“Aw, fuck,” Dunn exclaims, giving me wide eyes.
“Talk to me,” I say, staring at the rooftop above him, where heaving fire ricochets off the edge, taking chunks out of it.
“Man down! Man down! I need a medic!”
“Dunn,” I say, gripping his vest, “Talk to me right now.” That’s when it hits, and the adrenaline gives way to the throb in my chest. Henley comes skidding to a halt at my side. He’s hovering over me. I don’t feel a hint of relief until I see Tucker’s face, and it’s only then that I let the reality sink in and the time slice starts.
“Hang in there, Sarge,” Dunn says, his face morphing with fear.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I say with a smile. “Jesus, you’re all idiots. It’s just a flesh wound.”
“Goddamn it!” Henley barks into his radio and gives our location. “I need a medic!”
Gunfire draws closer as realization dawns, and I shake my head, desperate to speak but unable to say a single fucking word.
“What?” Henley says, his eyes watering. “What, Sarge?”
I am a stupid son of a bitch.
Staring at the sky behind him, I draw the warmth from the sun and let myself sink into ocean blue.
My pulse quickens as I watch my wife stuffing a slice of cheese pizza into her mouth while laughing obnoxiously at something on the television. I couldn’t tell you what that something is because my eyes have been trained on her all night. She’s so beautiful that it physically hurts.
It hurts to keep my distance when I want to wrap her in my arms. When I have the urge to pull her lips to my mouth and kiss her. To take her to bed and make love to her.
It’s been a long, hard nine months, but it finally feels like we’re taking steps in the right direction.
I could watch her like this all day. Relaxed and happy. Giggling with our son like she hasn’t a care in the world. For a while, I was afraid we’d never reach this point.
We’re often told how war and trauma can change a person, but it isn’t something you could ever fully comprehend until it happens to you and your family. Until you kiss your wife goodbye, only to get back a different woman a few months later.
I’m still mourning the loss of the woman who left and learning to love the one who returned in her place.
“Gavin,” Katy hisses, trying to get my attention without waking our son sleeping on her lap. “Can you move him? I need to pee.”
“Why don’t I carry him up to his room?” I offer, without giving it a second thought.
When I return from tucking Noah in, she’s waiting at the table with a deck of cards. “Poker?” she asks, fanning one half of the deck into the other and beating them together on the table top to smooth them out.
“Where’d you learn that?” The smile on her face falters as she looks over to me in apology.
“It’s okay, Katy,” I assure her as I pull out the chair across from her and sit. “But I’m not gonna go easy on ya.”
“Pshh.” She waves me off then wraps her hair in a messy bun on the top of her head like she means business. “Prepare to have your ass handed to you, Captain.”
I’ve missed this playful side to her. Still, even with all the progress she’s made, it only comes in waves. She has her highs and lows, but the lows aren’t quite as devastating and the highs more frequent. “I’d prefer to have your ass handed to me,” I tease.
Her cheeks get rosy, and I take it as a good sign. A few months ago, she’d have lost it over my insinuating anything sexual between us, but not anymore. I’m hoping it’s something she looks forward to as well, and that one day it’s going to happen. It’s been two weeks since the night she let it all go, and instead of retreating in a corner to sulk, I stepped up while trying to swallow the whole of all she told me. Blame is a fucking exceptional tool. The ultimate excuse, but when it comes down to it, I find myself hard-pressed to toss it around so freely, especially after knowing the full story. Just hearing the details were enough to change me from the inside out. It was the bleakness in her eyes as she recalled what she endured. The torture in her voice when she explained the events that unfolded. Those were the hardest things to take.
And she wasn’t alone. A man who had no fucking right to love her, did, and eased her time in purgatory while stealing her heart away from me.
I’d judged him fairly, and a part of me has to recognize the fact that I misjudged him as well. But the lines are still clearly drawn. He’s my worst fucking enemy when it comes to fighting for my family. I won’t fault him for falling in love with her; I can’t—I was just as helpless. Her confession helped me to reclaim my patience, and more so a level of forgiveness I can work with.
None of this has been easy on any of us, but my wife is a survivor. Regardless of how little or how much of her I got back, it’s worth it—she’s worth it—and it took hearing her story to put that into perspective. I’ve regained her trust and her friendship, and she’s steadily working to gain mine.
She clears her throat, looking up at me beneath her long lashes. “Deuces Wild.”
Katy deals and I’m up first. I toss a card down and add the two of clubs she deals me to my hand, right alongside the two of spades and hearts.
Her eyes narrow, assessing me as she fans her own cards and tosses a chip in to up the ante.
I match her, and she calls me.
“Damn! That’s a good hand,” she exclaims with mock shock before a devilish smile appears and she smacks her cards down.
“Ohh, Captain, did that hurt?” She groans as she clutches her chest.
“No, but it’s going to hurt you if you moan like that again.”
She bites her lip and smiles. She likes my flirting, and my whole body draws tight at the idea that this, us, could lead to more.
Can I forgive her?
Scanning her features, I drink her in—my beautiful wife, the woman who asked me a question when we met, and I answered with my future, laying it at her feet.
I will forgive her, and I’ll keep the rest of my promises—our vows and anything else she needs. Emotions running, she deals, and we go a few more rounds.
“Boom!” she yells, pulling the chips in as she gives me a wry smile.
“Shit,” I grumble, pretending to care. But I’d let her win every round to see her so confident and cocky.
Dear Lord, she’s sexy, with her little blonde ringlets escaping the nest of curls on top of her head, her cheeks flushed with excitement.
“Let’s see ’em.” She taps the table before sitting back in her seat and crossing her arms on her chest, waiting for me to lay them out.
With a groan, I show my hand.
Katy’s eyes go wide across from me, her face paling as I follow her line of sight to the TV.
“Gavin,” she whispers as her eyes fill. As if in a trance, she rises from her seat, moving to the living room.
“…former prisoner of war Christopher Briggs is in critical condition after being shot down during an explosion in a Baghdad market.”
“No,” Katy gasps, grappling for the back of the couch to keep herself from collapsing to the floor. “No. No, Briggs. No Briggs!”
Something happens to me in this moment while watching my wife fall to pieces over the man I’ve spent damn near a year despising. Every ounce of anger I still harbored over their affair just evaporates as I’m engulfed with the sounds of her raw, guttural cries. Witnessing her heartbreak—the sheer devastation—it shreds me.
“Katy,” I whisper into her ear as my arms wrap around her chest, holding her close. “I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry.” I kiss the side of her face. “Shhh. We don’t know anything yet.”
She begins thrashing in my arms, screaming like she’s just lost the love of her life.
I’m no longer the love of her life.
“Breathe, Katy. Just breathe.”
Her chest heaves, her nails biting into my forearms, which are crossed on her chest. “I—I. Oh, God, Gavin.” She tries to move away, the guilt she feels for loving this man written so clearly on her face.