Carina Press (March 26, 2018)
Contemporary Romance, Military Romance, Male/Male Romance
Only love can heal an impossibly broken heart
There’d forever been a thread running through Trevor Estes’s life—his son, Riley, strong and constant like a heartbeat. But when Riley is killed in combat, everything in Trevor’s life unravels into a mess he doesn’t know how to mourn.
Then Jesse Byrne, Riley’s friend and platoon mate, arrives on Trevor’s doorstep with a box of Riley’s things. Jesse’s all-too-familiar grief provides an unlikely source of comfort for Trevor: knowing he’s not alone is exactly what he needs.
Trevor never imagined he’d find someone who fills his heart with hope again. As the pair celebrate Riley’s memory, their unique bond deepens into something irreplaceable—and something neither man can live without.
But diving into a relationship can’t be so simple. Being together means Trevor risking the last link he has to his son…leaving Jesse to wonder if he’ll ever be enough, or if Trevor will always be haunted by the past.
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Read an Excerpt
July 2007—Ten months before
Trevor Estes winced and glanced toward the open window, resisting the urge to go look out. The men in the backyard weren’t children, but…
A loud splash and some whoops had Trevor pushing out of his chair and hurrying to the window. The party was rowdy, but nothing was broken and nobody had gotten hurt—yet. Trevor jumped as he felt strong arms wrap around his waist, a chin coming to rest on his shoulder.
“Everything’s fine, babe,” Carl whispered in his ear.
Trevor shook his head. “That damn keg. Some of them are underage. What if—”
“Trev, if they’re old enough to go to war, they’re old enough to have a beer first.” Carl’s voice was firm. “Besides, you laid the rules out for Riley before you agreed to the keg. Nobody drives, everybody stays the night. You collected all the keys, right?”
Trevor nodded, waving his hand at the small plastic bucket on the corner of his desk. It currently held all the car keys surrendered to him at the door by grinning young men who’d made a beeline for the backyard pool and the full keg his nineteen-year-old son had talked him into getting.
Carl tightened his arms. “Then let them have their fun tonight, just guys hanging with their buddies, swimming, having some brats and beers.”
Trevor took a deep breath. It wasn’t the party, or even the keg, not really. It was the thought of the next day, of the goodbye, of sending his son off into the unknown… The keg was just the convenient target of his anxiety.
Carl seemed to realize this, because he gave Trevor a gentle kiss. “You’re wanting to play dad one more time tonight, and that’s okay.”
Swallowing against the gigantic lump in his throat, Trevor forced out, “How am I going to get through this deployment, Carl?”
“Like every other parent, every other spouse, every other loved one does. One day at a time.”
With a small sob, Trevor turned and hugged Carl close, breathing deeply of the comforting, familiar scent of his aftershave. He let himself wallow for a few moments, then, squaring his shoulders, pulled away. “You’re right. I’m not the only dad saying goodbye to his son tomorrow. I’ve got to get a grip.”
“That’s the spirit.” Carl winked at him and ran the backs of his fingers down Trevor’s cheek. “Now go man that grill and try to have a good time. You know if Riley sees you upset—”
“I know.” Trevor pulled Carl’s head down to give him a hard, smacking kiss. “Thanks, babe.”
The doorbell rang with a loud, echoing peal, and Trevor hurried to answer it. He swung the door open, saying brightly, “Hey, I’m Riley’s dad, Trevor. Here for the party?”
The man in the entryway nodded. “Yes, sir. I’m Jesse Byrne, one of his roommates at the barracks.”
Trevor stuck his hand out and they shook, looking each other over. Jesse was a few inches taller than Trevor’s 5ꞌ11″, military-cut blond hair bleached almost white by the sun. He was wearing a pair of board shorts in a loud Hawaiian print and a faded cotton tank top with the words Polite as Fuck printed on it. When he pushed his sunglasses to the top of his head, Trevor could see his eyes were a bright blue-green.
He seemed a little older than the other guys, maybe early twenties instead of late teens. Good. At least there’d be one legal drinker in the bunch. Trevor tried to remember what else Riley had told him about his roommates but couldn’t bring anything to mind.
He stood back to let Jesse into the house. “I need your keys before you drink. House rules.” Jesse didn’t protest, just handed him the keys without comment, dropping them into Trevor’s outstretched palm.
“Thanks. Everyone’s in the back swimming, and I’m about to grill some burgers and brats. You hungry?”
“Yes, sir.” Jesse’s voice was deep and husky, with what sounded like a hint of the South in it.
“Well, go on out and join the party. We’ll eat soon.”
Trevor gestured toward the French doors leading to the backyard, and Jesse nodded. Loud exclamations from the others greeted his arrival, and soon the splashing and yelling escalated again as Jesse joined them in the pool.
