Mike plopped down onto the top step. He felt old. Older even than his forty-one years. As ancient as time and war itself. He should not have come here. It was too soon. The memories still too fresh. His presence was only causing her more pain, and that was the last thing he ever wanted to do. He would rather cut off his… Well, considering his thoughts on that couch and what happened in the kitchen this morning, that might not be the worst idea.
He looked at the PVC pipes and plastic sheeting that would in the dim light off the porch form a haunted house of sorts. Was it worth it? Obviously, she needed his help to pull off this annual event. But maybe that harpy little bitch was right; perhaps this whole Halloween thing was a bad idea this year?
He sighed; he could almost hear Tommy talking about Halloween. Sometimes Mike thought the holiday was more important to his friend than Christmas or Thanksgiving. The way he spoke about it. About this damned haunted house, about the goody bags they made for all the children, about the children themselves. Their smiles. The laughter. Even the screams of momentary fright that soon turned to giggles. No, Mike knew it was essential to his friend that this tradition continued.
Still, he had managed in the space of a day to get the worst of it done. The damned thing was up. Maybe she could manage by herself from here? Perhaps it would be for the best if he just hit the road? He looked over at his motorcycle, the other Esther in his life. The dream that he had managed to make come true. Should he just gather his stuff from beside the couch in the living room and hit the road again?
He shook his head. ‘You know you can’t do that, old man. Not without saying good-bye.’ That was the thing. It should be her choice if he stayed or went. She who decided if the help he could offer was worth the pain it was causing her. And it was obviously causing her pain.
He stood up, his course of action set. He would find her and ask, flat out ask if she wanted or needed him to stay. Then one way or the other, he would find the strength to give her what she wanted. It was the least he could do.
Opening the screen door, he saw that she was not in the living room. He first tried the kitchen, but she was not there either. He even looked out the window, thinking perhaps she had sought refuge in the backyard. For some funny reason, he could almost picture her swinging beneath the treehouse. But she was not there either.
Retracing his steps, he walked down the dimly lit hall. He could hear her. Sobs that ate at his soul. It was not the first time he had heard them. A mother’s lament was what they were called. More than once, he had watched as one of the combatant’s body was scooped into the arms of a woman. Tears and wails as the woman would rock the dead man back and forth.
Those were moments that haunted him almost as much as the deaths of his friends. In those brief moments, the men were not enemies, but men, all too often mere boys. Men just like him. Like his friends. Men who believed perhaps as strongly as he did that they were fighting and dying for the right thing. Dogmas, ideologies, politics, and religion were the real enemies. Not the simple men whose blood was just as red as his friend’s. Sons whose mothers lamented their loss as much as Esther did Tommy. As Missus Lula had Billy. As Senora Hernandez did Manny.
But her tears, her wails, her laments ate at his soul the way that no other’s had. He would give anything – his life. Anything to take away her pain. To ease it even just a bit. Once more, he was left angry and confused by a god or Fate or what the fuck ever. Why leave him behind when these other men were so much more valuable? Had so much more to give than he ever could. So fucking much more to live for.
He followed the sounds of her cries until he stood outside the closed door of what he knew had been his friend’s room. His hand gripped the doorknob as he listened to her sobs, turning to hiccups. He leaned his head against the cold, hard surface.
He wanted so fucking badly to turn the knob. To scoop her into his arms and hold her as she cried. To kiss away her tears. To dry them with his fingers, brushing them away and bringing them to his lips, tasting their bitter saltiness that was his penance for failing her — failing to keep Tommy safe, to bring him back to her.
His fingers even began to turn the knob slowly. But what would be the point? What could he do? What comfort could he possibly offer this woman? It was his presence that had sent her running for safety and solitude, to begin with. No, it was best if he simply left.
If he could not bring himself to pack his stuff onto the motorcycle and ride away, he could at least give her the peace and solitude she sought. For a long moment, his fingers caressed the wood as he wished he could feel her skin. Then he retreated to the living room. He took the time to pack what few things he had out into the bag, just in case.
