mind. He scrubbed his hand over his mouth as old memories mixed with new.
Morgan rapped on the edge of the doorframe. “Medics are getting an IV bag from the medical company. How long do you want to leave Kearney out here?”
Sean folded his arms over his chest and sighed. “Restrict him to the barracks, and let sleep the rest of it off.”
Morgan nodded then stepped further into the office. “Looks like you had a lot of catching up to do with that other captain.”
“Don’t suppose I can ask you not to pick that scab right now?” Sean rocked back in his chair.
Morgan said nothing for a long moment. “Kind of curious about what has you this fired up, honestly.”
Sean folded his hands together on his desk. Breathed deeply through his nose and deliberately changed the subject. “So have we gotten ahold of the XO yet?”
Morgan lifted one brow. “Apparently he’s on his way.”
“Any reason why it’s taken him so long?”
“Apparently, he was still drunk when he woke up and claims he didn’t want to get a DUI.”
Sean leaned back in his chair. “Let me know when he gets here,” he said simply. Then, “Did you get the paperwork done up on Kearney?” He needed to keep his mind focused on work.
It would be far too easy to disappear on a long winding trip down memory lane.
“Yep, already done.” Morgan sighed. “Look, whatever is going on between you and that captain, you need to put it away. We don’t have time for you to be pining away like a lovesick puppy. We have privates –” He glanced over his shoulder where Kearney sat at the conference table. “And sergeants for that shit.”
Sean looked up at the big first sergeant, grinding his teeth to keep his better judgment from escaping. Morgan meant well and he wouldn’t be saying anything if he didn’t see the train wreck that Sarah had turned him into. The unit couldn’t handle any more command or leadership disasters. They had more than enough already.
“I’m working on it, Top,” was all he said after a moment.
Morgan studied him quietly then left him alone. Alone with the silent recrimination in his thoughts and the swirling memories that took him back to another life. To a life before the war, when he’d still believed his own bullshit that he’d be man enough to bring everyone home. That he’d be able to go to war and come home with his honor intact. That Sarah loved him enough to leave the Army behind.
Funny how a decade at war changed everything.
For the last couple of months, I’ve been experimenting with selling directly through my selz store and I figured I’d write an update about what I’ve done and how it’s been going.
The biggest problem as an indie author is how do you find readers if you don’t have a built in name. I’ve got a core cadre of dedicated readers (and than you from the bottom of my heart for sticking with me) but if I ever hope of making a living at this, I need to grow my reader base.
So back in February, I set up my selz store. It was incredibly easy to do and there are a lot of customizations that I’ll probably do in the future but right now, I’m still trying it out. I started simple: added in digital copies of my current indie novella and just let it cook. It didn’t do much but I wasn’t overly concerned.
When it came time to get ready to launch my new series with Before I Fall, though, I needed a plan that didn’t involve shotgun blasting Facebook ads and having little to no click through. So I uploaded a three chapter sample to selz. There are separate files for kindle and epub and pdf and they are clearly labeled so readers don’t get confused. I also started targeting specific, popular authors on Facebook with the ad linking them to my selz page.
The results were pretty damn good. This is by far the most effective marketing I’ve done to date. There is a very strong correlation between the number of preorders and the number of samples downloaded. For every click through to the site, I end up with a 30% conversion rate – which means 30% of the people who visit end up downloading the sample. I can’t track exactly whether or not the sample leads directly to a purchase but the numbers of samples lines up very closely with the number of preorders. So I cannot say that my free samples on selz is causally related to the number of preorders on all my new releases but only that the free samples are definitely helping drum up traffic.
And the only thing is costs me is the advertising money on Facebook. Which if you haven’t done their Facebook for Business program for ad optimization and you have a set amount of money to budget for it, I highly recommend it. I have no problem paying for advertising if it leads to actual sales and learning to maximize Facebook is well worth the time and money.
The other benefit to using selz is that you have customer information. Obviously, you don’t want to go adding people to your mailing list without their permission (trust me, I did this accidentally once and I still want to die of embarrassment every time I think about it) so if you do want customers to sign up, make sure they opt in. But being able to contact them and say hey, the entire book is available if you’re interested definitely helps.
I won’t be pulling away from the major retailers any time soon. The vast majority of my readers are on Kindle, iBooks and Nook and I fully intend to make my readers’ lives easier by making sure they can get the books where they’re most comfortable. But selling directly is also something I plan to continue so long as it remains easy for my readers to do. I wrote about how selling directly benefits me financially to sell directly as I retain a higher percentage of each sale.
It also gives me flexibility to offer readers unique access. For instance, Homefront is available right now from me directly. It’ll be on sale on April 7th from all the other retailers.
And I’m offering up signed copies for a pay your own price promotion to raise money for Project Sanctuary on Back to You and It’s Always Been You (and we’re running low so if you want these, don’t wait).
And I’m going to figure out how to bundle print and digital so if anyone wants to buy a print copy of Before I Fall from me, they’ll be able to get the digital book from me directly, too. Look for that soon.
The only drawback is that sometimes, people’s credit cards block the transaction because selz.com is located in Australia- meaning you’ll get a processing error message. But if that happens, readers can pay through paypal. All in all, though, I’m incredibly happy with my selz experiment and I definitely plan on continuing it.
It’s all part of this brave new world of indie publishing. One of the things I truly love about being indie is having the flexibility to try new things, adapt and adjust if things aren’t working.
So for the last two months, I’ve been using my jessicascott.selz.com to offer up free samples of my indie books as well as to offer up DRM free versions of my indie ebooks.
Why bother? Buying from Amazon is literally one click and the book is on your gadget. iBooks is even easier b/c the iBookstore is native to your iThing. And honestly, those are the places where I buy a lot of my books, too.
But? As an indie author, I’m also a businesswoman. And while it’s true that the vast majority of my ebooks sales will continue to come through ebookstores like iBooks and Amazon, I wanted to have another way to reach readers. There are a couple of reasons for this.
One, the royalty rates are better. If you buy a $4.99 ebook from me on Amazon, I make 3.49. If you buy it from me directly, I make $4.90. Pretty big difference. Plus, if you buy directly from the author, I get paid that week. Amazon payments take 60 days, Nook takes 60 days (I think) and traditional publishers take 6 months.
Also, the day may come when the terms and conditions of selling directly through some of the major retailers might be untenable. I hope that doesn’t happen but I want to be established on my own platform if that day should come.
There are some drawbacks. I’m basically running customer service now so when folks have trouble, I’m answering the questions. Which I don’t mind but it may turn out to be a hassle down the road. I’m not sure.
The other drawback is returns. Basically, if someone requests a return of an ebook brought through selz, I can’t refund the money because there’s no way for me to know if the file was deleted or not. I have enough trust in my readers to think that’s not going to happen but that may also be another reason why this doesn’t work out.
Right now, though, it seems to be worthwhile for me to offer an alternative way for readers to buy my books. I’ll be offering up signed print copies for purchase later this year, too. Oh and right now, I do have print copies which are pay what you want. All the money from those books goes to benefit Project Sanctuary while supplies last.
So check it out, if you’d like. I think it’s a pretty neat tool available to authors.
And if you’d rather still buy elsewhere, by all means, please do. Whatever works best for you, the reader, is my goal.
So I hope y’all are excited about Homefront as I am. Here’s an early look at the new book. It’ll be out on April 7th and available at all the usual locations but you can buy it early here .
Here’s the blurb:
He’s always loved her…
First Sergeant Gale Sorren waited a war and half a lifetime for a chance to get stationed near the ex-wife who left him years ago. When he finally musters the courage to see her, the life he imagined she was living was nothing close to the reality.
She’s never stopped loving him…
Melanie never stopped worrying about Gale each time he headed off to war. But he’s never been there when she needed him and she’s had fifteen years to steel her heart against him.
But when Gale moves to Fort Hood, he finally has a chance to make things right with Melanie and the daughter she raised without him.
Can Mel trust her heart to a man who has always let her down?
If you’d like to read the entire thing today, you can buy your copy directly from me here.
If you’d rather wait and get it through your preferred ebook store, it’s available for preorder wherever you buy ebooks.
Shit days were nothing new. In fact, Sergeant First Class Gale Sorren was on a thirty-six day streak, and there was no sign that they were coming to an end any time soon. But he had to keep going.
No matter how much he might want to take a knee.
The funeral detail was somber and professional, the flight line dead silent now that the aircraft had killed its engines. His throat closed off. His eyes burned. He held his salute as the caskets moved slowly past, one after another in slow procession. His arm trembled from holding it for what felt like a lifetime, but there was no way in hell he was going to drop it.
Three of his boys were heading home tonight.
There was no sadness. No raging grief. Only a sober, silent tribute to the fallen.
The rage would come later. Much later. For now, there was too much work to be done.
He dropped his salute and listened to his boys remember their brothers. Recounting their heroism. Their bravery.
Gale said nothing. There were no words that could get past the block in his throat. So he let his men remember their friends while he stood watch.
He stood there, long after the rest of the battalion had left the airfield. The Air Force security guard came and went and came again. The kid finally gave up trying to get him to move hours later.
It was probably for the best.
A stone skittered across the blazing asphalt. He watched it tumble to the edge of the tarmac and land in a pothole.
He glanced over at the source of the stone’s movement. Tellhouse, one of his fellow platoon sergeants, walked up. Tellhouse was a sergeant first class like Gale. Promotable, too, which meant they were both going to be looking for other jobs soon. Gale didn’t really want to leave his boys mid deployment because he got promoted out of his position.
Gale liked Tellhouse for the most part. Except for his temper. They needed to work on that. After all, there couldn’t be two of them enrolled in anger management training. Sarn’t Major would crush the both of them. The problem was they both tended to get pissed off about the same things at the same time.
Tellhouse pushed his eye-protection up higher on the bridge of his nose. “First Sarn’t needs you at the company.”
Gale made a noise and tried to summon an ounce of give-a-shit over what the First Sergeant wanted. Maybe if the fucker left the office once in a while, Gale wouldn’t be strung out trying to take care of three platoons instead of just his own. Thank God Tellhouse was competent or Gale might have lost his shit a long time ago.
Finally, he shifted his weight and moved.
Maybe someday he’d find the grief for his soldiers.
But that day was not today. Not when they had a mission gearing up in about six hours.
He breathed out deeply and fell into step with his fellow NCO. The walk was solemn and silent and filled with things neither of them could say. The war was nothing new. Both of them had spent more than their fair share of time in Hell.
But sometimes, days like this just got the best of you.
He stepped into the dark interior of the company ops. Funny how a few pieces of plywood and a couple of extension cords suddenly made an office. He stopped short, though, when he saw the battalion command sergeant major standing with the first sergeant. Not extremely out of the ordinary, except that Gale had the distinct impression Sarn’t Major was waiting for him.
Gale swallowed the tight knot in his throat that wouldn’t seem to budge. “What’s the occasion?” he asked, looking between the two senior NCOs.
First Sarn’t handed him a sheet of paper. “You got a Red Cross message.”
The knot in his throat swelled, blocking his airway as he looked down at the handwritten note.
The room spun out at the edges when he saw Jamie’s name.
The words blurred together. Hospitalized. Stitches. Psychiatric ward.
He breathed deeply and looked at his NCO leadership. “When can I leave?”
It was the sergeant major who spoke. “I can’t let you go. Your daughter’s life isn’t in immediate danger. She’s safe. Your ex-wife didn’t request your presence.”
A loud buzzing filled Gale’s head, blocking out the sound of the sergeant major’s words. “My daughter’s in the hospital,” he finally managed. “I need to be there.”
Sarn’t Major shook his head, his expression flat and emotionless. “That’s not going to happen, Sarn’t.”
Gale couldn’t say what happened next. An urge to do violence slammed through him. He imagined driving his fist into the sarn’t major’s face and beating the lines off that sun-worn leather skin. All the rage, all the fury, boiled up in a single violent flash.
The next thing he knew, he was back outside. Tellhouse’s hands were driving into his chest, holding him against the wall. “Stop. Sorren, fucking stop.”