Carl was right; they deserved their fun tonight. These young men, barely out of high school, had volunteered to serve their country and now were headed straight into harm’s way. Trevor hurried into the backyard to search out Riley, who was standing in the shallow end of the pool with Jesse’s arm thrown over his shoulders.
They were laughing, so young, so carefree. Trevor traced his son’s face with his eyes, committing the happy moment to memory.
What would the year bring? Would Riley come home a totally changed man?
Of course he would. He was going to war.
Just let him come home, Trevor prayed. Please, God, just let him come home to me.
* * *
Trevor flipped the burgers before grabbing some tongs to turn the brats, listening to the sounds of merriment coming from the pool behind him. The eight young men in attendance seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the trash talk was flowing, thanks to the beer. Trevor, standing at the grill not far away with his back to them, was getting an earful. “What we need now are some girls,” someone commented lazily, and there were several grunts of agreement.
“I could call Brittany to come over.” Trevor recognized Jesse’s voice. “She fills out a bikini like you wouldn’t believe. Huge tits.”
“Fuck yeah, man, call her. Tell her to bring some friends.”
“Fuckin’ A, let’s get some chicks out here.”
Riley’s voice. “Nah, man. My dad won’t let us have girls over.”
Loud exclamations of disgust, and then Riley gave a loud belch. “Look, I was pushing it to get the keg, assholes. Beer now, girls later. I figure that’s what Italy is for.” Trevor glanced over his shoulder in time to see Riley, standing at the edge of the pool, waggle his eyebrows and do a sort of swiveling hip thrust.
“Hell yeah.” A guy named Smitty reached over and high-fived Riley. “We’re gonna rock their worlds, bro.”
Trevor turned back around to hide his grimace. Sorry, ladies. A bunch of cocky, drunken idiots are the last thing you need.
“Hey, Estes, you a trust fund baby or something?” This from a dude Trevor thought was named Enriquez. “Your dad loaded? This house kicks ass.”
Riley’s voice got louder as he headed to the keg set up not far from where Trevor was standing. “Just works hard, man. He’s an accountant, does rich people’s taxes and shit.”
“This backyard is something else. Never seen anything like it.”
Trevor looked around the backyard as if seeing it for the first time. It was large, meticulously landscaped. The custom pool was built in the style of a rock grotto, complete with waterfall and a “cave.” An elevated hot tub was set to one side of the waterfall, with some lush greenery giving the whole thing a tropical effect. Trevor was grilling in the elaborate outdoor kitchen, which included a wet bar boasting a granite countertop and four leather stools. White Christmas lights were woven through the trees and the latticework over the porch year-round, giving the whole backyard a cozy yet cheery effect. He loved it.
“Well, even if we can’t have girls, fuckin’ awesome house and fuckin’ awesome party, dude,” Smitty shouted from the pool.
“Thanks, bro,” Riley said, coming around behind the bar to switch on the outdoor surround sound system, the satellite radio set to a contemporary pop station. Speakers cunningly disguised as rocks piped the music throughout the backyard, and soon the sound of splashing and yelling once again filled the air.
Riley clapped Trevor on the shoulder as he passed, throwing him a cheeky grin and a wink.
God, I love you, kid.
His heart full, Trevor watched as he set his beer down on one of the many small tables dotting the pool decking and dove with a whoop into the deep end, joining the water volleyball game in progress.
The French doors opened and Carl emerged from the house carrying a huge bowl of potato salad and a plate full of sliced tomatoes and lettuce leaves for the burgers. A few more trips with condiments, chips, plates and utensils, and the top of the bar was soon set up buffet-style. As Carl passed behind him, Trevor turned and caught him around his trim waist, pulling him close and giving him a soft kiss on the lips.
“Thanks,” he murmured, and Carl reached up to pat Trevor’s cheek before pulling away.
As Trevor slid the cooked burgers onto an empty plate, he caught a glimpse of Jesse watching him narrowly with a deep scowl on his face. Uh-oh. Great. Riley has a homophobe for a roommate. Trevor ignored him, setting the plates of steaming burgers and brats down before bellowing, “Come eat, boys!”
A mad rush from the pool, towels grabbed and wrapped around waists, and soon chattering, dripping young men were gathered under the covered porch, piling plates high with food. They retreated to sit on the chairs ringing the pool, stuffing their faces like they hadn’t eaten for a week.
Trevor shook his head, heading inside to grab some more burger patties from the fridge, his grill duty apparently not done for the day.
“Your dad is a fuckin’ grill boss, Riles.” The words were muffled as the speaker mumbled around whatever was crammed into his mouth. Trevor smiled to himself. He loved to cook, had even taken a few classes at the local culinary school. Nice to hear his efforts were appreciated.
