When Lance Corporal Brecken Connolly gets taken as a POW, Camryn hopes for the best but steels herself for the worst. In the end, steel was what she needed to survive when he didn’t. She moves on the only way she knows how—gilding herself in more steel.
Years go by.
She builds a new life.
She leaves the old one behind.
Until one day, she sees the face of a ghost on the news. Brecken seems to have risen from the dead, but she knows she can’t perform the same miracle for herself. While Brecken was held in a torture camp for the past five years, she’s been trapped in her own kind of prison. One she can’t be freed from.
The man she mourned comes back to join the living, but the girl he wanted to spend his life with isn’t the same woman he comes back for. Brecken isn’t the same person either. The past five years have changed them both. While he’s determined to put the pieces back together, she’s resolved to let hers rot where they shattered.
Whenever he had to leave, it was torture. You’d think I’d get used to it, but I didn’t—each time got harder. This one might have felt especially brutal because of how long he’d be gone. A year. We’d done weeks, we’d done months, but we’d never done the full year.
Being with someone in the military, I knew I’d have to get used to it. The separation. The worry. The loneliness. The feeling that I was trying to catch my breath for however long he was gone.
It was a way of life. And he was my life. So I’d just have to figure it out.
“I’m never going to look at dog tags the same way again.” Brecken’s mouth turned up as his eyes roamed over me splayed across the backseat as he tucked in his T-shirt. He twisted his wrist, his gaze moving to his watch. A crease folded into his forehead. “But I’m going to need those back before I climb onto that bus. Something about military regulations. Not wandering around enemy territory without them. Those marines are sticklers for the rules.”
He was trying to make me feel better—trying to get me to smile—but little could lift my spirits other than finding out he didn’t have to leave for the Middle East for twelve long months.
“You don’t need them. Not really.”
“Because you only need them if you’re planning on dying, and so help me god, I’m not taking these off my neck if you have plans for some kind of a hero’s death.” My hand curled almost defensively around the metal tags hanging against my bare skin as I focused on the way the cool metal warmed in my hand. The way it seemed to come to life in my hold.
“I’m not planning on dying over there. I’m not going to die,” he corrected the moment my eyebrow started to lift. “But I do have plans of scoring some gnarly war wound so I have a story to tell our grandkids one day and can hang one of those Purple Hearts off my chest.”
I flattened my face as best as I could, even though it was kind of impossible with the way he was grinning at me as he wrestled his jeans back into place. “Not funny.”
“Come on. It’ll make me look tough.”
“You already look tough. Too tough,” I added as I scanned him for the millionth time since he’d arrived back in Medford for a week-long vacation before shipping out. Whenever I looked at him, I didn’t just see the good-looking guy others did—I saw every good memory from my past. I saw every good memory that would be formed in the future. Brecken had been a part of my life since I was eight, and he was as much a part of me as I was.
“Nah, I need one of those big, angry-looking scars running across my chest. Or one of those bullet hole scars on my thigh. Something real tough like that.”
“And why do you need your dog tags for that?” My fingers tightened around the thin metal ovals, refusing to let them go as if I hoped in doing so, he couldn’t go either.
“Blood transfusion. Medics are going to need to know my blood type when they’re trying to patch up my unconscious body.”
He nodded all solemn-like. “I can’t be one of those guys who earns his Purple Heart by getting a scratch on some barbed wire. I need to lose a quart or two of blood, maybe even code on the operating table. Something worthy of that medal.”
The thought of Brecken marching through a hostile country with a rifle in his hands, with god only knew what aimed his way, made me feel weak with worry. The thought of him fighting for his life in some marine medical tent about took whatever was left of my sanity.
I must not have been doing a good job hiding my emotions, because his face broke when he saw my eyes, his arms opening toward me. “It’s going to be okay, Camryn. I’m going to be okay. We’re going to be okay. The year will fly by, and before we know it, we’ll be getting married and buying a little house as close to the beach as we can afford. Okay?”