Tellhouse’s words finally penetrated the fog. Gale blinked rapidly and looked at the other platoon sergeant. He stopped struggling to get free.
Tellhouse took a step back but still kept his body between Gale and the door. Gale stood there for a moment, reality crashing through the haze of violence, grief, and rage. Helpless, potent rage. “I need a few minutes,” was all he could manage before he executed an about face and walked away.
Then there was no rage. No more red-tainted visions of violence. This was something more. Something he couldn’t name and couldn’t process.
Jamie was in the hospital. His daughter was in the fucking hospital and Melanie hadn’t requested his presence.
He barely felt the gravel beneath his boots as he walked back to his CHU. He was stuck half a world away in a fucking war that he no longer even hated, and there was nothing he could do.
He closed the door to his CHU. Locked it behind him with a solitary, metallic click.
He stood for a moment in the Spartan emptiness. There was a light coat of dust on the old leather chair he’d gotten from a major on his way out of country.
A box of unopened Pop Tarts had fallen over.
All around him was dust and dirt. There was an explosion somewhere in the distance. A pop of gunfire at the test fire pit. The war was fucking everywhere.
He stood there in the center of his CHU. There was something broken inside him when he couldn’t even cry over his fallen soldiers anymore.
Something broken that he was unable to name, that he couldn’t be there when his little girl needed him.
The air conditioner in his CHU kicked on. His cheeks were suddenly cool.
He lifted one hand at the unexpected sensation.
His fingertip came away wet.
He unclenched his other hand. The Red Cross message was still there, crumpled at his fingertips.
The Red Cross message that told him his daughter was in the hospital.
The wetness on his cheeks grew colder, spread down his neck as the words on the paper blurred.
He dropped to his knees, doubled over as the violent, unrestrained grief ripped him apart.
Fort Hood, Texas
If there was a hell, First Sergeant Gale Sorren was certain this was it. In fifteen years, he’d never been assigned to Fort Hood, and while he’d been begging to be assigned here for years, he remembered with punishing clarity why people had recommended he avoid the home of America’s First Team for so long.
It was fucking hot and it wasn’t even summertime yet.
He’d thought he knew hot. Hell, he’d spent enough time at Fort Benning and in Iraq to be intimately familiar with just how hot the planet could get.
But somehow, Fort Hood took hot to a whole new level. It was a dry heat, his last sarn’t major had said when he’d given Gale the news that he was getting his assignment wish and being sent to Hood.
It was just past the ass crack of dawn and the sun slowly slipping over the horizon, and it was already a hundred degrees. And it wasn’t even summer yet. Next to him, his commander, Captain Ben Teague, was busy being a smart ass. It was his totem animal, or so he said.
“I wonder if the sarn’t major would let us run in just our PT belts.”
Gale shot him his best are you high expression. Teague grinned and raised his hands. Teague was Gale’s commander and technically that made him Gale’s boss but the commander/first sergeant relationship was… How had Sarn’t Major Cox put it once when Gale had threatened to kill one of his platoon leaders for getting drunk with the soldiers back at Benning? It was an arranged marriage. A unique description, Gale supposed.
“I’m thinking that might get us both fired,” Gale said mildly.
“No, not really. It’ll get the sarn’t major’s boot surgically implanted in my ass.” Gale stopped a soldier and told him to tighten his PT belt around his waist. The new Corps sergeant major had a thing about uniform violations and a loose PT belt was a cardinal sin these days. “Besides, it could be worse.”
“We could be patrolling Sadr City in this weather in full kit.”
“You know—” Teague snapped his fingers— “that is an excellent point.” He shoved his hands in his pockets as they walked toward the PT formation area. “I really wish we didn’t have mandatory fun today.”
They were both in ACUs. Gale resented the hell out of any morning that didn’t start off with PT, but he damn sure resented it when he was forced to skip PT to go to breakfast. What kind of animals started their days with food? Give him coffee and a good six-mile run any day of the week. “Don’t get me started.”
“At least there’ll be coffee.” Teague frowned and glanced at him. “There will be coffee at this kind of thing, right?”
“Do I look like I have the slightest idea what we’re doing today?” Gale needed to be spending time with his formation, not doing whatever the hell they were going to do this morning. He was still getting to know his troops and their issues—and there were a lot of them. Issues, that is. “It’s not like I spend my free time checking the battalion’s social roster.”
“Hell, I don’t know what you do on the weekends other than bailing kids out of jail.” Teague glanced over at him and Gale braced for more sarcasm. “Do you even have free time—oh hey.”
Instantly his commander’s expression softened. Gale followed his line of vision to see Teague’s other half, Major Olivia Hale, talking to the battalion commander.
“I know what you do with yours,” Gale mumbled and tried not to be jealous of the new and shiny love between his commander and the battalion’s lawyer. Major Hale nodded at Teague in acknowledgment and turned back to her conversation with the battalion commander.
It was the subtlety of her gesture that convinced Gale that she and Teague had a good chance at making things work. They were a good fit. She kept Teague honest in more ways than one, and they were both very good at keeping things professional at work.
It was a nice change from all the drama Gale dealt with on a daily basis. Angry spouses, cheating soldiers, and everything in between. Life in the Army sometimes felt more like a reality TV show than a professional organization.
He peeled away from his commander and headed to the front of the formation where his platoon sergeants were talking with each other. Sergeant First Class Iaconelli was the headquarters platoon sergeant, and while Gale had his misgivings about a recovering alcoholic on the team, Iaconelli had proven to be a rock since he’d come to work for him.
“Are we set for the range tomorrow?” Gale asked Iaconelli.
Iaconelli nodded. “Roger, Top. Final checks today before lunchtime.”
“Make sure we pull some camo out for shade.” When one of the other platoon sergeants started to protest, Gale talked over him. “We don’t need to practice being hardcore in the heat. We need to be able to shoot, and we can’t do that if soldiers are dropping from dehydration.”
Iaconelli nodded. “Got it, Top.”
Gale jerked his chin, and Iaconelli stepped away from the formation. “You talked to Foster today?”
Foster was on convalescent leave for surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He was also struggling with an addiction to methamphetamines. “Roger. He called in like he’s supposed to.”
“How is he doing?” If Gale had serious misgivings about Iaconelli, he had even more about keeping Foster in the ranks, but these men meant a lot to Teague. He was keeping a very close eye on both situations, however. If the time came that he needed to recommend the commander take action, Gale would do what needed to be done.
“He sounded steady. I’m going to swing by and check on him after PT.”
“Good. If you get even a hint that something is wrong, I want every pain pill counted.”
“Roger, Top.” There was resentment in Iaconelli’s answer, too obvious for Gale to ignore.
“Something you want to say?”
Iaconelli looked out over the formation, grinding his teeth until the muscle in his jaw looked about to snap. “It’s hard enough staying sober without everyone looking at you like you’re using all the time.”
Gale studied the other man silently. “Are we still talking about Foster?”
Iaconelli didn’t look away. “It doesn’t matter. But maybe give him the benefit of the doubt?”
Gale folded his arms over his chest. He wasn’t looking for a fight with one of his platoon sergeants. If Iaconelli needed to get this off his chest, then so be it. Finally, when Iaconelli let the silence stand, Gale spoke. “The fact that he’s still in the Army and recovering from surgery while he’s trying to get clean is benefit of the doubt.”
“You don’t know him,” Iaconelli said.
“And you do. And that closeness blinds you to the reality that he’s got a long hard slog ahead of him to stay sober.” No point in pulling his punches, regardless of whether they were talking about Iaconelli’s personal issues or Foster’s.
“Oh I’m very much aware of the road he’s on.” After another moment, Iaconelli turned and stalked back to the formation. Whatever was eating at him wasn’t going to come out today. But soon. The situation needed watching. Closely.
Gale let the other man go. He didn’t need to get into a dick-measuring contest with his platoon sergeant. Foster wasn’t one of Gale’s boys. He was just another soldier, another face in the crowd. If he soldiered, Gale would let him continue to soldier. If not, he was going home. Gale had a war to train his men for and he needed every single body able and fit to fight.
Another soldier who was distracting from the mission of prepping to head back to Iraq wasn’t going to garner much sympathy from Gale.
The cannon sounded, and Gale called the formation to attention and present arms as reveille trumpeted over the installation. They saluted the flag, and there was a moment of somber pride as the colors were hoisted up at the division headquarters. When it finished, Gale turned the troops over to Iaconelli, who took charge of the formation for PT.
Teague fell into step with him as they headed toward the parking lot.
“So. You call your ex yet?”
Gale sighed but said nothing. He never should have told Teague that Melanie lived in Harker Heights and that he was still summoning the courage to call her.
“I’ll take that as a no?”
Several weeks had gone by since Gale had reported to Hood. He’d told himself that he needed to get situated first. That there would be time.
But he was lying to himself. Because the truth of the matter was he was afraid. Afraid of seeing the daughter who’d nearly died almost two years ago. Afraid to look at her and see the hate and the blame and the guilt looking back at him. Oh, he knew he wasn’t going to win any parenting awards for stalling. He should have been on the first plane smoking and to hell with what the sarn’t major had said.
But he hadn’t been. He’d damn near been court-martialed back in Iraq and it had taken Sarn’t Major Cox almost eighteen months to save his ass. The fact that Gale was on his second tour as a first sergeant despite the assault said a lot about how well connected Cox was. Only Cox and Tellhouse knew his history from downrange in this unit and Gale intended to keep it that way if he could.
But even the charges and the job didn’t excuse Gale’s action or lack thereof. He told himself that Skype calls and text messages were enough, that she was okay. That Mel had a handle on things.
But even those were convenient lies. Fear was a powerful thing and yeah, he was afraid. He’d finally gotten his wish of being stationed near his ex-wife and their daughter and he was paralyzed by fear. Fear of what it meant to live in the same town as Mel and Jamie. Fear that if he tried to be a dad after all these years that he would fail miserably. Or worse, that Jamie no longer needed him because he’d been gone too long.
He was afraid to face the bitter truth: that Melanie didn’t need him after all these years.
Maybe she never had.
Melanie Francesco stirred her coffee while the captain next to her made idle conversation about one of the local pawnshops burning to the ground.
Melanie was reasonably certain that the fire had not been an accident, but she wasn’t in a position to comment. She was a liaison between the business owners and the real estate council and random speculation like that could cause problems for her office.
She fought the urge to check her cell phone for the tenth time that morning. She told herself that Jamie was fine. She’d dropped her off at school that morning after the requisite fighting about whether or not the sky was blue or if the sun was actually going to come up tomorrow. Because all they did was fight.
The fights were exhausting, but it was the fear that kept Mel up at night. Fear that Jamie was slipping away again and Mel wouldn’t be there to save her next time.
The captain moved away, leaving Mel alone. She stole a quick glance at her phone. No text but no missed calls from the school either. Relief crawled over Mel’s skin. Jamie was still in school then.
She tucked her phone back into her purse as she spotted a friendly face—someone she wouldn’t mind actually talking with—and made a straight line for Major Olivia Hale. “I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Mandatory fun and all that,” Olivia said with a smile. Melanie envied the woman—even in ACUs, which were not exactly made for women’s bodies, Olivia looked stylish and effortlessly well put together.
Melanie smiled back. “Life isn’t the same without you on the Council harassing the slum lords trying to screw over soldiers.”
“It was one of life’s true pleasures,” Olivia said dryly.
“There is no one to play the Faux Outrage Drinking Game with me anymore. The monthly meetings are epically more boring.” She sipped her tea, watching the room. “How’s life down in the new unit?”
“It’s good. I have a sense of purpose again.” Olivia smiled warmly.
Melanie set her tea on a nearby table. “So what are we doing here? And I’m not interested in the official bullshit line, either, so don’t waste your breath.”
Olivia grinned wickedly and it was the smile that Mel remembered all too well. The smile the other woman used when she was about to rip someone a new one. “Well, since you put it that way.” She took a sip of coffee. “We’re trying to build relationships that will strengthen the community. We’ve got a massive problem with soldiers being involved in misconduct off post and we want to get civilian agencies involved before the police get involved.”