The food was consumed as fast as Trevor could grill it, and he wondered where they put it all. Everyone was in great shape: lean, fit bodies honed by hours of PT and Army training.
How many of them would come home in one piece…or in a body bag?
Trevor refused to let his mind go there, using a wire brush to scrub the grill’s grate viciously until sweat was dripping off the end of his nose and the muscles in his arm burned. He tossed the brush aside and braced his palms against the bar top, breathing hard.
“What’s up?” Carl handed Trevor a plastic bottle of water, watching while he gulped it down. Trevor shook his head and swiped the back of his hand over his mouth before tossing the empty bottle into the recycling bin.
“You have to let him go, Trev,” Carl continued, reading the expression on Trevor’s face. “We’ve been over and over this. Riley’s an adult, and going into the Army was his choice—”
“But I don’t have to fucking like it, Carl,” Trevor hissed at him. “I’m fucking allowed to not fucking like it!” His voice rose a little at the last, and Carl put a hand on his back.
“No, you don’t have to like it. But that kind of attitude won’t help. If anything, you should feel—”
“Don’t analyze me right now, Carl,” Trevor interrupted wearily. “Just don’t.”
Carl’s hand dropped from his back, and Trevor could tell by his body language that he was hurt.
“Carl—” he tried, but Carl was already turning away.
“I’m trying to help, Trev. You don’t have to take things out on me.” He went back inside. Trevor slumped down onto a bar stool. Carl loved him, and God knew Trevor was crazy about Carl, but he didn’t seem to understand that Trevor was saying goodbye to his only child, his baby…and sending him off to a place he might never return from.
Trevor sighed. He should cut Carl some slack for not being able to empathize. He was here, and he cared, and that meant a whole heck of a lot, it really did. Trevor needed him, now more than ever, and he shouldn’t let this fester.
As if Carl had read his mind, he reappeared and stood in front of Trevor, looking down at him.
“I’m sorry,” they both said in unison. Trevor spread his knees and pulled Carl to stand in between them, wrapping his arms around his waist and putting his head on his chest. Carl threaded the fingers of one hand through Trevor’s hair, rubbing his other hand up and down his back, holding him close.
At last Carl pulled away. “I’m going to go on in, take a shower. I’ll be waiting to…take your mind off things a little, if you want.” He tilted Trevor’s chin up and kissed him deeply, thoroughly, until Trevor was clutching him around the waist again.
“Be there in a few,” he rasped, and Carl brushed their lips together one more time before heading off into the house, giving himself a discreet adjustment as he went. Trevor scrubbed his hand over his mouth, breathing hard, waiting until his own body calmed down before standing to finish the cleanup.
He caught a glimpse of Jesse watching them again, a look of anger now in his eyes…anger tinged with disgust. Trevor wanted to flip him off, but he didn’t, deciding to ignore the little shit.
By the time Trevor finished oiling the grill and getting everything put away, dusk was falling, and the sunset was gorgeous, lighting up the Colorado sky with brilliant purples and pinks. Even though the late summer day had been hot, as the sun went down the air grew a little chilly, and Riley turned on the outdoor gas fireplace, the flickering flames making everything seem warm and inviting.
The young men sprawled about on the outdoor furniture, talking desultorily about the upcoming deployment, the married guys who were getting some that night, and how good the beer was. A few of them were smoking, the acrid smell of cigarettes drifting to Trevor’s nose. He was enjoying eavesdropping on their conversation, and he fixed himself a cup of coffee, sitting at a small bistro table deep in the shadows on the porch.
A loud belch cut through the air, a couple of the other guys exclaiming, “Jesus, Byrney, excuse you.”
“Fuck off.” Jesse’s voice slurred, and he ripped another belch even more obnoxious than the last. Trevor’s lip curled. Drunk as a skunk.
“Damn, I wanna get laid tonight,” Jesse went on loudly. “One last taste before we have to go without, dude. C’mon, let’s get some girls out here.”
“We can’t.” Riley’s voice was firm. “My dad’s house, his rules.”
“Don’t you want one last chance to be balls deep—”
“Shut up, Byrne, you’re drunk,” Smitty interrupted, although his words were just as slurred as Jesse’s. “Talkin’ about girls gonna make my dick hard.”
“Ah, but you’re in luck, Smitty. From the looks of things, you could probably get your dick sucked ’round here, no problem.”
Trevor froze, and there was a charged silence before Riley said, his tone sober and deadly serious, “Watch it, Byrne. You do not want to go there with me in my own fucking home.”
Trevor got up and slipped inside the house to watch and listen through the open French door, knowing Riley wouldn’t want or need his interference. This was a battle his son had fought many, many times before.
