Chapter 1 – Living Up To Fantasy

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Former Master Sergeant Michael Thomas O’Malley sat at the crossroads. Mike, as he was slowly coming to think of himself in the couple of months since retiring after over twenty years as a US Marine. The engine of his Harley Davidson Road King hummed quietly between his thighs as he double-checked the GPS coordinates on his phone.

Looking at the small and slightly worn wooden frame house that stood at the busiest intersection in Sebida, Texas, he did not have any doubts that this was the right place. Even in the dim, yellowish light from the street lamps, it matched almost precisely the descriptions that his friend and former commanding officer Lieutenant Thomas Samuels had given over the two tours of duty they had served together in Afghanistan.

He swallowed the lump in his throat at the thought of the younger man. He knew that theirs had been an unusual friendship, to say the least. He had certainly never shared the same type of bond with any of the other officers that he had served under over the years.

Then again, Tommy, as he had called him in private, was not your typical arrogant, head up his ass, young officer that thought he knew everything simply because he had a college degree and a bar on his uniform. No, the young man had been more than alright as a junior officer, a man, and a friend.

And she was the reason for much of that, his mother – Esther. Mike caressed the fuel tank of the motorcycle that had been his dream since he was thirteen years old, the bike that was her namesake.

For the thousandth time that day, he questioned himself. What the fuck was he doing here? This was a bad idea. A terrible idea. Only six months after her only child’s death, his face was probably the last thing she wanted to see. Another reminder of the son that she had lost.

But it was only three days until Halloween, and the front yard looked nothing like the festive heart of this small community as Tommy had described his mother’s annual celebration. Maybe she had decided to skip it this year? He could not blame her. From what Tommy said, it was a hell of a lot of work and especially for one woman all alone.

All alone. That was what she was now. And that thought burned in his mind far worse than the shrapnel that had torn into his arm as he rushed to her dying son’s side. That was what he was doing here. Keeping another promise: the one he made to his dying friend as he held him in his arms. Perhaps the way this woman had so many times.

At twenty-five, the young Lieutenant was too old to be like the son he never had, but the bond that had grown over time went deeper than friendship: an older brother, an uncle, family for sure. Not that his feelings for Tommy’s mother were familial at all.

He reached inside his jacket pocket, where he had worn that picture during the long trip from Honour, Oklahoma. He usually kept it safely tucked into his pack. So it would not become any more worn or frayed than it already was.

It had seen so much already. Bore the sweat and blood of the man, who had pressed it into the palm of his hand in the final moments of his life when every fucking breath he took must have been pure hellacious pain. Still, his friend had pleaded for him to open his Kevlar vest and retrieve it from where he wore it over his heart every damned day.

That was the moment when Mike had faced the fact that there was nothing that the fucking medics could do for his friend other than making him comfortable. His legs were not just missing, but his insides were a mangled mess that made even Mike want to puke. The vest had been the only thing keeping him together and stemming the blood loss. Mike tried to close it back as quickly and tightly as he could, but Tommy had only shaken his head, knowing that it would only pointlessly delay the inevitable.

Instead, with tears in those greenish-brown eyes, he had pressed the tattered photograph into Mike’s hand as he forced out the words. “Take care of her. Promise me, Mike. Fucking promise me that you’ll be there for Mama.” He clutched Mike’s upper arm, pressing the burning shrapnel deeper in the process, but Mike had not given a god damn as their blood mingled together. “Promise me?”

Mike could hear the damned rattle. God damn, he hated that sound. Sometimes he still heard it in his dreams. It was the sound of death. A sound that Mike had heard way too fucking often over the past twenty years in too many fucking hell holes.

That day it was the oppressive, dry heat you could never wash from your skin or mind. It encompassed them as much as the smell of blood, burning flesh, and human waste mixed with gunpowder and explosives. All Mike could do then, the only thing he could offer the man, who had been his commander, friend, and more, was this peace.

“I promise,” he had said as he accepted this photograph…and the burden that went with it.

That was why he was here now. Why, as fucking hard as this was, he knew that he had to park her namesake in the driveway next to the red truck that Tommy had told so many fucking stories about.