Then he and his ghosts sought their own quiet on the front porch. It was dark already, but the moon offered more than enough light this night. He sat in the swing and began to rock slowly back and forth, but he swore even this far away that he could hear her pitiful cries that scalded and burned so much deeper than the shrapnel that was still buried in his shoulder from that day. It was a small price to pay compared to the one that Tommy had – that she still was. Probably always would.
All he had to do now was wait for her – her decision. And think. Remember his ghosts. Those other mothers and sons. Manny. Billy. And, of course, the man, who had grown up in this house, sat in this same swing so many times. Mike sat with his ghosts, swinging and waiting for a choice that somehow, he knew would determine the course of his life. Or what little was left of it anyway.
Esther lost track of time as the pain poured out behind that door. The sun had fully set, and darkness had enveloped the house when she cracked the door. The red stains of embarrassment on her high cheekbones warred with her swollen eyes for dominance. This release was a luxury that she should not have allowed herself.
She did not see the Master Sergeant as she stepped from the room. She would not blame the man if he had hopped on the back of his motorcycle and hightailed it out of town, given her behavior. She squared her shoulders and drew in a deep breath as she went looking for him. A quick scan of the living room showed that he was not there. The lights were still out in the kitchen, so he must not be there either.
Panic threatened to choke her. She told herself that it should not matter if her odd behavior had run the man off. She would manage; she always had. But the tightness in her chest said otherwise.
The cool night air hit her as she opened the front door. The yellow glow of the streetlamp gave a ghostly atmosphere to the front yard. Relief welled up inside of her at the sight of the red Harley sitting in the driveway next to her pickup truck. But she did not see the man.
“Join me.” She was about to turn and close the door behind her when she heard that deep purr from the dark recesses to her right. “Please.”
Pulling the door closed softly behind her, she made her way to the old wooden swing that hung from the porch rafters. The man leaned back in it. He used his dusty boots to kick slowly back and forth.
“I should apologize,” she fidgeted with her hands, unable to meet his gaze.
“Don’t you dare. I know things are hard. Maybe I should not have come. Maybe I’m too much of a reminder of Tommy right now. I can leave if you want.”
“No!” The words sprang out of her mouth quickly. Perhaps too fast. She paused for a moment. Her eyes searched the night sky as if seeking guidance. Some miraculous answers to questions she could not even voice. But there were no answers to be found as with so many things in her life. There was only silence and darkness.
Her voice was calmer when she spoke again. “No, Master Sergeant. Please don’t go. Truth be told, I get like that at the drop of a hat. Having you here, well, it helps a bit. At least there has been some laughter to break up the tears.”
Waving her hand about, she continued, “Besides, without you, how will I ever get that damned thing finished?”
His dark brows furrowed, and for a moment, Esther felt the bile rise in her throat, confident he would refuse.
“Alright. If you’re sure.” He patted the seat next to him.
She smiled and sat down. They rocked softly in silence for a couple of minutes. Esther knew that if she closed her eyes and laid her head back, she would be cradled by the strong arm that rested along the back of the swing. She was tempted. Tempted to do just that. Instead, she willed herself to sit still next to him, her bare feet keeping time to the rhythm of the swing on the cold concrete porch.
He shifted a bit, turning so that he faced her. The gray of his eyes shimmered almost silver, reflecting the moonlight. “I never want to hurt you.”
Esther sighed and gave into temptation. Her tight dark curls brushed against heated skin in the darkness. The heat was a stark contrast to the cold night air.
“You don’t. You didn’t.” She sighed as her eyes closed. “Life hurts. It isn’t fair, but there is nothing much we can do about that.”
She felt him stiffen a bit, whether, at her words or the close contact, she was uncertain. She started to move away, but his fingers curled about her shoulders, and he pulled her closer instead.
A thousand sparks quivered along her shoulder, racing to her brain. The tingling spread through her ripe body like birdsong on an early spring morning, ushering in a new season and new life.