And just like that, all the pieces clicked into place. “So you’re bribing the landlords with shitty coffee and donuts in the hope that we’ll call you guys instead of the cops?”
“More or less.” Olivia set her coffee down and retrieved a folder from the table. “We’ve got this handy little quick reference guide with all the unit phone numbers. Kind of a cheat sheet of names and numbers to call. We even laminated it to make it durable. Isn’t it nice and shiny?”
Mel shot her friend a wry look. “Is this even legal?”
“I’m not going to offer an official opinion on what I think of this program.”
“Why don’t you approve?” Mel asked, keeping her voice low.
Olivia sighed. “Because it enables some people’s misconduct to be hidden away and covered up. I prefer we work things through official channels. Transparency and all that.” Olivia’s smile could have cracked glass. “Community outreach with the realtors keeps problems handled through informal networks instead of the Bell County legal system.”
Melanie opened her mouth to speak but the words locked in her throat.
The tea in her stomach turned bitter and cold as her guts twisted with recognition and surprise at the last person she’d expected to see here today.
Her heart slammed against her ribs as anxiety and something else knotted in her belly. For a moment, she thought about turning away. About hiding from the man who’d just walked into the room like he owned it.
But it was too late.
Because across the conference room, near a tray of donuts and a box of coffee, her ex-husband’s eyes met hers.
The world tilted beneath her feet. He was supposed to be stationed at Fort Lewis, halfway across the country. And instead he was here. In this room. At this moment. As a first sergeant?
Closer than he’d been in over two years. His jaw was iron, his shoulders broad and strong. It was criminal how good that uniform looked on him. And damn it, she was not going to notice these things about him.
But despite herself, she noticed everything about him. His dark brown eyes were hard and filled with shadows now. Colder than she remembered. A smarter woman might have been intimidated by him. A younger woman might have already been wringing out her panties. But she remembered him for the boy he’d been. The boy she’d loved.
The boy she’d left.
He was not that boy anymore. And she was no longer the scared uncertain girl trying to find her way in the world.
“Are you okay?” Olivia’s voice came from very far away.
“Yeah. Excuse me a sec?” She hated bailing on her friend but this was not a conversation she wanted to have with an audience.
She offered a tense, flat line in place of a smile as he approached. Defenses up, that’s what she needed. She could not do this with him right now. “I’m not exactly sure what the correct greeting is,” she said, doing her damnedest to keep her voice level.
As though they were perfect strangers, talking about unimportant things.
The hush between them swelled into a living thing, pulsing with raw and ragged emotions.
“I can explain.” His voice was rough and deep.
“How long have you been here?” Her words were too sharp on her own ears. She sucked in a deep breath, trying to stave off the riot swirling in her belly. No matter how much time they spent apart, every single time they were around each other things went to shit in a rapid, predictable manner. She really wanted to avoid that at the present moment.
“Long enough.” Gale cleared his throat and had the decency to look embarrassed. “I should have called you.”
“And yet you didn’t, so there we are.” She turned, looking for her cup, needing space, needing distance between them before she broke apart into a million ugly pieces in front of her peers and coworkers and a half dozen random strangers.
Gale’s hand was rough and strong on her shoulder. “Mel…”
“Don’t.” She moved away from his touch, barely keeping her voice low. “You don’t have permission to touch me.” Mel bit her lips together, inhaling a deep, hard breath. Gale lowered his hand and they stood there at an impasse.
A few months. No call. No note. Nothing. Hadn’t tried to see Jamie. Just move to town and don’t say a word.
That told her all she needed to know about where she and Jamie stood in his priorities. Just like always, the Army won. She bit down harder, trying to divert the pain in her heart to the pain in her lip. “Jamie will be happy to see you,” she said finally.
She didn’t mean to throw Jamie in the middle but that’s the way things were with them. It was the way it had been since…since always.
He stiffened. His hands flexed by his sides. Like he needed to do something with them that hopefully didn’t involve her.
“I meant to call.” There was a rough edge to his voice. A blade, like cut steel, ragged and raw.
“I’m sure you did.” Her words were brittle. She headed for the door in what she hoped was a relatively inconspicuous manner.
She needed a few minutes to put everything back in the box she marked “Gale” and did her best to ignore.
Because she’d be damned if she was going to cry over this man one more time.
Melanie kicked the front door closed and sorted the mail: junk, bills, Jamie’s latest catalogue from that store in the mall that Melanie hated. She was, of course, the worst mother in the world because she wouldn’t let Jamie shop there. Mel was all for women owning their own sexuality and all that but she drew the line at hyper-sexualizing her daughter. If they both survived Jamie’s adolescence, maybe Jamie would thank her later.
She had her doubts, though. She put the envelopes in stacks, almost on autopilot until she came to a tan, card-sized envelope with a Fort Lewis return address. No name but then again, she didn’t need to read the name to know who it was from.
Her heart fluttered a tiny bit as she opened the belated birthday card. It was a squirrel holding a sign and wearing pink heart sunglasses. Happy Birthday Mel. – Gale.
In the fifteen years since their divorce, he’d sent a card every year and every year he’d screwed up the date. Still, it was a nice, if empty, gesture. He’d missed far more than just birthdays since their marriage had fallen apart all those years ago.
If she hadn’t seen him today, maybe she would have smiled at the stupid squirrel. But she had seen him today. Had been sorting through her reaction all damn day. She wasn’t angry. She wasn’t sad.
She was… she didn’t know how to handle the news that he’d moved to Killeen. She’d never expected that. How had he even gotten here? The last time Jamie had asked her dad to move closer to them, he’d said something about burning in hell before the Army sent him to Hood.
And yet, here he was. He’d caught her off guard. Completely off guard. And she hated that more than anything.
There was a thump on the ceiling. Then the sound of feet moving from her daughter’s bathroom down the hall to Jamie’s bedroom. It was a normal sound. Nothing about it should have set her heart to pounding rapidly in her chest. But there was something off. Something that set the hair on the back of Melanie’s neck on edge. She’d ignored her gut once before.
And she would never make that same mistake again. She rushed upstairs to find the bedroom door locked.
“Open the door, Jamie.” Her voice was deadly calm. She was proud of herself, actually. She managed to smother the kick of panic that sucked the air from her lungs.
“Just a sec, Mom.”
“I’m going to count to three, then I’m kicking this door in.” She’d done it before. Jamie knew better. She knew not to lock the door. Fear gripped her throat, her voice tightening. “One.” More scrambling. “Two.”
The door swung wide, and her daughter rushed to fill the space. “What’s up?”
Melanie inhaled deeply. No drugs. No smell of antiseptic or rubbing alcohol. Jamie stood there, one arm behind her back. “What were you doing?”
“Homework.” Jamie blinked innocently.
Melanie didn’t buy it for a second. “What’s in your hand?”
Fear licked at her spine. Jamie was lying. Again. She grabbed the arm Jamie held behind her and shoved the sleeve up.
Pale scars crisscrossed Jamie’s forearm, but no fresh marks. Relief slithered over her skin.
Jamie yanked away, her mock innocent expression shuttering closed into the belligerent look Mel knew all too well. “I’m fine, thanks,” she said.
“You’re not allowed to block the door.” Melanie folded her arms as they prepared for the all-too-familiar battle.
“I can’t have any privacy?” Defiance looked back at her from Jamie’s eyes, eyes that looked so much like her father’s, except they were lined with a heavy black liner that no matter how many times Mel kept throwing it away, her daughter kept coming replacing.
Melanie sighed heavily, praying for patience. “You know the answer to that question.”
“You know, you treat me like a criminal. I might as well act like one.”
Melanie held out her hand. “Phone.”
“You have no right—”
Her temper snapped beneath the weight of the fear. “I have every right. You live in my house, you live under my rules. When you go to college, you can make your own rules.”
Jamie slapped her cell phone into her mother’s outstretched hand. “I can’t wait.”
The texts were blank. All that meant was that Jamie had gotten better at deleting them before Melanie caught her. She was hiding something. Mel just couldn’t figure out what.
“Come do your homework at the table.”
“I’m fine in here.”
Melanie lifted her eyes toward heaven, grinding her teeth. “It wasn’t a request, Jamie.”
Jamie made a disgusted sound and slammed the door shut with a bang. Melanie briefly considered for the hundredth time taking it off the hinges entirely.
But that wouldn’t really do any wonders for trying to rebuild trust like their therapist kept trying to get them to do, now would it?
She walked straight into the kitchen. She started to pull salad out of the fridge, then stopped. She leaned against the counter and focused on breathing slow and steady. Tears burned behind her eyes. Every single day was a new version of the same old fight.
Makeup. Phone. Homework. And those were the easy fights. They took up most of her energy, keeping the real fear buried. Waiting. Lurking in the dark for the right moment to strike back and remind her that she’d almost lost Jamie once.
That it could be happening again and Jamie would be able to hide it this time.
No, their therapist didn’t really understand the fear that Mel lived with. The fear of the tiny nicks in her daughter’s flesh. The blood that had circled down the drain, that left a faint stain that taunted Melanie with the epic levels of her failure as a parent.
The fear that her daughter was only pretending to be okay but was slowly spiraling out of control again, and there was nothing Melanie could do to stop it.
Not for the first time, she wished she’d found someone to share the load with. But the few times she’d dated hadn’t really gone anywhere serious. She had her hands full with Jamie. Most men, even the good ones, wouldn’t stand for being second place. She didn’t blame them, honestly.
But damn, she was tired of being alone.
Mel lowered her hands. Jamie stood near the wide arch that led into their living room, her books clutched to her chest. For once, she didn’t look like she was ready to fight at the drop of a hat. For a brief moment, she saw her little girl, looking at her with worry in her eyes when she’d caught Mel crying once. For a moment, it was just Jamie standing there.
Mel would do anything to hold onto that moment. To make it last longer than a few heartbeats.
Melanie lifted her chin and straightened. Took a deep breath and tried to change the tone of their evening. “Sorry. Rough day at work. Any preferences for dinner?”
“Macaroni and cheese?” Jamie said hopefully.
“Sure.” She wasn’t going to win any Parent of the Year awards for feeding her kid mac and cheese out of a box, but then again, your kid ending up in the hospital for cutting herself pretty much already ended any chances of that.
Oh, she knew on an intellectual level that what Jamie had done wasn’t her fault. That it was a mental health issue and blah blah blah.
But that didn’t stop the guilt that rode on Melanie’s chest. That burned beneath her heart every single day. Why had she missed the signs? What could she have done better? Why did she and Jamie have to fight so much?
It felt like they’d been fighting since the day she’d been born.
Jamie paused where she’d been setting her books on the kitchen table. She looked sideways at Mel and said cautiously, “It must have been a really bad day at work.”
“It was.” She couldn’t come up with the words she needed to tell her daughter about Gale. How would Jamie react? Mel honestly didn’t know. Jamie hadn’t seen her father since before his last deployment.
Melanie offered a faint smile that she wished she felt and tried to hold onto the oh-so-fragile peace between them. “So how’s school?” She knew she was supposed to ask questions that didn’t involve responses like “fine” or “good.” But she didn’t know what to ask anymore.
“Fine. Sold any houses this week?” Jamie asked. Such a neutral question.
As though Mel hadn’t just been treating her like a suspect a few minutes before. Like Jamie hadn’t just caught her mom standing in the kitchen fighting tears. “I’ve got a closing on Thursday.”
“That’s good, right?”
“It is.” Mel pulled a box out of the pantry. Food was another thing they fought about. Mac and cheese was one of the few fail-safe dinners. The doorbell rang. Mel paused and looked toward it. The UPS man was the only person who ever came this late in the afternoon. “Start the water?” she asked.
For once, Jamie didn’t argue. Mel wasn’t going to second-guess the moment’s peace. She was sure there would be another fight before they went to bed. It sucked. There was no other way to put it.
She opened the door looking down, expecting her latest book.
Instead her gaze fell on a pair of dusty combat boots. Boots that damn sure weren’t supposed to be on her doorstep.