What would she think if she knew her son had lost his virginity in the bed of that truck? Had she ever discovered the dent in the driver’s side that Tommy had worked so hard to hammer out when he side-swiped the Mayor’s Cadillac? Entirely accidentally, of course, absolutely nothing to do with the vicious rumors about his manhood that the man’s grand-daughter spread around the school after that night in the bed of the truck.

He sighed as he turned into the driveway and turned off her engine. He was slower than he needed to be as he took off his helmet and stored it in the compartment. He knew just as he had when he sat at that other crossroads this morning – this was what he had to do. A promise he had to keep. Even if it killed him.

To meet face-to-face, the woman that he had admired, lusted for, and while he was being so fucking honest, come to love through the touching and funny stories of her son and the stolen glimpses he had caught of her on his friend’s tablet. How many times had he come up with some lame excuse to hang around when he knew Tommy would be video calling her?

How pathetic was that? All his life, he had never actually managed to fall in love with any of the women he had dated and slept with. And the one time he does? It is a woman he can never have. All their myriad of differences aside, he could never, ever wash her son’s blood from his hands. No, he was not the type of man a woman like that needed. He could never be anything more than broken – irreparably damaged.

But he still had a promise to keep to his friend, and sitting here was not getting him any closer to doing that. So, he reluctantly slung his leg over the bike and walked towards the front door. It was dark. Not even the porch light was on. Perhaps she was not home? It was Friday night, after all. Maybe she had gone to the local football game? Perhaps he should just come back tomorrow morning?

He knew he was looking for a way out. A reprieve, if only a temporary one, as he lifted his fist and knocked on the screen door. It sounded loud, too loud, perhaps. But it was done now. He spread his legs and locked his knees, holding his hands stiffly behind his back as he waited. Waited for the only woman he had ever loved and the one he could never have.

“It’s a tradition,” Esther Samuels reminded herself as she pulled the box from the top shelf. For over twenty years, since they had moved here when Tommy was just a toddler, she had decorated their house from top to bottom with ghosts, vampires, and ghouls of all shapes and sizes. She, herself, would dress like a gypsy and read the cards for children of all ages in their small East Texas town. She spent days before the annual event preparing homemade cookies, Rice Krispies treats, caramel apples, the works.

But this year, it all seemed too much. Just another reminder of the fact that her son was gone. An IED, they said. In a land thousands of miles from this place. A place she knew little about. Somewhere she would never see. It all seemed so unfair. So senseless. All she had left of him now was a gravestone that she visited almost daily, and the flag folded neatly, sealed in a plastic bag. Photos, videos, a few trophies, and some old clothes were nothing compared to the vital young man he had been.

Those first few days and weeks, she would receive an occasional email from his sergeant or one of his friends, but those had stopped months ago. She had laughed or cried, sometimes both, at their stories of Tommy. These men, who had shared his life and passion for defending this country, had moved on with their own. Something she could not seem to manage. The hard truth was she was alone in this world now.

A loud knock startled her. She almost lost her balance on the small ladder that she stood on. “Damn it. I’m coming,” she yelled as she stepped down. “Who the hell can that be?” She was not expecting anyone this late on a Friday evening. Most of the town would be at the high school. Football was, after all, the second religion in this part of the world.

Tommy had once been the starting quarterback, earning a full scholarship to college for his efforts. It had been a load off her mind. His college fund had been paltry at best. Saving money was hard for a single parent, whose salary as a teacher barely stretched to cover the mortgage, car payments, food, and the few extras she could afford to give her only child.

She padded barefoot across the rough wooden floors, down the hallway, and into the dark living room. She did not bother turning on the table lamp; instead, she flipped the switch on the wall that flooded the front porch with light.

Her heart froze in her chest. When it finally restarted, its pace was twice as fast as usual. Its pounding was so loud that she could not hear herself think. Her chest felt as tight as it had that day. The day when she had opened this same door to find two men adorned in the US Marine Corps’ bright red and blue uniform.

This was not the same Marine. In fact, he was not even wearing a uniform, but his shortly cropped hair and stance would have given him away, even if she did not know him. But she immediately recognized him. She would know this man anywhere.

