So After the War is finally off to copyedits. I’m nervous about this one, gang, for a couple of reasons.
First, Sean and Sarah are the first characters I ever wrote and though this version has been edited and revised a lot, it’s still a version of the first story I ever put on paper. I started them way back in 2007, when my husband was deployed for the second time and I was in officer candidate school. The first scene I wrote in this book ended up in Shane and Jen’s book Because of You. I remember the first day I wrote the first line. I was sitting in Building 4, waiting for class to start. One of my classmates who’d deployed was ripping one of his platoon mates a new one for something that seemed so trivial at the time. But it wasn’t. It was something he’d seen matter downrange. And that was the spark that started everything: what does war do to men and women who lead soldiers, knowing they are going back to war.
Second, this is probably the darkest book I’ve ever written. I don’t expect everyone to love it. There is a dark issue explored in here, the realities of war that I haven’t tackled directly before. So I expect there will be mixed reviews of this one, if not outright hatred of this book.
Third, Sarah is probably the most difficult character I’ve tried to write. Without spoiling it, she’s made choices that people probably won’t agree with and may even despise her for. But they are choices that women in the military – especially mothers in the military, have to make all the time.
Fourth, I wrote this book out of fear. My husband was on his second deployment. We knew what that meant. His first tour in 04 was bad. When we decided to stay in, we knew it meant he was going to war and that I too, would get my turn. We stayed knowing we had two little girls counting on us. So this book is an exploration of those choices and the fear that comes with them along with the pride and fulfillment that comes with being a soldier.
I hope you’ll read this book, if for no other reason than it’s taken me almost 8 years to get it right. I hope it resonates with you and I hope that even if you hate it, you’ll think about it long after you finish it.
I hope you enjoy.
Lieutenant Sean Nichols looked away from the fire and at the soldier holding him back. “Let me go.” A direct order, laced with violence.
Specialist Kearney shook his head. “Getting yourself killed isn’t going to do anyone any good, sir.”
Sweat ran from beneath Sean’s helmet and into his eyes, fogging the lenses of his eye pro. He dragged his gloved hand beneath his glasses and took in the chaos around him. Thunder from the fifty cal vibrated through his chest. The heat burned through his flesh to the bone. At the end of the street, one of the aircraft overhead let go with the main gun and pushed the approaching militia back.
The entire fucking city was burning. Smoke from the fire seared his nostrils and tore at his lungs.
Greeted as liberators, my ass.
Chatter and intermittent screams flooded the airwaves over the radios as everyone tried to get medical and fire support.
But the truck in front of them was all he could see. He started toward the truck again.
“Stop, goddamn it!” Kearney smashed his palms into Sean’s chest, knocking him back a step. “They’re already gone.”
The front end of the truck was melting into the asphalt.
The war surrounded them. Hot. Violent. A brilliant flash blinded him followed by a wave of heat and sound that drove his skin into his bones
He hit the deck, Kearney slamming into the pavement next to him.
Ammo started cooking off from inside the burning truck, tearing through the thin skinned Humvee and slamming into the concrete around them.
Gravel bit into the skin of his cheek as a round ricocheted off the concrete. Sean closed his eyes, and for a moment, all he could see was the fire. He hoped Kearney was right. He hoped Jack and his boys had died in the initial blast. There was silence as he pushed to his knees. Or at least the appearance of silence. It wrapped around him and made the battle seem far away
He looked up, his brain slowly registering the beat up white sedan weaving through the wreckage and burning trash toward them. He punched Kearney in the shoulder and pointed. Kearney nodded once, his lips moving. Sean felt the vibration from the M249 on his vehicle where his gunner opened fire. The sedan rolled to a stop near the burning Humvee.
He reached for the hand mike on the seat of his truck as all the sound came rushing back.
“Punisher Main, this is Warlord Blue. MEDEVAC follows.” Sean read off the lines required to get the MEDEVAC bird in the air. The number of wounded. Their location. The information rolled off his tongue line-by-line, ingrained with practice. His voice locked in his throat and he forced the words through the blockade.
When he was done, he doubled over, throwing up the little liquid and food he had in his stomach, heaving his guts out on the streets of Iraq. Heaved until his ribs ached and his throat burned from the bile or the smoke, he didn’t know.
