Authors: Claire Ashgrove
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Holidays, #Military
Kyle shifted position, easing his legs to the floor. Walking hadn’t been much easier the few times he’d wandered to the toilet than it had been last night. But he couldn’t avoid the stairs. He didn’t want to have this conversation in their bedroom, didn’t want the distraction of the years of intimate pleasure they’d found in this bed.
Gritting his teeth, he stood. Two steps took him to his dresser where he found a pair of loose lounge pants and pulled them on. As Aimee ascended the stairs, the treads creaked. Her footfalls, however, stopped on the landing outside the bedroom door. More rustling drifted to his ears, along with the rich low tone of a wide-mouthed bell.
Kyle chuckled. If Aimee had things her way, their entire house would be decorated in Christmas bells and snowmen year round.
“I’m coming,” she assured him. “Just finishing up something.”
Curious, Kyle wandered to the doorway and braced a shoulder on the dark wood frame. She bustled around the banister, weaving a thick strand of fake green foliage through the balusters and around the smooth railing. All the way up the stairs, she’d wound the greenery. Every three vertical bars, she had pinned a bright red bow. As she worked, she hummed
His chest tightened uncomfortably as he watched. She looked so happy. So absolutely content. Christmas hadn’t always found her so cheery, however. The first one they spent together as a couple, he’d had to prod her into the holiday spirit. Her broken childhood hadn’t left much room for frivolous decorations. But once he lugged home a wreath, she quickly caught on. In a normal year, one where he was at home not overseas, she began nudging him to drag the decorations out of the basement the morning after Thanksgiving.
In a normal year, her happiness would have brought him joy. Now, it only reinforced his suspicion that she’d read too much into last night.
Hating himself for what he was about to do, Kyle hobbled to the loveseat against the wall and sat down.
Quick and simple. Spit it out.
She glanced over her shoulder with a welcoming smile. “You didn’t need to come in here. I said I’d be there.”
“I needed to get out of bed.”
“Oh, well, in that case, let me get this wreath centered. I brought home Thai carryout. I’ll bring it up in a jiffy—we can eat in here.” Opening a sack, she pulled out a wreath of garland and white-painted pinecones. The low ringing he had heard came from the large bell that dangled from the bottom.
As she fluffed the branches, Kyle dropped his gaze to his bare feet.
Keep it quick, Garland. Don’t drag this out.
He opened his mouth, closed it. Swallowing, he wetted his dry throat. “I killed a man.”
Her hands stilled over the wreath, but she didn’t turn around. The long dark hair cascading down her back made it easier for Kyle to forge ahead. He focused on her narrow shoulders. “I looked him in the eye and pulled the trigger. I watched him die.”
In slow motion, she lowered the wreath to the carpet and turned to look at him. Kyle braced for the condemnation in her eyes.
Instead, Aimee shrugged one shoulder. “You were at war. You aren’t exactly supposed to invite the enemy to barbeque on the back deck.”
Kyle blinked. She had no idea how close to the truth she was. Countless times he and
had met with Saif for the Afghanistan version of barbeque and decks. He pushed the rising image of Saif’s face aside. War or not, Aimee wasn’t hearing him.
Time to drive the nail into his coffin. He took a deep breath and let it out over the span of several heavy heartbeats. Quietly, he added, “He wasn’t my enemy. I killed Denton.”
Her ghastly look of horror and shocked outcry didn’t come. Nor did tears and accusations. Instead, Aimee crossed the distance between them and sat by his side. One hand she tucked between her knees. The other, she rested on his thigh. Her quiet gaze held questions, but to Kyle’s absolute disbelief, she said nothing at all.
Aimee waited, silently encouraging him, knowing how she reacted was critical to whether Kyle continued or not. Questions pounded against her skull. Screamed for release. Why? What happened? What did Denton do? Had he compromised the mission? Had he betrayed the team? On and on they drilled into her brain. But this was Kyle’s burden to shed, and whatever pace he chose—even if he said nothing more—she must respect.
She rubbed her palm down the length of his thigh.
Kyle braced one elbow on his knee and sank his forehead into his hand. “I killed him, Aimee. Two hours earlier, I was laughing with him. We were meeting Saif. The man in the pictures.” He ran his hand over his stubble-covered chin, then squeezed his temples between thumb and forefinger and hid his face again.
Aimee didn’t move. Her hand stilled. She barely breathed.
“Saif was our source. He was going to lead us to our target. We’d been working with him for two years.” He drew in a deep breath, blew it out hard. When he spoke next, grief thickened his words. “I trusted him.”
At the simple remark, Aimee closed her eyes.
Oh, God, Kyle’s worst fear. He knew sources could only be trusted so far, but Kyle was smart. He picked up on oddities. For someone to dupe him, he had given seldom placed, true trust. She squeezed his thigh, signaling in the only way she could think of, that she understood.
“Something was off. I knew it… I
he wasn’t right. And what did I do? I sat there. It was my responsibility to look out for my team, and I blew us up.” His jaw worked as he swallowed down threatening emotion.
Then, Kyle lost the battle. Doubling over, he buried his head in both hands, and an anguished sob broke from his throat. Aimee’s heart shredded at the bitter sound. In seven years of life with him, she’d seen him cry at funerals, shared his grief over the loss of their unborn child, but not once had she ever witnessed such raw, unfettered emotion. Uncertain how to offer comfort, she pulled her hand off his thigh and rubbed the broad expanse of his back.
