Page 22 of Stinger

I waved my hand, dismissing her remark. "I barely did anything. I just gave him some pointers as someone who had already taken it."

Abby shook her head. "Not true. He's grateful and so am I."

I smiled over at her. Truly, I was bursting with pride that he had passed it on his first try–not because I took any responsibility for that, but because Brian was like a brother to me and I wanted good things for him and Abby.

Abby threw her napkin and plastic fork inside the Styrofoam container and stood up, carrying it to the trash. "All right, I'm off. See you tonight. I'll be home about seven. Reservations are at eight." She grabbed her purse and coat and headed for the door.

"Bye, Abs!" I called. I continued eating my lunch, placing my fork down and pushing it aside after a couple minutes. I took a deep breath, putting my elbows on the counter and resting my face in my hands. I shivered slightly as a strange feeling swept over me, the particles in the air almost seeming to change direction, as if something nearby had disrupted them. I closed my eyes and let Carson's face come to me, clear and present in my mind's eye. I didn't let myself linger on the thought of him often. But for some reason, in that moment, I indulged myself because I felt him so strongly, almost as if he was in the room with me.

After a few minutes, I forced myself to stand up and clean up my lunch, and then I went about my Saturday.

**********

Carson

I sat back in the cab and watched the sights of D.C. stream by. I had never been to D.C. and as much as I'd like to explore the city, my mind was focused elsewhere right now. My mind was focused on Grace. My heart thundered in my chest. This could be a really good idea, or a really bad idea. I had looked her up on whitepages.com and found her address–but her number had been unlisted. So now I was just going to show up and hope like hell she wanted to see me as much as I wanted to see her.

As I stared out the cab window, I rubbed my hand over my short, military-style haircut and I thought of everything I'd been through in the past year and a half. I thought of Hell Week, how I had somehow, impossibly, survived that miserable five days, consisting of the most hellish simulated conditions that would assure the Navy that they were sending men into the field that would never quit, no matter how much misery and pain was thrown at them, no matter how delirious they were from lack of sleep. I was one of those men. I was still trying to wrap my own head around that.

Noah Dean and I had helped each other through that week. I didn't know if I could have done it without his encouragement. But it also had to do with Grace, and I knew that too. Noah told me afterwards that he had gone meal to meal–knowing if he could just survive long enough to make it to the next meal, he'd have that time where he sat in a warm cafeteria with food in front of him, before he faced the torturous conditions again. I understood that. But I hadn't gone meal to meal. I had gone sunrise to sunrise, that bright light breaking over the horizon, the motivation that kept me from giving up. The thought of Grace in my arms spurring me on, even in the midst of the worst physical trial I could have ever imagined.

Dylan was the first person I had called that Friday afternoon when we were secured, and received the brown shirts that meant we had made it through Hell Week. "Not surprised, buddy," he had said, and I could hear the emotion in his voice.

I had finished BUD/S twenty-four weeks later, was assigned to SEAL Team Two, went to SEAL Tactical Training and finally, finally, earned my Trident. I had done it.

And now I was deploying to Afghanistan with my platoon on my first assignment. Anything could happen. The only person I wanted–no needed, to see before I left was Grace. I wanted to let her know that she had inspired me to do this, that I had accomplished something I was proud of. I didn't know what her life looked like now, but I needed to tell her that I still missed her, even after all this time.

I only had a day and a half, but I had arranged it so that I could fly into D.C. before I met back up with my platoon and we all flew out together.

The cab pulled to a stop and the driver told me that the address I had given him was just across the street. Grace's address. I paid him and hopped out, and then stood looking at the brick building on the other side of the two lane, divided street, rubbing my hands on my pants, nerves suddenly assaulting me.

Just as I started to walk to the light at the intersection a couple hundred feet from where I was, my eyes caught sight of a girl exiting Grace's building. A petite, blonde girl wearing jeans and a light blue t-shirt. I stopped walking and stared. Grace. My heart started beating triple time and adrenalin shot through my body. I watched her for a second, about to call out to her when I saw her grin down the street and start walking quickly toward someone. I swiveled my head and saw a man walking quickly to her, my heart sinking as he met her on the sidewalk and picked her up and swung her around as she threw her head back and laughed. "Fuck," I whispered to myself, a lump forming in my throat. She had a boyfriend. And why wouldn't she?

