Stroker turned away from Mosaic with an unsettled feeling. The boy was trying to become much too possessive considering their relationship was never more than casual. He’d tried to let him down easy, but he kept dropping around the workshop. There’d even been a point where he’d started driving away some of Stroker’s customers because of his surliness, making it necessary for Stroker to have a talk with him and practically bar him from stopping in unannounced.
Mosaic had not taken it well. He’d seemed to become worse since Lee Fellowes had come to town. Fellowes was a nice enough guy, but Stroker wasn’t interested in him romantically. Not that that was any of Mosaic’s business. Still, for some reason Stroker had taken a liking to Lee.
Just then Stroker spotted Bill, who waved him over. As usual, several of the strong younger set had gotten him and his chair down to the beach, and now he sat in a place of honor next to the fire, holding out a stick with a hotdog speared on it over the bonfire, burning it black.
Stroker, with some relief, made his way across and dropped onto the sand next to Bill.
“He clings to you like a leech,” Bill said.
Stroker accepted a plastic cup filled with beer offered by a handsome tawny-haired acquaintance. His admiring gaze tracked the sexy surfer as he danced and shimmied his way around the bonfire and then was swallowed up by the partiers. Stroker took a long swallow from the cup and turned his attention back to Bill. “Yeah, I know. I don’t know what’s got into him all of a sudden. I’ve been honest to a fault with him. I’m not interested in a boyfriend.”
“Yeah, maybe, but I’d watch out for Mosaic. Something tells me he’s a full keg of dynamite about to explode. His sights are fixed on you, Stroker.”
Stroker didn’t want to think Bill had a point, but this time, he had a feeling Bill was right on the mark. And that disturbed Stroker. He’d never had a problem like that with guys before. Well, at least not since New York, and that was a hell of a long time ago and another world.
He took another long swallow of beer. He should be able to relax, but he was on edge. He recalled a Fourth of July two years before, when he sat on a beach with Vinnie. Just the two of them, in a closed-off section of brush, watching the fireworks go off. That was just before Vinnie left on that last deployment.
“I’m not interested in relationships,” he said. Was he trying to convince Bill or himself? He gazed around the crowd, somehow searching. It wasn’t Mosaic he looked for. It was a tall, lanky man with troubled eyes and a desperate expression. He was looking for Lee Fellowes.
What was it about the man? Just because he was a vet? Because he sure didn’t look much like Vinnie. Vinnie was at least a head shorter, swarthy, and somewhat broader—all New York Italian. Lee was—well, he was not New York, that was for sure. Every time Stroker ran into him in town, Lee always made an excuse about needing to be someplace else. Even now, four weeks later, he knew as much about the man as the moment they first met. Well, maybe a bit more. But what he did know about the man he could probably tick off on one hand.
“He doesn’t talk much,” Stroker said.
Bill looked at him curiously. He arched a bushy gray brow. “Who? Mosaic?”
“No. That Lee Fellowes. He hardly says a word whenever I see him.”
“No, he ain’t much of a talker. But he sure is a hard worker.”
“He likes to comb the beach. I see him down here most evenings, with that plastic shopping bag. I wonder what he does with the stuff.”
“It’s the war,” Bill said. “Kind of does strange stuff to a man. He seems a bit better than when he arrived. He’s a darn good worker. And I don’t have to worry about the place with him sleeping in that back room.”
“So he’s not giving you any trouble?”
“Just the opposite. I’m thinking he’s a good man to have around. I thank you for that. I owe you one.”
Stroker chuckled. “Don’t say that too loudly—I may just claim that favor one day.”
“And I’d be right welcome to honor it.”
Just then the first fireworks lit up the sky. Bill got a worried look on his face.
“What is it?” Stroker asked.
“Just thinking about Lee. Explosions like this can spark a regression. I hope he’s okay.” He turned his head to look around the gathering. Everyone had their eyes on the sky watching for the next shattering spray of brilliant color to reflect on the water.
“Want me to go check on him?” Stroker asked, not all that reticent about going in search of the loner.
“Don’t want to ask it of you. I’m sure he can take care of himself. I’d guess these aren’t the first fireworks he’s had to contend with.”
