not even when his mother had disappeared: tears.
When he heard the name, Puller reached out and touched the wall to keep himself upright.
Robert said in a quavering voice, “It’s… me… Dad.”
The old man crossed the room with surprising swiftness to stand in front of his son. He looked him up and down again, taking in all aspects of the uniform, his gaze coming to rest on the rows of decorations there. He reached out and touched one of them. Then his hand drifted up to his son’s face. The hair had not yet grown back, but Robert had divested himself of all the other elements of his changed appearance.
“It’s me, Dad,” he said firmly. “Back in uniform.”
Puller continued to hold on to the wall as he watched this.
Puller Sr.’s hand dipped down to his son’s uninjured one and gripped it.
“Good, son. Good.”
Then his father let go, turned and drifted back over to his chair, and slowly sat down. He turned his face to the wall.
Robert glanced at his brother, his features confused. Puller inclined his head, indicating that Robert should follow his father.
Robert walked over, pulled up another chair, and sat next to his dad. His father continued to stare at the wall, but Puller could hear his brother speaking to him in low tones. He continued to watch for a few moments and then stepped outside the room, leaned against the wall, closed his eyes, exhaled a long breath, and tried to fight back the tears.
As he slumped down to the floor, he lost that fight.
PULLER STEPPED BETWEEN the graves at Fort Leavenworth until he found the one he wanted. He was once more wearing his dress blues, his cover on his head. The sun was warming and the skies were clear. Big Muddy was flowing hard from all the recent rains. Fort Leavenworth was back to normal. The DB was back to normal, although still missing one prisoner who would never be returning.
It was a pity, thought Puller, that Reynolds had not been sent to the DB to serve her prison term. She was the wrong gender and she was not in the military. She was now currently in a max civilian prison in Texas. She would never be leaving. And he knew it was still too good for her.
He had gone to see AWOL at the kennel and would be taking his cat home with him. The feline seemed happy to see him, although that might just have been the treat he had brought her.
He eyed the sky and then his gaze fell to the tombstone. He knelt down in front of it. That’s when the person appeared next to him. He got a good glimpse of her long legs from his squatting position.
He looked up to see Knox standing there. Her skirt was black and short, her legs bare, and her blouse was white and revealing. She held her high heels in her hand. Her bandages were gone and her hair had mostly grown back after the surgery, though it was a lot spikier now.
Puller actually liked the look. It seemed to fit her better. Bohemian. Yes, the woman definitely marched to the beat of her own drummer.
He stood. She gazed up at him and dangled the shoes in front of him.
“Stilettos are obviously not designed for muddy graveyards.”
“I can see that,” he said, smiling.
“Okay, you summoned me here. You said meet at Thomas Custer’s tombstone on this day at this time. And so here I am.”
“I appreciate your coming. I didn’t know if you would.”
“How could I refuse?”
“Can we walk?”
They turned and strolled side by side down the row toward the parking lot.
“I took my brother to see our dad a while back.”
“And how did that go?”
“He recognized Bobby.”
“Is that unusual?”
“Well, considering he’s been calling me XO for the last year or so, I’d say, yeah, it is unusual.”
She lightly punched him in the arm. “You sound a bit jealous.”
“I am. Maybe more than a bit.”
“But that’s a good thing, right? I mean your dad recognizing him?”
“The doctors said it was probably only temporary. The shock of seeing him.”
“What do doctors know? I say stick with the belief that your dad is still there, Puller. And he may come out from time to time. And when he does, enjoy having him back. And never take it for granted.”
He stopped walking and turned to her. “I’ve come to expect good advice from you.”
“Well, I don’t often get the chance to give it. It feels nice in a life that is usually centered around deception.”
“I can understand that.”
There was an awkward moment of silence until she said cheerfully, “So your brother’s fully reinstated. Record cleared. His military career can take off like a rocket again.”
“Yes. He’s excited and scared.”
“I would be too. Anyone would be. But you could have said all this over the phone. We didn’t have to fly out to Kansas.” She added quickly with an impish look, “Now, don’t get me wrong. I like graveyards as much as the next girl.”
“I thought I’d lost you,” he said abruptly, his voice breaking slightly.
She gingerly touched her head. “See, you did lie to me. You said you were sure I was going to make it. But I don’t hold it against you.” She paused and then added jokingly, “And my brain is still all there. Docs assured me. Nothing leaked out. Not like I had any to spare.”
However, her look revealed how moved she was by what he’d said.
He drew closer. “Saying things like that are… hard for me.”
She touched his cheek, her expression now serious. “I know that, John. Believe me.” She ran her gaze up and down him. “You look so handsome in your dress blues. Going somewhere?”
“Maybe? You don’t know?”
“It’s actually up to someone else.”
“Someone else? Who? Your CO?”
“No. Actually, it’s up to you.”
She seemed taken aback but drew closer to him. “And how is that?”
In answer he took out two tickets from his jacket and held them up.
She looked at them. “Plane tickets?” She glanced up at him and said in a panicked voice. “Wait a minute. Not to Vegas?”
“No, to Rome.”
“Rome?” she said quietly.