Of course, as a mature woman, she knew better than to read anything more into the man’s actions than an act of friendship, comfort in her time of need. But that did not matter as she held tight to her fantasies, treasuring them like one of the leather-bound journals beneath her bed.
They sat, rocking in silence, as the fresh air wrapped like a quilt about them. The stars glittered and danced with the crescent moon. The crickets and frogs sang lonesome melodies that could inspire any country songwriter to ballads of love and loss. They sat, rocking. Forever it seemed.
Esther held her breath, afraid to break the spell of companionable silence that communicated more than words ever could between them. But she was powerless to stop the shiver that ran down her body.
She was uncertain. Was it the coolness finally seeping into bones that were not as young as they once were? Or was it the heat that she felt emanating from this stranger, friend, and fantasy lover? It did not matter either way; her reflexive action broke the magic.
His voice was husky when he spoke, a seduction in itself. “I’m sorry. I forgot how cold it was. We should go inside before it gets any colder.”
Esther sat up and nodded as reality pushed back the crystal edges of her fantasies. “I should make you something to eat. You must be starving, you worked so hard today, and all we had was those sandwiches earlier.”
“Don’t worry about cooking tonight. It’s been a long day for you too.” He stood up and held out his hand.
Esther smiled at the image of long-ago knights of the realm, whose chivalry was a thing of legend. Lancelot, Gawain, even Arthur himself. She shook her head and smiled, thinking perhaps they lived today, reincarnated in men like Master Sergeant Michael O’Malley. She took the hand he offered as he gently tugged her to her feet.
“I won’t hear of it, Master Sergeant. Dinner, it is, and that is final.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he grinned with a mock salute.
She elbowed him in the ribs. “Come on then. You can get cleaned up while I cook.”
He looked down at his dusty clothes and sweat streaked hands. “I would offer to help out in the kitchen, but I suppose you are right. I’m a bit too messy to be of much use there.”
Esther shivered again as the memory of that morning’s brush against him played through her mind. The idea of working side by side with this larger than life man in the confines of her tiny kitchen was enough to send her scurrying for safety.
“You’ll find towels and stuff in the closet right outside Tommy’s room. It is the last door to the right of the bathroom at the end of the hall.” She headed for the front door as she added, “If you need anything, just give me a call.”
“What if I need you to scrub my back?” the night air whispered so softly. It must have been her imagination.
Esther froze with her hand on the door. For a moment, she was not sure that she had heard him correctly. The images of those broad shoulders and back that had played under his t-shirt all day dried out her throat until she could not have forced a response across the parched desert even if she had one.
Instead, she forced her hand to open the door and rushed through the living room to the safety of the kitchen. A few moments of privacy to clear those images from her brain was what she needed then.
“Fuck! Shit for brains,” Mike cursed as he leaned his forehead against the cold tiles and felt the warm water cascade down his neck and shoulders. What had he been thinking? That was just it – he had not been thinking. He had only been feeling. The way she fit so fucking perfectly beneath his arm had gone to his head. But still…
Wash his back indeed! How stupid was that? It sounded like something a horny teenager might say.
He chuckled and shook his head as he looked down at the little traitor, which was hard as a rock from just innocently holding the woman. What would she think if she knew? She’d probably kick his sorry ass out, and rightly so.
Damn it, what was he going to do? Besides the obvious, but even that held little appeal. He had spent two fucking years masturbating to fantasies of this woman. Being this close to her, actually holding her in his arms as he had dreamt of too fucking often, was driving him insane.
No, taking matters, or in this case, his hard cock into his own hands, would do no real good. Like that randy teenager, the moment he saw her again, heard that soft lilting Southern twang or heavens forbid touched her even softer skin, he would be lost. And this fucking traitor would be instantly hard again.
Besides, she was making dinner. He did not have time. He shook his head, as hyped up as he was by how fucking right it had felt with his arm wrapped around her shoulder and her head resting on his shoulder, time was not the issue. Two fucking strokes, and he would be a goner. Okay, maybe more than two, but not much.
“Damn it, Devil Dog! What the fuck you gonna do about this?”