Stroker easily lifted to his feet and dusted off his shorts. “Not a problem, Bill. He’s a stranger in a strange place. I don’t mind checking in on him for you.”
Bill reached up to squeeze his hand. “You’re a good man, Stroker. Don’t let some
folks take advantage of that. And watch your back.”
Stroker squeezed his hand and then let go. “Don’t worry, I can handle Mosaic. I just hope I don’t have to.”
He walked across the cooling sand toward the footbridge. He had a small flashlight with him, but the bonfire was big enough to illuminate his path to the bridge. Once he got on the other side, the streetlights would take over.
But it was as he stepped off the other side, headed toward a line of eucalyptus trees and a healthy nest of maram beach grass, that he saw a flash of something, or someone. And then he heard a soft cry. He pulled out his flashlight and beamed the narrow beacon into the outcropping. That’s when he saw Lee Fellowes—blood seeping from a wound on his head, cowering next to a tree.
Carefully, Stroker stepped toward him. His heart broke when he saw the anguish on Lee’s face. And the terror. Just at the moment he doubted that Lee even knew where he was. The man before him, in his mind, was obviously caught up in the wasteland of war in another land.
* * * *
Lee’s mind was in utter confusion. He was back on the sands of the Middle East. Blood everywhere. Vinnie’s blood. He smelled death all around him. Everything inside his head was a tornado of emotion—fear, pain, anger—all mixed up. Fire all around, the sky smoky and dense from the explosion. Pieces of metal scattered across the sand. He smelled it, as he had the night of that terrible detonation. He saw Vinnie fragmented—literally. Again and again and again—he couldn’t stop the images from flooding his brain—a merry-go-round of haunting images that would not stop. The feel of helplessness as Vinnie lay dying in his arms.
Lee slammed his head against the tree trunk, trying to dislodge the nightmare. He couldn’t make it go away; it never went away. The deadly images were seared into his brain with a red-hot branding iron. It fused with his flesh. So deeply embedded into his skin, so, so deep.
And he could smell the nauseating scent of burning flesh. Oh, God, it was a smell he could never get out of his mind. Never.
He slammed his head against the trunk again. Stopitstopitstopit!
And then a pair of strong arms surrounded him, keeping him from hurting himself again. “I’ve got you, Lee. I’ve got you.”
“Have to make it stop,” he muttered. Blood flowed down the side of his face. He smelled the blood all around him. He heard the explosions.
“No, no. I can’t go through it again.” The words were yanked from his soul.
The arms banded around him tightened like a straitjacket. He recalled that feeling. He fought like a wild man against the containment. “It’s only fireworks—for the Fourth,” the voice said. But Lee knew better. He’d been here before; he knew what came next.
He waited for the familiar pinprick, for the drug that would blank out everything and cushion his mind with thoughts of nothing. Nothing at all. He waited, but the sensation didn’t come. And he was confused. He looked up, expecting to see white—like pillows or the puke-green ceiling of the VA hospital back in Savannah. But he encountered a black sky filled with glittering constellations. And a shower of sparkling multicolored lights. Consternation set in. And fear. He didn’t know where he was or how he'd got there. His heart drummed against his chest.
“I’ve got you,” the deep voice said. “Nobody’s going to hurt you. It’s just the fireworks.”
Something about the man’s voice soothed him. He recognized the voice. It wasn’t his buddy Vinnie’s voice—no, Vinnie was dead. Back there in the sand, his blood spattered across those tiny, grating endless granules. This voice cut through the nightmare invading Lee’s mind. One moment he was in the middle of a hot desert country, the explosion ringing in his ears, and now—the next moment he was back on a beach. Where was it? Oh, yeah, California. It was starting to come back to him. He wasn’t in the middle of a foreign country; he wasn’t even in the hospital—that was back across the other side of the country in Georgia. His heartbeats started to slow. He smelled the bonfire, the cleansing scent of the ocean, a light breeze wafting over him.
He realized he must be sweating, and he reached up to wipe the moisture from his face. His fingers came away drenched in his blood. His head hurt. Fucked up again.
“Don’t worry about it, man; my place isn’t too far from here. I can get that cleaned up in no time. Doesn’t look too serious.” Stroker. Now he recognized the voice.