And they damn sure weren’t supposed to belong to Gale.
ALL FOR YOU is probably my favorite of my books. You know those books that you write wide open, thinking no one will ever read it because it comes from a raw, uncensored place? That’s ALL FOR YOU. I’m so glad my editor took a chance on this book and on these characters. I love their story.
You can read an excerpt below and if so inclined, pick up a copy on sale this week for .99 at
Hope you enjoy!
Camp Taji, Iraq
Sergeant First Class Reza Iaconelli had seen better days. He closed his eyes, wishing he was anywhere but curled up on the latrine floor in the middle of some dirty, shitty desert. The cold linoleum caressed his cheek, soothing the sensation of a billion spiders creeping over his skin. He had to get up, to get back to his platoon before someone came looking for him. Running patrols through the middle of Sadr City was so much better than being balled up on the bathroom floor, puking his guts out.
He’d sacrificed his dignity at the altar of the porcelain god two days ago when they’d arrived in northern Baghdad. It was going to be a rough deployment; that was for damn sure. Dear Lord, he’d give anything for a drink. Anything to stop the madness of detox. Why the fuck was he doing this to himself? Why did he pick up that godforsaken bottle every single time he made it home from this goddamned war?
The walls of the latrine echoed as someone pounded on the door. It felt like a mallet on the inside of a kettle drum inside his skull. “Sarn’t Ike!”
Reza groaned and pushed up to his hands and knees. He couldn’t let Foster see him like this. Couldn’t let any of his guys see him like this. “You about ready? The patrol is gearing up to roll.”
Holy hell. He dry heaved again, unable to breathe until the sensation of ripping his guts out through his throat passed. After a moment, he pushed himself upright and rinsed out his mouth. He’d definitely seen better days.
He wet his brown-black hair down and tucked the grey Army combat t-shirt into his uniform pants. Satisfied that no one would know he’d just been reduced to a quivering ball of misery a few moments before, he headed out to formation, a five- to seven-hour patrol through the shit hole known as Sadr City in his immediate future.
He was a goddamned sergeant first class and he had troops rolling into combat. They counted on him to do more than show up. They counted on him to lead them. Every single day.
Maybe by the time he reached thirty days in country, he’d stop heaving his guts up every morning. But sick or not, he was going out on patrol with his boys.
The best he could hope for was that he wouldn’t puke in the tank.
Fort Hood, Texas
“Where the hell is Wisniak?” Reza hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and glared at Foster.
Sergeant Dean Foster rolled his eyes and spat into the dirt, unfazed by Reza’s glare. Foster had the lean, wiry body of a runner and the weathered lines of an infantryman carved into his face, though at twenty-five he was still a puppy. To Reza, he’d always be that skinny private who’d had his cherry popped on that first run up to Baghdad. “Sarn’t Ike, I already told you. I tried calling him this morning but he’s not answering. His phone is going straight to voicemail.”
Reza sighed and rocked back on his heels, trying to rein in his temper. They’d managed to be home from the war for more than a year and somehow, soldiers like Wisniak were taking up the bulk of Reza’s time. “Have you checked the R&R Center?”
“Nope. But I bet you’re right.” Foster pulled out his phone before Reza finished his sentence and started walking a short distance away to make the call.
“I know I am. He’s been twitchy all week,” he mumbled, more to himself than to Foster. Reza glanced at his watch. The commander was going to have kittens if Reza didn’t have his personnel report turned in soon, because herding cats was all noncommissioned officers were good for in the eyes of Captain James P Marshall the Third, resident pain in Reza’s ass.
Foster turned away, holding up a finger as he started arguing with whoever just answered the phone. Reza swore quietly, then again when the company commander started walking toward him from the opposite end of the formation. Reza straightened and saluted.
It was mostly sincere.
“Sarn’t Iaconelli, do you have accountability of your troops?”
“Sir, one hundred and thirty assigned, one hundred and twenty-four present. Three on appointment, one failure to report, and one at the R&R center. One in rehab.”
“When is that shitbird Sloban going to get out of rehab?” Captain Marshall glanced down at his notepad.
“Sloban isn’t a shitbird,” Reza said quietly, daring Marshall to argue. “Sir.”
Marshall looked like he wanted to slap Reza but as was normally the way with cowards and blowhards, he simply snapped his mouth shut. “Who’s gone to the funny farm today?”
The Rest and Resiliency Center was supposed to be a place that helped combat veterans heal from the mental wounds of war. Instead, it had become the new generation’s stress card, a place to go when their sergeant was making them work too hard. Guys like Wisniak who had never deployed but who for some reason couldn’t manage to wipe their own asses without someone holding their hands abused the system, taking up valuable resources from the warriors who needed it. But to say that out loud would mean agreeing with Captain Marshall. Reza would drop dead before that ever happened.
Luckily Captain Ben Teague approached, saving Reza the need to punch the commander in the face. The sergeant major would not be happy with him if that happened. Reza was already on thin ice as it was and there was no reason to give the sergeant major an extra excuse to dig into his fourth point of contact.
He was doing just fine. One day at a time, and all that.
Too bad guys like Marshall tested his willpower on a daily basis.
“So you don’t have accountability of the entire company?” Marshall asked. Behind him Teague made a crude motion with his hand.
Reza rubbed his hand over his mouth, smothering a grin. “Sir, I know where everyone is. I’m heading to the R&R Center after formation to verify that Wisniak is there and see about getting a status update from the docs.”
Marshall sighed heavily and the sound was laced with blame, as though Wisniak being at the R&R Center was Reza’s personal failing. Behind him Teague mimed riding a horse and slapping it. Reza coughed into his hand as Marshall turned an alarming shade of puce. “I’m getting tired of someone always being unaccounted for, Sergeant.”
“That makes two of us.” Reza breathed deeply. “Sir.”
“What are you planning on doing about it?”
He raised both eyebrows, his temper lashing at its frayed restraints. His mouth would be the death of him some day. That or his temper.
Right then, he didn’t really care.
He started ticking off items on his fingers. “Well, sir, since you asked, first, I’m going to stop by the shoppette for coffee, then take a ride around post to break in my new truck. I’ll probably stop out at Engineer Lake and smoke a cigar and consider whether or not to come back to work at all. Around noon, I’m going to swing into the R&R Center to make sure that Wisniak actually showed up and was seen. Then I’ll spend the rest of the day hunting said sorry excuse for—”
“That’s enough, sergeant,” Marshall snapped and Teague mimed him behind his back. “I don’t appreciate your insubordinate attitude. Accountability is the most important thing we do.”
“I thought kicking in doors and killing bad guys was the most important thing we did?” Reza asked, doing his damnedest not to smirk. Damn but the man tried his patience and made him want to crack open a cold one and kick his boots up on his desk.
Except that he’d given up drinking. Again. And this time, it had to stick. At least, it had to if he wanted to take his boys downrange again.
The sergeant major had left him no wiggle room. No more drinking. Period.
“Sir, I got it. I’ll head to the R&R Center right after formation. I’ll text you…” He glanced at Foster, who gave him a thumbs-up. Whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. Wisniak was at the R&R Center, Reza supposed?
“You’ll call. I don’t know when texting became the army’s preferred technique for communications between seniors and subordinates. I don’t text.”
Reza saluted sharply. It was effectively a fuck off but Marshall was either too stupid or too arrogant to grasp the difference. “Roger sir.”
“Ben,” Marshall mumbled.
“Jimmy.” Which earned him a snarl from Marshall as he stalked off. Teague grinned. “He hates being called Jimmy.”
“Which is why you’ve called him that every day since Infantry Officer Basic Course?”
“Of course,” Teague said solemnly. “It is my sacred duty to screw with him whenever I can. He was potty trained at gunpoint.”
“Considering he’s a fifth generation army officer, probably,” Reza mumbled. Foster walked back up, shaking his head and mumbling creative profanity beneath his breath. “They won’t even tell you if Wisniak has checked in?”
“I practically gave the lady on the phone a hand job to get her to tell me anything and she pretty much told me to kiss her ass. Damn HIPAA laws. How is it protecting the patient’s privacy when all I’m asking is if the jackass is there or not?”
Reza sighed. “I’ll go find out if he’s there. I need you to make sure the weapons training is good to go.” Still swearing, Foster nodded and limped off. Too bad Foster wasn’t a better ass kisser; he’d have already made staff sergeant.
But Marshall didn’t like him and had denied his promotion for the last three months because Foster was nursing a bum leg. Granted, he’d jammed it up playing sports but the commander was being a total prick about it. It would have been better if Foster had been shot.
“Damn civilians,” Reza mumbled, glancing at Teague. “I get that the docs are only supposed to talk to commanders but they make my life so damn difficult sometimes.”
“They talk to you,” Teague said, pushing his sunglasses up on his nose and shoving his hands into his pockets.
“That’s because they’re afraid of me. I look like every stereotype jihadi they can think of. All I have to do is say drka drka Mohammed jihad and I get whatever I want out of them.”
“A Team America: World Police reference at six-fifteen a.m.? My day is complete.” Teague laughed. “That’s so fucking wrong. Just because you’re brown?”
Reza shrugged. Growing up with a name like Reza Iaconelli had taught him how to fight. Young. With more than just the asshole kids on the street. He’d learned the hard way that little kids needed a whole lot more than attitude when standing up to a grown man.
“What can I say? No one knows what to think of the brown guy. Half the time, people think I’m Mexican.” He started to walk off, still irritated by Marshall and the unrelenting douche baggery of the officer corps today. They cared more about stats than soldiers. It was total bullshit. The war wasn’t even over yet and it was already all the way back to the garrison army bullshit that had gotten their asses handed to them from 2003 on.
“Where are you heading?” Teague asked.
“R&R. Need to check up on the resident crazy kid and make sure he’s not going to off himself.” He palmed his keys from his front pocket. Reza slammed the door of his truck and took a sip of his coffee, wishing it had a hell of a lot more in it than straight caffeine.
He ground his teeth. Things would have been different for Sloban if they’d gotten things right. If he’d gotten sober sooner. But no. He’d dropped the ball and Slo had paid the price.
He’d rather have his balls crushed with a pall peen hammer than deal with the R&R Center. He hated the psych docs. They were worse than the bleeding heart officers he seemed to find himself surrounded with these days. Just how he wanted to start off his seventy-fourth day sober: arguing with the shrinks.
“I don’t really think you understand the gravity of the situation, Captain.”
Captain Emily Lindberg bristled at the use of her rank. The fact that a fellow captain used it to intimidate her only irritated her further.
Add in that he was standing in front of—no, he was leaning over—her desk trying to back up his words with a little threat of physical intimidation and Emily’s temper snapped. Captain Jenkowski was built like a snake—tall and solid and mean—and he was clearly used to bullying his way through docs to get what he wanted.
Well not today.
She inhaled a calming breath through her nose and spoke softly, deliberately attempting to keep her composure. “I’m sorry, Captain, but I’m afraid you’re the one who doesn’t understand. Your soldier has experienced significant trauma since joining the military and his recurrent nightmares, excessive use of alcohol to self–medicate, and inability to effectively manage his stress are all indicators of serious psychological illness. He needs your compassion, not your wrath.”
“Specialist Hendersen needs my size ten boot in his ass. He sat on the damned base last deployment and we only got mortared a few times. He’s a candy pants wuss who has a serious case of I do what I want-itis and now he’s come crying to you, expecting you to bail his sorry ass out of a drug charge.” Emily could practically see smoke coming out of the big captain’s ears.
Once upon a time she would have flinched away from his anger and done anything to placate him. It was abusive jerks like this who thought the army was all about their ability to accomplish their mission. The mouth breather in front of her didn’t care about his soldiers.
It was up to folks like Emily to hold the line and keep the army from ruining yet another life. There had already been more than fifty suicides in the army this year and it was only April. “What Hendersen needs, Captain Jenkowski, is a break from you pressuring him to perform day in and day out. My duty-limiting profile is not going to change. He gets eight hours of sleep a night to give the Ambien a chance to work. And if you don’t like it, file a complaint with my boss. He’s the officer in charge of the hospital.”
