SEALed For You Book Three
A sprawling white brick ranch surrounded by trees and fields met Mac as he pulled into the driveway. Large trees thick as his waist, lent privacy to the huge property. Off to the side, he could see a pool area. The place was stunning. What had Shawn done to afford it?
Now that he was gone, Mac realized he barely knew his nephew. They hadn’t spoken more than a few times a year, mostly at holidays, because there was so little left of their family. It had been almost a year since the last time they’d spoken. Mac had been deployed, and even though he’d meant to, he never got around to calling Shawn.
Now it was too late. Regret burned inside him, causing an ache to rise in his chest.
Even when they had spoken, it was quick, never more than a few minutes. No lengthy discussions about what Shawn did for a living. He knew his nephew had eloped with a local girl almost two years ago, but Mac had never met her. Over two years since his last visit. That bothered him, but there was nothing he could do to change it now.
He shoved the rental car into park in front of the house, checking one last time to make sure the address was correct before he stepped out. He glanced at the quiet house; no lights shone through the gloomy afternoon mist, leaving him to wonder if anyone was home. I should have called ahead. He’d taken it for granted that she’d be home with the twins.
All of a sudden, there was a grinding noise as a shotgun cocked from near the porch, sending him on guard. He stepped back next to the car, the bulk of it separating him from the front door, when a woman’s voice hollered at him. “You’re trespassing. This is private property.”
“Ms. Ryan?” When there was no response, he continued. “Ma’am, I’m Mac García, Shawn’s uncle.”
“The guardian…” Her voice broke.
“Yes, ma’am. I apologize for not calling first.” He watched her over the top of the car until she lowered the shotgun to the ground. Damn she was beautiful, even angry. “It’s raining. May I come in?”
“Not that I have any choice. You’ve inherited everything and you’re going to take them away from me.”
Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander Mac García leaned back against the hard airport lounge chair, his eyes fluttering shut with exhaustion. Any hope of catching a few hours of sleep before takeoff was destroyed by the crying baby two seats over. Lights were strung around the airport, with Christmas trees throughout the terminal, and shops hung their seasonal items in the window calling to the travelers. Christmas was upon them, adding to the haste, and everyone rushed to their gates or baggage claim to get their holiday celebrations underway. He was sure the decorations were supposed to add to the joy of the season, but to him it was just depressing. There was no one waiting for him to get home from his latest mission and no one to spend the holidays with. His life was completely dedicated to SEAL Team Two; his days revolved around the squad of men serving under him.
At thirty-nine, he had put in his twenty years in the service and had no plans to retire. He didn’t know what his life would consist of if it wasn’t filled with training, missions, and the dreaded paperwork that came with leading the squad. No, he was suited for the military and would stay a SEAL until he couldn’t keep up with the younger men. He’d do his part in keeping the country safe from the dangers most didn’t want to think of. On missions he saw the worst of the world, and he’d be damned if he saw another attack on America soil.
The baby’s wails stiffened every muscle in his body, until he was as tight as a rubber band stretched to its limit. He rolled his neck and tried to ease the tension with no luck. Instead of sitting there trying to get a few hours of sleep before his plane took off, he rose, and tossed his duffle bag over his shoulder. The terminal was too busy for him to make it far without having to weave between other travelers, but he didn’t need to go far. Anywhere else he managed to go there seemed to be some excitement. If it wasn’t a baby crying, it was children playing, people on their cell phones, or worse, couples in love.
The sweet lovey-dovey couple in the corner made his stomach churn. They were one of the reasons he fought to keep this country safe, but being surrounded by it brought home the fact that he was alone. There would be no one waiting for him when he returned to Virginia. Not even the team he’d sent on ahead so they could enjoy the holiday celebrations with their families while he wrapped up a few additional details.
Damn, I need a beer and a good nights’ sleep. Everything will look better in the morning, or at the very least when the fucking holidays are over.
“Daddy, Daddy!” A little boy no older than three sprinted toward him.
His gaze darted around in search of the boy’s parents. In this day and age, how parents let their children go unattended surprised him. Some just didn’t care and those were the ones who truly frightened him. Realizing the boy was alone, he dropped his bag, and knelt. “Hey, little man. Where’s your mommy?”
“Daddy!” He wrapped his little arms around Mac’s neck and clung as if his life depended on it.
“Christopher.” A woman’s frantic voice cut through the crowd.
He glanced in the direction that the voice had come from and there in the midst of the crowd a woman with a stroller making her way across the airport. Her frantic gaze searched the crowd, clearly terrified as she looked for her son.
