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"A beautiful, raw, emotional story that makes you believe that love has the power to heal broken hearts."Claire Contreras
NYT Bestselling Author
Liam wasn’t supposed to be my happily ever after.
He wasn’t even on my radar.
He was my husband’s best friend—forbidden.
But my husband is dead and I’m alone. I ache for him and I reach for Liam.
One night with Liam changed everything. Now I have to decide if I truly love him or if he’s just the consolation prize.
Release date: March 18, 2015
Publisher: BAAE Publishing
Print pages: 292
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“Oh, Chloe, if you’d like to come out, please wait until your Daddy gets back,” I insist, holding my belly as another Braxton Hicks contraction hits. I grip the dresser and try to breathe through it. It seems like they’re coming more frequently.
Once it passes, I try to finish what I came in here for. Aaron is away, but I want the nursery done so we can enjoy the next few weeks once he returns. I walk around what will be her room, putting a few more of the pretty pink dresses in the drawers. Aaron and I have fought about the vast array of pink things that are now strewn around the house—he hates it, I love it.
He insisted we paint her room in camouflage. Brown, green, and black camouflage for a girl? No. I almost sent myself into labor with that argument. I got home and he and Mark were drawing it out on the walls. I launched various household items at Mark while throwing him out of the house. My husband found out shortly after how much he could suffer by my hands. I may not be a SEAL, but you don’t mess with me either. In the end, I won with purple walls and the sheer netting around her white crib.
“Daddy’s going to love this room, Chloe. I can’t wait to see his face when he sees the pretty butterflies.” Needing to take another break, I sit in the rocking chair and rub my stomach. It soothes me knowing she’s in there. I can protect her—it’s my job. I love being pregnant and it’s a miracle we were able to conceive her. I’ve already told Aaron I want to try for another one as soon as she’s born. I close my eyes and sink, allowing the world to fade away.
I imagine holding her in my arms, sitting here in this chair, soothing and kissing her. I picture Aaron with her asleep on his chest as she gets to hear his heartbeat. She’ll own his world and have him wrapped around her finger.
Knock, knock, knock.
I hear the door, but it takes me a few seconds to get out of the chair.
KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK.
They bang louder this time.
“Coming!” I yell at the door. Jeez, give me a second.
Waddling to the door takes me a minute since I’m the size of a whale.
I open the door and see Mark Dixon, Aaron’s boss and close friend. He works at Cole Security Forces with Aaron and served with him for years. His head is hanging low and when he looks up, his eyes are full of sorrow.
“Lee,” he chokes on the one syllable of my name. The one Aaron uses. Something is definitely not right.
“What happened?” I ask again as I begin to shake.
Tears fill his eyes and I know. I know my life is never going to be the same. I know everything I’ve ever feared is about to come true because Mark doesn’t cry. Mark wouldn’t be at my door if something weren’t really, really wrong. “It’s Aaron.”
My heart stops beating and the world I live in ceases to exist. “Don’t,” I beg with tears blurring my vision and my breath accelerating.
This can’t be happening.
“Please, don’t, Mark. Please,” I beg him again, because once he says it…but I know it’s futile. It doesn’t matter because he can’t stop it. It’s already happened.
“Natalie, I’m so sorry.”
The dreaded words that every military wife fears. Only I wasn’t supposed to have to worry about this anymore. We were done. We got out. I wasn’t supposed to ever fear this again.
Please, God, don’t take him from me. Please!
“But, I’m p-pregnant. I’m having a baby,” I stammer as if that will somehow make none of this real. “He said he’d be back. He said he…” I trail off as it becomes difficult to breathe. My hand flies to my mouth to stifle the scream about to escape. Everything goes colorless.
“It was an IED. I’m sorry,” Mark says as his eyes glimmer with unshed tears.
But he’s there, cradling me in his arms. “I’m so fucking sorry.”
“No. No. No.” Mark holds me as I sob clutching my stomach. “You’re lying,” I hiss, tearing myself out of his embrace.
“I wish I were,” he says as I struggle to get up.
“It was a mistake. He’s having a baby. He said it was a simple in and out!” I scream and throw my hands against his chest. “You’re lying!” I scream, even knowing it’s not a lie.
“Stop saying you’re sorry!” My sorrow turns to hatred. I hate him. I hate everyone in this moment. I hate Aaron and everyone who was there. I hate this house and everything in it. I hate the air that he no longer breathes. Hate consumes me. Hate smothers me. “Get out!” I yell and push against his chest. “Get the fuck out of my house! Aaron will be back in a few days and then we’re going to get ready for our daughter to be born.”
“Please,” Mark beseeches and I refuse to look at him.
This isn’t happening because Aaron’s alive.
He’s not dead. How dare Mark lie to me.
“He’ll be back. He wouldn’t leave me. He promised.” Aaron wouldn’t lie to me. He never does. When he left for missions, he would always say goodbye like it could be our last. But this time he kissed the tip of my nose and said, “Now don’t have that baby until I get back.”
“Can I call someone? Your mom?”