“You fucking bitch,” he said. His voice was low and threatening. “I’m trying to throw this little motherfucker out of the army for smoking spice and you’re making sure that we’re stuck babysitting his sorry ass. Way to take care of the real soldiers who have to waste their time on this little weasel instead of training.”
The door slammed behind him with a bang and Emily sank into her chair. She had a full three minutes before her next patient and it wasn’t even nine a.m.
A quick rap on her door pulled her out of her momentary shock. “You okay?”
She looked into the face of her first friend here at Fort Hood, Major Olivia Hale. “Yeah, sure. I just…”
“You get used to it after a while, you know,” Olivia said, brushing her bangs out of her eyes.
“The rampant hostility or the incessant chest beating?” Emily tried to keep the frustration out of her voice and failed.
Emily smiled grimly. “Well that’s helpful.”
Moments like this made her seriously reconsider her life in the army. Of course, her parents would be more than happy for her to take the rank off her chest and return home to their Cape Cod family practice. The last thing she wanted to do was run home to a therapy session in waiting. Who wanted to work for parents who ran a business together but had gotten divorced fifteen years ago? At least here she was making a difference, instead of listening to spoiled rich kids complain about how hard their lives were or beg her for a prescription for Adderall so they could stay up for two days and prepare for their next exam.
Here she could make a difference. Do something that mattered.
Her family wouldn’t understand.
Then again, they never had.
“Can I just say that I never imagined that I’d be going toe-to-toe with men who had egos the size of pro football linebackers? Where does the army find these guys?”
“Some of them aren’t raging asshats,” Olivia said. “There are a lot of commanders who actually care about their soldiers.”
An Outlook reminder chimed, notifying her that she had two minutes. Emily frowned then clicked it off. “It must be something special about this office then that attracts all the ones who don’t care.”
She’d recently moved to Fort Hood because it was the place deemed most in need of psychiatric services. They had the unit with the highest active-duty suicide rate in the army. She was trying her damnedest to make a difference but the tidal wave of soldiers needing care was relentless.
Add in her administrative duties on mental health evaluations and sometimes, she didn’t know which day of the week it was.
“Does it ever end?” she whispered, suddenly feeling overwhelmed at the stack of files on her desk. Each one represented a person. A soldier. A life under pressure.
Lives she did everything she could to save.
Olivia shrugged. “Not really.” She glanced at her watch. “I’ve got a nine o’clock legal brief with the boss. You okay?”
She offered a weak smile. “Yeah. Have to be, right?”
Olivia didn’t look convinced but didn’t have time to dig in further. In the brief moment she had alone, Emily covered her face with her hands.
Every single day, Emily’s faith in the system she’d wanted to help weakened. When officers like Jenkowski were threatening kids who just needed to take a break and pull themselves together to find some way of dealing with the trauma in their lives, it crushed part of her spirit. She’d never imagined that confrontation would be a daily part of her life as an army doc. She’d signed up to help people. She wasn’t a commander, not a leader of soldiers. She was here to provide medical services. She’d barely stepped outside her office so all she knew was the inside of the clinic’s walls.
She’d had no idea how much of a fight she’d have on a daily basis. Three months in and she was still shocked. Every single day brought something new.
She wasn’t used to it. She doubted she would ever get used to it. It drained her.
But every day she got up and put on her boots to do it all over again.
She was here to make a difference.
A sharp knock on her door had her looking up. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of the single most beautiful man she’d ever seen. His skin was deep bronze, his features carved perfection. There was a harshness around the edge of his wide full mouth that could have been from laughing too much or yelling too often. Maybe both.
And his shoulders filled the doorway. Dear Lord, men actually came put together like this? She’d never met a man who embodied the fantasy man in uniform like this one. The real military man was just as likely to be a pimply-faced nineteen-year-old as he was to be this…this warrior god.
A god who looked ready for battle. It took Emily all of six-tenths of a second to realize that this man was not here for her phone number or to strip her naked and have his way with her. Well, he might want to have his way with her but she imagined it was in a strictly professional way. Not a hot and sweaty way, the thought of which made her insides clench and tighten.
She stood. This man looked like he was itching for a fight and darn it, if that’s what he wanted, then Emily would give it to him.
It was just another day at the office, after all.
“Can I help you, Sergeant?”
Reza glanced at the little captain, who looked braced for battle. She was cute in a Reese Witherspoon kind of way, complete with dimples and except for her rich dark hair and silver blue eyes. If Reza hadn’t been nursing one hell of a bad attitude and a serious case of the ass, he would’ve considered flirting with her.
Except that the sergeant major’s warning of don’t fuck up beat a cadence in his brain, so he wouldn’t be flirting any time soon. Besides, something about the stubborn set of her jaw warned him that she wasn’t someone to tangle with. She didn’t look tough enough to crumble a cookie, and yet she’d squared off with him like she might just try to knock him down a peg or two. This ought to at least make the day interesting.
Reza straightened. She was the enemy for leaders like him, who were doing their damnedest to put bad troops out of the army. People like her ignored the warning signs from warriors like Sloban and let spineless cowards like Wisniak piss on her leg about how his mommy didn’t love him enough.
This wasn’t about Sloban. He couldn’t help him now and that fact burned on a fundamental level. He released a deep breath. Then sucked in another one. “I need to know if Sergeant Chuck Wisniak signed in to the clinic.”
“I’m sorry but unless you’re the first sergeant or the commander, I can’t tell you that.”
Reza breathed hard through his nose. “I’m the first sergeant.”
Her gaze flicked to the sergeant first class rank on his chest. He wasn’t wearing the rank of the first sergeant, so his insignia was missing the rocker and the diamond that distinguished first sergeants from the soldiers that they led. Sergeants First Class were first sergeants all the time, though.
Her eyes narrowed. “Do you have orders?”
Reza’s gaze dropped to the pen in her hand and the rhythmic way she flicked the cap on and off. He swallowed, pulling his gaze away from the distracting sound, and struggled to hold on to his patience.
“First sergeants are not commanders. We don’t have assumption of command orders.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Ma’am, I just need to know if he’s here. Why is this such a big deal?”
“Because Sergeant Wisniak has told this clinic on multiple occasions that his chain of command is targeting him, looking for an excuse to take his rank.”
“Well, maybe if he was at work once in a while he wouldn’t feel so persecuted.”
The small captain lifted her chin. “Sergeant, do you have any idea what it feels like to be looked at like you’re suspect every time you walk into a room?”
Something cold slithered across Reza’s skin, sidling up to his heart and squeezing tightly. “Do you have any idea what it feels like to send soldiers back to combat knowing they lost training days chasing after a sissy-ass soldier who can’t get to work on time?”
A shadow flickered across her pretty face but then it was gone, replaced by steel. “My job is to keep soldiers from killing themselves.”
“And my job is to keep soldiers from dying in combat.”
“They’re not mutually exclusive.”
Silence hung between them, battle lines drawn.
“I’m not leaving here without a status on Sarn’t Wisniak,” Reza said.
Captain Lindberg folded her arms over her chest. A flicker in her eyes, nothing more, then she spoke. “Sergeant Wisniak is in triage.”
“I need to speak with him.”
Lindberg shook her head. “No. I’m not letting anyone see him until he’s stable. He’s probably going to be admitted to the fifth floor. He’s extremely high risk. And you’re part of his problem, Sergeant.”
Reza’s temper snapped, breaking free before he could lash it back. “Don’t put that on me, sweetheart. That trooper came in the army weak. I had nothing to do with his lack of a backbone.” Reza turned to go before he lost his military bearing and started swearing. She’d already elevated his blood pressure to need-a-drink levels and it wasn’t even nine a.m.
He could do this. He breathed deeply, running through creative profanity in his mind to keep the urge to drink at bay.
Her words stopped him at the door, slicing at his soul.
“How can you call yourself a leader? You’re supposed to care about all your soldiers,” she said, so softly he almost didn’t hear her.
He turned slowly. Studied her, standing straight and stiff and pissed. “How can I call myself a leader? Honey, until you’ve bled in combat, don’t talk to me about leadership. But go ahead. Keep protecting this shitbird and tie up all the counselors so that warriors who genuinely need help can’t get it. He doesn’t belong in the army.” He swept his gaze down her body deliberately. Trying to provoke her. Her face flushed as he met her eyes coldly. “Neither do you.”
Emily sucked in a sharp breath at Iaconelli’s verbal slap. In one sentence, he’d struck her at the heart of her deepest fear.
It took everything she had to keep her hands from trembling.
Her boss Colonel Zavisca appeared in the doorway, saving her from embarrassing herself.
“Is there a problem, Sergeant?”
Sergeant Iaconelli turned and nearly collided with the full-bird colonel, who looked remarkably like an older version of Johnny Cash.
Sergeant Iaconelli straightened and his fists bunched at his sides. “You don’t want me to answer that. Sir.”
“I don’t think I appreciate what you’re insinuating.”
“I don’t really give a flying fuck what you think I’m insinuating. Maybe if your doctors did their jobs instead of actively trying to make my life more difficult, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
“What brigade are you in, Sergeant?” her boss demanded.
She watched the exchange, her breath locked in her throat. The big sergeant’s hands clenched by his sides. “None of your damn business.”
Colonel Zavisca might be a medical doctor but he was still a the senior officer in charge of the hospital. Emily had never seen an enlisted man so flagrantly flout regulations.
“You can leave now, Sergeant. Don’t come back on this property without your commander.”
The big sergeant swore and stalked off.
Emily wondered if he’d obey the order. She suspected she already knew the answer.
Her boss turned to her. “Are you okay?” he asked. Colonel Zavisca’s voice was deep and calming, the perfect voice for a psych doctor. It was more than his voice, though. His entire demeanor was something soothing, a balm on ragged wounds. His quiet power and authority stood in such stark contrast to Sergeant Iaconelli.
Men like Sergeant Iaconelli were energy and motion and hard angles. And he was rude. Colonel Zavisca was more like some of the men at her father’s country club except without the stench of sophisticated asshole. He was familiar.
“I’m fine, sir. Rough morning, that’s all.”
Emily stood for a long moment, Sergeant Iaconelli’s words still ringing in her ears. He had no idea how much his comment hurt. She didn’t know him from Adam but his words had found her weakness and stabbed it viciously.
In one single sentence, he’d shredded every hope she’d held onto since joining the army. She’d wanted to belong. To be part of something. To make a difference. He’d struck dead on without even knowing it. Her family had told her she’d never fit into the military. She fought the urge to sink into her chair and cover her face with her hands. She just needed a few minutes. She could do this.
The big sergeant didn’t know her. His opinion did not matter. Her parents’ opinions did not matter.
If she kept repeating this often enough, it would be true.
Her boss glanced at the clock on her wall. “It’s too early for this.”
She smiled thinly. “I know. Shaping up to be one heck of a Monday. Is triage already booked?”
He nodded. “Yes. I need you in there to help screen patients. We need to clear out the folks who can wait for appointments and identify those who are at risk right now of harming themselves or others.”
“Roger, sir. I can do that. I need to e-mail two company commanders and I’ll be right out there.”
“Okay. Don’t forget we have the staff sync at lunch.”
Even this early, the day showed no sign of slowing down and all she wanted to do was go home and take a steaming hot bath. She’d been trying to work out a knot behind her left shoulder blade for days now and things just kept piling up. She needed a good soak and a massage. Not that she dared schedule one. She’d probably end up cancelling it anyway.
“There’s that smile. Relax. You’re going to die of a heart attack before you’re thirty. The army is a marathon, not a sprint.”
“Roger, sir.” She waited until he closed the door before she covered her face in her hands once more. She could do this. She just needed to find her battle rhythm. She’d get into the swing of things. She wasn’t about to quit just because things got a little rough.
Her cell phone vibrated on her desk. Oh, perfect. Her mother was calling. Not that she was about to answer that phone call. She couldn’t deal with the passive-aggressive jabs her mother was so skilled at. Besides, she was probably just going to press Emily to give up on—as she put it—slumming in the army and come home.