When he was empty and hollowed out, he felt it again, slamming into him. The cold violence in the pit of his stomach. The rage churning in the empty space his soul had just abandoned.
His hand tightened around the butt of his weapon and all he wanted to do was kill.
On another base in the center of Baghdad, Lieutenant Sarah Anders answered a knock on the door of her CHU.
Her company commander stood on the top of the rough wooden step. The chaplain stood behind her.
Sarah’s heart caught in her throat. She took a single step backwards, shaking her head slowly, denying the hard, ugly truth of what those two visitors meant.
“No,” she whispered.
She fell to her knees.
Far away, she heard someone screaming.
It was a long time before she realized it was her.
“You are officially the worst friend on the planet.”
Captain Sarah Anders smiled at the sound of a familiar voice. Captain Claire Montoya stood behind her trying to look offended and failing miserably. Sarah squealed as she hugged her friend close.
“You are the only thing good about being at Fort Hood,” Sarah said, holding on a little too tight. “God but I missed you.”
“Funny way of showing it, you ass,” Claire said, with a grin. “How long have you been here?”
“Long enough to get settled. I was going to call,” Sarah said, knowing Claire wasn’t actually offended. She was that kind of friend. The one you didn’t talk to for ten months because of a deployment and when you finally did, you picked up right where you left off.
Claire waved aside Sarah’s half-baked apology. “How’s the munchkin?”
“She turned five while I was gone.”
“Wow, that goes by fast. Wasn’t she just in diapers a second ago?”
“Feels like it. Now, though, sometimes I feel like she’s going on fifteen. She can be so dramatic.” Sarah pulled Claire into her tiny nook that passed for an office. She was new here which meant she had a shitty desk in a shitty space, but she wasn’t going to complain.
“Bet you can’t wait for puberty, huh?”
“I’m sending her to boarding school and volunteering for another deployment,” Sarah said. “Man, I missed you. How have you been since the epic disaster also known as Colorado?”
Claire pulled up a chair. “Oh, fine. Got thrown out of this brigade and sent over to the Cav Regiment. Ai-ee-ya, and all that,” she said pointing to the patch on her left shoulder.
“You sound like you’re enjoying it.”
“Of course I’m enjoying it,” Claire said with an evil grin. Claire was a warrior, through and through. There was nothing she enjoyed more than leading soldiers in combat. And she was damn good at it, too.
“And how’s Evan?”
A warm flush crept over Claire’s face, matched by the smile that transformed her. “He’s good.” She held out her hand, revealing a square cut diamond ring.
Sarah bit back an excited sound. “Now who’s the shitty friend? You didn’t tell me you were engaged!”
Claire flushed but the smile never left her lips. “Well, he pretty much had to hold me down to get me to agree.” She shrugged. “He’s…a good man.”
“I’m happy for you,” Sarah said,
Claire folded her arms over her chest. “Okay, so spill. What the hell happened? You were leaving for Iraq the last time I saw you, and now you’re here. Which means mostly not good things as far, as I can guess.”
Sarah looked down at her desk, the shame of failure a hot flush on her skin. “I got fired.” She looked up at her friend. “Training accident in Arifjan. I never even got to take my team into country.”
“Shit.” Claire sank back into her chair. “Is that why you’re limping?”
Sarah nodded. “Yep. Fuel exploded. Boss didn’t want to hear that it wasn’t my fault even though I was literally topping vehicles off. Contractors deliberately failed to properly ground the fuel stop.”
“So what you’re saying is you’re lucky to be alive, and instead you’re bitching about being fired?” Claire said dryly.
“Well, when you put it that way,” Sarah said. She grinned and shook her head. “The boss was looking for a reason to fire me and he found it.”
“Well, I’m not going to complain if that means you’re here. I have a shortage of female friends who can put up with me.”
“Ha! That’s just because you’re terrifying.” Sarah let the conversation drift away from her failure as a commander. She couldn’t face the memories, not today. Not when she needed to get her head in the game and focus on her new job here at Fort Hood. If she was planning on staying in the Army, she needed to get used to riding a desk on the staff.
One of the lieutenants in the ops stuck her head in Sarah’s cubicle. “Excuse me, ma’am?”