I watched them as they walked back to her apartment, arm in arm, laughing and chatting. They entered the building and the doors closed slowly behind them as I hung my head.

I guess I could charge in there after her, but what would be the point? I was leaving the country tomorrow, and she was involved with someone else. Nothing would come of me disrupting her life right now. Still, it f**king hurt and I felt all the hope I had had at the thought of seeing Grace, crumble around me. Thinking about what they might be doing inside that apartment right now made me cringe. God, even after all this time, I felt like she belonged to me. "Fucking stupid," I whispered to myself.

There had to be a bar in the area. And a willing woman. Or was that me reverting back to my old habits as a way to cope? Probably. But fuck, everyone was weak sometimes. I had just seen the girl I had thought about for two years straight, go inside her apartment with her boyfriend. Everyone had a breaking point. I was pretty sure this was mine.

I spotted a cab coming toward me and waved it down. Mission Fail.

CHAPTER 18

Six Months Later, December

Grace

The branches of the tree tickled my nose and I giggled as I scooted a little to the left to be closer to Julia. It was midnight, now officially Christmas, and my sisters and I were laying under the Christmas tree, staring up through the branches at the white twinkle lights–our tradition. We would sneak down after Dad had put our presents out and we would put our gifts to him under the tree, and then lie underneath it, talking until we were so sleepy that we couldn't keep our eyes open.

"I think Evan's going to propose today," Julia whispered.

"What?" I whispered back. "Jules, oh my God! Are you sure?" I whispered back a little louder than her.

"Pretty sure." I could hear the smile in her voice. "He confirmed the time he was going to get here this morning about fifteen times, and I saw the name of a jewelry store on a receipt in his car a couple days ago, right before he snatched it up and stuck it in his pocket."

"He could have just gotten you a necklace or something for Christmas," Audrey offered.

"Maybe, but I just have a gut feeling," Julia sighed.

"Me too, actually," Audrey said. "That boy is crazy about you. I'm surprised it took him this long."

I found Julia's hand next to me and squeezed it. "I'm so happy for you, Jules. He's a really great guy."

"Yeah," she sighed happily, "he really is."

After a minute of silence, I said, "God, I'm really going to be an old maid now."

Audrey giggled. "At twenty-five? I think you might have a few good years left in ya, sis, not to worry."

I shook my head, the branches tickling my nose again with my movement. "My eggs are drying up as we speak."

"Oh stop," Julia said. "Anyway, if you want to meet someone, you have to actually leave your apartment for more than work. From what you've told us, that's the only place you go!"

I sighed. "Yeah, yeah. I know. I get enough of that from Abby. I'm just too tired by the end of the day to want to do anything except collapse on my couch."

After another minute of silence, Audrey asked, "Any more wild p**n star weekends you haven't told us about? Not that I could take it if there were–you really turned my world upside down with that story." I could hear the smile in her voice though.

"Ha ha. You and me both. No. That was a one-time thing. Promise." I bit my bottom lip, wondering where Carson was celebrating Christmas.

I changed the subject. "Andrew would be twenty-four this year," I said quietly.

"Yeah," both girls said at once and we were all quiet for another minute.

"Ready?" I asked and started scooting out from beneath the tree.

Both girls followed suit and we sat up next to the tree, each of us grabbing the small box we had brought down, the second part of our tradition, our way of keeping our brother alive in our hearts.

I opened mine first. "Andrew was always a really good student. I said two years ago that I thought he'd be starting grad school. This year, I think he'd be graduating." I smiled and showed them the ornament with a small graduation cap and diploma. There were several like it on the tree indicating other graduations he would have celebrated.

Julia went next, opening her box. "Well, I said two years ago that I thought he'd follow in Dad's footsteps and go to the police academy after graduation. I think this year, he'd have gotten his first award for bravery in the line of duty." She grinned and so did we. She hung her ornament, a gold medal with the word, 'Congratulations' above it.

We both looked at Audrey, and she took her ornament out and held it up, a couple in wedding attire. "I think there would have been two weddings for our family this year," she said, tears in her eyes. We all hugged each other and shed a few tears and after a few minutes, we lay back down under the tree and continued whispering until our eyes were heavy and we dragged ourselves back up to bed.