But once more, the answer was the same. Always the same. Not a damned thing. There was not a damned thing he could do. He sure as hell was not going to make a pass at the woman, come on to her, or whatever the fuck they were calling making a move in these modern times. No, this story’s ending was always the same – women like her were not for men like him. He turned off the shower and reached for the towel.
He sighed at the simple feel of the terry cloth on his skin, imagining it was her hands. They would be softer. Warmer. “Fuck, man. Stop it,” he cursed again as he reached for a clean pair of sweat pants and the t-shirt. He dressed as quickly as he could and straightened up the bathroom; in a way, he could never seem to tidy up his emotions when it came to her.
He tossed the towel in the hamper and rolled his clothes into a ball to go into his pack for washing when he got the time. As he stood in front of the mirror and examined his reflection, he reached for his toothbrush and toothpaste, studying the network of tiny lines and wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. He knew he was not a bad-looking man. Hell, the way that Kay had propositioned him confirmed that.
But women like this one deserved more than a passable face, fit body, and a quick roll in the sheets. That was where he fell short. Way short. He had no future to give anyone, least of all a woman like Esther. And goodness only knew, his past did not bear thinking about. He finished brushing his teeth.
He could not come up with another excuse to delay the inevitable. Honestly, he did not want to. As much as it sometimes hurt to be this close to her and know that he could never have her, it was worth it. His mind stored up each moment, every rare smile, even the tears. The smell of her. The softness of her skin. He would remember them all. They would be what carried him through whatever was to come.
He walked down the hall and through the living room. His breath caught once more as he stood in the doorway between the living room and kitchen. The sight of her putting finishing touches on the meal did things to him that he did not want to consider. Made him wish for something that he knew was not for him.
Esther had kept things simple. She had made a fresh salad and grilled the steak she had picked up during their trip into town that morning. She filled out the meal with some fried potatoes and onions and steamed a few green beans. It was nothing fancy, but it should be filling after a long day of work.
She was just taking the steak from the oven when he came into the kitchen. Instead of the tight jeans, he wore an old pair of green sweat pants and a sleeveless t-shirt. Esther forced her eyes from those muscled arms and shoulders. The dark chest hairs that peeked out at the edges of the shirt did not merit further consideration. Not if she was to make it through dinner without throwing herself at him as brazenly as Sandy Monroe had.
“Have a seat. I’m just finishing things off. Nothing fancy, though. Steak and potatoes. Basic man fare.” She sputtered nervously.
“You shouldn’t have gone to all that trouble. A sandwich would have been fine. More than fine,” he smiled.
In the bright light of the kitchen, she felt the awkwardness. They were both trying to be polite. The intimacy they had shared in the safety of the moonlight and as they worked that day was gone. They were strangers, sharing a meal.
She put the plate in front of him and turned back towards the stove. She bent over, opening the cabinet door next to it. Her eyes searched for the large black cast iron pot. She finally found it and stretched to reach it at the very back.
“What are you doing?” He asked from behind her. With her head buried inside the cabinet, she did not realize how close he was. She gripped the pot in her hands and stepped back.
“Shit,” she cursed as she bumped her head on the cabinet. She felt firm thighs pressed against the fullness of her bottom. Hands gripped either side of her hips to steady her. He pulled her the rest of the way out and helped her stand.
She had heard the old cliché about seeing stars all her life, but at that moment, it took on a new meaning. He pulled her close as those strong fingers threaded through her thick curls.
She knew he was only examining her, searching for the knot that she could feel stinging and swelling. But its pain paled beside the very different sensation of charged ions racing through her at his gentle touch.
Their bodies were aligned. Barely an inch separated them. Her mind filled with images of what it would feel like if his fingers wound through her long hair in a different way. If he were to use them to tug her forward, closing that tiny gap, the thought of tasting him plagued her once more.
The smell of clean, crisp man assaulted her nose. She wanted to bury her face in those shoulders that were at eye level. Wanted to inhale deeply, memorize the smell, file it away in the darkest recesses of her mind to pull out as a safety net to catch her when she fell as she had this afternoon, to draw her from that dark place that her mind went too often, a light to lead her back.