The gesture unraveled him further. Words came out in a broken, jumbled mess. Bits and pieces of the events got lost in ugly tears. His shoulders heaved, his body shook. And somehow, she managed to comprehend what exactly had happened the day his leg had nearly been blown off. Taliban insurgents tortured Denton. Knowing he wouldn’t live, Kyle gave him the quick death he desired. An act only a saint could have performed without lingering effects. They were brothers. Maybe not as close as Kyle and Walsh had once been, but Denton, Parker, and Jones were Kyle’s family.
Worse, Conner had stopped Kyle from eating the bullet that would have let him escape the necessary execution and what Kyle perceived as his failure to bring his team out alive. Conner understood. Hell, who wouldn’t? She understood why Kyle couldn’t look Conner in the eye.
Only Kyle had one thing grossly wrong. He hadn’t failed. He had done his job, as he understood it, and given the circumstances, she could find no fault in his actions.
She wrapped her arms around him, drew him into her embrace. For once, Kyle didn’t resist. His arms wound around her, holding on fiercely.
“He should have left me there, Aimee. Left me there to die.”
“No,” she whispered as she caught his face and tipped his red-eyed gaze to hers. “He brought you home. To me.” With her thumbs, she wiped away his tears. “To us, Kyle.”
On a soggy sniffle, he shook his head. “There is no us. We’re divorced. I fucked that up too.”
But he never told her why…
The thought flitted through Aimee’s brain, and she swatted it aside like a pesky fly. That didn’t matter right now. Whatever answer he gave if she should ask, would be so filled with self-repulsion, it would skew beyond proportions. That was a different discussion than the one they were presently having, and she’d tackle it later.
“You’ve got to go. I’m not what—or who—you think I am anymore. Something inside me died over there. And all that’s left is ugly. I don’t even have the chance to go back over there and disappear in the desert.”
Aimee leaned forward and brushed her mouth across his. “I don’t want you to disappear.”
Brief annoyance flicked across his expression, and he pulled away with a snort. “Yeah. Say that again when I fall down the stairs. When I can’t cut wood for winter. When I can’t get out of the goddamn bed for a full fucking day.”
“Kyle,” Aimee whispered. Scooting close enough to his side that their thighs touched, she reached between his knees and picked up his right hand. As she pressed it to her heart, she settled her opposite fingers under his chin and turned his head toward her. “For better or worse, remember? I made the vow. I meant it.”
“You’re not bound to those words anymore. Go to San Antonio. Go live your life.”
Holding his gaze steady, she shook her head. “No. I never broke my vows. The court took them from me.”
He blinked, and a solitary teardrop rolled down his cheek. Jade green eyes filled with a strange mix of puzzlement, disbelief, and wonder. His voice was hoarse as he asked, “Why, Aimee?”
What he asked went so much deeper than her refusal to sign the divorce papers. In his broken stare, his swollen eyes, his wet eyelashes, she heard the cry from his soul. Why him? Why stay?
Why forgive and accept him as he was?
She answered with the only truth she knew. “Because I love you.”
With a trembling hand, Kyle touched Aimee’s cheek. Her loyalty amazed him. The absolute conviction she gave to vows he had ripped in two left him speechless. He had told her everything, and when she should be turning away in repulsion, she offered love. “Aimee,” he whispered.
“Tell me what to do. Tell me what you need.”
There was only one answer. It bubbled up from the depths of his soul and escaped before he could squash it down. “You.”
The instant it rolled off his tongue, he closed his eyes, regretting the confession. She was willing now. But what about later? What would happen when she woke up one morning and realized she didn’t want to carry his burdens? When she
shoulder his and her own? He’d never forgive himself if he dragged her back into depression.
“You have me.” Aimee pressed his palm flat over her heart, and with her free hand traced the long-ago scar above his bicep. The light press of her short nail lifted his lowered lashes. A soft smile brightened her tawny eyes. “You’ve had me since the day you walked into my field tent.”
Kyle couldn’t help himself. Mesmerized by her tender words, he allowed his gaze to drop to where he touched her. Against her light blue sweater, the darker bronze of his skin created a compellingly sharp contrast, and he slipped his palm lower to cover her breast. Her breath caught as he willed his fingers to cooperate with a gentle squeeze.
Yeah, he needed her. Like flowers required sun, or fish water, some unnamable part of him needed Aimee to survive. He had always understood this, but had never been more aware of that vulnerable truth than he was now.
Lifting his gaze back to hers, he leaned in closer. Her breath dusted his cheek, mingled with his. Then, as he stroked the curve of her breast with his thumb, her lips brushed his. Like he had touched a live wire, current rippled from his shoulders to the base of his spine. His chest cinched tight, squashing his lungs together. He sucked in a shuddering breath.
When the tip of Aimee’s tongue slid along the seam of his mouth, Kyle let out a hoarse groan. His other arm slid around her waist to draw her upper body flush with his despite the awkward angle of their side-by-side positions. In an effort to temper the feral rush of desire that surged through his veins, he took his time with the kiss. The rich flavor of coffee lingered on her tongue, fringed with a hint of mint, and he drank deeply.