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Dark gray clouds surround the last bits of blue in the sky like a predator circling its prey. A startling low rumble rings out as fat droplets rain down from the sky, cold and sharp on my head and shoulders. I turn up the collar of my jacket to keep it off my neck. The clouds close in, devouring the last of the blue, and with no break in the gray above, the chance of a letup is slim to zero. It’s going to be a rainy day and no amount of pleading with God is going to change that. Best get used to it.
Besides, the weather fits perfectly with the way the week had been going. Mere minutes after arriving CONUS—back in the contiguous United States—life had smacked me upside the head like an angry mama with a misbehaving brat. Arriving home months after being deployed is never easy, but this, yeah, not what I had in mind.
“Lucas, are you even listening to me?” My ex-wife’s voice cuts through my ruminations on the unfairness of weather fronts. I know the tone. I’m on her very last nerve.
I grind my molars and try to focus. “Lisa, what am I supposed to do? You decided to move while I was gone, and now I’m expected to come up with a miraculous way to fix Mason’s behavior issues?”
My eight-year-old son. The tie between Lisa and me that would never bend or break, even if most of the other ones had. While I’d been gone, he’d moved to a new school, gotten in two fights, and been sent to the principal’s office for talking back to the teacher. Lisa was at her wit’s end and dumped it on me the second my feet hit American soil.
A loud groan cuts over the line. “I’m expecting you to get involved. To step in. No one said it was up to you alone to fix the problem. I’ve never done that to you.”
My fingers tighten around the phone as my foot lands heavily into a puddle that has formed on the concrete walkway leading to the building my commanding officer is in. The cold water seeps into my boot. I swallow hard, knowing my next words will either start a fight or frustrate my ex-wife. Or both. “I have to go. I’ll call you back once I’m done with my meeting.”
She huffs. Frustration, it is. “Unless you’re sent on a mission and then who knows when we’ll talk again?” There’s a long pause before she continues, and I sense the sigh on the other end more than I hear it. “But that’s the way things go. I get it.”
Without another word, she disconnects the call. My chest tightens. Nothing like failing those you care for. Again. Being a SEAL, I don’t have the flexible schedules those in other careers may have. I can’t push off a meeting with my superiors to discuss my son’s behavioral issues in school. Those things have to wait, or Lisa has to handle them herself. And she has been. And she’s getting kind of pissed about it.
I yank the door open to the three-story brick building that stretches across the center of the base and make my way to Captain Redding’s office on the second floor. My stomach tenses as I trudge down a hallway lined with photos of former commanders. Today was supposed to be my day off, but for whatever reason, Redding needed to speak with me. ASAP. So here I am.
The secretary greets me with a nod as I walk in. The door to my commanding officer’s office is open and he waves me in.
“Captain Redding. Sir.”
“At ease.” My C.O. places the papers in his hand down onto the big oak desk and leans back in his chair, looking me up and down with his dark eyes as if he’s taking measurements. At fifty, Redding is still intimidating as fuck. Don’t even think I’ve seen the man smile.
He gestures to the two chairs in front of his desk. “Take a seat.”
I ease into the one to my left, plant my feet solidly on the industrial-grade carpet, and wait for my commanding officer to continue. With the day I’ve been having so far, I don’t need a verbal ass whooping to boot, but I’ll take it if I have to. And since my best friend, Anthony Martinez, has been away at officer candidate school, George Redding has yet to find another person to dole out his frustration on. Though, let’s be clear, Martinez was the cause of most of that frustration. I might just be guilty by association.
“Heard great things about your performance. You’ve earned a significant number of duty performance points. Between those, some vacancies, and your test scores, a promotion is in order.” Redding tapped his pen on the papers in front of him.
Well, fuck. Maybe this day ain’t so bad after all.
“Lucas, you work hard. You’re a good man. Sure, when you and Martinez are together, Stephens may want to run for the hills, but there is a lot of potential in you, son.” Redding drops his hand to rub his knee beneath the desk. We all pretty much have an injury or two that won’t ever fully heal. It’s part of the job. Redding is no exception. Rumor has it he blew the knee out in an op in Afghanistan, pulling a local out of a building that was about to collapse.
“Thank you, sir.” I fight the urge to squirm in my chair. Redding is a man who would sooner swim naked through shark-infested waters than dole out compliments. So, something must be up.
“How’s time home been treating you so far?”