His arms wound around me, swallowing my body, and I let him tuck me close to him. I’d never known the feeling of being safe until Brecken Connolly’s arms had shown me the meaning.
My hand planted in the middle of his chest, feeling his heartbeat vibrate against my palm. “Why can’t we just get married now? Why can’t I join the marines and go with you, wherever that is, so we can be together?”
His laugh was muffled from his mouth being pressed against my temple. “Well, you can’t join the marines and my unit because the military’s under this impression that us marines of the male species become distracted and one-track minded when the women we love are marching beside us. They’re convinced the only things on our minds are protecting you, flirting with you, or screwing you.”
Quietly, I counted off on my fingers, “Protecting, flirting, screwing . . .” Then I nodded. “Damn, they sure have you pegged.”
Brecken’s fingers brushed up and down the bend of my waist. “And we can’t get married right now because you’ve got two more months of high school to finish before you earn that nifty diploma thing.” He kept going, undeterred by my grumble. “And I need to save some money to give you a proper ring and wedding. I’m not doing the courthouse thing with cheap silver bands. Not for you. You deserve the best.”
My head tucked beneath his chin as I let him hold me in the backseat of his aunt’s old Corsica. The only good thing I could say about the car—which was a coin toss if it would start any given day—was that it had a decent-sized backseat that Brecken and I had made more than ample use of. Growing up in a strict household with my dad as Brecken grew up in the packed household a few houses down, privacy had been in short supply for both of us. Thankfully, his aunt was willing to lend Brecken her car whenever she could, like today, when I’d just made love to the only boy I’d ever loved for the last time for the next year.
My fingers curled into his chest as I willed time to freeze. “I have the best.”
Brecken grunted like he doubted that, his head lifting to check out the windshield. We were parked way back in the bus depot lot. His bus would be leaving for the long drive back to Camp Pendleton in a few short minutes.
“Besides, you already got me a ring.” I raised my left hand in front of him, rolling my fingers so he could see the adjustable birthstone ring on my finger.
He shook his head. “I won that for you at an arcade when we were ten.”
“It cost you twelve hundred tickets too. You saved up all summer to get that many tickets.”
His fingers touched the ring, twisting it around with a small smile on his face. “And it probably has the street value of a nickel. Not exactly the kind of wedding ring I want my wife to have.”
I found myself staring at the ring with him. The gold paint had started chipping off the thin band years ago, but the small pink birthstone still sparkled when the light hit it just right. “Well, it’s priceless to me. I don’t care what the street value is. Or how many tickets it cost.”
“Even so, I’m getting you a nice ring. With all of the hazard pay I’ll earn this year, you’d better start working that left ring finger out so it can bear the weight of the diamond I’ll be dropping on it.”
I was glad he couldn’t see my face, because he hated knowing how worried I was about him. He said hazard pay like a sales rep mentioned a bonus, but I heard it for what it really was—the government giving you a little more money for the likelihood of losing your life increasing.
“One more year. That’s it. Then we’ll be able to be together like we’ve always planned. Away from here.” Brecken’s arms loosened around me. We didn’t have much longer. “Away from these people.”
An uneven exhale came from him, the muscles in his arms twitching. I knew who he was talking about without him going into detail. Neither of our lives had been charmed or particularly easy, but mine had been worse. Being raised by a single dad who was so strict he made a monk’s life seem carefree, I’d had an unusual upbringing. Brecken only knew what I let him know about it, which was barely half of the reality.
“I don’t like leaving you alone with him,” he said, his voice a note lower. “If things get hard again, just leave. Move in with my insane family or a hotel or anywhere. Don’t let him hurt you. Words or fists. He does it again”—Brecken’s hands curled into balls as his back stiffened—“I’ll kill him. I swear I will.”
“He won’t,” I said instantly, in my most convincing voice. “He’s working on all that. Not drinking as much.” I made sure to hold his stare to sell as much conviction as I was capable.
