I climb under the covers and pull Jill into my arms, settling her on my chest.
“Why do you look so shocked?”
“Do you think that you’re not my woman?” I ask calmly and kiss the top of her head.
“I hadn’t thought about it.”
I roll us to the side, so I can look her in the eye. “Think about it, Jill.”
She drags her hand down my cheek. I turn my head to kiss her palm and guide that hand around my back, hugging her close.
“Think about it,” I whisper again.
“Okay.” She cuddles close to me and yawns.
“Go ahead and sleep, baby. You’ll need your strength. I plan to wake you up several times tonight.”
She laughs and shakes her head, tracing the tattoo on my bicep. “Yeah, right.”
I don’t bother to argue. She’ll find out soon enough.
“Thank you for being here.”
She yawns again and kisses my chest. “You’re welcome. What is this tattoo for?”
“It’s Seth.” I feel her smile.
It’s a tribal shamrock in green. “He was born on St. Patrick’s Day.”
“I love that. What about the eagle on your back?” She pulls away and pushes on my shoulder, making me turn over so she can get a better look.
“The eagle is red, white, and blue, so it’s sort of patriotic.” I close my eyes as her sweet fingers trace the outline of the eagle.
“What do these stars mean? The ones that make the eagle look like it’s in flight, leaving a trail of stars behind him?” She gently kisses each star. Her touch, her affection, is like a balm to my jagged heart.
“There is a star for each guy I lost in the field.”
She presses another kiss to my back and nuzzles her cheek against me. “How many?”
“Sixteen.” Sixteen good men who lost their lives.
I turn onto my back and scoop her against me, kissing her head and breathing in her delicious scent.
“Were you close to all of them?” she asks softly.
“Some. I witnessed nine of those deaths,” I reply. I’ve never talked about this with anyone before, even Josh.
“What?” She braces herself on her elbows and stares down at me, her eyes wide with horror. “Are you telling me that it could have been you to die nine times?”
I pull my fingers down her cheek and brush her soft hair back off her face, tucking it behind her ear. “It wasn’t me, Jilly.”
“Oh my God,” she whispers and kisses my cheek, then tucks herself against me as tightly as she can, burrowing her face into my neck and holding on tight. “Zack.”
“I’m fine, sugar.”
“I’m so sorry,” she whispers. “I’m so sorry that you had to go through that.”
I rest my lips on the top of her head and glide my fingers up and down her back, comforting her as much as me. “The worst was losing Miles.”
“Who was he?” She doesn’t pull away.
“I’d been in the same unit with him for years. We deployed together four times. I guess that besides Josh and Ty, he was my best friend.”
“How did he die?”
My chest clenches when I think back to that hot day in the desert.
“I’ll spare you the details,” I whisper and wrap my arms around her, hugging her close. “But our convoy was driving into Baghdad to get more supplies, and we hit an IED. I barely got a scratch. Miles lost both legs and bled out in my arms.”
“Zack,” she whispers again and lifts her head to kiss me. God, she’s so sweet, maybe the most loving woman I’ve ever met. “I’m so sorry,” she repeats.
The feelings I’ve been fighting for months rise up and overwhelm me, and all I can do is hug her close.
“I’m home, and I’m safe, and that’s all that matters.”
“Thank God you’re safe. Oh my God, Zack, I could have lost you before I ever really found you.” She sniffles and I brush a tear off her cheek.
“Don’t think that way, baby. You can what if all day long, but the reality is, nothing happened to me, and we’re here now.”
She nods and settles back down onto my chest. She soon falls asleep. Thor is snoring from his bed in the corner. I wonder if Seth is having fun tonight at his friend’s house. They’re probably watching horror flicks and eating too much junk food. I’m just thrilled that he’s made friends.
The guilt that grips my throat every time I think of my son has loosened with time, but it’ll never fully go away.
Not now that I know the battle he survived while I was off fighting a war of my own. If I could kill my ex-wife and every son of a bitch she let lay a hand on my son, I would happily rip them apart, one limb at a time. The best thing that ever happened to Seth and me was the day she brought him here and filed for divorce.
Thank God for that.
Jill stirs in my arms. I kiss her head again and smile. I can’t believe she’s here. I’ve wanted her here for months. Hell, years, if I’m being honest.
I don’t plan to let her go now.
“Zack, answer the phone,” Jill mumbles and nudges my arm. I yawn and turn toward the soft, sleepy woman, wrapping myself around her.
“I can think of better things to do.”
“It could be important.” She chuckles and climbs onto my chest as I check the time and answer the phone.
“Hey, Dad.” Seth’s voice is happy and he’s clearly chewing on something crunchy.
“It’s seven in the morning, Seth.”
“I know. You’re awake, right? It’s, like, super late for you.”
“Actually, I was asleep, but you’re right, I should go check on some things. So what’s up?” Jill kisses my chest and her hand is roaming over my stomach, and my morning semi-wood is no longer a semi.
“Josiah’s dad says the roads are too icy to take me home today, so he said I should just stay here until tomorrow afternoon. Isn’t that cool? Please say yes.”
“That’s fine with me if it’s okay with Josiah’s dad.”
“It is. Cool. Thanks, Dad. How’s Thor?”
“Thor misses you, but he’s fine. Be good and call me if you need anything.”
I throw the phone onto the floor and roll Jill beneath me and run into a wall of warm fur.
“Thor jumped up here about an hour ago,” Jill informs me with a laugh. I glance over at the dog’s face. His chin is resting on his paws, his eyebrows shooting up and down as he looks about innocently.