Rock-Hard Heroes 2: Operation Better Tomorrow

Brandi Evans

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The interview of a lifetime. When Aaron Strickland’s assigned to write a feature article on Caleb Douglas, the first openly gay soldier to receive the Medal of Honor, he’s over-the-moon. Meet a sexy, real-life hero? Yes, pl...
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The interview of a lifetime.

When Aaron Strickland’s assigned to write a feature article on Caleb Douglas, the first openly gay soldier to receive the Medal of Honor, he’s over-the-moon. Meet a sexy, real-life hero? Yes, please. And in the weeks leading up to their interview, the former soldier becomes a recurring player in Aaron’s fantasies.

A man Caleb can’t forget.

Years earlier, lost in the throes of depression and PTSD after an ambush left his body and soul scarred, Caleb was on the brink of giving up when a magazine article changed his life forever—an article written by Aaron. Emerging from the depths of his pain, Operation Better Tomorrow—part homestead, part halfway house for those down on their luck—was born.

Tragedy lurking on the horizon.

As the days pass, Caleb and Aaron’s tragic pasts bind them in ways they aren’t prepared for, but it also leaves them vulnerable. Pushing forward means breaking down walls they’ve built to protect themselves, and just as they’re poised on the precipice of happiness, a darkness descends on the homestead, a hatred that will leave one man clinging to life and the other willing to risk everything to save him.

  • Note:Operation Better Tomorrow has been rated a STAFF PICK by MT!
Excerpt
From somewhere near The House, Trevor barked. Gracie laughed. And one of the roosters crowed. The familiar sounds of life on the homestead, chaotic and happy, gave Caleb a lifeline to grab on to and pull himself back from the ledge.

Caleb cleared his throat. “So, um, how was your trip?”

“Eventful but fine. It’s beautiful country up here. Actually, I almost couldn’t find the place. I lost cell service not long after passing that single-pump gas station with the funny name.”

“The Pump-and-Munch?”

“That’s the one!” Another grin. “I didn’t think places like that existed outside of the movies.”

“Are you kidding? The Pump-and-Munch is a one-stop shop. You can get your gas, groceries, and grub all at the same place. And I do mean grub. Their idea of greens come in the form of Skittles and Mountain Dew.”

“So you’re saying it’s not a five-star joint, then?”

“No, not so much.”

Aaron chuckled. “Well, once I passed the station, my navigation app was useless.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I should have warned you reception’s crap up here. We lost a cell tower during a big storm last April, and the phone company still hasn’t gotten around to fixing it. Part of the joy of living out in the boondocks, I guess.” In an overexaggerated move, Caleb drew in a long, deep breath of mountain air. “But the peace and serenity you get out here more than make up for any inconveniences.”

“I bet. Is that the reason you decided to start Operation Better Tomorrow out here? For the peace and serenity?”

Turning his gaze to the ground, Caleb clasped his hands in front of him. Remembering the time in his life before the homestead, before his therapy was complete—before he’d read Aaron’s article—felt like acid in his veins. And that was putting it mildly. He hadn’t moved out here, to his grandparents’ old house, with the intention of doing anything except dying. He hadn’t been suicidal per se—at least, he liked to think he hadn’t been—but he’d been damn close.

He hadn’t wanted to kill himself, but he hadn’t wanted to live either.

“I’m sorry,” Aaron murmured as he placed his hand on Caleb’s forearm. His touch was tentative, like a baby bird attempting to fly for the first time. “That question triggered painful memories for you. I could see it in your expression. I’ve only been here a few minutes. I shouldn’t have started in with the questions like—”

“Don’t apologize, Aaron. That was a long time ago. I’m a different man now.” Caleb shook off the dark blanket trying to wrap around him. He refused to let his past get a foothold in the present.

He turned to Aaron. The other man’s nearness, the emotion on his face, derailed Caleb’s train of thought and sent rationality into a tailspin. Concern, interest, and something far removed from pity etched the younger man’s features. Warmth maybe? No, stronger.

Aaron’s hand felt like a goddamn hot-iron pressed to Caleb’s arm, distracting, painful, and impossible to ignore. His heart slammed against his rib cage, and he lowered his gaze to Aaron’s mouth. To his lips. To Aaron’s tongue as it slipped out and left a dab of saliva behind.

Fuck.

Caleb went rigid. The wetness glistening on Aaron’s full, biteable bottom lip threatened to fracture reality. His cock wrestled for control of the body, and blood rushed below the belt to aid in the coup. Goddamn it. He had to get a grip. If his dick took over, he knew what would happen next. Well, he knew what he wanted to happen next. The pair of them naked. But no way in hell would young, sexy, physically perfect Aaron let that happen.

But damn it, Caleb wanted that mouth. Wanted to taste it. Wanted to, finally, after all these years, get lost in another man’s body until the memories, the words that had haunted him for years evaporated in the heat of their fucking.

Christ, this would be the longest ten days of his life.

* * * *


Aaron didn’t know which was worse. The fact Caleb had left to shower or that he hadn’t been invited to watch.