Stroker helped him to his feet. He staggered, but Stroker bore his weight. Nice shoulders, strong ones. He recalled watching him stroke his way through the water. Looked powerful. Stroker guided him away, down the darkened beach, away from the explosions that had detonated his brain and those god-awful memories he tried to trap, to hide away.
It never did any good. No matter what he did. No matter how far he ran, they always tracked him. Always found him. He couldn’t escape.
Stroker guided him along the street, up a hill, led him inside the small bungalow, and had him sit on an ugly green fifties-ish cushioned chair.
“I’ll get the first-aid kit. You stay right there.”
Lee couldn’t have moved on his own if he’d tried. Suddenly he felt cold, so cold he started to shiver. Reaction.
Cold as ice.
He recalled the words to Vinnie’s favorite song. He liked to sing it when they were digging trenches in the heat, sweat dripping off them. He’d listen to it back at the barracks over and over. And now it stayed inside Lee’s head, seared there just as the memories of everything else that occurred over there.
You’re as cold as ice.
You’re willing to sacrifice our love…
They’d argued that last night just before they were scheduled to head out on the humanitarian supply mission. Exhausted, dirty, and sweaty, they’d just gotten to the barracks after loading up the LMTVs with food, medical supplies, and pallets of water. Both of them were in serious need of a shower.
They’d argued above love. Vinnie had called him cold. Lee had questioned how great a love could be when you hooked up with a guy you picked up off the mean streets of New York. He’d only been trying to push his buttons; he hadn’t really meant to question his feelings. Not like that. He should have told him that before they left. It was jealousy that had prompted him, and he should have reined in the green-eyed monster.
“God, no,” he whispered. He hadn’t assured him. He hadn’t had a chance to fix things. He dropped his head forward into his hands, and the tears came, like they always did. He could never forget. It was all his fault.
Someday you’ll pay the price. I know.
When did it end? When did he stop paying?
Warm hands, the clean fragrance of the ocean and surfboard wax filled his nostrils, and just for a moment it swept away the agony and scent of blood and fire and regret. He saw a sparkling ocean, a man, like a dancer, atop a board, riding a wave. Wild and beautiful, so intense, so free.
He glanced up and into the clearest, most beautiful hazel eyes he’d ever seen. Stroker, arms covered in tattoos. Vinnie’s boyfriend, the man he’d left behind. The man he and Lee had been arguing over.
“Stroker.” He needed to focus. To bring himself back to the present, away from the danger.
Stroker looked at him quizzically. “Yeah, that’s right. You know where you are now?”
He shook his head, trying to clear it. How could Stroker understand his fractured mind, his fractured thoughts, and the reason for them?
“Never mind,” he mumbled. “Doesn’t matter. Yeah, I know where I am. Thanks.”
Stroker tilted Lee’s head back. Using a wet washcloth, he wiped away some of the blood. The cloth felt cool and wet, helping to somewhat clear Lee’s mind.
But it was Stroker’s eyes, the gorgeous color of the calm Pacific, that bluish-green hazel, that helped to settle Lee. It was the memory of his taut, ripped body that drew him back from the edge of his insanity.
Lee couldn’t help himself, couldn’t have stopped his instinctive move if he’d wanted to. He’d learned to live in the moment because a man didn’t know what the next second might bring. It could be death. Or that next second could bring something totally unexpected. Life. He kissed Stroker.
He was taken by surprise when Stroker returned the kiss full force, openmouthed, tongue seeking entrance. Yes. Life. Oh, God, what he wouldn’t give to feel alive again. Not to feel like he should have died too. Not to feel like he really had died back there with Vinnie. Not wanting to make it a reality instead of a force that drove him each and every day to finish the job that war had started.
No, the kiss revived something inside him. And with desperation he clung to that fertile seed of possibilities with everything he had. Knowing that right now, it was this moment alone, and nothing before or after that mattered. He didn’t dare try to think beyond that as he deepened the kiss, and for the first time in a long time, his cock hardened, his desire rising and spreading through him as it hadn’t done in what seemed forever. But he could not give in to it yet—not tonight.