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What I wouldn’t give to be lugging around a sixty-pound rucksack and coating my boots and fatigues with dust instead of standing in front of my commanding officer as he thumbs through a file about me. Hell, I think I’d even take one of those grueling two-mile Atlantic Ocean swims through ball-shriveling, sub-seventy-degree water over this. My teeth grind as Commander Redding shuffles through the thick pile of papers, scanning the reports from the Navy doctors and shrinks before he delivers the verdict. I only hope it’s not too bad. Not much worse for a SEAL than being injured while on duty. Unless we’re talking being pulled from my men and getting stuck stateside.
I clear my throat and straighten to my full height. “Sir?”
Commander Redding grunts but doesn’t look up from the papers fanned out across his desk. So I wait in his compact office on the Little Creek base, watching the top of his silver-streaked head while my ears focus on the faint ticking of a clock. Even within the secure walls of this office, the briny scent of the Chesapeake Bay reaches my nose. My muscles are stiff and sore and in desperate need of a hot shower, but for now, my aching body and throbbing head would be thrilled to collapse into the empty chair to my left. Still, I keep standing the way years of training dictate. Shoulders back. Chest out. Eyes straight ahead.
“Take a seat, Jim.”
Thank fuck. I bite back a sigh of relief, walk over to the chair, and sit.
Redding compiles the papers into a neat stack and then places them back into the manila folder with my name on the tab before arranging the file in the middle of his spotless desk. Not surprising, given how even his camos are always immaculately pressed. He sits back in his chair and every flicker of relief evaporates when I get the first good look at my C.O.’s expression since I walked into his office. 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. Redding is known for being tough, but fair. Which means the doctors’ reports must be worse than I thought.
I clench my hands together in my lap until my bones grind. Bracing myself for the worst.
“Can’t return you to the field right now and, based on these reports, I’m not sure when—or if—that will ever happen.” As expected, my C.O. pulls no punches when delivering this information. Even as prepared as I am, his words still hit like a series of iron fists to the chest.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
I sit there in a daze with my mind spinning. I can’t be kicked out over some stupid head injury. I’m meant to be a SEAL. This is my entire life. If I’m not a SEAL, who am I? What the hell do I even do with myself?
I lift my chin. No, this isn’t fucking going to happen. I won’t let it. “Sir, you can’t discharge me. Not yet.”
“Only so much I can do.” Redding drums his fingers against his desk. “But—” He pauses, pinning me with his sharp, blue eyes.
I lean forward, my muscles urged into action by a flicker of hope. “Anything. I’ll do anything to return to the field.”
Redding nods. “Remember the discussion we had about a new program the military was considering? The one where you did all of those extra evaluations and signed papers, allowing us access to your files?”
“Yes.” I frown at the abrupt change of topic. I don’t see how those touchy-feely tests I volunteered to take have anything to do with my current predicament.
“Well, the military has decided to move forward with the project. And I recommended you as one of the first to participate.” Redding straightens in his chair and studies me. “Of course that means your participation—your performance—also reflects on me.”
A light goes off in my head. Now it’s all starting to make sense. The program must be some kind of a new treatment for brain injuries. Hell, Redding doesn’t have to ask me twice—I’m in. I’ll even start taking the damn medications the doctors have been prescribing me, and I’ll cave and agree to talk about my feelings. Which will undoubtedly be just as terrible as it sounds but, hey, I’m good for a little group therapy, so long as all of that talking gets me back together with my men.
For the first time since I entered the sterile, immaculate office, my shoulders don’t feel compressed by an invisible weight. I meet Redding’s gaze. “I’m in.”
My commanding officer offers up one of his rare chuckles. “You don’t even know what the program is yet.”
My nerves start rattling again. Redding could be a tough old goat who’d just as soon swim naked through shark-infested waters as dole out too many compliments, but up until this moment, he’d never laughed at my resolve. My shoulders stiffen. I’m a SEAL through and through. All in, all the time. That SEAL motto has always been a perfect fit. In my years of service, I’ve protected my men and excelled at every mission they’ve thrown at me.
An image of the anger etched across Lux’s face during our last assignment flashes through my mind and my throat tightens at the memory. Almost every mission.
I clear my throat and shake my head to chase the image away. “What is the program then?” Not that I’m worried. After all, I survived the grueling SEAL training and countless life-threatening missions. How tough can some woo-woo program with entrance exam questions like “what do you enjoy doing in your free time?” and “if someone hurts your feelings in an argument, how are you likely to react?” be?
Maybe the faint smile lingering on Commander Redding’s typically humorless lips should have clued me in, but nothing could have fully prepared me for his response. “A spouse-matching program.”
What. The. Fuck.
I cough when the saliva goes down the wrong pipe and the sound is harsh in the otherwise quiet room. It takes me a moment of hacking to recover. I blink rapidly as I try to find the words to respond.
“Is this some kind of a joke?” I blurt, before I have time to think.