She glanced over Claire’s shoulder at LT Picket and felt positively ancient. The Army was a young soldier’s game, and at thirty, Sarah hadn’t been a young soldier in half a lifetime or more.
“What’s up, LT?”
“Ma’am, Major Wilson directed me to hand this to you.” The lieutenant looked like she expected Sarah to rip her throat out.
Sarah hadn’t had a run in with Major Wilson yet, but that didn’t mean the battalion executive officer’s reputation didn’t precede her. She was not a warm and fuzzy kind of leader, apparently. She ruled by fear and intimidation. Always a fun mix with a superior officer.
“Thanks. What is it?”
Pickett folded her hands at the small of her back at the position of parade rest. “You’ve been appointed as the investigating officer for an incident that happened this past weekend. A fight between a lieutenant and a sergeant in Chaos Company over in Death Dealer battalion. Drunk and disorderly with assault. Some sergeant got drunk and was involved in a fight with his company XO. Now the brigade commander wants answers.”
“So much for getting integrated with the battalion’s logistics mission,” Sarah said. Being an investigating officer took time, time she could be using to establish herself as a valuable asset to the logistics planning team. Now she was going to be out chasing sworn statements and picking through lies, instead of doing her job, which was working logistics for the upcoming deployment to Iraq. Fights weren’t usually serious incidents, contrary to what most folks outside the Army thought. Why was this one being investigated?
Sarah frowned. “What kind of unit has officers and enlisted men fighting on the weekends?”
Claire smiled. “Oh, trust me, Death Dealer battalion is special.”
“And you know this, how?”
Claire leaned back in her chair. “Evan is the ops officer there. Trust me, when I say special, I mean ‘entire chain of command was relieved a few months ago’ kind of special.”
“Oh wow. That’s really serious.”
“You have no idea. New command teams are on board, but they’re busy trying to clean house and get the unit prepared for the next deployment coming up in—” she glanced at her watch “—seven months. I haven’t met any of the new commanders beyond Bandit Company but Sarn’t Ike says they are an interesting mix of characters.”
“Well, that ought to be interesting then.” Sarah flipped open the folder to look at the memorandum appointing her as the investigating officer.
Cold prickled over her skin. Her stomach twisted into knots violently as she read the name of the company commander again and again. It had to be a mistake.
Had to be.
“Dude, what’s wrong?” Claire’s voice came from very far away.
She said nothing, handing Claire the paperwork, her heart caught in her throat.
“Oh shit.” Claire’s expression hardened as her eyes scanned the paperwork. She looked up at Sarah. “Sarah—”
Sarah covered her mouth with her hand, a thousand memories storming forward all at once, flashing back to a terrible time years ago. Before she’d met Jack. Before she’d lost the man who’d filled the dead space inside her with love and laughter and understanding. Things she’d thought she’d lost forever when Sean Nichols had walked out on her.
The man she’d been engaged to marry. The man who’d left her when she refused to give up her career to be his wife.
“Goddamn it, Sean, I thought you were getting your men under control?” Lieutenant Colonel Gilliad jammed a finger in Sean’s chest and Sean deliberately kept his expression blank.
Captain Sean Nichols stood in his battalion commander’s office, hands at the small of his back in a parade rest stance. It was the preferred position for getting a wire brush run over his fourth point of contact. While the visual might have been funny any other time, at the moment, Sean wasn’t in the mood for a joke.
“Sir, I’m working on it. There’s a lot to unfuck in this unit, sir.”
“How exactly are you working on it? The lawyer tells me your company is the farthest behind on legal packets.”
“Sir, we’re processing the medical and mental health before we start the legal proceedings.”
The muscle in Gilliad’s throat pulsed visibly as he stood, leaning over the desk. “And now you’ve got sergeants picking fights with the officers?”
Sean ground his teeth. He was going to whip Kearney’s ass six ways from Sunday when he got ahold of him. And Sean’s executive officer? Oh LT Smith was going to be lucky to still have a job if Sean had any say so. But like everything, firing any lieutenant, let alone that particular lieutenant, was complicated. “Sir, I’m still trying to get the answers as to what’s going on there.”
“Yeah, well you’re out of options on that one. I’ve asked the brigade commander to direct an investigation on this clusterfuck since you can’t control your formation.”