Master Sergeant Michael O’Malley. She had seen his face in dozens of photographs that Tommy sent home from Afghanistan. She could not even begin to count the number of times she read or heard, ‘Master Sergeant says this or did that.’ Towards the end, though, it had been merely Mike. Mike said, or Mike did.

But she had never expected to meet him personally.

It had been his email that had arrived a few days after that fateful visit that had brought her the most comfort. His praise of Tommy’s character, his bravery in the face of combat, and his final thoughts of her had touched her aching and broken heart, brought tears to her eyes, and given her courage to face the funeral that was just hours away.

Her fingers shook as she fumbled with the door handle. She squared her shoulders and faced the man that was both friend and stranger. “Master Sergeant O’Malley, what brings you to Texas?”

The man looked uncomfortable as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, scuffing his boot against the chipping gray paint that covered the cement front porch.

“Well, Ma’am, I’m sort of taking a tour of this great country of ours. I’m visiting a few old,” he paused as if uncertain what to say. Esther swore that the pink of his cheeks spread to the very tips of his ears before he finally finished.

“Old friends, I guess. Men I’ve served with over the years. Or their families, Ma’am. I know that you will be especially busy this time of year.” He spread his hand towards the pumpkins that sat uncut in the corner of the porch. “Tommy always talked about the big Halloween party you throw for all the kids. I thought maybe you could use an extra pair of hands and a strong back.”

Esther flipped the hook latch on the screen door, pushing it open wide. “I’m sorry for my bad manners, Master Sergeant. Please come in.” She stepped back as the man passed, motioning for him to take a seat on the couch positioned against the wall. She turned on the lamp that sat next to it. Its warm glow filled the room.

“Thank you, Ma’am. I don’t mean to be any trouble. And I’m real sorry if I caught you at a bad time.”

Esther swallowed back the pain as he sat down. How could she explain that every day was a bad time? Instead, she lied, “No, I was just starting to get things ready. I’m afraid I’m a bit behind schedule this year.”

“Tommy told us all about the hard work that you put into everything. I know he loved your Halloween, Ma’am.”

The familiar tightness threatened to stop her heart once more as she choked back tears. “Can I get you something to drink, Master Sergeant? An iced tea? Some water? I think I might have a soda in the back of the fridge.”

She sought an escape – a moment to collect herself. Away from this man, this reminder of her son.

“Some of your famous iced tea would be nice, Ma’am.”

Esther nodded and beat a hasty retreat to the warmth of the lemon-yellow kitchen that stood off of the living room. It seemed suddenly very small compared to the larger than life man whose presence filled every corner of her living room.

She leaned against the cold porcelain of the sink for a moment. Her eyes filled with tears as she stared out the window at the stars twinkling in the dark Texas sky. She often looked up at those stars and wondered if somewhere out there, her son’s spirit looked down on her still. She liked to hope so, even though she had long since given up any religious belief in heaven or hell. Life was hard enough to endure; eternal punishment or reward seemed superfluous.

She gathered her strength and reached for the cupboard knob, pulling a large glass from the shelf. She turned in the tight confines of the kitchen, opening the freezer door and pulling out a tray of ice.

A couple of tears spilled from the corners of her eyes as she broke the ice. The large drops froze instantly as they fell onto the frigid rectangles. Placing the tray back in the freezer, she opened the fridge and removed the large glass pitcher half-filled with the sweet confection. She hoped it was sweet enough to cover the saltiness of the tears that refused to be checked.

She reached across the counter and grabbed a dishcloth, passing it across her face to dry their residue. She hoped that the dim light of the living room would be kind and cover the red puffiness of her eyes.

But it made no difference. If this man could find the courage to come all this way, then she would find the strength to face him. She gathered as much of that strength as she could muster and turned, heading back into the living room.

Bad idea, Mike chastised himself once more. The woman could not wait to get away from him; that much was obvious. His throat tightened, and parts further south stirred to life as he watched her curvy backside retreat from the room.

He was not sure what he expected. Maybe he had hoped that in the flesh, this woman would not captivate and entice him as the stories of her, the photographs, and those stolen moments of her video had. But that hope was futile. If anything, he was more attracted to her than even he could imagine.

How the fuck was he going to make it through the next three or four days being in her presence when less than ten minutes had his heart racing, his palms sweaty, and his cock throbbing?

