“Link!” I screamed. “Link! Stop!”
The alley behind the bar was dark—the only light coming from a high window in the wall.
It illuminated Lincoln’s muscular shoulders as he leaned forward, his arms corded with tension, his hands tightening.
“Link, you’re choking him! You’re going to kill him!” I shouted, my pink painted nails digging into Link’s arm as I tried to drag him off.
My heart was thudding hard.
His face was red, the veins were popping in his forehead, his eyes were squinting, and his lips were pulled back from his teeth.
He’s going to kill him!
The high whine of the plane landing made the skin on my arms prickle.
This is it. This is really happening.
The cabin jostled as the wheels hit the landing strip, the sound of rubber on tarmac raising my blood pressure even more.
I was home.
My blood pressure spike had more to do with mixed feelings of anticipation than with any fear of flying.
Home after five years, and a couple of tours of duty fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Honorably discharged. Done.
I was a civilian now.
The plane was taxiing. People around me pulled carry-ons from behind their seats onto their laps.
A tawny-skinned, bearded man was putting away toys as his little boy bounced up and down in the seat across the aisle from me.
On the guy’s other side was a brunette applying lipstick using her phone’s camera as a mirror.
Will I have what that guy has someday?
A normal life.
How did he get so lucky?
Sitting across the aisle from him, I felt like I oughta have matches to sell, looking in a house’s window on an icy winter day.
A warm, happy family inside.
Me, alone, on the outside.
The plane stopped rolling and the seatbelt light winked off.
People started standing, going for bags in the overhead bins.
Everyone had somewhere to be, but I was in no rush.
As I stood at the baggage carousel, weariness crept over me and my eyes began to droop.
I was half-asleep on my feet when an arm swung around my neck.
Jerking to full alertness, I grabbed and threw my attacker over my shoulder.
He landed hard on the linoleum, letting out a loud “Oof!”
People shuffled back, and out of the corner of my eye I spotted security personnel with walkie-talkies up to their mouths.
Blinking down at my attacker, his face resolved into clarity; I made a snorting noise.
Reaching a hand to help my assailant up, I said, “Aw, hell, Rowan. You better never sneak up on me like that again.”
There were smiles and even laughs from the onlookers then.
Rowan Jefferson, my little brother, straightened his shirt as he stood and rolled his eyes. “Kinda overreacted there, Link.”
The security personnel eased back.
I grabbed Rowan in a bear hug then.
I could hear a murmur in the crowd—and even scattered applause.
It helped that I was wearing fatigues, I knew.
Rowan clapped me on the back, and I squeezed a little harder. It was so good to see him again.
“Okay,” he choked. “Can’t breathe.”
Releasing him, I beamed at my little bro.
He was a good-looking guy—took after our Mama—with blond hair and fine features. We didn’t look much alike except for our dark-blue eyes.
I resembled our father more, with dark hair and a more rough character to my face.
What’s Dad going to say when I tell him I’m back for good?
It was something I’d been worrying about since I’d gotten my discharge papers.
The Dad-worry would keep a while longer. I just wanted to get the smell of airplane out of my nose for now.
“Welcome home, Link,” Rowan said, returning my smile. “You ready to get out of here?”
Lincoln had bulked up even more since the last time I’d seen him, which was two years earlier when he was recovering from a combat injury at a hospital in Germany.
“Were you spending your days doing chin-ups or what?” I asked as we crossed the parking lot.
Link snorted. “Something like that.”
It was brief, but I saw darkness move behind his eyes.
In Germany, I’d already become worried about what his experiences were doing to him.
Anxiety spiked, but I pushed it down.
Plenty of time to get into his mental health status once he was settled in.
A few steps ahead of me, Link stopped short.
I grinned. I knew why.
Link’s hulking F250 truck, the black paint job shining after I’d taken it for cleaning yesterday, waited patiently for us.
Sucking in his breath, Link walked around the truck, fingers hovering just over the glossy paint, as if he couldn’t bear to smudge it.