She’d worked too hard to get where she was and she damn sure wasn’t about to go limping home. How could she? Her parents had looked at her like she was an alien when she’d told them about Bentley. As though she had somehow been in the wrong for her fiancé’s betrayal. As though, if she’d been woman enough, he never would have strayed.
If she ever went home again, and that was a really big if, she would do it on her own terms. She’d walked away from everything in her life that had been hollow and empty.
She was rebuilding, doing something that mattered for the first time in her life. Every day that she avoided calling home or being the person her father and his friends wanted her to be was a victory. No one in her family had supported her when she’d needed them. She might not have found her place yet in the army but just being here was a start. It was something new and she wasn’t about to give up, no matter how much Monday threw at her.
Tuesday really needed to hurry up and get here though, because as Mondays went, this one was already shot all to hell.
There’s been a lot of traffic the past few days about the proposed changes to military retirement. I’ve been sitting on this post for a while because, well, don’t blog/tweet while angry. Because the fundamental underly question that this commission is trying to answer is the wrong question. They are asking how do we make the army less expensive when the real question they need to be asking is how do we improve the Army’s readiness.
There are real challenges facing the military in managing personnel issues and I’m a fan of getting creative with fixing them. But I am not a fan of transferring financial risk to the individuals in the name of allegedly saving money – and it’s not even that much money. I’m not a fan of designing a system based on “the individual knows what’s best for them” then allowing predators to rob them blind and trust me, this will happen. It already is (for profit schools being in the Army ed centers for one but that’s another post entirely).
If we’re going to design changes to the military compensation system, then we need to figure out how to make the system work harder for readiness of the army. We need to consider how these systems will work in the context of the war in 2005 or during the Surge. How does this proposed system make sure that we recruit and retain the best during those periods? Because if these proposals don’t address times like that, then we are directly impacting national security with these changes.
I’m probably going to break this down over a couple of posts but for now, let’s tackle the first elephant in the room: changes to Tricare.
Lord knows I’ve had my share of complaints about Tricare (and in all honesty, it’s been damn good insurance for my family for the most part). But despite it being not perfect, it still meets the general requirements of making sure soldiers are ready to deploy.
So let’s say we let a soldier opt out of his or her military health care and go to his or her spouse’s insurance. Great, right? Everyone wins. The Army no longer has to fund expensive medical facilities and individuals get to pick providers that are best for them. But how exactly does this enable commanders to track medical readiness? There’s this little thing called HIPPA and well, off post doctors can be quite strict about enforcing it. So while commanders currently have the ability to call up the doc and find out what medications Private Snuffy is taking, under this proposal, commanders will have no legal right or basis to access this information. You want to hold commanders accountable when a soldier ODs on their medication but this is taking away the one (very imperfect) tool we have for tracking it. Exactly how are commanders going to know what’s going on with their soldiers? I’m also pretty sure you can forget about getting off post doctors to update MEDPROS.
Which brings me to my next issue with readiness: the copay good idea fairy. I’m not morally opposed to copays in principle provided they have a catastrophic cap that’s really low and severely restricted as far as debt collection goes. Insurance exists for emergencies. Copays sound good on paper until you’ve got a $100,000 emergency room visit and your copay is 5% of that. And that’s for things which are emergencies and do not require chronic care. Let’s say you have a child who falls off their bunk bed and gets airlifted to a children’s hospital an hour away, and then subsequently spends three days in intensive care. If there’s a copay and no cap, well, you’ve just saddled a soldier with a massive potential debt. Not really doing much for improving readiness there, are we?
And what happens when there’s a copay for an annual physical and the soldier simply cannot or will not pay for the doctor’s visit? Commanders already have their hands full getting soldiers green on MEDPROS. Now we’re going to add in the additional layer of bureaucracy that forces commanders to argue with insurance companies to get their joes to be green on all their shots? What about shots and immunizations? And how are you going to prevent soldiers from showing up at SRP the day they’re supposed to deploy only to find out that they’re being treated off post for a condition that prevents them from getting on that plane? The chain of command had zero visibility on this issue because there is no mechanism to ensure they can get visibility on this issue.
I don’t see how transferring service members to civilian insurance programs is going to increase medical readiness unless these are Cadillac plans that reduce the friction of going to the doctors and require by law that these agencies must communicate with military commanders.
None of these arguments suggest that military medical care isn’t without problems. Fort Hood went through a massive overhaul of medical care while I was there and part of that was because military commanders were able to apply strategic pressure and get the medical system to do what commanders needed it to do: get soldiers ready to deploy. And this took years to implement. Taking this ability away from commanders may be fine in a peacetime army but we’re not a peacetime army. We’ve still got almost 5000 troops on the ground in Iraq and significantly more than that in Afghanistan. That doesn’t account for troops around the globe on various contingency operations.
Additionally, when service members are wounded, the bureaucracy is already bad enough. Let’s not forget how bad our wounded vets were treated when they were sent home. Remember the scandal at Walter Reed The scandals at the WTUs? How does civilian insurance fix these problems?
If the proposed changes to TRICARE give soldiers better access to care and improves readiness, then I’m all for them. But they don’t. They simply add another layer of bureaucracy making the already intensely complex system more complex. They transfer cost and risk to the individual soldier and take away command influence that provides oversight to an imperfect system.
More individual risk does not sound like improved readiness to me. I’d love to be wrong about this, though.
I love this book so so much. I hope y’all will go with me as I explore a new genre. But don’t worry. There are more contemporary romances about soldiers coming home from war in the works. I’m spinning off my Coming Home series into a new series called HOMEFRONT. Sign up for my newsletter to make sure you get the news when it’s going to be available!
Anyway, back to Noah and Beth. Here’s the blurb for BEFORE I FALL.
Stay focused. Get a job. Save her father’s life.
Beth Lamont knows far too much about the harsh realities of life her gilded classmates have only read about in class. She’ll do whatever it takes to take care of her father, even if that means tutoring a guy like Noah – a guy who represents everything she hates about the war, soldiers and what the Army has done to her family.
Noah Warren doesn’t know how to be a student. All he knows is war. But he’s going to college now to fulfill a promise and he doesn’t break his promises. Except he doesn’t count on his tutor being drop dead gorgeous and distracting as hell. One look at Beth threatens to unravel the careful lies Noah has constructed around him.
A simple arrangement turns into something neither of them can deny. And a war that neither of them can forget could destroy them both.
My dad has good days and bad. The good days are awesome. When he’s awake and he’s pretending to cook breakfast and I’m pretending to eat it. It’s a joke between us that he burns water. But that’s okay.
On the good days, I humor him. Because for those brief interludes, I have my dad back.
The not so good days, like today, are more common. Days when he can’t get out of bed without my help.
I bring him his medication. I know exactly how much he takes and how often.
And I know exactly when he runs out.
I’ve gotten better about keeping up with his appointments so he doesn’t, but the faceless bastards at the VA cancel more than they keep. But what can we do? He can’t get private insurance with his health and because someone decided that his back wasn’t entirely service related, he doesn’t have a high enough disability rating to qualify for automatic care. So we wait for them to fit him in and when we can’t, we go to the emergency room and the bills pile up. Because despite him not being able to move on the bad days, his back pain treatments are elective.
So I juggle phone calls to the docs and try to keep us above water.
I leave his phone by his bed and make sure it’s plugged in to charge before I head to school. He’s got water and the pills he’ll need when he finally comes out of the fog. Our tiny house is only a mile from campus. Not in the best part of town but not the worst either. I’ve got an hour before class, which means I need to hustle. Thankfully, it’s not terribly hot today so I won’t arrive on campus a sweating, soggy mess. That always makes a good impression especially at a wealthy southern school like this one.
I make it to campus with twenty minutes to spare and check my email on the campus Wi-Fi. I can’t check it at the house — internet is a luxury we can’t afford. If I’m lucky, my neighbor’s signal sometimes bleeds over into our house. Most of the time, though, I’m not that lucky. Which is fine. Except for days like this where there’s a note from my professor asking me to come by her office before class.
Professor Blake is terrifying to those who don’t know her. She’s so damn smart it’s scary, and she doesn’t let any of us get away with not speaking up in class. Sit up straight. Speak loudly. She’s harder on the girls, too. Some of the underclassmen complain that she’s being unfair. I don’t complain though. I know she’s doing it for a reason.
“You got my note just in time,” she says. Her tortoise shell glasses reflect the florescent light, and I can’t see her eyes.
“Yes, ma’am.” She’s told me not to call her ma’am but it slips out anyway. I can’t help it. Thankfully, she doesn’t push the issue.
“I have a job for you.”
“Sure.” A job meant extra money on the side. Money that I could use to get my dad his medications. Or you know, buy food. Little things, you know? It’s hard as hell to do stats when your stomach is rumbling. “What does it entail?”
“Tutoring. Business statistics.”
“I hear a but in there.”
“He’s a former soldier.”
Once, when my mom first left us, I couldn’t wake my dad up. My blood pounded so loud in my ears that I could hardly hear. That’s how I feel now. Professor Blake knows how I feel about the war, about soldiers. I can’t deal with all the hoah chest beating bullshit. Not with my dad and everything the war has done to him.
“Before you say no, hear me out. Noah has some very well placed friends that want him very much to succeed here. He’s got a ticket into the business school graduate program, but only if he gets through stats.”
I’m having a hard time breathing. I can’t do this. But the idea of extra money, just a little. It’s a strong motivator when you don’t have it. Principles are for people who can afford them. “So why me?”
“Because you’ve got the best head for stats I’ve seen in a long time, and I’ve seen you explain things to the underclassmen in ways that make sense to them. You can translate.”
“There’s no one else?” I hate that I need this job.
Professor Blake removes her glasses with a quiet sigh. “Our school is very pro-military, Beth.”
She’s right. That’s the only reason I was able to get in. This is one of the Southern Ivies. A top school in the southeast that I have no business being at except for my dad who knew the dean of the law school from his time in the army. I hate the war and everything it’s done to my family. But I wouldn’t be where I am today if my dad hadn’t gone to war and sacrificed everything to make sure I had a future outside of our crappy little place outside of Fort Benning. There are things worse than death and my dad lives with them every day.
I will not let him down.
“Okay. When do I start?”
She hands me a slip of paper. It’s yellow and has her letterhead at the top in neat, formal block letters. “Here’s his information. Make contact and see what his schedule is.” She places her glasses back on and just like that I’m dismissed.
Blake is not a warm woman, but I wouldn’t have made it through my first semester at this school. If not for her and my friend Abby, I would have left from the sheer overwhelming force of being surrounded by money and wealth and all the intangibles that came along with it. I did not belong here but because of Professor Blake, I hadn’t quit.
So if I need to tutor some blockhead soldier to make the powers that be happy then so be it. Graduating from this program is my one chance to take care of my dad and I will not fail.
I hate being on campus. I feel old. Which isn’t entirely logical because I’m only a few years older than the kids plugged in and tuned out around me. Part of me envies them. The casual nonchalance as they stroll from class to class, listening to music without a care in the world.
It feels surreal. Like a dream that I’m going to wake up from any minute now and find that I’m still in Iraq with LT and the guys. A few months ago, I was patrolling a shithole town in the middle of Iraq where we had no official boots on the ground and now I’m here. I feel like I’ve been ripped out of my normal.
Hell, I don’t even know what to wear to class. This is not a problem I’ve had for the last four years.
I erred on the side of caution — khakis and a button down polo. I hope I don’t look like a fucking douchebag. LT would be proud of me. I think. But he’s not here to tell me what to do, and I’m so far out of my fucking league it’s not even funny.
I almost grin at the note. LT is still looking after me. His parents are both academics, and it is because of him that I am even here. I told him there was no fucking way I was going to make it into the business school because math was basically a foreign language to me.
My phone vibrates in my pocket, distracting me from the fact that my happy ass is lost on campus. Kind of hard to navigate when the terrain is buildings and mopeds as opposed to burned out city streets and destroyed mosques.
Stats tutor contact info: Beth Lamont. Email her, don’t text.