“Looks like your mommy found us.” He held tight to the boy, making sure he didn’t slip out of his grasp and start running down the terminal again. “Ma’am.”
“There you are, Christopher. What did I tell you about staying with me?” She knelt down and drew her son into her arms. “I’m sorry.”
“Mommy, I found Daddy.” The little boy tried to wiggle from her grasp but she held tight.
“No, sweetie. We’ve got to take an airplane trip to Virginia before we see Daddy.” The woman stood, keeping hold of her son’s hand. She looked at Mac. “I’m sorry. He’s excited to see his father. I guess with the uniform he thought…”
“It’s all right, ma’am. You seem to have your hands full. Can I help you to your gate?” With the shoulder bag, diaper bag, and two kids he wasn’t sure how she had managed to get this far.
“It would appear I’m here.” She nodded to the gate he had just stepped away from. “We were visiting my family for Thanksgiving and planned to stay through Christmas when I received word my husband was injured in the line of duty. He’ll be arriving in Virginia tomorrow, so we’re rushing to get home. Christopher is just so excited to see his father.”
“I can tell.” Mac ruffled the boy’s sandy brown hair. “I’m sorry about your husband. I hope he’ll be okay.” His stomach roiled again. Another soldier whose life had been changed by the senseless act of war. Too many of his fellow warriors were killed in action, and even more had injures both physical and mental that would forever change their lives. He could only hope the woman’s husband hadn’t sustained too bad of injuries, and that he’d recover to be an active parent in his children’s lives.
“My husband’s vehicle was hit by an IED and he was badly burned. Thankfully he’ll survive.” The cries of the infant in the stroller tore through the terminal, and the mother gently rocked the stroller trying to calm her.
“Here, let me help you over to the chairs.” Without waiting for her to agree, he picked up the bags she’d dropped when she hugged her son and took hold of the little boy’s hand. “Would you like to sit by the window and watch the planes take off?”
“Can we?” Christopher bounced with excitement.
Crossing the distance to the row of seats by the window, Mac noted how easy children were to amuse. “Ma’am, I’m Lieutenant Commander Mac García, Navy SEAL.”
“I appreciate your help, Commander. I’m Shelly James.” She lifted her son onto the chair and turned back to him. “You don’t need to stay. I can manage.”
“Ma’am, military wives are a breed all their own. They have the strength and courage of their men tenfold. So I have no doubt you’d manage, but this is my gate as well. If you don’t mind I’d gladly see you on board and settled with the children.”
“Thank you.” She lifted the baby out of the stroller, gently cradling her. “I’d like to apologize for Christopher’s behavior. He knows that when his dad has been away on a deployment he’ll be in uniform when he returns. He has a picture of his dad in uniform by his bed. It’s the last thing he sees at night before going to sleep. I never thought…the uniform must have confused him.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for. He’s excited to see his father, as I’m sure you are.” Mac watched the little boy bounce on his seat, transfixed by a plane lining up on the runway, ready to make its departure.
“We haven’t seen him for nine months and it’s the first deployment that Christopher has been asking why his daddy was gone. Cindy here hasn’t even met her daddy yet.” With one hand, she tucked a pink blanket around the infant.
“My mom always said the hardest part of a deployment was when we were so young and didn’t understand why our father wasn’t around. It broke her heart when we were upset that he couldn’t make it to our games or tuck us in, but as we grew older we began to understand. My uncle had a big role in our lives. He was military too, but their deployments didn’t overlap much, so while Dad was away my uncle stepped in.”
The talk of family sent his thoughts swirling down the drain to the pits. His father had missed so much of his life, just as Christopher’s father was missing his children growing up, including the birth of his daughter. There was no doubt in his mind that standing up for their wonderful country was an honorable thing; he just wished there was more of a balance.
Guess that’s why I never settled down or had children.
“My brother helps when he can. He lives close enough to pop over every day. It’s nice to have some male influence for Christopher on a daily basis. Maybe this will be what my husband needs to get out of the service and be a proper father to his son.”
The simple statement cut deeper than it should have considering he wasn’t a father, but it almost implied Mac’s father hadn’t been a good father because he was career military. That hadn’t been the case. He had been a good father, making every moment count, especially when he knew he was about to be deployed.
Military life was hard. Not everyone was cut out for it, but those who made it work were stronger than their civilian counterparts. This woman had what it took to be a military wife, but he didn’t blame her one bit for wanting her man home instead of off fighting in another country. There was nothing wrong with wanting him present.
He glanced back from the plane taxiing down the runway. “Please call me Mac.”