Mike sought a diversion. Something to do, something besides thoughts of how tightly those jeans had hugged her round bottom, of how badly he wanted to touch the dark brown spirals of hair that perfectly framed her face, how kissable her lips looked. Distraction, yes, he desperately needed a distraction.

He saw the rows of photographs that lined the mantle over the fireplace that had long since been boarded up and was now home for an array of potted plants. He walked over and picked up the official Marine photograph of Tommy. His throat tightened as he saluted the smiling face that stared back at him from the frame. He fought back the all too familiar guilt that threatened to choke off his oxygen and ate at his soul like cancer.

Why Tommy? She needed him. He could see the hurt and pain in her eyes, in her every movement, hear it in that sweet South Texas twang that had lost its happy cadence. The young man had so fucking much to live for. A promising career in the Marines with men who did not just respect his command but actually liked him. A mother that obviously loved and was devoted to her only son. Hell, with the kid’s good looks, Mike was sure that he would have had no trouble finding a good woman, settling down, having a few kids…

He bet she would have made as amazing a grandmother as she had a mother. Hell, this whole Halloween thing, her students, from what Tommy said his mother had adopted half the kids in this town. Why had she never married? Had more children? Given Tommy brothers and sisters?

Not that they could have replaced his loss, filled the void that he could see sucking her spirit like one of those black hole things in all the sci-fi movies. Becca Hall Okadigbo proved that. But something told Mike that this woman would have never missed the signs of hurt in any child of hers, even in her pain. No, it all seemed such a waste. The woman had so much love to give.

‘Not that you wish she’d throw a bit of it your way, Leatherneck,’ chided that voice in his head.

No, Mike had never spent much time thinking about things like wives and babies. Those were for other people. People worthy of love, not throw away orphans that by the time he was seven, had seen too much of life’s dark side, already had first blood on his hands. But damn, what would be the harm in letting his mind wander those uncharted paths – just this once.

‘Because her son’s blood stains more than just that old fading photograph in your pocket, you dumb fuck.’ Mike swallowed around the tightness in his throat, ignored the pressure in his chest when he saw it. A larger, less-faded, unfrayed, and blood free version of that photo. His fingers trembled as he picked it up slowly.

In this one, you could tell the color of their eyes. Hers that warm coffee brown. Tommy’s that intelligent and laughing brown-green had always reminded Mike of the old alley cat who lived outside of the dump of an apartment where…

He shook his head and tried to turn his thoughts away from that futile path. He smiled as his fingers caressed the silver frame with its intricate pattern of etchings. For the first time in a very long time, Mike was tempted to nick something. To slip it inside his coat the way he had once hotwired that Harley.

His thoughts were cut off by the sound of an almost girlish giggle behind him. The sound danced along his spine and sent sparks racing to his brain – and to that traitor between his legs. He had always loved the sound of her laughter.

His broad back was to her when she entered the room. He was standing near the old fireplace. He held a silver frame in his large hands. It was the picture of Tommy’s college graduation. A friend had taken the photograph of the two of them on the proudest day of her life, just days before that other one, Tommy’s commissioning ceremony where she had personally pinned the gold bar to his uniform.

Esther took a moment to examine the man. He was even more impressive in person than he had been in the photographs. His hair was short still, but its dark and silver strands were longer than regulation, she was sure. 

She knew that he was taller than Tommy’s six foot one. But his more mature body had long since lost the lankiness of youth. Broad shoulders tapered to a waistline that, while not fat by any means, would give a woman something to wrap her arms about. From this angle, by far his most impressive feature was the way that the denim of his jeans hugged his backside. If a man could have a perfect butt, it was Master Sergeant Michael O’Malley’s. When was the last time she had noticed a man’s butt? A girlish giggle escaped her throat at the thought.

The man turned. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. I didn’t mean to pry. It was just that the photos caught my attention. Tommy was a good friend.”

“He spoke of you often.” She handed him the glass.

“You too, Ma’am. He was always talking about his mama’s cooking, her garden, and her famous iced tea.” Mike raised the glass to his lips. “And he was right. It is delicious, Ma’am.”