Gilliad slapped a folder against Sean’s chest. Sean kept it from falling and dropped it by his side, feeling like now might not be the best time to read it and take notes. Not with flames shooting out of Gilliad’s ears, anyway.
“Roger that, sir.”
Gilliad sank down into his chair with a heavy sigh. He looked up at Sean quietly for a moment. “I hired you because you came highly recommended. I’m not sure what the problem is with this particular sergeant, but you need to get him under control or you need to throw his ass out of the Army.”
Sean ground his teeth. He really was going to kill Kearney. “Sir, he’s working through some difficult family issues.”
“Noted. Don’t care. He gets arrested one more time, and I’m coming for you. You want to put your ass on the line for this guy, you’ll deal with the consequences when he fucks up.”
“Roger that, sir.”
“Get the hell out of my office.”
Sean saluted sharply and left the office quickly before his mouth decided that discretion was not the better part of valor.
“That was fun.” First Sergeant Morgan fell into step with Sean outside the colonel’s office.
They stepped outside of the headquarters, and Morgan paused to pluck a fresh cigar out of the breast pocket of his uniform.
“A blast. We should do it again tomorrow.” Sean pushed his sunglasses on to shield his eyes from the brilliant Texas sunlight. The trees overhanging the battalion headquarters offered shade, but the heat was oppressive, and it wasn’t even summer yet.
“Heard from the XO yet?” Morgan asked.
“Nope. Where the hell did we get these lieutenants? Clown college?” Sean shook his head. “Fucking Tweedle Dum and his merry band of miscreants.”
“I love that you call your XO Tweedle Dum, sir,” Morgan said dryly. “It warms the cockles of my twisted little heart.”
Sean grunted. He’d nicknamed LT Smith Tweedle Dum out of sheer frustration. He and his buddies were all part of the same class at West Point. All but one had a mother or a father currently on active duty but somehow, they were the least competent officers Sean had ever seen. He’d never encountered more unprofessional behavior in his entire career.
God save him from lieutenants who thought they knew everything because they were related to someone who did.
“Probably time to strategically apply some pressure to their fourth points of contact. You’ve given them the benefit of the doubt, and, well, they’re not really rising to the occasion, are they?”
Sean shot his first sergeant a sidelong look that said no shit. “Does Kearney have a good story for this one?” Sean wished he hadn’t quit smoking. It might have been six years ago but, right now, he’d give anything to relieve the tension winding around his chest, and a cigarette seemed just the thing. Something. Anything to take the edge off.
Sean sighed heavily. “He still at the company?”
“Yep. Bleeding on the conference room table.”
“Well, it ought to give the medics something to do,” Sean said dryly. “Have them stick him with an IV and patch him up.”
“Want me to draw up the counseling packet? He needs a boot in his ass.” Morgan clipped the end off his cigar and flicked it into the bush. “Maybe taking some time and money will smarten him up.”
“I doubt it,” Sean said. “And no, we can’t do a damn thing right now. The boss appointed an investigation.”
“What’d he go and do that for?” Morgan held the lighter to the tip of his cigar. “Kearney’s problems are pretty simple.”
“Guess he doesn’t believe me when I tell him that Kearney and his wife just enjoy making each other miserable.” Sean scrubbed his hand over his mouth. “How do we fix this, Top? This is five weeks running we’ve had boys arrested.”
Morgan blew out a smoke ring. He did his best thinking when he was smoking. “First, we need to figure out what the hell happened last night. Kearney getting into a fight with the XO is bad juju, but the more I think about it, the more I’m with the boss. We need someone else to take a look at this because clearly there’s some bullshit going on that we’re not seeing.”
“I love how you read my mind.” Sean grinned. “Want to snuggle?”
“Just because I read your mind doesn’t mean we’re going to be taking long showers together,” Morgan growled.
Sean laughed at the long running joke between them and some of the tension that had been squeezing his chest eased back. He released a deep breath.
They walked in silence to their company headquarters, a small, one story brick building, with bushes cut in the guitar pick shape of the First Cavalry Division patch. All of the company ops were lined up in the same building.
There was a lone female standing on the front steps. Her hair was tied back in a severe bun, her eyes masked by dark Wiley-X sunglasses.
“Lost?” he said.