And there goes the ray of sunshine. Poof. Like everything else on this rainy day. “Some things going on with my son since my ex-wife moved to Chesapeake with her fiancé. Trying to take care of it while I’m back home and have some time.”
Redding nods. “Lisa’s a strong woman. A shame things didn’t work out between the two of you. But this job takes us away from our families a lot, so do what you can while you can.”
I can’t help but glance behind his desk at the framed photo of an older, attractive African-American woman with a younger man and woman in Sunday-go-to-church clothes on either side of her. Smiles light up their faces, and not the fake ones people put on for a picture. True, genuine smiles. Redding’s walked the walk to keep his family happy.
“Yes, sir.” I shift forward in my chair to stand when Redding raises his hand and signals me to stop. Crap, there’s more.
He pulls a manila folder from the left side of his desk to sit in front of him and opens it. “Before you deployed, we had a conversation about you joining the Issued Partner Program.”
I chew the inside of my cheek and take a second to collect my thoughts. While deployed, the military’s spouse matchmaking program had been an occasional thought, something to keep me focused on the positives, instead of the atrocities I faced when outside the wire. Nothing like imagining who the committee might assign to me to become my wife.
It still baffles my mind on occasion that such a program even exists. But I can understand why the Issued Partner Program was created. With the high divorce rates and some of the shenanigans that occur—like some idiots marrying their friends to move into better housing and out of the barracks—the higher ups needed to come up with a way to try and solve the problem. Still not sure why they decided on jumping directly to marriage instead of dating. Most likely operational security had a large part in that decision.
I looked forward to the virtual interviews, chatting with the therapists and social workers about everything from my goals for the next five years to how I liked to spend my R and R time. The program is something I truly believe in too. How could I not when two of my friends found love through it? I’d seen firsthand the way their partners complemented them in temperament and spirit. I’d seen the faraway smiles on their faces when they thought about their wives. Overheard the bits and pieces of conversations filled with warmth and laughter and desire and, yes, love. “Sir, yes. You recommended me and I signed up.”
“Well, I also called you in today because a match has been found for you.” Redding folded his hands across his middle and watched me.
Not the way I was expecting the day to go at all. Nope. What a freaking roller coaster. Instead of the elated feeling I expected at hearing the news I’d been assigned a match, my hands grow clammy and my heartbeat picks up speed. Redding was right when he said it was a shame my ex-wife and I didn’t work out. She was great for the life. Supportive. Independent. Could handle things on her own. I never had to worry.
Only, our passion died out and even when we tried to fix it, the spark never came back. No amount of date nights, special lotions, or whipped cream in the bedroom could light that fire once it had gone away. We’d changed. Remained friends. Loved one another. But there was no chemistry anymore. No blushes. No inadvertent caresses. No breath that came fast and hot just from seeing her face. I’d come back from a mission and instead of falling into bed in a tangle of limbs and lips and hands and hair, I’d get a honey-do list and a hug. I might have been okay with that, but Lisa decided she needed—deserved—more. I couldn’t exactly argue. I believed she did too.
For a while I’d been satisfied juggling my career as a SEAL and being a father to Mason. It more than filled my days and temporary girlfriends filled the nights I wanted filled. But when Martinez got married and wanted to go home to Inara more than he wanted to hit the bar, I found myself craving a partner once again. Someone to come home to who desired my presence as much as I did to be in theirs.
Should’ve talked to Lisa before I deployed, informed her I’d signed up for the program. But things had been crazy with her engagement and my pre-deployment training. And a text was not the way to inform my ex-wife of my intentions. Just one more thing to add to the list of ways I let her down.
Not that I mentioned anything to my parents either. They’d been upset over the divorce. Think my mom’s been secretly hoping we’d get back together, which is also why I hadn’t told them my ex-wife is engaged to someone. Though, maybe Mason mentioned it to them. But surely if they were aware they would have mentioned something to me.
My gaze falls to the folder on the desk. Blank and smooth, giving no hint at what might lie inside it. Would the woman assigned to me be a good fit? Would we have a great friendship like I had with Lisa and yet be able to keep that spark? Would there even be a spark in the first place? My muscles tense and the corner of my eye twitches. An image of freckles across an upturned nose and honey-blond hair dances through my brain. I push down the old memory from high school, from the girl who had taught me what love is and had then turned around and taught me all about heartbreak.
“You turned green for a second there. Are you reconsidering your involvement in the program?” He tilts his head to one side, appraising my reaction. His furrowed forehead and tight lips are noticeable even within the creases of his sun-weathered face, a sight that ratchets up the anxious energy bubbling in my chest.