“Your eyes glazed over. It was as if miles separated you from here, just as my husband does when he’s thinking about a warzone. I’ve never understood it.” She tucked a strand of her brown hair behind her ear and lowered her voice. “With all I’ve seen on television, I don’t understand why anyone would want to let their thoughts drift back to such a place. Why can’t you just let it go once you’re home?”
He didn’t know how to explain that the things he saw while deployed were forever burned into his brain. It wasn’t something he could just turn off. The memories of the fallen warriors and the ones injured in IED explosions haunted him every time he closed his eyes. There was no shaking the ghosts he’d seen through his years in the service, but they were what kept him alive. Not one of them had died in vain.
Flashback of an ambush the year before crossed before his eyes, the same event that led to his promotion. Three of them were separated from the squad and under serious fire. Somehow, he and Bad Billy had made it out alive, determination driving them. Troy wasn’t as lucky. An RPG exploded in front of him, killing him within seconds.
He squeezed the bridge of his nose and pushed the memories away. Seeing it again in his mind wouldn’t change anything. The SEAL under his command had still died, and no amount of reliving it would alter the outcome.
“Ma’am, adjusting to civilian life is hard even for the best of us, but the one thing that makes it easier is having people supporting us. The memories of what we saw will never go away. Flashbacks and nightmares are something a lot of military personnel have to learn to live with once they’ve returned.”
“Why do it then?” She looked between her children before turning back to him. “Why leave your children and family behind to go off and fight a war in another country?”
“We do it for them, to give them a better world to grow up in, and to make sure they’re safe. It’s better to fight the terrorists on foreign soil than here.”
“I’m sorry.” She shook her head, sending a curl of her brown hair falling from the clip. “It must sound like I’m complaining, but until last night when I received word that my husband was injured I never pictured my life any other way. When the officers arrived at my door…”
He laid his hand over hers. “He’s going to be okay. You said it yourself.”
“What about next time? Next time he might not be so lucky and my children might grow up without their father. How is that okay?” She let the tears roll down her face until they splashed off her chin. “I’ve seen it happen. There’s no rhyme or reason why someone gets killed and another walks away. Job danger levels don’t seem to matter as much as they did before, not with people shooting up our military bases. All service personnel, no matter their job—their families, even the civilians working with the military—everyone’s in danger.”
“It’s not just military.” He tried to reason with her, to allow her to see logic. “Look at our schools. How many school shootings have we had this year? Too many. Are you going to keep your kids sheltered at home, never allowing them the joys of attending school, meeting kids their own age, playing sports? Every moment of our lives there is danger lurking around the corner. We can’t hibernate, scared it might be our last day. If the military has taught me one thing, it’s that each day is precious and we must treat it as such. We have to live the life we were given to the fullest, not in fear.”
“Now that the dangers of this war have touched my life, how am I supposed to put it behind me?”
“I don’t have all the answers.” He reached into his pocket for his wallet and grabbed one of the business cards he kept for cases like this. “I don’t think anyone does, but she can help.”
“I don’t need a counselor to tell me I’m a military wife, that I have to suck it up and be supportive.” She glanced down at the card but didn’t take it.
“I didn’t know they put it like that.” He tried to joke, but it fell flat. “Honestly, Helen is the best. She knows what you’re going through because she’s been there. For years, she was a military spouse, fearful of that knock on her door, until one day her fear came to life, and her husband was killed in Afghanistan. She counsels spouses in your position and she can help.”
The loudspeaker crackled to life, announcing their flight would be leaving soon. “Flight three seventy-five to Virginia Beach, Virginia will be boarding momentarily. Handicapped, families with children, and first class, if you will make your way to gate twenty-three we will begin.”
“Ma’am, take it.” He pressed the card into her hand, with the hope she’d make the call. “Over my years in the service I realized it’s not just the military members sacrificing, it’s also the family. You’ll make it through this because you have to—and you love your husband or you wouldn’t have committed to this life. He’s going to need your support now more than ever.”
He didn’t want to pressure her to make the call, but he wanted to make sure she had the card. In the end it would be her choice. Forcing someone to seek help they didn’t want did them no good, and only wasted the time of the counselor who could have been helping someone who really needed it. If anyone could help this young mother through the latest bump in the road, it would be Helen.
If she can help a worn-out, battle-hardened SEAL like me, she can help anyone.
Helen had forced him to look beyond his own guilt when he failed Troy, and look at the men who still needed him. There was no time for guilt when he had a squad counting on him to lead them. He had to pick the pieces up and get back to his duties. The cluster-fuck mission demanded he push his men harder, giving them more training. He couldn’t let his guard down if they were going to survive, and he was never going to let another one of his men die.