She didn’t turn right away. There was something familiar about the curve of her neck, the line of her jaw. It nagged at him, just out of reach.
She turned, her face shadowed by the sun. “I’m looking for Captain Nichols.”
He stopped, his heart pounding hard in his ears. He stood for a moment, convinced that lack of sleep had him hallucinating. That he was hearing and seeing things he’d long ago tried to forget. He knew that voice. Hadn’t heard it in half a lifetime at least but it blasted him with a sense of knowing.
She shifted then, turning until the sun no longer cast a shadow over her features and reality slammed into him. A thousand brilliant points of pain exploded somewhere in the vicinity of his chest. The sounds from the world fell away, leaving him in a vacuum filled with memories and the silent regret of long ago mistakes.
“Yeah, Sean. It’s me.”
It had been nine years since she’d seen him. Nine years since his words had sliced into her skin with bitter anger and hurt and loss. Nine years since their lives had fallen apart, and she’d relegated Sean Nichols to a memory she tried to forget.
But in one moment, the intervening decade fell away, and she was suddenly that twenty-year-old sergeant again, her heart bleeding in her hands as she tried to put her life back together.
She swallowed the dryness in her throat, determined to keep things professional, then get the hell out of Dodge as fast as she could. This was not allowed to get messy. She’d done messy with him once before, and she’d be damned if she was going to repeat that mistake.
She couldn’t see his eyes behind the sunglasses, but for the briefest moment, his lips parted. A hint of emotion, then it was gone, his mouth pressed into a hard, flat line. His hands clenched into fists before they disappeared into his pockets.
He jerked his chin toward her nametape. “Anders?”
She nodded briefly. “I was married.”
“Apparently.” It was amazing how much bitterness could be packed into a single word.
“Well, now that the interpersonal hostilities are over, I’m the investigating officer for the incident in your company last night.”
“I figured that one out just now, thanks.”
She took a deep breath. So much for keeping things professional. She wasn’t going to get drawn into an argument with him. But the standoff continued. Neither of them moved and a thousand memories swirled between them, snapping like live things.
He’d changed. A lot. His shoulders filled out the gray ACU uniform much better than when he’d been a younger man. His jaw was stronger. His tanned skin was creased from the bright sun of Fort Hood and Iraq if his combat patch was any indication. His dark brown hair was longer than she remembered him wearing it when they’d been young sergeants together all those years ago.
So much for hoping he’d gotten a paunch and gone bald. Guess voodoo dolls didn’t work after all.
The first sergeant standing next to Sean cleared his throat. “Anyone going to bother with introductions? Or am I supposed to guess what this awkward interpersonal hostility is all about?”
Sean sighed heavily. “Top, meet my ex-fiancé, Sarah Delany.”
Sarah stuck her hand out, annoyed that he’d deliberately misstated her name. She’d been Delany once upon a time but hadn’t been in a long time. “Captain Anders, nice to meet you, Firs’ Sarn’t.”
Morgan’s hand was strong and solid and felt like eighty-five grit sandpaper.
“Ma’am.” Morgan stepped around Sarah and unlocked the door to the orderly room, his cigar still smoking. “Well, you two kids play nice.”
She had the distinct feeling he was laughing at them, but she said nothing instead as the silence closed around them.
“Married?” he asked, his eyes going to where her left hand was wrapped around the strap of her bag. There was no ring on her left finger. Her hand felt more naked than it had in years.
“Seven years ago.”
“Kind of fast wasn’t it?”
She felt the old anger surfacing between them, crawling over her shoulder to whisper terrible things in her ear. “You have no right to question what I did with my life after you left me,” she whispered.
His smile was cold and hard. “So that’s how you remember it? I left you?”
She stepped away, out of his space, and sucked in deep breaths. His words hurt. They were supposed to. “Not much to misconstrue, honestly.”
His smile could have cracked glass. “Pretty selective memory you’ve got going there, Sarah. Let’s not forget who said no.”
“You know what?” She held up one hand. “I’ll get the MP and police reports from your first sergeant. It’ll be better if we interact as little as possible, since things obviously haven’t changed that much.”
She walked away before the situation devolved more than it already had. She stalked past the battalion headquarters and went straight for her car, surprised by the force of the anger threatening to choke her.
