If you haven’t read the prologue you can catch up. Here’s chapter one!
Nine months later
Jake let himself into the apartment above his parents’ garage. No one had lived in it since his father’s brother when Jake was a teen. Uncle Patrick’s wife had kicked his butt out for cheating and he had nowhere to go. Since it wasn’t the only time Uncle Patrick had been kicked out by his wife, it had been habitable on and off in the past ten years.
He looked around now at the fresh gray paint on the walls, the thick chemical smell in the air telling him his parents were trying to make him feel welcome.
Trying to give him a place to call his own when he had no idea where he wanted to be.
He flipped the lights on even though there was enough sunlight coming through the big window up front.
The place looked smaller now through adult eyes than it did when he was a teen and begging his parents to let him move in here.
They’d laughed and said no way. He’d never expected any different since his older brothers had asked, begged, and pleaded for a chance to live in the apartment and had been told the same thing, “You’re teens and too young to be on your own. We don’t care if it’s just above the garage, we don’t trust you enough.”
Since he and his brothers were typical teenage boys and caused enough grief at times, he couldn’t fault his parents for their opinion.
His phone went off in his pocket, and he pulled it out to see his mother calling him. He’d purposely planned it so he’d arrive while they were all at work, allowing himself the time to gather his thoughts before he saw them.
He silenced the phone and put it away. He wasn’t ready to talk to anyone yet.
Six months of traveling hadn’t cleared his head any. Everyone was worried about him, he knew, but the truth was, he was worried about himself.
Rob’s death hit him hard. He finished out his last tour and left. Staying at Air B & B’s hadn’t done much for the solitude he wanted. After years of being surrounded by his fellow soldiers…he thought the opposite was what he needed.
The truth was, he didn’t know what he needed other than it was time to come home.
Was he dreading that it was in time for the holidays? Not really. But he was here and he had to start making some decisions in life.
He took a deep breath and walked into the big room, saw boxes in the corner, his possessions that were shipped when he left the service. Traveling with clothes and anything else that fit in his SUV was enough for him.
As he made his way to the little galley kitchen that still had the same dingy white Formica counters, he pulled open the fridge to see it stocked with water, soda, and a six pack of beer. Thank you, Dad, he thought, reaching in and pulling out the bottle of chocolate coffee stout. It’d hit the spot on this chilly day.
He twisted the top and put the bottle to his lips. It was after lunch, just because he hadn’t eaten didn’t mean anything.
He moved to the other end of the space and pushed the door to the bedroom open with his boot. A queen-sized bed was pushed against the wall, a simple blue comforter on it. There were even curtains on the windows. He had his mom to thank for that.
A few more steps brought him to the bathroom. Yeah, it was smaller than he remembered, but would suit his needs with a sink, toilet, and shower stall.
He was walking back to the living room when he heard footsteps coming up the wooden stairs. So much for having time to prepare for family.
Though he was expecting his mother, even his father, it was his baby sister, Alexa, standing there.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” he asked her.
“Really?” she said, running forward and jumping into his arms. He missed this. He needed it. And he hugged her back and kissed her forehead. “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.”
As welcome homes came, this was pretty awesome. “I thought for sure Mom would be here.”
“She wanted to be. Everyone did. But it was decided everyone would wait and give you space.”
He laughed. “And yet here you are in my arms.”
“Have I ever listened to them before?” she asked, moving back and pulling the beer out of his hand, then taking a big swig of it.
“Are you even legal yet?”
She put one hand on her hip and shot him a look that almost had him taking a step back. “I’m twenty-four and you know it.”
“You still look ten to me.”
She wrinkled her nose adorably. He’d missed her more than he thought he would when he left home thirteen years ago at eighteen like the eager graduate ready to be a hero. He was no one’s hero now.
“How are you doing, Jake?”
Figures she’d cut right to the chase. “About what everyone expects, I’m sure.”
He moved away from her and back to the front door, deciding it was as good of a time as any to bring up his clothes. Maybe it’d stop the conversation.
It didn’t. She followed him. “That isn’t an answer.”
“It’s the answer you’re getting,” he said back, his lips twitching. It’d been a long time since he’d felt the need—or even desire—to smile.
“You always were the stubborn one.”
Alexa grabbed one of his duffel bags and flung it over her shoulder, the weight of it making her wobble a little. He wanted to pull it away from her but knew they’d get into a little tug of war until she got her way. She always got her way with her older brothers.
“Look who is talking. That bag probably weighs more than you.”
She snorted. “Can I help it if I’m the petite one of the group? It’s not fair Grey, Colt, and you got all the tall genes.”
“How are Grey and Colt doing?”
“They’d be here if they could,” she said of their older brothers.
“I’m sure Grey is in surgery and Colt in court,” Jake said. A doctor and a lawyer were hard to live up to, so he’d decided to not even try and went in the opposite direction. Stupid on his part when he thought of it now.
“Everyone will be here for dinner tonight.”
He fought the roll from escaping his eyes, barely. Part of him expected it, the other part wanted to avoid it like a skunk on his doorstep. Then he realized the sooner everyone saw him, the sooner they’d let him be.
“So why aren’t you working?” he asked her again.
“I took the day off. Someone had to be here to welcome you home and it was darn well going to be me.”
“I thought it was frowned on for teachers to take personal days,” he said, taking the bag off her shoulder now that they were back in the apartment. He’d followed her up to make sure the weight of it didn’t make her topple backward. If it did, he’d catch her before she broke her scrawny little neck.
“I don’t know where you heard that.”
His sister was an elementary school teacher and was probably close to the same height as some of her fifth grade students. “Guess I was misinformed.”
“Guess you were.” Alexa looked around the empty place. “Mom wanted to get some furniture in here for you, but Dad said no. That you’d take care of it yourself.”
“Yeah. The bed is good for now. I’ll pick up a couch and chair or something this week. I don’t need much.” He’d probably been the least needy kid of the four of them. He’d always been called simple and it was the truth.
“Is there a TV in one of those boxes?” she asked. “You’ve never been without a TV.”
He tipped back his beer that he’d been carrying with him like a pacifier. “I didn’t have a TV in the service when I wanted it. Times change.”
“You’re not in the army anymore, Jake.”
“No,” he said quietly. “I’m not.”
Her long brown hair was falling over her shoulder like it did when she was a kid. He reached forward and pushed it back. “You’re not okay, are you?”
“I’m getting there,” he said. What more could he say?
She took a deep breath like she wanted to argue with him. Or ask more questions, but instead said, “I’ll help you unpack.”
“Or you can go get me some lunch. I haven’t eaten anything yet today.”
“And you’re drinking?” she asked, grabbing the bottle from him. She finished the last bit before he could and he laughed.
“Lunch?” he said again.
“I’ll go to the house and make us both a sandwich and try to find some cookies or chips with it. Then I’ll come back and help you unpack. No reason you have to do it alone.”
He watched her walk out the door. Yeah, no reason to do it alone anymore, even if he wanted to.