She moaned when his fingers brushed across the swollen lump that was rising fast on her scalp. Although there was most definitely pain at his touch, it laced with the bitter-sweetness of desire that his gentleness elicited in her.
“I’m sorry,” he drew his fingers back from the wound. “That’s pretty nasty. Maybe we should go to the hospital? Have them check you out, make sure you don’t have a concussion.”
His voice sounded quiet, a low deep whisper, and for a moment, Esther wondered if he might be right. Perhaps she was hurt worse than she thought because, for a fleeting heartbeat, she thought his lips were almost touching hers. She could practically feel their soft brush against hers. But that could not be right; she must be imagining things.
She stepped back before she could step forward and embarrass herself further. She felt the tug as his fingers released her tresses. She swallowed before she spoke. “I’m fine.” She turned and reached for the pan where it had landed on the floor. Picking it up, she forced her mind to focus on the tasks at hand.
Instead of returning to where his food was growing colder on the table, he came to stand beside her at the stove. His large hand covered hers as she placed the pan on the front burner.
“I asked what you are doing. Aren’t you going to join me? Eat something?”
She shook her head. “I’m alright. I thought I would get started on the marshmallow treats that I promised Joey.”
“We can do those in a bit. After. You. Eat.” It sounded to Esther’s ears distinctly like an order, a command that did very naughty things to her senses. Made her want, crave to surrender far more than merely eating.
She shook her head slightly to fight off the urge to obey instantly. “No, I’m fine. I don’t want anything. Honest.”
“It doesn’t matter if you want it or not. How much weight have you lost these last six months? Twenty pounds? Thirty?” He arched his brows, demanding an answer.
Esther tried to distract him, to take control of the conversation once more. She laughed and slapped the dust from the jeans that covered her ample backside. “There is plenty to lose, Master Sergeant,” she dismissed the accusation.
His hands firmly gripped her upper arms and turned her to face him. “Do you think that this is what Tommy would want? You were the last thing he thought about.”
If she had ever doubted how much this man had genuinely cared for her son, the way those eyes darkened, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat as it cracked a bit on those words, they dispelled it.
His gaze held hers when he spoke again. “I promised him that I would take care of you, and I keep my promises. So, march that cute ass right over to that table and sit down. You are going to eat something if I have to feed you myself.”
The steely resolve in those icy eyes was doing incredible things to her stomach that had nothing to do with hunger, well, not for food anyway. Had he really called her ass cute? It almost made her want to forget that she was angry at him for the way he was bossing her around like a child.
“I am perfectly capable of feeding myself, Master Sergeant. When I want to eat. I am not one of your Marines to be ordered about. I am a grown woman who has taken care of herself for thirty years. By your own admission, I raised one of the finest men you have known – on my own. I think I can manage to decide when I do and do not want to eat.”
He growled at her words. His face scrunched up. She could see that he was not a man used to having his orders disobeyed. But it was the softening in his face and the slightly crooked smile that sealed her fate a moment later. “Alright, then. Please. Please join me for dinner. I don’t want to eat alone.”
“Oh,” Esther was taken aback at the admission. Perhaps it was just another ploy to get his way, but for a woman raised on Southern hospitality, she suddenly considered how rude her behavior was. “Alright,” she conceded. Turning towards the table, she pulled out the chair next to his.
The Master Sergeant opened the cupboard next to the stove and took out another plate. He came back to the table and began portioning food out.
Esther put out her hand to cover his. “Please. I don’t want anything.”
He knelt next to her. “Please. Whether you want it or not, you have worked your butt off today. You skipped breakfast and barely ate half that sandwich at lunch. I meant it. Tommy would be worried sick about you.”
Esther felt her resolve drain from her body at his words, at the pleading look in the depths of his blue-gray eyes. She did not have the strength to argue, the fight fleeing her, leaving bone-deep tiredness in its wake. She nodded.