Fort Hood, Texas Early 2007
Sergeant Vic Carponti paused outside his company operations office, taking a deep breath. It was funny how their corner of Fort Hood felt deserted the night before a deployment. The company colors had already been cased. They would uncase them in a few weeks, once they got settled into their new home across the ocean in the middle of the war.
He didn’t know why this deployment was bothering him so much. It wasn’t his first time heading off to war, so he knew what to expect when the shit hit the fan in combat. But there was something hanging over his head this time. A fear that maybe this time his luck would run out.
He sighed and rubbed his face with both hands before walking into the company ops. The only thing they’d left up was the plaque that bore the names of their fallen brothers from the last deployment. The commander—Captain Trent Davila, a man Carponti had known for years—was planning on carrying that with him personally so it couldn’t ever get lost.
And so no one would ever forget. Carponti reached up and took it gently off the wall, then strolled into his company commander’s office with a nonchalance painted on his face that he damn sure didn’t feel. But people expected him to laugh and joke and make them forget the bad shit all around and so that’s what he was going to do.
“Don’t forget this,” he said, placing the plaque on Trent’s desk. He plopped down in a chair, then kicked his feet up on Trent’s desk. “Are you coming out with us tonight?”
Captain Trent Davila lifted one eyebrow at Carponti’s feet and said nothing. Carponti looked at his commander and longtime friend, then at the plaque next to his boots.
“Fine,” he said with a sigh, dropping his feet to the floor. “So answer the question.”
Trent sighed. “I can’t go out with you guys. I’m the company commander. I’m not allowed to have fun,” Trent grumbled. “Besides, my boss would have my nuts in a sling if anything happens while I’m there.”
“It’s the last day before our deployment. You’re allowed to have fun. You can just say you’re supervising all of us miscreants.” Carponti took the last Dr. Pepper out of Trent’s fridge. “The deployment hasn’t even started and you already look stressed the hell out. You should be working your lieutenant to death instead of trying to do everything yourself.”
Trent shook his head and pushed his glasses to the top of his head. “Yeah, well, my new executive officer seems to think he’s God’s gift to the army. He’s good but he’s not as good as he thinks he is.”
“Oh, the boys just love him,” Carponti said.
“No, not really. He’s an arrogant fuck who believes his own press. Personally, I can’t stand him, but luckily I don’t have to deal with him much. I just sic Sarn’t Garrison on him.”
Trent grinned and reached for the plaque, sliding his hat on top of it so he wouldn’t forget it. “Yeah, Garrison has a way with words.”
Garrison was Carponti’s platoon sergeant. Garrison and Trent had been squad leaders many moons ago when Trent had still been enlisted. In Carponti’s world, it meant a whole lot that Trent had stayed close with his enlisted friends even after he’d crossed over to the dark side and become an officer.
“I’m swinging by his place on my way home. He needs to go out before someone shoots his grumpy old ass. He’s been a complete buzz kill since his wife left him.”
“Your sympathy is astounding,” Trent said dryly. He grinned and shook his head. “Why do we put up with you?”
“Because I’m charming and funny and good in a firefight?” Carponti said with a grin.
“Pretty much. You can make anyone laugh.”
“It’s an important life skill. Like balancing a checkbook. So seriously, find a babysitter and come out with us. Your wife could use some fun before she has to spend the year dealing with all the spouses in the Family Readiness Group and chasing your kids around while you’re off on another fun adventure.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call going to combat a fun adventure.” Trent rubbed his chest. There was a scar there, Carponti knew. A scar that had damn near killed Trent several years ago. Carponti wondered just how much stress his commander was carrying and not telling anyone. Trent’s face flushed when he realized Carponti had caught him rubbing his scar and he tapped the pencil hard enough to snap the eraser off. “You know, you’re right. Let me see if we can’t find a sitter.”
“Excellent. We’ll be congregating by the bar when you get there. Now I just have to go convince Garrison to come out with us.”
“Good luck with that,” Trent said, pulling his glasses down. “He’s on the verge of becoming a warrior monk.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Carponti mumbled as he strolled out of his commander’s office. He wished he hadn’t seen the flicker of worry that flashed in his commander’s eyes when he’d mentioned his wife. He’d thought that Laura and Trent were one of the strongest couples he knew. She’d put up with him deploying back to back to back since he’d almost died a few years ago.
But that flicker of worry? Yeah, Carponti hadn’t missed it. There were problems there, hopefully small ones that Trent would take time to fix after this rotation into the sandbox.
Carponti looked down at his own wedding ring. It was his last night home and his last night with his wife.
He was glad he’d convinced her to come out with him and the boys. That way he could make sure they had a most excellent party and spend time with Nicole at the same time. He was going to spend part of the night chaperoning his guys to make sure they made the most of it—which meant making sure no one ended up in jail—but then? Then the time he had left was going to be spent making his wife laugh.