“Thank you, Master Sergeant.” He took a seat on the sofa as she sat in the chair opposite him. For a moment, awkward silence hung in the crisp autumn air.

“So, Master Sergeant, what brings you this way? You said you were traveling the country looking up old friends?”

“Yes, ma’am. I retired from the Marines a couple of months ago. Since I never married and don’t have any family to speak of, I thought I would travel for a while. The Corps and the men and women I served with were the closest things to family I ever had. So, I thought I would check in on some of them. See how they were doing and help out a bit if I can.”

Esther’s throat tightened at his words. Familiarity wove a common bond between them. This man seemed as alone in the world as she was now. “How many places have you been so far, Master Sergeant?”

“Just a brief stop in East LA, Los Angeles. Most of my time has been in Oklahoma, ma’am. My best friend’s dad was dying.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Sergeant, but I’m sure that he was glad to have you there to help out.”

He shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. “Billy died back in ninety-one, ma’am. Desert Storm.” His fingers traced the drops of water that cascaded down the side of the glass.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I misunderstood.”

His eyes still on the glass, he sat it on a coaster on the table next to him. “When we were in basic training, we became like brothers. Since I didn’t have any family, I would spend most holidays with him and his family. When he died, his parents insisted that I keep it up. They said that they had lost one son; they weren’t going to lose another one.”

Esther felt the hot tears cascading down her cheeks. She felt the unknown couple’s pain because it was her own. “You were lucky to have one another, Master Sergeant.”

His gray-blue eyes met hers. “Yes, ma’am. I was. They were the parents I never had. Miss Lula died about five years ago. Breast cancer. Mister Clyde sold most of the farmland a couple of years ago when the Alzheimer’s got so bad that he could no longer work it. There was no one to pass it on to as Billy’s only sister had gotten married and moved to Chicago years ago.”

The man continued to toy with the dew that coated the cold glass. Esther noticed that his knuckles whitened, and his voice deepened as he spoke. “He moved into one of those assisted living places a bit closer to Tulsa.”

She could tell that the experience was still as raw to him as Tommy’s death was with her. Without thought, she reached across the short distance; her hand covered his larger one. The chill of the glass that he still held barely registered. The heat of his skin overwhelmed all else.

He looked up. Those pale eyes held her gaze for a moment. Pain, loneliness, and uncertainty filled their depths. But there was something else as well. Awareness gripped Esther’s guts like a vise. Her throat tightened until she was barely able to move air through it.

Sexy. Smokey. Strong. Words raced like wildfire across a dry East Texas pine forest, kindling and burning everything in its path.

She was not a loose woman. In all the years since her one ‘mistake’ in college, she could count on one hand the number of men that she had had relations with. And still, have a couple of fingers left over.

But none of them had ever affected her the way this man did.

Hell, she remembered the first picture she had ever seen of him. Just days after Tommy had arrived in Afghanistan, she had opened the first email since his deployment. He had written of the place, dry and hotter than the worst Texas summer.

He had spoken too of the men with whom he served. Especially the non-commissioned officer who, as a lowly Second Lieutenant, was his guide into this new world. He had attached a couple of pictures.

One was of him standing outside the tent that was to be his home for a seemingly indefinite period of time. His boyish face grinned back at her as if he were on some holiday, rather than risking his life to defend his country.

But when she opened that second picture, Esther had caught her breath. The man standing next to her son could have given that famous Hollywood actor a run for his money. The one who had played the doctor on that television show and now starred in half the movies at the theaters. She searched for his name, but Esther had never been a big fan of television or movies.

She far preferred the written word. It might take paragraphs or even the thousand words that the proverb said to convey the same meaning as those pictures, but for her, the message was always more powerful. Her love of words was what had led her to become an English teacher. A passion that extended to the volumes of leather and cloth-bound journals that gathered dust in boxes under her bed.

But that day, words had failed her. The man who stared at her from that computer screen had stolen her breath and captured her heart in a way that she had never experienced.

Over the next eighteen months, there were more pictures and stories galore of this man. Emails that she saved, not just because they came from her beloved son. But because they told of the exploits of a modern hero as large as life, an ancient god or demi-god brought to life from myths that she taught her classes. Ares. Thor. Odysseus. Jason. This man was all of them rolled into one – and more.