Or participate.

Missing a viewing like that should be punishable by law.

His heart rate kicked up a few beats per minute. The thought of Caleb’s hard body all wet and soapy, water beading on tanned, muscled skin, set Aaron’s desire on a low boil. Okay, that was a lie. There was nothing low about the things Caleb did to him.

Aaron chased the last bite of his overstuffed turkey sandwich with a big-ass swig of homemade lemonade, but neither the refreshing drink nor the air-conditioned room touched the burning inside. For a moment at the barn, he’d thought Caleb was about to take their digital flirting to the next level and kiss him. And fucking A, Aaron had wanted that damn kiss more than he’d ever wanted a kiss in his life—and he’d wanted a lot of kisses a lot of times.

But never like that.

The intensity had shocked the hell out of him. The emotion in the other man’s eyes, the way desire had darkened the green into a tempest of longing so palpable Aaron had felt it in his chest.

Over years of interviewing people, Aaron had developed an innate ability to read body language. When to push for more information and when to pull back and give people space. When someone was telling the truth and when they were holding something back. Or when a man was into him. And Caleb had wanted him—at least, that was what Aaron had thought until Caleb had turned away like nothing had happened.

Like nothing had happened.

Maybe Aaron had misread the sexy soldier-turned-cowboy. He’d been wrong before, but he’d never wanted so desperately to be right.

Before heading off to shower, Caleb had left Aaron at The House—what everyone called the primary structure on the homestead—in the capable hands of Aubrey Douglas, Caleb’s larger-than-life mother. Actually, Aaron wasn’t sure “larger-than-life” was big enough to describe Mrs. Douglas. Within seconds of meeting him, she’d ushered him into the kitchen and shoved food at him because, apparently, he needed to “put some serious meat on his bones.” Who knew all the time he’d spent at the box had been doing him a disservice?

The House was a beautiful conglomeration of bright colors and rustic charm. Hardwood floors and canary trim. Beige walls with wooden wreaths and colorful flowers that brought the outdoors indoors. Homey but not over-the-top. He liked it. Speaking of over-the-top…

Mrs. Douglas rounded the bar, a pale-yellow plate in her hand and a smile on her face. “Brought ya a slice of my homemade apple pie. This’ll fatten you right up, dear.”

Aaron had no doubt. “This isn’t a slice of pie, Mrs. Douglas. It’s half a pie.”

“Not round these parts, dear. And call me Aubrey. Or Grammy. Most everyone else does.” She placed a fork in his hand and closed his fingers around it. “Now eat up. I’ll be personally offended if you don’t finish every last bite.”

Bits of Caleb stared back at Aaron through Aubrey. The dusting of freckles over her nose and cheeks. The glint in her green eyes. The hint of ginger hair mixed with silver. They even had the same crooked smile.

If Aaron had to guess, he’d say she was in her midsixties, but with her short, razored hair and gray sweater over a bright-blue button-down, she wore her age well. He liked her already.

Aaron shook his head. “There’s no way I can eat this much. I’d—”

“Every. Last. Bite. Boy. You hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He eyeballed the mammoth “slice” and skewered some baked fruit and a sliver of crust.

Bring on the diabetes.

He took a bite. “Oh. My. Gawd.” The words clambered out on a sigh. Fuck diabetes. This pie was heaven on a plate, the perfect amalgam of sweet and tart, neither overpowering. The fresh flavor of apple danced over his tongue, nothing at all like the over-sugary, apple-flavored pastries he indulged in at the Caffeine Rush, a café down the block from his penthouse.

Aubrey laughed as she settled onto the chair across the breakfast nook. “Another convert.”

Nodding, he shoveled another morsel into his mouth. And another. Taking time out between mouthfuls to do anything as menial as speaking wasn’t happening. Even breathing was pushing it.

Aubrey smiled as he devoured the pie, and when he finished every crumb—and yes, he damn near licked the plate clean—he rubbed his palms over his stomach. He’d pay for this indulgence tomorrow, but that was tomorrow’s problem.

“That was so incredible, Aubrey. I think I might die.”

“Then my work here’s done, my boy.” Pushing to her feet, she grabbed his plate and then headed for the sink.

“Do you feed all the clients this well? Or’s this a special occasion?”

“First off, Caleb insists we call everyone members, not clients or residents. Those words have negative connotations he doesn’t like.” She placed his plate in the dishwasher. “But to answer your question, yes. This’s a normal homestead meal. Nearly all our food’s home-cooked from produce grown right here in our little gardens. In fact, Caleb picked the apples for that pie fresh from the orchard this morning. Said he wanted me to make you a good, Southern dessert.”

A lazy, post-dessert-bliss smile pulled at his lips, and his eyes drifted closed. “Remind me to thank Caleb when I see him. Ya know, assuming I’ll be able to stand again.”

“Does that mean I need to help you up?”

Fucking Baby Jesus on a cracker.

That wasn’t Aubrey.