**********

Carson

It was Christmas day, the shortest day of the year in Afghanistan. It was six o'clock in the evening and already pitch black outside, the sounds of the winter night desert picking up all around us. Four other SEAL's and I were sitting on the dirt floor of an abandoned cave in the mountains outside Kabul.

Noah Dean, my buddy since SEAL training, and the quietest of us all, had been assigned to the same platoon. When Noah spoke up, we all listened, knowing that if he took the time to say something, it was gonna be important. And there was Josh Garner from Dallas, a cocky shit-talker on the outside, but a man you could trust with your life if it became necessary. I knew that, because on several occasions, it had become necessary. Also, Leland McManus, our lieutenant, the son of a casino tycoon from Las Vegas, and Eli Williams who we nicknamed, "Preacher," because he was always saying some profound shit, even though he liked to talk smack as much as the rest of us.

We had just opened our MRE's and were "enjoying" what was our Christmas feast. Josh held up a spoonful of what looked like beef stew and stuck it in his mouth. "Cheers, assholes, Merry Fucking Christmas," he said through his mouthful.

We all snickered and then raised our instant coffee up to each other. "Merry Christmas," was mumbled all around.

"God!" Eli moaned out, leaning his head back, "This is better than my mama's turkey and gravy!"

"Your mama must cook like shit then," Leland offered up.

Eli nodded over at him. "Yeah, I gave that one to ya, didn't I, asswipe? Merry Christmas. Consider that your gift."

Noah and I both shook our heads, me chuckling softly and Noah smiling.

"First thing I'm gonna do when I get back to the US of A is get myself the biggest, juiciest cheeseburger–maybe two," I said, looking suspiciously at the fruit dish.

"First thing I'm gonna do is get myself the biggest, juiciest pussy–maybe two," Josh said, spooning some rice into his mouth.

Eli made a disgusted sound.

Josh looked over at him. "What? Don't tell me that just because you're married, you're looking forward to getting home to your wife so you can engage her in a good game of checkers?"

Eli chuckled. "No, but I don't talk about making love to my wife in vulgar terms. You'll see, intimacy with a woman you're in love with is the ultimate experience. You have no idea, you sorry fucker."

Josh was silent for a beat, a horrified expression on his face. "Man. That's… that's beautiful. You know, when we get back home, there's this play that would probably pay big bucks for that speech. It's called 'The Va**na Monologues.' You might wanna look into that."

We all laughed, even Eli, but he finished it with a "Fuck you, bro."

"I just might… pretty mouth on you, all that 'making love' talk. We could put on some Sade, talk about our feelings–"

BOOM! We all startled and went silent, looking around at each other and starting to gesture with our hands and eyes about what moves to make.

Gunfire erupted not too far away and we all dropped our meals and went for our weapons. It was on.

CHAPTER 19

One year, seven months later, July

Grace

"Crap!" I swore, as the bottom dropped out of the box of books I was carrying down the hallway to my new office, as books landed on the carpeted floor with a loud thud.

I put the now empty cardboard down on the floor, squatted down and started piling the books up so that I could carry them to my desk.

I couldn't believe I was here–in Las Vegas, Nevada again, starting my new job.

When it had become clear that moving out of the juvenile court in D.C. was going to be a long time coming, I had started half-heartedly applying to jobs in other cities. I didn't necessarily expect anything to come of it, but I had been surprised when I had heard back from the D.A. in Clark County almost immediately. After a lengthy interview process, I was offered the job of a prosecutor in the Clark County Criminal Division, serving Las Vegas. My dream job. Taking a job in Vegas felt… strange. I wasn't sure how being back in the city where I had spent a life-changing weekend was going to affect me. But I reminded myself that it wasn't like Carson lived here–he lived in Los Angeles, at least as far as I knew, he still did. But just driving past the Bellagio when I had flown in for my in-person interview caused a swarm of butterflies to take up flight in my belly. I had to believe that that reaction would fade over time, as, after all, it had been almost five years since that weekend. It was just because it was the first time I had been back and it dredged up the distant memory. That was all. Pretty soon, seeing it enough, it would just be another hotel on the strip.

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