Because try though he might, he couldn’t shake the quiet dread that settled in the pit of his stomach that tonight was the last night of normalcy he had on this earth.
Nicole Carponti breathed deeply and fanned her eyes, trying to stop the burning of hot tears. She leaned against the wall of the bathroom in Ropers and tried to stuff down all the churning emotions chained to the fact that her husband was leaving for war tomorrow. Again.
The first time he’d left she’d been scared, but then the war, the deployment…the waiting…it had all been unknown. She’d worked on finishing her degree and kept herself busy and waited by the phone like all the military wives who had gone before her.
The second time he’d left, she’d known better what to expect. The long waits between phone calls. The silence when he couldn’t talk long. The quick e-mails saying “I’m alive” that once upon a time would have been too little, but during the war were more than enough to keep her going.
But this time? This time was different. The Surge was different. They were sending in massive amounts of soldiers to try to quell the Iraqi insurgency. It was bloody and deadly and soldiers were getting attacked at higher rates than at any earlier time during the war.
And Nicole was terrified.
She had to hide it, though. She’d agreed to come out with him tonight just because it gave her a chance to pretend that she was fine. She had to keep everything in check until after he left. She couldn’t let him know how much she worried this time.
Fanning her eyes once more, she stepped out of the bathroom and into the rowdy country bar. A place like this was guaranteed trouble on a normal night, but tonight her husband’s platoon was rolling deep. Which was either going to be a really good thing or a really bad thing for her future job at the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, depending on how cantankerous tonight got.
She spotted her good friend Laura Davila at the bar with a cute blond woman Nicole had met in the bathroom a little while ago. She had already completely forgotten the other woman’s name. She was terrible with names.
She wound her way through the pulsating crowd until she reached them. Laura grinned at her and she exclaimed, “I can’t believe you came out tonight.”
“You’ve already said this twice,” Laura said. They had to shout to hear each other.
Nicole flagged down the bartender and leaned around Laura to her friend. “I’m a terrible person but I already forgot your name. I’m Nicole Carponti.”
The petite blond held out her hand. “Jen St. James.”
“Nice to meet you, Jen. I won’t forget this time,” Nicole said with a smile.
Laura leaned toward Nicole. “I’m trying to get her out of her shell. She had cancer and she’s been struggling with her self-esteem ever since.”
Nicole frowned, glancing toward Jen, who was now trying to get the attention of the bartender. On the other side of her, though, was Garrison, her husband’s platoon sergeant. He was a big man and he was currently leaning down to talk to Jen. “How’s that for a self-esteem boost?” Nicole said, gesturing toward the two.
Laura glanced over, then quickly looked away before she was caught. Her eyes lit with a brilliant smile. “Oh, that couldn’t be more perfect if I had planned it.”
Nicole studied her friend through narrowed eyes. “Did you plan it?”
“I wish. But let’s just see how this little situation develops, shall we?”
Nicole raised her beer in mock salute to her friend. “You, m’dear, are a devious and loyal friend.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Laura said. “So how’s Carponti taking this deployment?”
Nicole heard the undercurrent in her friend’s voice. “You know how he is. Always cracking jokes, which I suppose is a good thing. I’m fucking terrified, though.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve been talking to some of the spouses. The Surge has everyone terrified. One of the spouses told me it was a death sentence.” Laura took a sip from her beer, scanning the bar.
Nicole scoffed quietly. “How’s that for melodramatic?” But she didn’t voice her own fear that this deployment was going to be worse than the previous ones. “I don’t envy you as the Family Readiness Group leader.”
“Oh, come on, don’t you want to volunteer? You can be responsible for keeping me from going crazy. It’s a primary duty position, you know.”
Nicole laughed. “Not in this lifetime,” she said. “I always feel out of place once the spouses find out I’m pretty much a cop.”
Jen leaned over, rejoining their conversation as Shane wandered off in the direction of Laura’s husband. “What’s going on over there?” she said, pointing at Laura’s husband.
Nicole sighed heavily and took another drink. “Oh joy. Looks like Trent is giving one of his lieutenants some love. Couldn’t have the rest of the night without drama, could we?” She glanced back at Laura and Jen. “We should go interrupt before the second round of fireworks go off.”
Earlier Vic had gotten into an argument with Lieutenant Randall and now it looked like Laura’s husband was finishing things off with the arrogant prick. The LT made Nicole’s skin crawl and she wasn’t looking forward to another bar fight. Not two in one night, that was for sure.
But whatever had happened was over now. She watched as LT Randall made a beeline for the door. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Garrison talking to Jen again. And Laura? Once Randall was gone, she and her husband moved off to a dark corner of the bar and were deep in conversation.
She hoped it was a good one. She didn’t like the worry she’d seen in her friend’s eyes when she talked about her husband.