My dad wasn’t just a strict man. He was a sad one, a lonely one. After my mom left, he’d turned into someone else, almost like she’d taken everything that had been good about him and stuffed it in that small suitcase too. Since I was the only one around and bore a striking resemblance to my mom, I’d taken the brunt of my dad’s grief. In the form of cutting words and, occasionally, outstretched palms.
Brecken had been walking down the sidewalk one day when he saw my dad strike me across the cheek for attempting to leave the house in a skirt he described as “fitting for a whore.” Brecken had only been thirteen, but he’d taken my dad down, managing to land a few punches before I could pull him off.
My dad stopped hitting me after that. At least where anyone passing by could see.
Not that I needed to tell Brecken that now. Though I guessed it would get him to stay a while longer . . . if only to be charged with murder and thrown into prison for the next twenty to thirty years.
Suddenly, that year didn’t seem so bad.
“He won’t,” I reiterated, when Brecken continued to give me that penetrating stare, like he was capable of finding a lie if I was hiding one.
Both of his brows lifted. “He better not.”
“If anything happens, I’ll crash at your family’s place, I swear.”
Sitting up, he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. “With fourteen people sharing twelve hundred square feet of space, good luck finding a quiet spot to do your homework.” He pulled every bill out of his wallet. Even the last crumbled dollar. “Take this, hide it from your dad, and use it if you need to. That’s enough to get you a week or so at a hotel that isn’t a dump, and as soon as I get my next paycheck, I’ll send more.”
My head was shaking as I tried to stuff the money back into his wallet. He’d already closed it and was sliding it back into his pocket though. “I’ll be fine.”
Brecken’s gaze dropped to the money in my hand. “Yeah, I know.”
“Camryn,” he mimicked.
“I’m not taking the last dollar in your wallet.”
“Why not?” he asked, making a face. “I’d give you the shirt off my back, the air in my lungs, the last drop of blood in my veins. The last dollar’s a cakewalk compared to, you know, dying of suffocation or bleeding out.” He winked as he folded my fingers around the wad of money in my hand, then he leaned down to pull on his boots. He was moving quickly, glancing in the direction of the buses like he was making sure his wasn’t pulling away from the curb yet.
“Do you want to walk with me to the bus?” His focus stayed on cinching up his last boot as he waited for my answer.
He already knew it though. Good-byes weren’t my forte. Especially not the kind where I had to wave good-bye to the man I loved as he prepared to head into the middle of a war zone for the next year. Good-bye came with a whole different context when you said it to a marine.
“I know, Blue Bird. I know.” He sighed, his eyes narrowing at the weathered floorboards before he reached for the dog tags still hanging around my neck.
I didn’t make any move to lift my head or slide my hair aside to make it easier for him. As long as those tags were on my neck instead of his, he was safe. He was alive.
“I’m not going to die over there,” he whispered, pulling the tags over his head. They clinked together as they fell against his chest. “I’m coming back to you.”
My throat was burning from trying to keep myself from crying. “You can’t promise that.”
He reached for the blanket that had fallen on the floor and gently tucked it around my still-naked body. It was strange how I’d forgotten I was naked until he’d taken his tags off of me. Now though, I felt bare. Exposed. Vulnerable. My dress was somewhere around, even though I didn’t see it. We’d barely managed to make it to the parking lot before falling into the backseat together.
“Yes I can,” he said, his thumb tracing my collarbone before tucking the other corner around my shoulder. “Have I ever broken a promise to you?” He angled himself so he was in front of me, so I was forced to look him in the eyes.
“This is different. You can’t know for sure.”
“I’m going to enjoy watching you eat those words when I’m standing in front of that pretty face in twelve months, Blue Bird.”
I pulled the blanket tighter around me. “You know I don’t like it when you call me that when I’m mad at you.”
“You’re mad? At me?” He blinked. “Why?”
“You know why.” My eyes automatically moved toward the line of buses.