I clear my throat and straighten in my chair. “No, sir. Just an old memory. So, the committee assigned someone to me?”
Redding shuffles through the pages and reads for a second. “Sure did.”
This could be a win-win for me and my son. The program has been mostly successful across the board making matches for people, and having someone at home could benefit Mason. I wouldn’t have to worry what to do if training ran late or if there was a last-minute exercise. Not that I would have this new person taking care of my son right away. I’d want to make sure I could trust Mason’s well-being with her first. And Mason would need time to get used to the idea. At least now the possibility exists for him to live with me a couple of days during the week.
My eye twitches again. Not that I hate Lisa or anything, but the move certainly changed all of our lives. When we lived close to each other, Mason stayed with me on as much of a consistent schedule as could exist with my job because his mom lived a few blocks away. But now, it’s a trek. Yet—as she has pointed out to me more than once—she has to move on with her life. Her world can’t revolve around me, especially when I can’t be present as consistently as I want to be and still do my job.
I fidget in my chair. “Um, sir. Can I see the file? Who is it?”
Redding picks up the folder and hands it to me across his desk. “Some woman named Riley Thompson.”
The folder falls through my hands, the papers scattering onto the floor below. No. Fucking. Way.
No way it’s that Riley. Maybe there’s more than one Riley Thompson because it would just be the rotten cherry on this crap sundae of a day if it was the Riley Thompson of the freckles-and-golden hair variety, of the ecstasy of first love and the sucker punch of first rejection. It can’t be her. What would she even be doing here? She should be back home in Texas.
But as I bend over and scramble to scoop up the papers, her picture comes into view. My vision tunnels and sweat beads on my forehead. While it may be fifty-five degrees outside, the office temperature must be at least five thousand Kelvin.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath as I sit up, placing the folder in my lap. “Sir, is there any possible way the committee could reassign me?”
Redding’s lips press together, the lines in his forehead deepen, and his frosty eyes both narrow and become more intense. “The program isn’t some app you can swipe left on. The committee goes to great lengths to correctly match individuals. What is the problem?”
What is the problem? How about the fact Riley is the girl who broke my heart in high school? Or the fact she’s the reason I left town and joined the military. And let’s not leave out she was the first, if not the last, woman to make me wonder what I even had to offer. “Riley isn’t a stranger. I grew up with her and I don’t think we’re a good fit.”
Redding groans and rubs his hands over his face. “You don’t have a lot of options here, Lucas. You can get on board. You can reject the match, put yourself back on the wait list, and risk it taking years to find you another match—if the program is even around that long. Or you can pull out of the program. And I’m going to be honest here, son. The committee has determined you and this woman are a good fit. They might not take too kindly to you stating otherwise without even trying, and they might just kick you out of their own accord.”
He didn’t have to say it, but the inference was clear. Rejecting the match would also mark me as someone who didn’t cooperate, who wasn’t a team player. Not exactly great qualities in a SEAL. Especially after I volunteered for the assignment. All the work that had made Redding talk about promoting me just now could be for nothing. Out the window, as if it had never happened.
I slump as much as I can into the chair. I’d been right in thinking the weather had been an omen. The universe was well aware of what would be happening. Gray skies and pouring rain matched the way my life was at this very moment. Did the committee choose the weather too? Along with matching me with the one person I’d rather not see again in my life?
I sift through the papers, not really taking in any of the information inside, thinking back instead to the time we’d spent together. Sure, she broke my heart into tiny pieces and stamped on them with her saffron, Converse Chuck Taylor-covered feet. But she’d also been a caring person, especially compassionate to the animals on her family’s ranch. I’d seen her bottle-feed a baby lamb with the tenderness of a mother with a newborn and calm a frightened horse with just the sound of her voice. She’d always had a kind word for everyone, a smile that lit up rooms. If that part of her still existed, I would be able to trust her with Mason, even if I couldn’t trust her with my heart. That I would keep protected with a guarded perimeter she’d have to blast her way through.
And one thing is for sure. My son needs my help. There’s been too many changes and he’s not adjusting well. He’s acting out. With the divorce, moving to two new houses, and going to a new school, I can understand why. So, if I get on board with being assigned to Riley, it could allow Mason to visit more often to hang out in the neighborhood, and bring more stability into my home, which could help with whatever issues he’s having.
I straighten up in the too-small chair. “Sir, I’m on board. I’ll give it my best shot.”
End of Excerpt