She had just never in all her born days expected to meet the man in person. Especially after that last email. His words lifted her, giving her wings and courage to face a seemingly impossible task. She had thought it was the end of a chapter. No, it felt more like the end of the book. The end of her life as she knew it.

Over the months, her dreams were filled with nightmares of smoke and bombs, stifling heat and mournful cries of pain in battles that she could only imagine. They were equally filled with soft caresses and whispered words of passion from an imaginary lover she had never met. At times, the dissonance between the two had made Esther fear for her sanity.

Nothing could have ever prepared her for this moment. For meeting the man that had starred in the most erotic fantasies of her life. It was not something she had ever dared imagine. She wanted to pinch herself.

But there was no need. The heat and awareness rising off his touch was shock enough. The unexpected and all too familiar tingles that raced up her arms left a trail of tiny hairs, each standing on end. They were proof enough.

Esther drew her hand back. She was careful not to do it too quickly, even though it felt as if she had touched open wires. Her eyes dropped, and she willed herself to remember that this was nothing more than a friendly visit. As he said, he was checking in on his men or their families. She was nothing more than another one of those families – an obligation for this honor-bound man.

Finding her voice, she forced words past her lips. “I’m sorry, Master Sergeant. Sorry for your friend and his family.” Her voice sounded hollow even to her ears.

The man drew in a depth breath. She willed herself to do the same. She repeated the ritual of cleansing breaths that had become her salvation over the past months when despair and grief stole her very soul.

He smiled, but it did not reach those compelling eyes. Then again, in all the pictures that she had saved on her hard-drive, Esther was sure it never had.

“Thank you, ma’am,” was his only reply. They drank in silence for a couple of moments. It should have been awkward, but somehow it was not.

After a time, they fell once more into casual conversation. Even though she could not keep her eyes from straying to those broad shoulders or those salt-and-pepper locks that curled just a bit at the ends, now that they were longer.

She listened as he told his stories. She was surprised at how easy the man was to talk with. After a while, the conversation turned. They shared stories of Tommy. They laughed often. And on more than one occasion, Esther would have sworn that she saw the man wipe moisture from those eyes. She did not even bother hiding the tears that occasionally ran down her cheeks.

The clock on the mantle chimed eleven, a reproach to her for losing track of time in their shared joy and pain.

As if reading her mind, the man rose from the coach. “I better be going, Ma’am. It’s getting late.”

“Where are you staying, Sergeant?”

“I’m pretty basic, Ma’am. For my travels, I bought a tent. I usually just look for some quiet spot where I won’t be in nobody’s way.”

Esther paused at his words. The house only had two bedrooms. Hers and the one that had been her son’s. That door was closed. Its walls filled with photographs of him and his college friends. Shelves lining one wall were loaded with trophies from his athletic competitions. His clothes still hung in the closet.

It was a shrine that she had been unable to clear out. She rarely even went inside, except on the worst of her days when she curled into a ball clutching the pillow that she swore still held the smell of her baby boy. She would cry for hours, great gulping sobs that wrenched her soul until they slipped away to nothing more than hiccups that left her weak and drained. Then she would move from the safety of that time capsule and go back to face the reality of a world without her Tommy.

For anyone else in this world, she would not even consider it. But somehow, she knew in her heart that this man would understand. Would appreciate the honor that she bestowed upon him. Would, in turn, honor her son’s memory like few others than she ever could.

With a slight hesitancy in her voice, “I won’t hear of it, Master Sergeant. You can stay here with us.”

The words slipped out before she could stop herself. Her fist went to her mouth in horror at the slip of words. There was no us – and they both knew that. This time she feared that the tears that had spilled from her eyes so freely these past hours would be more like the sobs that were her nightly lullaby.

His strong hand wrapped about her upper arm. “I understand,” he whispered so low that Esther knew he indeed did. She nodded at his reassurance.

“Please stay, Master Sergeant,” she reiterated her earlier offer.

The man nodded.

“I’ll grab some fresh sheets and make up the bed in Tommy’s room then.”

“No, Ma’am. This couch here will be just fine. It’s a far sight better than a lot of places I’ve slept over the years and better than a sleeping bag on a chilly night like this.”