Apparently, LT was serious about making sure I didn’t fail. Class hadn’t even started yet, and there I was with my very own tutor. I was paying for it out of pocket. There were limits to how much pride I could swallow. It was bad enough that I wanted to put on my ruck and get the hell out of this place.
Half the students looked like they’d turn sixteen shades of purple if I said the wrong thing. Like look out, here’s the crazy ass veteran, one bad day away from shooting the place up. The other half probably expected the former soldier to speak in broken English and be barely literate. Douchebags. Need to get working on that whole cussing thing, too. Couldn’t be swearing like I was back with the guys or calling my classmates names. Not if I wanted to fit in.
I’m not sure about this. Not any of it. I never figured I was the college type — at least not this kind of college.
I tap out an email to the tutor and ask when she’s available to meet. The response comes back quickly. A surprise, really. I can’t tell you how many emails I sent trying to get my schedule fixed and nothing. Silence. Hell, the idea of actually responding to someone seems foreign. I had to physically go to the registrar’s office to get a simple question answered about a form. No one would answer a damn email. Sometimes, I think they’d be more comfortable with carrier pigeons. Or not having to interact at all. I can’t imagine what my old platoon would do to this place.
Noon at The Grind.
Which is about as useful information as giving me directions in Arabic because I have no idea a) what The Grind is or b) where it might be.
I respond to her email and tell her that.
Library coffee shop. Central campus.
Okay then. This ought to be interesting.
I head to my first class. Business stats. Great. Guess I’ll get my head wrapped around it before I meet the tutor. That should be fun.
I didn’t think that fun and statistics going in the same sentence but whatever. It was a required course, so I guess that’s where I was going to be.
My hands start sweating the minute I step into the classroom. Hello school anxiety. Fuck, I forgot how much I hate school. I’m at the back of the room, the wall behind me where I can see the doors and windows. I hate the idea of someone coming in behind me. Call it PTSD or whatever, but I hate not being able to see who’s coming or going.
I reach into my backpack and pull out a small pill bottle. My anxiety is tripping at a double time, and I’m going to have a goddamned heart attack at this point.
I hate the pills more than I hate being in the classroom again, but there’s not much I can do about it. Not if I want to do this right.
And LT would pretty much haunt me if I fuck this up.
I choke down the bitter pill and pull out my notebook as the rest of the class filters in.
I flip to the back of the notebook and start taking notes. Observations. Old habit from Iraq. Keeps me sane, I guess.
The females have some kind of religious objection to pants. Yoga pants might as well be full on burkhas. I’ve seen actual tights being worn as outer garments and no one bats an eye. It feels strange seeing so much flesh after being in Iraq where the only flesh you saw was…
Well, wasn’t that a happy fucking thought.
Jesus. I scrub my hands over my face. Need to put that shit aside, a.s.a.p.
The professor comes in, and I immediately turn my attention to the front of the classroom. She looks stern today, but I’m pretty sure that’s a front. She’s got to look mean in front of these young kids. She’s nothing like she was when we talked about enrollment before I started. She was one of the few people who did respond to emails at this place.
“Good morning. I’m Professor Blake, and this is my TA Beth Lamont. If you have problems or issues, go through her. She speaks for me and has my full faith and confidence. If you want to pass this class, pay attention because she knows this information inside and out.”
Beth Lamont. Hello, tutor.
I lose the rest of whatever Professor Blake has to say. Because Beth Lamont is like some kind of stats goddess. Add in that she’s drop dead smoking hot, but it’s her eyes that grab hold of me. Piercing green and intense. She looks at me, and I can feel my entire body standing at the position of attention. It’s been a long time since a woman made me stand up and take notice. And I’m supposed to focus on stats around her? I’d be lucky to remember how to write my name in crayons around her.
I am completely fucked.
It doesn’t take me long to figure out who Noah Warren is. He’s a little bit older than the rest of the fresh faced underclassmen I’ve gotten used to. I’m not even twenty-one but I feel ancient these days. I was up late last night, worrying about my dad.
I can feel him watching me as I hand out the syllabus and the first class notes. My hackles are up — he’s staring and being rude. I don’t tolerate this from the jocks but right then, I’m stuck. The rest of the class is focused on Professor Blake, but not our soldier. Oh no, he’s being such a stereotype it’s not even funny. Staring. Not even trying to be slick about it like the football player in the front of the class room who’s trying to catch a glimpse at my tits when I lean down to pass the papers out.
Instead, our soldier just leans back, nonchalant like he owns the place. Like the whole world should bend over and kiss his ass because he’s defending our freedom. Well, I know all about that, and the price is too goddamned high.
And wow, how is that for bitterness and angst on a Monday morning. I need to get my shit together. I haven’t even spoken to him and I’m already tarring and feathering him. Not going to be very productive for our tutoring relationship if I hate him before we even get started.
I take a deep breath and hand him the syllabus and first lecture worksheet.
I imagine he’s figured out that I’m his tutor.
I turn back and head down the stairs to my desk in the front as Professor Blake drops her bombshell on the class.
“There will be no computer use in this class. You may use laptops during lab when Beth is instructing because there will be practical applications. But during lecture, you will not use computers. If your phones go off, you can expect to be docked participation points, and those are a significant portion of your grade.”
There was the requisite crying and wailing and gnashing of the teeth. I remember my first time I heard of Professor Blake’s no computer rule. I thought it was draconian and complete bullshit. And then I realized she was right — I learned better by writing things down. Especially the stats stuff.
I look up at Noah. He’s watching the class now. He’s scowling. He looks like he might frown a lot. He looks…harder than the rest of the class. There are angles to his cheeks and shadows beneath his eyes. His dark hair is shorter than most and he damn sure doesn’t have that crazy ass swoop thing that so many of the guys are doing these days.
Everything about him radiates soldier. I wonder if he knows how intimidating he looks. And then I immediately wonder why the hell I care what he thinks.
I’m going to be his tutor not his shrink.
He shifts and his eyes collide with mine. Something tightens in the vicinity of my belly. It’s not fear. Soldiers don’t scare me, not even ones who look like they were forged in fire like Noah.
No, it’s something else. Something tight and tense and distinctly distracting. I’m not in the mood for my hormones to overwhelm my common sense.
I stomp on the feeling viciously.
I’m staring at him, now. I’m deliberately trying to look confident and confrontational. Men like Noah don’t respect weakness. Show a moment’s hesitation and the next thing you know they’ve got your ass pinned in a corner trying to grab your tits.
He lifts one brow in response. I have no idea how to read that reaction.
I had to swallow my pride and ask some perky blond directions to the joint. I hadn’t expected Valley Girl air headedness but then again, I didn’t really know what I expected. I managed to interpret the directions between a few giggles and several likes and ahs and ums. I imagined her briefing my CO and almost smiled at the train wreck it would be. We had a lieutenant like her once. She was in the intelligence shop and she might have been the smartest lieutenant in the brigade, but the way she talked made everyone think she was a complete space cadet.
She’d said like one too many times during a briefing to the division commander and yeah, well, last I heard, she’d been in charge of keeping the latrines cleaned down in Kuwait. Which wasn’t fair but then again, what in life was? Guess the meat eaters in the brigade hadn’t wanted listen to the Valley Girl give them intelligence reports on what the Kurdish Pesh and ISIS were up to at any given point in time. My cup of coffee from The Grind isn’t terrible. It certainly isn’t Green Bean coffee but it’s a passable second place. Green Bean had enough caffeine in it to keep you up for two days straight. This stuff…it’s softer, I guess. Smoother? I’m not really sure. It isn’t bad. Just not what I am used to. Nothing here is.
I wonder if there is any way to run down to Bragg and get some of the hard stuff. Hell, I am considering chewing on coffee beans at this point. Anything to clear the fog in my brain. But I need the fog to keep the anxiety at bay, so I guess I am fucked there, too. Guess I could start getting used to the place. No better place to start with the coffee, I guess.
The Grind is busy. Small, low tables are crowded with laptops and books and students all looking intently at their work. It’s like a morgue in here. Everyone is hyper focused. Don’t these people know how to have a good time? Relax a little bit? Hell, there were no seats anywhere. The Grind was apparently a popular, if silent, place.
The tutor walks in at exactly twelve fifty eight. Two minutes to spare.
“You’re not late.” I’m mildly shocked.
She did that eyebrow thing again, and I have to admit, on her it is pretty fucking sexy. “I tend to be punctual. It’s a life skill.”
“Kitty has claws,” I say.
She stiffens. Apparently, the joke fell flat. Guess I was going to work on that.
“Let’s get something straight, shall we? My name is Beth, and I’m going to tutor you in business stats. We are not going to be friends or fuck buddies or anything else you might think of. I’m not kitty or any other pet name. I’m here to get a degree not a husband.”
My not strong enough coffee burns my tongue as her words sink in. She’s damn sure prickly all right. I can’t decide if I admire her spine or if it’s unnecessary. Hell, it isn’t like I tried to grab her ass or asked her to suck my dick.
The coffee slides down my throat. “Glad we cleared that up,” I say instead. “I wasn’t sure if blow jobs came with the tutoring.”
She grinds her teeth. There isn’t much by way of sense of humor in the tutor. She has a no nonsense look about her. Her dark blond hair is drawn tight to her neck, and I can’t figure out if she is naturally flawless or if she is just damn good with makeup.
There is a freshness to her though that isn’t something I am used to either. Enlisted women, the few I’d been around, either try way too hard with too much black eyeliner downrange or aren’t interested in men beyond the buddy level.
But this academic woman is a new species entirely for me, and as our standoff continues, I realize I have no idea what the rules of engagement are with someone like her. At least not beyond her name is not Kitty and she’s not here for a husband. Those she made pretty clear.
She is fucking stunning and I suddenly can’t talk.
She clears her throat. “So are we going to stand here and continue to stare at each other, or are we going to get to work? I have somewhere to be in two hours.”
I motion toward the library. “Lead the way.”
He’s watching my ass as I walk in front of him. He’s just the type who would do something like that. The blow job comment had caught me completely off guard. I hate that. I always think of smart ass comebacks fifteen minutes too late.
So now I am even more irritated than I had been when he’d been staring in class. What the hell had Professor Blake been thinking?
I lead us to a small table out of the way where there wouldn’t be a lot of disruption. Stats is one of those things that takes a lot of concentration. At least it had for me until I learned the language.
I pull out the worksheet from class. Homework and lessons. “So let’s get the business stuff out of the way,” I say. I hate the tone in my voice. I’m not normally a ball busting bitch, but he’s set me off and if being cold and curt is the only way to keep him in line then so be it. “I’d like to be paid each meeting. Cash.”
“What’s your rate?”
I sit back. How the hell did that question catch me off guard? I don’t know. I work part-time at the country club next to campus, but the tips are hit or miss. The thing about the other half? Some of them are stingier than others. Most of the time, I make okay tips. It’s enough to keep the lights on most of the time. When it wasn’t, I tried not to be bitter about how they didn’t need the money like I did.
But I just smiled and took their orders.
I’m stuck. Noah is not my first tutoring job but my other jobs were paid by the university. I have no idea how much to charge for freelance work.
“Fifty dollars an hour, three times a week,” he offers abruptly.
I cover my shock with my hand. “Huh?”
“Fifty dollars an hour. I saw a sign in the common area charging that much for Spanish. Figure stats should be at least that much, right?
My voice is stuck somewhere in the bottom of my chest. Fifty bucks an hour is a lot of groceries and medication. It feels wrong taking that kind of money, even from Mr. Does the Tutoring Come with Blowjobs.
“Will that be a problem?”
I shake my head. “No. That’s fine.” There’s a stack of bills that need to be paid. The electricity is a week overdue. Like I said, the country club wasn’t the most reliable income. I’m counting on tips tonight to make a payment tomorrow to keep them from shutting it off. Again. Between that and the money from tutoring — I could keep the lights on. I can feel my face burning hot. I turn away, digging into my backpack to keep him from seeing my humiliation, not wanting him to see my relief.
“Same time, same place? Monday, Wednesday and Friday?” My computer flickers to life.