“What do you think, Stephens?” All traces of amusement vanish from Redding’s face, and his voice is stern. Right. Of course it’s not a joke. Redding is a good guy, but he wouldn’t know a joke if one walked up and punched him in the balls. No way he’d ever pull a prank like this.
I swipe a hand across my damp forehead. Is it hot in here? Because I’m suddenly sweating. A spouse-matching program? Seriously? When the hell did the military get involved in our domestic lives? Motherfucking grunts. This has to be related to all the stupid shit that’s been in the media lately, about soldiers entering into fake marriages to help nab better insurance and housing.
“Look, I realize this all comes as a surprise, but frankly, it’s a great opportunity for you. You’re lucky that the committee liked what they saw, and I know you’re the right man for the job. And according to this,” Redding taps the file with one tanned finger, “they’ve already found the ideal candidate to be your wife. A civilian.”
My mouth opens and closes a couple of times, but no words come out. I run my hand through my hair and stand up because there’s so much nervous energy pulsing through my muscles, I can’t possibly sit still. While I pace back and forth, my head spins, not just from the headaches, but the implications. The one rule I had for myself was to never get married again.
No wife. No children. No family.
Not after everything I went through with Raychel.
The reminder of that rule makes everything clear. I stop pacing and face my commanding officer. “Sir, I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
I’m not even sure how they can ask this of me. Marry a complete stranger? Come on. Why don’t we jump back in time a century or two while we’re at it? Churn some butter by cranking a handle, use a chamber pot whenever we need to piss?
Redding cracks his pinky knuckle, which is a sure sign that he’s displeased with my response. “If you want to stay in the military, there is no other choice.” Redding pulls a new folder from his desk, opens it, and taps on a page. “This woman that they’re assigning you is the only option you have.”
Shit. I swallow hard but hold my ground. “No.”
Redding’s frosty eyes narrow to slits, making ice trail along the back of my neck. “I suggest you think hard before giving me your final answer. Lux filed a report about your behavior, you know. Along with the most recent medical reports, you’d be smart to reconsider.” He sighs and rubs his jaw. “Jim, you’re a great SEAL, and you know the last thing I ever want to do is see a good man like you sidelined. But there is only so much I can control.”
He slides the folder across the desk toward me and I thumb through the contents. At first, I’m so wound up that the words don’t penetrate, but after a few seconds, I settle in to skim. According to the description, the military is testing out a program to lower the divorce rate and cut back on the dumb shit some assholes are doing to play the system. Just like I fucking thought.
“Second page lays out the details of the program,” Redding says.
I grunt and flip to the second page. Blah, blah, just a bunch of garbage about how military personnel can be matched with other active-duty personnel or civilians, and how the committee screens us all for behavioral, mental, and personality traits. How all civilians in the program are thoroughly background checked. Like no shit. Nothing earth-shattering about that.
I flip to the third page and my heel starts bouncing against the floor. Fuck, agreeing to this program means an honest-to-God marriage contract. My eyes land on the middle paragraph and for the first time since I started reading, something like hope kindles in my chest. Interesting. So after a year, either party can ask for an annulment and, once filed, both parties will go their separate ways. No alimony, no court battles, no lawyer fees. Just a nice and simple split.
Must be the proverbial silver lining in what’s otherwise a complete shit storm.
Still. Even with the one-year expiration date, every cell in my body is screaming, hell no! Run away! Especially when I spot the every-other-month, couples-counseling requirement. I’m trapped, though. I’ve reached that point in a mission where there’s only one play. Only one way out that won’t result in complete failure.
Redding knows it too. I can tell by the way he’s watching me with that expectant lift of his bushy eyebrows. My gaze drops to the empty line at the bottom of the contract and my gut gives a sick little twist.
“Remember what we say, Jim—the only easy day was yesterday.”
The SEAL saying registers, giving me that last push I need. My fingers tighten around the pen and my hand shakes as the tip touches the paper. I scribble my signature in a swirl of blue ink, drop the Bic as if it were a heated branding iron, and step away from the desk. Hardly the first time I’ve put my name on an important piece of paper and yet, somehow, I feel like I’ve signed away my entire life.
That’s it, then. Guess I’ll be shacking up with a new Mrs. Stephens any day now.
That thought only turns my stomach even more.
Air. I need fresh air and the roar of the ocean to soothe the chaos churning away inside me. I turn and head toward the door, my head spinning.
I’m being assigned a wife. Playing guinea pig for some shitty new government matchmaking program and being strong-armed into marrying a woman I’ve never met. By the military.
Redding calls out from behind me, interrupting my retreat. “Jim, remember, you need to make this work. For my sake, and for yours.”
I glance over my shoulder and nod at my C.O. before hurrying toward the door, eager to escape Redding and his cell-like office and the shaky blue signature I’d left on the paper on his desk, like I’d sold my soul to the devil. As I open the door and burst outside into a sun-drenched day, one question continues to cycle through my head. Over and over again.
What the fuck did I just agree to?
End of Excerpt