Esther looked at the man. A bond of shared pain tightened in her gut. But she just nodded in silent thanks for his gesture of sacrifice. “If you’re sure, Master Sergeant? Then I’ll get some sheets, a pillow, and a quilt for you.” She stood and raced from the room.

Mike returned her nod, “I’m sure, Ma’am. I’ll be just fine here.”

Once more, he watched the sway of those hips as she retreated in the other direction, this time, down the dark corridor. He shifted on the sofa, not because it was uncomfortable, but because his jeans were too tight. At least parts of them were.

How had he lost track of time like this? He had only meant to check on the woman briefly, offer his assistance, and then find someplace to camp for a few days. Instead, he was going to be sleeping here. With her. Well, not with her, exactly. That was not worth considering at the moment. She would not be gone nearly long enough to savor that fantasy.

And it was his favorite fantasy. Touching this woman, caressing her soft skin, tasting her, loving her. How the fuck was he going to survive not only days working alongside her but nights just down the hall from her? How easy would it be to…?

Hell, he had practically embarrassed himself already once tonight, and that from just a casual touch of her hand upon his, meant only to comfort. But it was anything but comforting. He was still not sure how he had managed to stifle the moan that had risen from deep in his gut.

When he had looked up into those eyes, he would have sworn for a fraction of a heartbeat that she felt it too. That she was as aware of him as he was of her. But he knew that was just wishful thinking on his part.

Not that he was not aware of his charms when it came to members of the opposite sex. For a man his age, he had held up pretty well. No real beer gut to speak since the Marines had managed to keep his physical body in pretty decent shape – if not his mind. No, Kay was not the only woman to have noticed his assets over the years.

Just not women like this one. She was fancy books he had probably never even heard of, let alone read. She was long Sunday mornings in bed, laughing and loving. She was walking in the woods as you talked about politics, philosophy, and other shit that he had absolutely no idea about.

She was not a simple roll in the hay. She was tomorrows. Lots of them, stretching out over a lifetime. A lifetime that he did not have to give. Her or anyone else. He stared down that dark hallway that reminded him of what little future he did have. But damn, just being this close to her made him wish…

Wish what, jarhead? That you did not have her son’s blood on your hands. Or Billy’s. Or Manny’s. Or the other dozen friends and comrades. And the countless lost lives and souls of enemies, some of them mere kids, like those boys on that roof the night that Manny had been killed.

No, women like her deserved so fucking much more than he could ever give them. He had learned early that he was not the type. Bad seed, incapable of genuinely loving or cherishing a good woman.

He chuckled as he thought of the Colonel. Wondered how the old man was getting along. He would have to call Luke, see how things were going. But he knew it was more than just his duties caring for Mister Clyde that had kept him from staying in touch with his friends in Southern California. No, it was the bittersweet reminder of how, as Luke and the Colonel put it… ‘the love of a good woman could save your ass as nothing else could.’

He watched as she appeared out of that darkness. ‘Yeah, grunt, you are in big trouble here.’ Esther clutched the linens tight to her chest. He wondered what it would feel like to be held that close by her. Fuck, he was jealous of bedding now too?

Esther clung to the mundane tasks of collecting sheets, blankets, and pillows for the man as she noticed that, in the hurry to answer the door earlier, she had left this one to the linen closet open. Reaching inside, she found a pale blue sheet and matching comforter. They were the extra things that she had always kept for those times when Tommy bought some friend home from college. She reached a bit further back and found the matching pillow.

She stood on her tiptoes and pushed the box that she had been fiddling with earlier back on its shelf. There would be time enough to deal with that tomorrow. Then she pushed the step stool back inside the closet as well.

What the hell was she thinking? She had just asked a stranger to spend the night with her. Not that she had ever spent much time caring about what the people of this small town thought about her.

When she moved here, she was nothing more, to any of them, than a stereotypical single, black mother. If over the years, her dedication to her son, her work as a teacher, and her unremarkable life had earned a modicum of respect from some of them, it meant little to her.