She snuck up behind Vic, sliding her hands over his hips and up his t-shirt and the smooth hard skin of his body, placing a kiss at the little indentation at the indentation between his shoulder blades.
He turned and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “There you are.” He kissed her fiercely, reminding her of how much she loved this man. “I was about to send out a search party for you in the little girls’ room.”
Nicole wrapped her arms around his waist and lifted her chin to meet his eyes. He was leaner than he’d been when he’d come home last year. His body was more solid from long ruck marches and hard training for this deployment. His eyes, though, were the same bright, mischievous green that they’d always been and she counted herself lucky that whatever he’d gone through in the war, he’d come home okay so far. She just prayed their luck held.
“No search party required,” she murmured against his lips. “I was talking to Laura. I’m impressed that you got Garrison and Trent to come out.”
“You should be,” Carponti grumbled, biting her bottom lip gently. “I had to guilt both of them into it. It’s like they both turned thirty and amputated their fun genes or something.”
Nicole laughed against his mouth. “Dance with me?” she asked.
“What in our history makes you think I know how to dance?” he grumbled even as he allowed her to lead him onto the dance floor.
“You’ll figure it out,” she said, sliding her arms around his neck. She rubbed her body against his, sensuously moving her hips in time with the music.
He dropped his hands to her hips, guiding her exactly where he wanted her. “Keep that up and we’ll have to sneak out to the car,” he said, his breath hot on her ear.
She nibbled on his bottom lip, biting it gently. “I think you’re trying to seduce me,” she whispered. She dug her fingers into his back, her blood humming with latent arousal. God but she loved this man.
“I’m absolutely trying to seduce you,” he said. He angled his thigh between hers, pressing close to the juncture of her thighs. The pressure sent vibrations through her body and straight to her core.
“I’m kind of ready to go home.” Her words were a gasp as he rubbed his thigh against her swollen center. “Before you get into any more fights with your lieutenant.”
“Can we not talk about work when I’m trying to turn you on?” he mumbled. He slipped his hand beneath the hem of her shirt, stroking his thumb down the centerline of her back. A shiver ran through her.
“You don’t want to talk about work? That doesn’t turn you on?” She undulated against him, grateful for the crush of bodies that swayed around them and enabled them to be lost in the crowd.
“No, trying to get you naked turns me on,” he said. “We really need to get out of here.” His breath traced over her ear a moment before he bit her earlobe gently, a fierce burst of pleasure in the pain.
“That sounds like a brilliant idea.”
He sighed as a commotion cleared a corner of the dance floor. “I hate being one of the responsible adults.” He kissed her hard. “Let me get everyone out of here first? That way no one goes to jail on our last night in the States.”
She kissed him fiercely. “I’ll be waiting over here for you to get done being all caveman.”
“I’ll show you caveman later,” he said with a grin before wading into the crowd and diffusing the situation between Garrison and Trent.
It took the better part of an hour before they’d shuffled everyone off to their respective cabs and vehicles. Nicole talked with Laura and Jen and tried not to notice how Jen kept watching Garrison. Oh now wasn’t that interesting?
It felt like forever before her husband strolled across the parking lot and scooped her up, carrying her toward their vehicle.
Their car was parked deep in a shadowed corner of the parking lot, and the moment her husband closed the door Nicole crawled into his lap on the passenger’s seat. He pulled her close, kissing her hard and fast. Pouring a thousand unsaid things into that kiss. His hand threaded into her hair and he slanted her mouth until he owned her—all of her—and she was lost in his taste, his touch.
Then he broke off abruptly. “What the hell?”
“Who is that with Garrison?”
Nicole twisted around in time to see Garrison, one of Carponti’s oldest friends, lean in to kiss Jen.
“Oh now that’s interesting,” Carponti whispered.
Nicole spun around. “Don’t you say anything to him,” she said.
“Because this is the first time Garrison has done anything for himself since his wife left him. Leave him alone.”
Carponti blinked innocently. “What makes you think I would say anything?” he said. His words slurred and Nicole grinned before fishing around in his pockets for his car keys. “A little more to the left.”
Nicole laughed then climbed into the driver’s seat as Garrison stepped back, letting Jen walk to an ancient sedan. “She’s cute. She’s friends with Laura.”
Laura, who was being carried across the parking lot by her husband. She hoped for Laura’s sake the happiness lasted longer than just tonight. The war was taking its toll on everyone, and Nicole had noticed more than once that there was a strain in her friend’s voice when she talked about her husband.
Vic just looked at her. “Oh really?”
Nicole drove them away before her husband could interrupt what had looked like something very sweet between Jen and Garrison. She’d known Garrison as long as she’d known her husband and it was long overdue for him to find someone that made him happy outside of the army.
She glanced at her husband, who had closed his eyes the moment the vehicle started moving, a lazy smile on his lips. Something warm bloomed inside her.
She wished Garrison could find the kind of happy that she had with Vic.