“No, you can’t call anyone because he’s not dead! Go get him, Mark! Go get my husband and bring him home.” I step back pointing my finger at him. “You all promised. He promised.” I clutch my stomach as a sharp pain radiates, but it’s nothing compared to the agony sitting on my chest. Tears flow relentlessly as I struggle against his hold. “He promised.”
“I know he did,” Mark says as he holds my head against his chest.
My life is gone.
My heart is dead.
I’m a widow at twenty-seven.
~Three Months Later ~
“Aaron Gilcher was a man who left this Earth too soon. He was a loving husband, father to his unborn child, and friend,” the priest speaks softly. “We are gathered today to say goodbye but not farewell. He will live in our hearts as long as we hold on to him.” A sob escapes my chest. I can’t hold it in. My stomach drops with the realization that he’s gone. He’s really gone and this solidifies it. The final piece of a puzzle that I was desperate to not put together.
I feel hands grasp my shoulders and squeeze. I don’t need to look to know who they belong to. Jackson and Mark are at my back on either side. Protecting me when my husband no longer can. My mother grips my hand while my father holds Aarabelle. After she was born, I wanted to honor her father. I battled with the name we’d chosen versus something special. In the end, when I saw her, I knew. I wanted her to have part of her father for the rest of her life.
“Lord, please lift the hearts around us and grant them peace during this time. Help us to remember Aaron and give us a sense of calm knowing he’s in your arms.” He finishes the prayer and the part I’ve dreaded most is next.
“Lee, I’m right here,” Mark whispers from behind me.
I nod because if I allow myself to speak, I know I won’t be able to control the emotions threatening to escape. Be strong, this will all be over soon. I look down at my black dress and try to focus on anything but this. I tuck the long, blonde strands of hair that fall around my face back behind my ear. I begin to tremble and Mark’s hand tightens.
The honor guard that had been standing off to the side rounds in front of me. I know the four of them. They were his friends, his brothers, and now they have to give me the last thing any wife wants to ever hold in her hands.
The emotions are shoved down deep, but I can see in his best friend’s eyes how much pain he’s in. Liam flew in from California to be here. He was Aaron’s closest friend for the last eight years. They graduated SEAL training together. The bond forged from risking their lives was unbreakable. The news of Aaron’s death rocked him and he’d vowed to be here.
Liam and Jeff pull the flag taut as I try to keep my eyes open, but I can’t. I hear the slapping of the fabric being snapped tight. I inhale and focus on exhaling. The pain that emanates from my chest is unbearable. I’m being torn apart from the inside out.
I feel my mother squeeze my hand. I look up to see Aaron’s former chief kneel before me. “Natalie, on behalf of the President of the United States and the Chief of Naval Operations, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to this Country and a grateful Navy.”
Tears fall uncontrollably as my heart falters. His hand extends and I know I need to take it. I have to…but I can’t move my hands. I lift the one and it trembles as I nod. When he places the flag on my hand resting on my lap, I sob again. This can’t really be happening. I mean, I’ve known for three months he was dead, but this…this flag is it. It’s the finale I don’t want to happen, proving this isn’t a lie.
My hand drops. I look in his eyes as another tear splatters on my skin.
“I’m sorry, Natalie. Aaron was a great man.”
“Thank you,” I somehow manage to say.
I close my eyes and drop my head.
How is this my life? Why did this happen? How do I go on? All of these questions jolt through me and seethe, festering in my heart.
I hear the sounds of crying all around me, but none of it matters. No one can know the extreme agony I’m living right this moment. Losing the love of my life, the father of my child, eats me alive. My life was exactly as I wanted it. It tears through my body taking anything good and swallowing it whole.
Fuck love and fuck everyone who told me they were sorry.
I look over at my baby sleeping in her grandfather’s arms. I have Aarabelle. I have a beautiful girl who needs her mother.
The SEALs begin their ritual. I’ve watched and pitied wives who had to sit through it. I wasn’t the one having to suffer during those moments, nevertheless here I am.
Senior Chief Wolfel moves forward and removes the trident from his chest. He steps toward the urn, where a wooden chest sits beside it. The wooden chest takes the place of a casket. There’s no body to bury, just a piece of him. He was blown apart, just like me. Wolfel stands there for a moment before pressing it into the box and pounds it with his fist. The sound of the metal piercing the wood travels through my soul. It’s as if it were penetrating me.
He turns to the urn and salutes.
One down, twenty more to go.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Aaron was a great man,” another member of his former team says to me. I nod, unable to speak, knowing the imminent sound of another pin being pounded will breach the air in a moment. Over and over, the men approach me, offer their condolences, and then continue their ritual with their tridents.
I can’t do this.
I start to shift, but Mark’s hands hold tight. Before I can think, Liam steps forward. His crystal blue eyes are bloodshot as he tries to hold it together. It’s obvious he’s shaken. The bond between Aaron and Liam was unbreakable. “Lee, I …” He stops and swallows. I place my hand on his giving him a sign that I don’t need his words. I know what he’s feeling. The loss is evident in his eyes.