“Works for me. How much pain should I be prepared for?” He sounds worried. He should. Professor Blake is one of the top in her field, and that’s no small feat considering she came up at a time when women were still blazing trails in the business world.
“Depends on if you do the work or not,” I say. I can’t quite bring myself to offer him comfort. I’m still irritated by the blowjob comment. “So let’s get started.” I lean over the worksheet. “What questions do you have from class today?”
I look up to find him watching me. There’s something in his eyes that tugs at me. I don’t want to be tugged at.
He looks away. He’s strangling that poor pen in his hands. Clearly, I’ve struck a nerve with my question.
I wish I didn’t remember how that felt. The lost sensation of not having a clue what I was doing. I didn’t even know what questions to ask.
I don’t want to feel anything charitable toward him, but there’s something about the way he shifts. Something that makes him vulnerable.
I run my tongue over my teeth. This isn’t going well. “Okay look. We’ll start with the basics, okay?”
I open my laptop to the lecture notes.
He finally notices my computer. “I haven’t seen one of the black MacBooks in years,” he says.
He’s not being a prick, but I bristle anyway. “It might be old but she’s never failed me.”
“It can run stats software? Isn’t that pretty intense processor wise?”
I don’t feel like telling him that to run said stats program, I have to shut down every other program and clear the cache. I don’t want to admit that there’s just no money to buy a new computer. I can’t even finance one because I don’t have the credit for it.
Business school is about looking the part as much as it is knowing the game so none of those words are going to leave my lips.
“It gets the job done,” I say. “Now, the first lecture.”
“I get everything about what stats is supposed to do. I got lost somewhere around regression.”
“Don’t worry about regression right now. We’re going to focus on understanding what we’re looking at first up. Basic concepts.”
I look over at him. He’s scowling at the paper. I can see tiny flecks of blue and gold in his green eyes. He drags one hand through his short dark hair and leans his forward. He’s practically radiating tension, and I can feel it infecting me.
Damn it, I don’t give a shit about his anxiety. I don’t care.
“So the normal distribution is?”
I take a deep breath. This stuff I know. I draw the standard bell shaped curve on his paper. “The normal distribution says that any results are normally…”
She knows her stuff. She relaxes when she starts talking about confidence intervals and normal distributions. Hell, I can’t even spell normal distribution.
But she has a way of making things make sense.
And her confidence isn’t scary so much as it is really fucking attractive.
I’m watching her lips move and I swear to God I’m trying to pay attention, but my brain decides to take a detour into not stats-ville. She’s got a great mouth. It’s a little too wide, and she has a tendency to chew on the inside of her lip when she’s focusing.
I look down because I don’t want her to catch me not paying attention. I need to understand this stuff, not stare at her like a lovesick private.
I’m focusing on confidence intervals when something dings on her computer. She frowns and opens her email. It’s angled away so I can’t look over her shoulder, but something is clearly wrong. A flush creeps up her neck. She grinds her teeth when she’s irritated. I tend to notice that in other people. I do the same thing when the anxiety starts taking hold. At least when it starts. It graduates quickly beyond teeth grinding into paralyzing.
I glance at my watch. It’s almost time for her to go. I have no idea how I’m going to get my homework done, but I’ll figure it out later. I’m meeting some of the guys from the veterans group on campus at some place called Baywater Inn. Because of course LT put me in touch with these guys, too.
But watching her, something is clearly wrong. I want to ask, but given how our history isn’t exactly on the confide-your-darkest-secrets level, I don’t.
She snaps her laptop closed and sighs. “I’ve got to run and make a phone call. Are you set for your assignment for lab?”
“I’ll figure it out.”
Her lips press into a flat line. “You can always look it up online.”
She’s distracted now. Not paying attention. I watch her move. There’s an edge to her seriousness now. A tension in the long lines of her neck. A strand of hair fell free from the knot and brushes her temple. I want to tuck it back into place but I’m pretty sure if I tried it, I’d be rewarded with a knee in the balls. And I like them where they are, thanks. I’d come too close to losing them to risk them now.
I pull out my wallet and hand her two twenties and a ten. She hesitates then offers the ten back. “We didn’t do the full hour.”I refuse the money. “Keep it. Obviously you’ve got something to take care of. Don’t worry about it.”
She sucks in a deep breath like she’s going to argue but then clamps her mouth shut. “Thank you.”
She didn’t choke on it, but it’s a close thing. I am suddenly deeply curious about what has gotten her all wound up in such a short amount of time.
Maybe I’ll get a chance to ask her some day.
But I definitely have the impression that Beth Lamont isn’t into warm cuddles and hugs. She strikes me as independent and tough.
And I admire the hell out of that attitude, even as she scares the shit out of me with how smart she is.
I’ve been “officially” writing since 2007. And holy hell does that feel like a long time. When I was first starting out, I thought I just need an editor to tell me what this story is and help me fix it.
The problem is, once I got an editor, we couldn’t agree on what the story was that I was trying to tell. I didn’t trust myself enough to know that this isn’t my story and I kept trying to write the story that she wanted.
It didn’t work. I damn near quit writing over that book and when I say I almost quit, I’m not talking about oh poor me. I’m talking about a year of back and forth revisions, missed deadlines and a whole lot of emotional angst because clearly, I had no idea what I was doing. Obviously, I had no business writing if I couldn’t figure out what my editor wanted, right?
It took me sending out an SOS to a very close friend of mine who happens to be a tremendously talented editor. She gave me a week of one on one time and we fixed the book. To this day, I am grateful to her for not only helping me fix that particular book but for showing me that yes, I actually do know how to tell a story.
When I started working with my next traditional editor, I nearly wept when I received her revision letter because she understood the story I was trying to tell. The key difference in the three editorial relationships is that in one, I didn’t know what story I was trying to tell. I was trying to write what I thought an editor wanted. In the other two, I wrote the story I wanted to tell and they helped me make it shine.
So my point there is not to bash the editor but to say that because I didn’t know the story I wanted to tell, I invariably complicated the problem – for over a year.
When new writers are starting out, I feel like there comes a point when you find that story that has your voice. You know it because it clicks and it feels right.
I’ve gone through a very similar and emotionally traumatizing experience in grad school. Not only have I had zero confidence in the paper I’ve been trying to write but I’ve let every feedback I’ve received change the paper up completely. I haven’t figured out the vision for that paper and thus, the writing of it has become an unmitigated disaster.
But at least now I can recognize that’s what’s going on. It’s not that I can’t write – though there can be some argument to be made that my academic writing is definitely not where it should be. It’s that I haven’t figured out what story I’m trying to tell in that paper. Once I do that, the rest of it will follow. Of that, I am confident.
I’m finishing up a book this week that I literally started writing last week. Of course, it needs a good edit but I can honestly say that this book is one where I have found my voice. The story and the characters have come to me in a pretty heavy flood of words and I couldn’t be happier with the way this story is turning out.
I consistently go through bouts where I’m sure I’m done, that I’ve got no more stories to tell. I’m coming off one of those waves right now where I haven’t had a new idea in months. And then this book happens.
More to follow as I get it prepped and ready to go. It’s a little different than what I’ve written in the past but I really, really love this story. I think it’s true to my voice and at the end of the day, it’s all I as an author can really do.
Have a wonderful New Year!
If you’re just tuning in, over on Tom Rick’s Best Defense, 1LT Max Lujan wrote a piece entitled: One Way To Improve the Army: Make Company Grade Officers Do Their Jobs.
His post was not well received for a couple of reasons. First, by writing about his current unit, under his real name, he basically outed peers to his left and right as well as his senior leaders. He called out his battalion level leadership among other things for failing to correct deficiencies within it. He mentioned specific incidents that can easily be traced back to the individuals involved and at least once incident that could potentially involve a criminal investigation. Second, the proposed five platforms he recommends installing in all junior officers aren’t something you can insert over time.
So rather than rehash what has been done masterfully by El Snarkistani and a particularly insightful post about second chances by Private Snuffy as well as a really great question about whether we’re actually contributing to the organization or if we’re just bitching by Power Point Sapper, I’m going to talk about some of the hard lessons I learned as a lieutenant about needs vs wants.
Full disclosure, I cut my teeth as an officer in First Cav so I’m familiar with the territory that Lujan is writing in. I was not a brand new lieutenant, though. I had been a sergeant first class in my prior service days so I had a whole bunch of unlearning to do as well as fresh learning. It remains one of my most formative military experiences and I for one am grateful to the captains in the S3 in particular who didn’t cut me any slack but didn’t let me step on my crank, either.
LT Lujan wants officers to be held accountable. He wants to see people punished for screwing up. He’s even holding people accountable for things that inherently come with experience and sometimes done. Social skills are not something everyone is gifted with. However, he didn’t criticize his peers social skills. What he described was someone being nervous. “Bumbling 22 year old” is how I would actually describe a lot of 2LTs. It’s pretty much a dick move to call someone out on a public forum for being nervous briefing their entire platoon. Experience will make someone better at briefings. Only maturity can maybe make you less of a dick. Maybe instead of calling his peer out in public, he could have pulled him to the side and said hey, want to practice that briefing before hand? Build the team instead of tearing it down.
But that said, I’ve been in a position where I badly wanted someone held accountable. I didn’t want this person just fired. I wanted public humiliation. I wanted tarring and feathering.
What I could not understand – and it took me years to finally figure it out with the help of a couple of those captains I mentioned above- was why this individual did not get fired. Why wasn’t the relief for cause OER done and believe me, the cause was substantial. Incompetence of the highest mark and it was not due to inexperience.
The lesson I learned in that incident was two fold. First, you can’t fire everyone. As much as I despise many things that Rumsfeld did as Sec Def, one thing he said is absolutely true: you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you have. What LT Lujan is doing is spending his time wishing he was in some high speed unit where everyone is superman and no one ever screws up. Well, those units don’t exist. So you can piss and moan about the unit you’re in or you can figure out how to make it better. I have a hard time seeing how his post on The Best Defense is contributing to the fight. I can easily see, however, how it’s not.
The second lesson is between wants and needs. Remember that incompetent individual I mentioned a few minutes ago? What I wanted was firing. What I needed was someone to get in there that knew their job. I got what I needed – it was infinitely more important to get that duty position filled with someone who knew what the hell they were doing. That one person was a single point of failure. Getting the job done was more important than my petty desire to see this person fired. And? It took about three years but that person is no longer in the military. The system takes time but it does, I believe, a decent job of weeding out the incompetent.
Sadly, our system does not do a good job of weeding out toxicity. We tend to reward guys and gals who will be dicks to make the mission happen. I’ve served in units where the commander didn’t believe in second chances. Once failed pt test and you were done. That didn’t engender much loyalty to the officers or the unit. We have a harder time capturing guys who may not set their buddies up for failure but certainly don’t go out of their way to make sure that someone who is struggling gets a hand.
It must be nice to know you’ve never screwed up. That you’ll never fail a pt test and that you’ve never once been in a position where your integrity is tested or that you’ve never been nervous before an important briefing. But like that high speed unit where no one ever screws up, it’s been my experience (and with 19+ years in service, I actually get to use that expression) that those people are the first ones begging for a second chance when they finally do step in it.
I’ll end on this note. LT is right – there is an problem in the officer corps but it’s not what he mentions. We have blind spots and this lieutenant pointed out some of them, rightly or wrongly. But the problem isn’t that he pointed out the blind spots. It’s how he went about it.
He’s new to the army (no West Point doesn’t count) and he clearly doesn’t know how it works otherwise he never would have written that post like he did. Or he would have gotten feedback from trusted individuals to make it less likely that he was about to step in his crank. Or better yet, he would have made an office call with his commander and asked “sir, I have some real questions about things that I see in this unit and I really need to understand what the decision making process is here.” An office call would have demonstrated a maturity, a professionalism and a willingness to learn that I did not see in this young lieutenant’s post.
Failing to recognize his own blind spots is a major shortcoming but like many life lessons, it comes with experience. Learning humility, though, that takes someone willing to hold a mirror up and take a good hard look.