“Reunited at last,” I joked.
Link glanced at me with a grin. “Brother schmother. She’s what I came back for,” he teased back.
“It’s an epic romance. I won’t try to stand in the way,” I said.
Link stowed his bags in the massive truck’s back seat and sat behind the wheel. I’d barely shut the passenger door when the engine roared to life and Link gave me a delighted look.
“What?” I shrugged. “I promised you I’d take care of her.”
We were on the highway in seconds, dodging through traffic like Link thought this was the Indy 500.
“Whoa, there, soldier. We don’t need to outrun the enemy here,” I said, then closed my eyes, wishing I could sink into my bucket seat and disappear. “Sorry, Link. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Link shook his head. “It’s fine.” He eased up a little on the gas, but not enough to let me really relax.
“Food first or shower?” I asked, trying to push past the awkwardness.
Link considered this. “Shower, I guess.”
“Okay then, take the I-440 west exit, should be coming up in fifteen minutes or so.”
After a shower, a meal, and a nap, I was feeling like a new man.
Rowan had a one-bedroom with a lot of light. I was camped out on his couch for the foreseeable future.
“We gotta go out and celebrate,” Rowan said, and I agreed.
Rowan raised his eyebrows. “Strip club?”
I snorted. “You’ll want to go to that ‘male review’ one on Second Avenue…”
“I just want to do something normal, Ro.”
Rowan faked a pout but recovered instantly. “I know a bar. There’s a guy…”
“Ah,” I said, grinning as I nodded. “What’s his name?”
“Damien. He’s some kind of lawyer or something,” Rowan said.
“How long you been seeing him?”
Rowan got a sheepish look on his face. “I haven’t exactly started yet. It’s possible he has no idea who I am.”
“But he’ll be at this bar you want to go to?” I asked.
“You know what, let’s go somewhere else,” Rowan said. “I want to spend the night partying with you, celebrating that you’re back. Damien can wait for some other night.”
I shook my head. “Uh-uh, no way. You opened this can of worms. Now I need to see this guy and make sure he’s in your league.”
Rowan rolled his eyes, but I could see the excitement bubbling underneath.
He likes this guy.
Maybe I’ll meet someone too.
The decor of the Swingin’ Lariat was consciously ’50s style country-western, with lights hanging from wagon wheels and all sorts of cowboy hats in a row over the bar.
The chairs had cowhide upholstery on the seats and the pictures of rodeos had turquoise frames that popped against the varying shades of wood paneling on the walls.
Rowan and I took a table, and a waitress in pigtails and a plaid shirt trotted over to take our orders.
As she left to get our beers, I eyed Rowan. “This place is kind of a tourist trap, isn’t it?”
“I dated a rockabilly guy that liked it,” Rowan explained. “And then one night near the end of us going out, I met Damien. He likes to come here for square and line dancing on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“Are you shitting me?”
Rowan shook his head with a pleased smile. “Nope. You’re gonna have to dust off those cowboy boots, Link. It’s time to cut a rug.”
I groaned and leaned back, but secretly I felt a tinge of excitement. I hadn’t danced since before I’d shipped out five years ago.
Sure, I’d be rusty, but I used to like it.
Looking around, I saw the band was almost ready to start.
The server gave us our beers. Five minutes later the music began.
Rowan grinned at me and dragged me out of my chair and into the line.
He was soon laughing his ass off as I struggled to keep up, but it made me laugh too.
It was so good to be doing something just for fun.
I felt silly but pleased.
Looking at the girls in the line on the other side of the floor, I felt my pulse quicken.
Lots of pretty girls. At least one of them had to be free.
Rowan elbowed me and jerked his head.
A slick-looking guy in black jeans with equally black hair and green eyes joined the line.
I raised my eyebrows at Rowan and mouthed, “Damien?” and he gave me a quick nod.
Smirking, I was about to figure if I could embarrass him somehow when my eye caught on another newcomer.