Aaron’s eyes flew open, and he shot to his feet, locking his gaze on Caleb’s. The other man stood just inside the kitchen, a shoulder resting against the door frame. His legs were crossed at the ankles, and his hair was still damp. The locks were no longer Army-regulation length. They were just long enough to grab on to and hold on. You know, in case the situation presented itself.

Caleb had traded in his mud-clumped jeans for a clean pair, pressed and paired with a black-and-cream plaid button-down. His shirttails were tucked in nice and proper. A black belt wrapped his trim waist, a fist-size walkie-talkie fastened to the right side, and was held together with a buckle that bore the Army logo—square with a star in the middle and the words U.S. ARMY below.

Oh yeah. Sergeant Caleb Douglas was total wet-dream fodder.

Aaron’s dick tightened. Too bad the massive serving of sugar hadn’t slowed his libido like it was slowing his thought processes. Would falling to his knees in front of that man be completely inappropriate? Probably. The things Aaron wanted to do from a kneeling position were epically inappropriate with Aubrey in the room.

Some things a mom should never see.

Aubrey went to her son, her lips stretching into a smile that conveyed love and affection. “Well, don’t you look all snazzy?”

Breaking eye contact, the left corner of his mouth tipping up, Caleb glanced at his mother. “I’m wearing jeans and a shirt, Mama. I’d hardly call that snazzy.”

“Besides the point, darlin’. You’re still as handsome as the day is long.”

Aaron agreed.

Whole-fucking-heartedly.

Aubrey pressed a hand to her son’s battle-scarred cheek. The beard didn’t cover the entire breadth of scars, but it seemed to cover most of them. Located primarily on the left side of the face, most of the imperfections were small and noticeable because Aaron was looking for them. Three, however, stood out.

One began at Caleb’s temple, traveled beneath his eye, and stopped before reaching his nose. Another started under the nostril and bisected the top lip. The biggest of the trio ran from the earlobe and descended beneath his collar. How many more scars would Aaron find if he removed the other man’s clothes and really examined him?

Yeah, like if Aaron had Caleb’s clothes off he’d be thinking about finding scars.

Caleb caught Aaron gawking, the languorous smile splitting Caleb’s lips telling Aaron the voyeurism hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Great.

“Did you get enough to eat?” Caleb asked.

“And then some.” The words sounded wispy and a bit too dreamy. Get it together, fuckhead. “Your mom did her best to singlehandedly obliterate a year of CrossFit classes.”

“She has a tendency to do that.” Caleb draped an arm over Aubrey’s shoulder. “You should have seen me as a boy. Talk about chubby.”

No way. Aaron couldn’t imagine the other man ever carrying an extra ounce of body fat.

Aubrey waved off Caleb’s comment. “Don’t let him spin you a tale, dear. He was as cute then as he is now.”

Okay, that Aaron believed.

“Thanks, Mama,” Caleb said. “I’m officially embarrassed.”

The interaction between mother and son left a hollow feeling in Aaron’s chest. Who knew parents and children shared open, playful relationships outside of Hallmark Channel movies? Caleb and his mom had spoken more in the past two minutes than Aaron and his father had in the last three years. Not that Aaron wanted to talk to Mr. Perfect-Self-Important Strickland. Their last conversation had all but snapped the remaining tether binding them.

Caleb smiled Aaron’s way. “Ready for a tour? Let me get ya outta here before she tries to feed you more pie. Or worse—breaks out my baby pictures.”

“There are baby pictures?” Aaron winked at Aubrey.

“More shots of naked baby butt than you can shake a stick at.”

An familiar chill weaved through Aaron, a red flag that signaled for him to keep his distance. He didn’t need baby pictures to do this interview. More than that, finding out childhood info about a potential fuck buddy was usually boner kryptonite, and yet, he actually wanted to see them.

The fuck?

“And with that,” Caleb said, a grin on his lips, “we’re outta here. Coming, Aaron?”

“Yeah. Just gotta grab my gear.” Aaron held the other man’s gaze a few more heartbeats before turning on his heel—and promptly tripping over his feet like an overexcited puppy.

He went down face first, but, thanks to his agility, was back on his feet in two seconds flat. Fucking, fucking, fuckhead.

“You okay?” Caleb’s voice held genuine empathy, not the fake platitudes Aaron had grown accustomed to in the city. Hell, the kind he’d become accustomed to in his own home as a child, where conversation was born out of convention, not actual concern.

Aaron patted his stomach, plastered on a smile, and lied his ass off. Another thing he’d gotten used to at home. “All that pie’s left me feeling heavy and uncoordinated.”

Aubrey fisted her hands on her hips, the tiniest of smiles playing with the corners of her mouth. “Don’t you go blamin’ my pie, boy. That’s one of the biggest insults you can give a Southern lady.”

“It’s right up there with saying you don’t like barbecue or sweet tea,” Caleb said.

Aubrey slapped her son on the arm, her smirk unfurling to a full-on grin. “You ain’t too old to put over my knee, boy!”

“Whatever you say, Mama.”

Copyright © Brandi Evans

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