“I know,” I say softly. His head bows forward and touches my hand. I place my other hand on the back of his head and I feel him shake.
“He was my brother,” Liam says as another tear falls from my cheek.
“I-I…” The stuttering of my words are all I can get out while he looks at me.
He takes a second and draws a deep breath, stands, and walks over to the box. Initially, Liam refused to accept Aaron’s death, since there was very little to identify him. He wanted to believe he was alive somewhere, but I knew. I felt it once I came to accept it.
I glance at my daughter once more. She lies cooing in her grandfather’s arms, completely unaware that she’ll never have the comfort of a father. I’m fortunate to have the man who rocked me and held me when I was in pain hold her now. If I could go back in time and ask my daddy to hold me as his little girl and tell me it’ll be okay, I would. She’s safe and secure, while I feel open and exposed.
Gazing at the sailor who stands before the memorial, I close my eyes and try to dispel the thoughts that assault me. I’ve lost him after all this time. The years of worry and dread while he was active duty I’d endured. Only to have a false sense of security descend once he left the Navy. Now look where all that comfort landed me.
Finally the last pin enters the box and I look up to see Jackson with his head hanging. The guilt he carries for sending Aaron to his death is insurmountable, but I know Aaron wouldn’t have had it any other way. He wanted to die with valor and honor. If it were Jackson or Mark who’d died, he would’ve wished it were him. But now my daughter and I pay the price for his choices.
Glancing around, I acknowledge the others who grieve the loss of this amazing man. I look at the crowd and see the faces of his friends and family. His mother who sobs uncontrollably next to his father. She’s drowning in her anguish as she buries her only son. Former sailors who served beside him and friends from Cole Security Forces sit grief-stricken over his loss.
There are a few faces I don’t recognize. A pretty blonde stands to the side, wiping her eyes. A brunette, who I assume is Catherine, mourns in Jackson’s arms. There are so many people, so many uniforms. It’s a black sea of mourning. Aaron was a loved man, so I’m not surprised, but no one loved him more than me.
Today is the last day I will allow myself to feel sorrow, the last day I will shed tears, because tears don’t change anything. I need to harvest whatever strength I have and hold it tight. I’m a mother who has an infant that needs me to be both mom and dad.
One day, they say. One day this will stop hurting.
This will never be okay or stop hurting.
I’ll never be the same. The woman I was before died the minute the knock on the door came. I’m a shell of the woman I was. The woman who was loving, open, and full of hope is gone. Hope is a weak bitch who couldn’t give two fucks about what you want. So I rely on faith. Faith that I’ll make it through this and find my heart again.
Time passes. Hours become days, days turn to weeks, months pass in a blur, and I continue to live. But am I living? I breathe, I get up and get dressed, but I’m numb. Sure I smile and throw on a happy face, but it’s all an illusion. Inside I’m lost in the abyss of grief.
It’s been three months since Aaron’s funeral. Same shit different day. My daughter is growing and I have no one to share it with. Thankfully she’s sleeping through the night, so I’m not a complete mess. Those first few months were enough to put me over the edge, but at the same time, she kept me going.
Loneliness consumes me, but I don’t let anyone know.
“No, Mom. I’m fine,” I huff and put the phone to my shoulder, trying to assure her for the millionth time. If it’s not her, it’s Mark calling to check on me.
“Lee, you’re not fine. You’re barely functioning. I’m getting on a plane,” she chides.
That’s the last thing I want. She stayed with me for a month after Aarabelle was born, and I thought I was going to lose my mind. Her nagging and forcing me out of the house was enough to make me question my decision to let her come at all.
“Jesus, I’m fine. I’m living and Dad needs you at home. Aarabelle and I are doing great even,” I lie. I stopped letting anyone know what my life is like six months ago. Apparently there’s a time limit on grieving before people start talking. My friends are still concerned that I haven’t really done anything. I don’t go out, and I refused to go back to my old job as a reporter. I don’t want to be on the air and talking to families going through tragedy. I’m going through it now.
She gives a short laugh, “Liar.”
“I’m not lying.” I grab the baby monitor and head out on the deck. Which is the best thing about this house. When Aaron and I found this place, I fell in love. It backs to the Chesapeake Bay and the deck is where I spend most of my day. I feel close to him here. I can feel him in the wind—which is crazy, but when I close my eyes, it’s like his hands are touching me. His breath glides across my neck, pushing the hair off my face. The sun warms me and I can pretend. I can allow myself the illusion that he’s here. He’s just out on a mission and will be home soon. I hold on to the feeling as long as I can because it’s so much better to pretend than face the fact that my husband is dead.
“Right. You’re always fine. You’re a damn zombie,” she scolds.
“I got a job,” I blurt, hoping it’ll throw her off.
“Doing what?” she asks skeptically.
“I’m going to work for Cole Security.” I can almost hear the disapproval through the phone. Too bad I don’t care what she thinks.
“Oh, that sounds like a great idea and a wonderful way to start moving on.”
“Glad you agree,” I reply, knowing damn well she’s being sarcastic.
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