She’d taken a long time to get over him. Longer to get past the anger and the hurt.
She needed a few minutes, just a few, to put everything back in the box where it belonged. Chained and bound at the bottom of the void where she could pretend the life before she’d met her husband didn’t exist.
Because Sean Nichols was nothing more than a bad memory. One she was determined to leave exactly where he belonged.
In the past.
Sean let her go.
It was a long time before he unrooted himself from the spot and walked into his company ops.
He’d handled that about as poorly as he always handled everything with Sarah. He never had a chance to ask her how she’d been. The change of name had rocked him off his axis—and it was a name he knew, all too well.
That name carried far too many memories, far too much guilt and sadness.
It couldn’t be.
It just couldn’t be.
Kearney sat at the conference room table. He avoided Sean’s eyes, deliberately playing with his cell phone. Sean stopped at the edge of the counter.
“Did you ever meet Jack Anders wife?”
Kearney looked up sharply. “Talk about your random question, sir.”
Sean didn’t respond to the sarcasm from his sergeant. With a sigh, Kearney set his phone down. “Yeah, I met her once when we’d convoyed down the Baghdad with Anders’ platoon.”
“She was a soldier?”
“Yeah, another lieutenant.”
Sean felt the blood leaving his head. He needed to sit down.
“What made you bring that up?”
“Nothing.” He walked into his office and shut the door, needing a few minutes to pull his emotions back from the edge of the abyss.
He’d spent more than a few hours over the years wondering where Sarah had gone and how she was. The whole time, apparently, she’d moved on with her life. In the first years after she’d left, he’d often thought of what he’d say if he ever saw her again. Some days, the stupid part of his heart that never got over her would ask her how she’d been. She’d smile the way she used to, and they’d finally talk about how things all went to shit when she’d turned down his marriage proposal.
Other days…other days were darker. Other days, he imagined railing at her. Demanding to know why she’d said no when they’d been so damn good together.
But he’d never imagined this. Never imagined that she’d moved on with her life. That she’d remarried. Never in his wildest dreams would have thought that she’d been married to Jack. Holy fuck.
He sat at his desk, turning that revelation over and over in his mind. He scrubbed his hand over his mouth as old memories mixed with new.
Morgan rapped on the edge of the doorframe. “Medics are getting an IV bag from the medical company. How long do you want to leave Kearney out here?”
Sean folded his arms over his chest and sighed. “Restrict him to the barracks, and let sleep the rest of it off.”
Morgan nodded then stepped further into the office. “Looks like you had a lot of catching up to do with that other captain.”
“Don’t suppose I can ask you not to pick that scab right now?” Sean rocked back in his chair.
Morgan said nothing for a long moment. “Kind of curious about what has you this fired up, honestly.”
Sean folded his hands together on his desk. Breathed deeply through his nose and deliberately changed the subject. “So have we gotten ahold of the XO yet?”
Morgan lifted one brow. “Apparently he’s on his way.”
“Any reason why it’s taken him so long?”
“Apparently, he was still drunk when he woke up and claims he didn’t want to get a DUI.”
Sean leaned back in his chair. “Let me know when he gets here,” he said simply. Then, “Did you get the paperwork done up on Kearney?” He needed to keep his mind focused on work.
It would be far too easy to disappear on a long winding trip down memory lane.
“Yep, already done.” Morgan sighed. “Look, whatever is going on between you and that captain, you need to put it away. We don’t have time for you to be pining away like a lovesick puppy. We have privates –” He glanced over his shoulder where Kearney sat at the conference table. “And sergeants for that shit.”
Sean looked up at the big first sergeant, grinding his teeth to keep his better judgment from escaping. Morgan meant well and he wouldn’t be saying anything if he didn’t see the train wreck that Sarah had turned him into. The unit couldn’t handle any more command or leadership disasters. They had more than enough already.
“I’m working on it, Top,” was all he said after a moment.
Morgan studied him quietly then left him alone. Alone with the silent recrimination in his thoughts and the swirling memories that took him back to another life. To a life before the war, when he’d still believed his own bullshit that he’d be man enough to bring everyone home. That he’d be able to go to war and come home with his honor intact. That Sarah loved him enough to leave the Army behind.
Funny how a decade at war changed everything.