No, what bothered Esther was not what people thought. It was what she felt. Her awareness of this man was uncomfortably new. Since her crush upon the college football hero that had taken advantage of her, robbed her innocence, and given her the most precious gift of all, Esther had been virtually bereft of sexual desire. Whether it was the rape that she never fully acknowledged, some fluke of nature that made her less than a woman, or the responsibilities of her life as a single mother, men just were not something that she wasted her energy upon.

Except for the one that sat in her living room. Her reaction to him had been different from that first email. It was not the infatuation of a young girl that had ripped Esther’s life apart and taken it down a different path.

Oh, she supposed it might be that she had read and written one too many romance novels. Master Sergeant Michael O’Malley would undoubtedly fit nicely upon the cover of any of them. Her fertile imagination captured the image of him dressed in fatigue pants, chest bare, and sweat gleaming upon his skin.

She shook herself. This was precisely why this whole thing was a bad idea, she thought. How could she manage to sleep under the same roof with the man that had haunted her dreams for over two years?

How could she turn away the man that had been Tommy’s best friend? Had shared the final chapter of his life? A man that had come all this way to help her out – for Tommy’s sake.

Clutching the sheets tightly to her chest, she took several cleansing breaths before turning back towards the living room where the man waited. She could do this. It was just three days until Halloween. They would be busy. There were pumpkins to be carved. A haunted house to be built. Cookies and a dozen more treats to be baked. And hundreds of goody bags to assemble.

There would be no time to lust after a man she could never have. With a secret smile, she took her first step forward. But who knew, maybe she could gain a bit of fodder for her fertile imagination. She had to admit that, in person, this man was even more compelling than anything in those photos.

She wondered for a moment if there would be an opportunity in the coming days to see him without his shirt. She blushed at the memory of her favorite photograph. She would have to pray for a couple of Indian summer days.

She inhaled and steeled herself to face the man, who looked and sounded even better in person than in her dreams. ‘I will not embarrass myself; I will not embarrass myself,’ became her mantra as she turned back to the living room. But the moment she caught sight of him sitting nervously on her couch, she was not so confident about that.

“Here, these should do. Do you want any help making your bed, Master Sergeant?” She blushed at how silly that must have sounded as she handed him the bundle. “Not that you need any help with beds,” she reddened even more when she realized how that sounded.

He chuckled and shook his head as he took them. “No, Ma’am, I’m sure I can manage just fine.” His hand brushed hers again, and she was instantly aware of the tightness in her nipples and the aching void lower still.

She nodded as she realized that a hasty retreat and regrouping was probably the best course of action. “Goodnight, Master Sergeant,” she smiled as best she could manage, given the unusually tense circumstances. It was not every day that you finally met the man who had been your fantasy lover for almost two years.

“Night, Ma’am. See you in the morning.”

She turned, and her feet could not get her from the room fast enough as she scurried like a cockroach to its den. Sleep was even harder to come by that night. Esther tossed and turned in her double bed. Her mind filled with the stories that they had shared.

She had known so little of the past few years of her son’s life. She always thought that he was trying to protect her from the harsh realities of his tours of duty in the Gulf. This evening had filled in a few of those gaps. She, in turn, had shared stories of Tommy as a boy with his closest friend. A man she could tell did not easily laugh or smile.

Esther felt the coldness of the tears as they dropped on the crisp cotton of her pillowcase. She did not want to disturb the man. So, this night she fought hard to keep back the sobs that most nights eventually lulled her into an exhausted slumber.

Instead, she sought a diversion. Her always active imagination came to her rescue. Closing her eyes, she imagined the man lying on her couch. He would not dare sleep naked, not when there was a woman in the house. Probably not at all, the man would have learned the essential need always to be ready, alert.

But she would bet that he wore nothing more than his underwear. Boxers? Briefs? Those new skin-tight things that were a mix of both?

Of course, she did not need to use her fertile mind to conjure up images of the golden-brown expanse of muscles lightly sprinkled with dark curls. She had more than one picture of his chest. But her curiosity was piqued about his legs that were nicely encased in those denim jeans. And, of course, that perfect butt.

Definitely the new skin-tight boxer thingies, she hoped. They would show off his assets to the best advantage. She drifted off to dreamland that night with a girlish grin playing on her lips. Pride, in her use of irony and simile. Ass…assets.

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