“To set the record straight, it’s the marine corps sending me to Iraq. Not me by personal choice.”
“No, but you made the personal choice to join the marine corps.”
“Yeah, because I didn’t want to spend the next twenty years pumping gas at the Qwik Mart.” His hand curled around the back of the front seat. “We’ve talked about this, Camryn. I’m not cut out for college, and I sure as shit am not going to spend my life working a minimum-wage part-time job and stuck in Medford. The marines is a chance at a real life. A career where I can be promoted and provide for a family and get a chance to kick a little ass every once in a while.” He leaned forward to kiss my forehead. Then my lips. “This is the ticket to that life we’ve been talking about for years. But it comes with a price.” His mouth covered mine again, this time a bit longer. “I’ll be okay. I’ll make it back.”
My eyes closed so I could focus on the taste of him left behind on my mouth. “You’re always the first to charge into anything. You don’t hang back. You don’t like the shadows. You like being the one who cast those shadows.”
When my eyes finally opened, I found his dark blue ones inches away from mine. His light hair, buzzed short so he was all ready for deployment, the few freckles scattered across the bridge of his nose, the way his jaw tightened when he stared at me, those were the things I’d remember when I’d lay awake at night, wondering where he was. If he was safe. If he was thinking about me. As long as I held on to a part of him, he could never really leave me.
“I’m coming home to you,” he said like a solemn vow. “It might be in more than one piece, but I’m coming home to you.”
I tucked his tags inside his shirt. They’d become cold again. “A thousand pieces, I don’t care. Just come home.”
His smile was almost as forced as mine as he leaned in, pulling me into his arms one last time. He held me for a minute, one hand secured around my neck, the other around my back, rocking me against him. Then he kissed me one last time. “Gotta go, Blue Bird. The Middle East isn’t going to settle itself down.”
As he threw open the back door to go around to the trunk to grab his bag, I leaned across the seat. He was leaving. For what felt like forever. “Yeah, don’t think you’re single-handedly responsible for tackling that agenda either.”
Throwing the bag over his shoulder, he crouched beside me. This smile wasn’t contrived. It was real. Perfect. “I’ll see you soon.”
His hand formed around my cheek as his thumb traced the seam of my lips. “Sounds better than see you in a year, right?” Tucking his thumb into his mouth, tasting my lips on it, he gave me a wicked smirk before shoving to a stand and starting toward the buses. “I’m coming back for you, Camryn Blue Gardner, so you’d better be waiting for me, or I’ll just have to come find you and remind you why you fell crazy in love with me.”
Tucking the blanket around myself, I slid out of the car, leaning over the open door. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be waiting.”
He’d started to jog backward. “Waiting as in a few days until some other guy makes his play?”
My eyes rolled as I gave him a look. Brecken and I’d been together since I was fifteen and he was seventeen. Even before that, we’d been inseparable, no one able to come between us.
I cupped my hand around my mouth. “Waiting as in forever.”
“I won’t keep you waiting that long. Just long enough.” He was shouting now, the rumbling buses muffling his voice.
“Long enough for what?” I yelled back.
Even with this much distance between us, I didn’t miss it. The look in his eyes. The tip of his smile. “For you to agree to marry me the moment I get back.”
The breeze played with my hair, sending it away from him, like forces out of our control were already pulling us apart. “I will!”
He paused just below the bus steps, his eyes consuming me from a hundred yards away. “It’s, I do, Blue Bird. I do.” He grinned and handed his bag off to the person stuffing them into one of the outside compartments. Then his hands cupped around his mouth, and he dropped his head back. “I do, too!”
His voice echoed across the parking lot, earning the attention of more than just me.
That was it. He climbed the stairs, turned the corner, and disappeared inside the bus. I wouldn’t see him for a year. I might not see him ever . . .
My jaw tensed as I put a stop to that train of thought. Wedding vows and rings were the last things on my mind as his bus lurched away from the curb.
“Just come back to me,” I whispered to no one. “Just come back.”