She joined the line opposite Damien.
She was a goddess.
Her long, wavy brown hair was streaked with gold and swayed over her shoulders as she stepped forward with the rest of the dancers on her side.
Stamping her turquoise and brown leather cowboy boots, she kicked a long, tanned leg across in front of her, then behind.
The loose, navy-colored top she wore made her look like she had wings.
But it was her smile that really made me miss my steps.
It shone from her face as she wrinkled her nose at Damien and tipped her head back to laugh.
A moment later, she must have felt me staring because her eyes—golden hazel—met mine.
My heart stopped.
Rowan jabbed me hard in the ribs and I blinked, looking away as I hurried to catch up.
Damn. What a beauty.
My mind flashed back to the guy on the plane and the woman putting on lipstick beside him.
Could this goddess one day be by my side, the way that woman had sat so easily beside him?
Will I ever be so lucky?
As the song ended, Rowan pulled me off the floor and over to the bar.
“I need liquid courage if I’m going to talk to Damien,” he said.
I glanced back at the crowd on the dance floor and saw that Rowan’s crush was deep in conversation with the goddess.
“They’re friends,” I said in Rowan’s ear as he ordered two-for-one shots.
“What?” Rowan frowned at me.
“Your guy and the girl of my dreams,” I muttered, still staring.
Rowan looked around and his face cleared. “Oh!” he said. “Yep. Seen her with him before.”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t know. But I bet Damien does.”
“You have to talk to him,” I said, grabbing the shot that had been placed before me and downing it. I waved at the bartender, who filled the glass again.
“Well, yeah,” Rowan said, squaring his shoulders.
It was an aggressive bark from a guy with Elvis hair, behind Rowan’s shoulder.
Rowan turned and then immediately whipped away, giving the guy his back. “Shit.”
“What?” I said.
The guy had sleeve tats and even more ink on his neck, and he wore an embroidered shirt that Buck Owens would have been proud of.
He grabbed Rowan by the shoulder and pulled him back to face him.
That didn’t sit well with me.
Jerking his chin in my direction, the rockabilly said, “Who’s this guy, Ro?”
Get your hands off my brother.
Rowan sighed and jerked his shoulder free of the rockabilly’s grip. “No one you need to worry about, Jerry.”
Jerry grabbed Rowan’s arm again as my brother tried to turn away from him.
“Why’d you have to bring him here?” he demanded.
“Let him go,” I said, stepping to put myself between Rowan and this asshole.
The rockabilly sneered and got in my face. “Or what?” he asked.
He’d let Rowan’s arm go, and now it was Rowan’s turn to grab mine. “Come on, Link, let’s get back on the dance floor.”
I glared down at Jerry. “You leave my brother alone,” I said.
The rockabilly’s eyebrows shot up, and then he looked from me to Rowan. “Brother? You kidding me?”
I leaned in till our noses were nearly touching. “Yeah. Big brother. The kind that beats the shit out of guys who bother his little brother. Get the picture?”
Rowan pulled me, but I wasn’t budging.
“Hey, Jer, how ’bout you run along now,” Rowan said.
The rockabilly scoffed and shook his head, but then he stalked away.
I scowled after him.
Rowan put himself into my line of vision. “Link, what was that? You were gonna fight that guy!”
With some effort, I turned my attention from Jerry’s retreating form to Rowan’s concerned face. “I didn’t like him manhandling you.”
Rowan grimaced. “Link. I can take care of myself. And Jerry’s harmless.”
I grabbed the newly full shot glass and downed it.
Rowan’s tone softened. “Hey, you know, the VFW is just a ten-minute drive from my place. Maybe tomorrow I’ll take you there.”
I frowned at him. “Naw. I’m fine.”
Rowan frowned back.
“Seriously, Ro. I’m just getting settled in. No fighting, I swear. All I gotta do is figure out a job and get that pretty lady to let me take her to coffee, and everything’ll be hunky-dory in no time.”
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