“Daddy, what’s a cocksucker?”
“What?” Trevor whirled around to see seven-year-old Riley standing in the doorway with a tear-and snot-encrusted face, his cheekbone bruised, his lower lip split and bloody.
“Steve’s big brother called you a cocksucker. I don’t know what that is, but I kicked his butt…”
“I’m just saying,” Jesse sneered, “that I didn’t know your dad was a—”
The sound of a chair being scraped back. “You’d better fucking consider carefully the next word that comes outta your mouth. You didn’t know my dad was a what?”
Trevor clenched his hand on the edge of the doorframe, resisting the urge to charge out there and get involved. He could see the mutinous look on Jesse’s face in the flickering light, could almost see his lips forming the word fag before he amended it at the last minute to gay.
“I didn’t know your dad was…gay.” The emphasis on the last word was insolent, rude. “All right? Gay.”
“Knock it off, Byrne,” Smitty started to say, but Riley cut him off, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Yeah, my dad is gay, and his boyfriend Carl lives here with him. If you got a problem with that, I’ll call you a cab right now and you can get the fuck out. Or if you’d rather settle it a different way, well…”
He beckoned to Jesse, balancing on the balls of his feet, and Jesse lurched to standing.
Jesus, no. Don’t let it end like this…
Jesse took a half-hearted drunken swing at Riley, stumbling, and in one smooth move Riley pivoted to the side and used Jesse’s forward momentum to shove him right into the pool. Jesse went in face-first with a graceless splash, resurfacing to shouts of “Weak!” and everyone hooting and hollering. The shock of the cold water seemed to sober Jesse up a little, and he scrubbed his hands over his face.
“You gonna say shit about my dad when you’re drinking his beer and eating his food?” Riley growled. “Fuck you, man.”
He and Riley stared at each other for a moment, and then Jesse pulled himself slowly from the pool to stand dripping on the deck. “Sorry, Estes,” he mumbled. “I don’t like those kind of people being in my face, that’s all. But I’m at your house, and I shouldn’t have said all that shit.”
Riley just looked back at him, and Jesse continued, “If you want me to leave, I will.”
“He’s not a ‘kind of person,’ Byrne, he’s my dad.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Riley blew out a breath, and looked up at the sky. “I wanna kick the piss out of you right now, man,” he said. “But I won’t. ’Cause this is our last night at home and I ain’t gonna let it be like this. But you say any more shit about my dad or Carl, it’s on, I swear to fucking God.”
Jesse nodded. “I won’t.”
Smitty pushed to his feet and slung an arm around Riley’s and Jesse’s shoulders, pulling them into a group hug. “Kiss and make up now, aiight? Ain’t none of this gonna matter come tomorrow. ’Cause we leavin’ here, and once those plane wheels lift up, all we gonna have is each other. Why? Why is that?”
Jesse and Riley glanced at each other, then away. Smitty gave them both a gentle shake.
“’Cause we goin’ to war, boys. We goin’ to war.”
* * *
Trevor woke several hours later, desperately needing a drink of water. He carefully disentangled himself from Carl and groped on the floor for his discarded cargo shorts, pulling them on sans underwear before padding to the kitchen.
All was quiet, and he peeked into the large family room, smiling at the various dark shapes asleep on the leather couches, or stretched out in the recliners. A couple of them were curled up on the floor like little kids, out cold. A few soft snores reached Trevor’s ears, and he tiptoed back to the kitchen to snag a bottle of cold water from the fridge, chugging it right there, unable to resist a little “ahh” of pleasure.
All of a sudden there came the sound of a toilet flushing, and the door to the powder room off the kitchen opened. Jesse appeared in the doorway, shirtless in a pair of tight boxer briefs. They both froze, staring at each other in the weak light emanating from the open fridge, an unfathomable expression appearing in Jesse’s eyes. He seemed to be taking in Trevor’s disheveled state, and his nostrils flared as if he scented something. Trevor hadn’t showered since fucking Carl into the mattress, and he probably reeked of hard sex, though he couldn’t imagine Jesse could smell him from across the room.
The silence that stretched was uncomfortable, awkward, and Trevor had just opened his mouth to say goodnight when Carl’s loud whisper drifted down the hall.
“Hey, will you bring me a bottle of water, too, Trev?”
“Sure, honey,” Trevor replied automatically. A look of disquiet crept over Jesse’s face again.
“You got something to say to me, kid?” Trevor asked, his voice weary, looking him straight in the eye. After a moment Jesse broke their gaze and shook his head. Trevor grabbed another water and slammed the fridge door shut, plunging the kitchen into almost total darkness, and without another word went back to bed.
* * *