Homefront Series, Book 1
A breathtaking new series from USA Today Bestselling author Jessica Scott that New York Times bestselling author JoAnn Ross calls “beautifully written and touchingly authentic.”
He’s always loved her…
First Sergeant Gale Sorren waited a war and half a lifetime for a chance to be stationed near the ex-wife who left him years ago. When he finally musters the courage to see her, the life he imagined she was living was nothing close to reality.
She’s never stopped loving him…
Melanie never stopped worrying about Gale each time he headed off to war. But he’s never been there when she needed him and she’s had fifteen years to steel her heart against him.
When Gale moves to Fort Hood, he finally has a chance to make things right with Melanie and the daughter she raised without him.
But Mel can’t trust her heart to a man who has always let her down.
Shit days were nothing new. In fact, Sergeant First Class Gale Sorren was on a thirty-six day streak, and there was no sign that they were coming to an end any time soon. But he had to keep going.
No matter how much he might want to take a knee.
The funeral detail was somber and professional, the flight line dead silent now that the aircraft had killed its engines. His throat closed off. His eyes burned. He held his salute as the caskets moved slowly past, one after another in slow procession. His arm trembled from holding it for what felt like a lifetime, but there was no way in hell he was going to drop it.
Three of his boys were heading home tonight.
There was no sadness. No raging grief. Only a sober, silent tribute to the fallen.
The rage would come later. Much later. For now, there was too much work to be done.
He dropped his salute and listened to his boys remember their brothers. Recounting their heroism. Their bravery.
Gale said nothing. There were no words that could get past the block in his throat. So he let his men remember their friends while he stood watch.
He stood there, long after the rest of the battalion had left the airfield. The Air Force security guard came and went and came again. The kid finally gave up trying to get him to move hours later.
It was probably for the best.
A stone skittered across the blazing asphalt. He watched it tumble to the edge of the tarmac and land in a pothole.
He glanced over at the source of the stone’s movement. Tellhouse, one of his fellow platoon sergeants, walked up. Tellhouse was a sergeant first class like Gale. Promotable, too, which meant they were both going to be looking for other jobs soon. Gale didn’t really want to leave his boys mid deployment because he got promoted out of his position.
Gale liked Tellhouse for the most part. Except for his temper. They needed to work on that. After all, there couldn’t be two of them enrolled in anger management training. Sarn’t Major would crush the both of them. The problem was they both tended to get pissed off about the same things at the same time.
Tellhouse pushed his eye-protection up higher on the bridge of his nose. “First Sarn’t needs you at the company.”
Gale made a noise and tried to summon an ounce of give-a-shit over what the First Sergeant wanted. Maybe if the fucker left the office once in a while, Gale wouldn’t be strung out trying to take care of three platoons instead of just his own. Thank God Tellhouse was competent or Gale might have lost his shit a long time ago.
Finally, he shifted his weight and moved.
Maybe someday he’d find the grief for his soldiers.
But that day was not today. Not when they had a mission gearing up in about six hours.
He breathed out deeply and fell into step with his fellow NCO. The walk was solemn and silent and filled with things neither of them could say. The war was nothing new. Both of them had spent more than their fair share of time in Hell.
But sometimes, days like this just got the best of you.
He stepped into the dark interior of the company ops. Funny how a few pieces of plywood and a couple of extension cords suddenly made an office. He stopped short, though, when he saw the battalion command sergeant major standing with the first sergeant. Not extremely out of the ordinary, except that Gale had the distinct impression Sarn’t Major was waiting for him.
Gale swallowed the tight knot in his throat that wouldn’t seem to budge. “What’s the occasion?” he asked, looking between the two senior NCOs.
First Sarn’t handed him a sheet of paper. “You got a Red Cross message.”
The knot in his throat swelled, blocking his airway as he looked down at the handwritten note.
The room spun out at the edges when he saw Jamie’s name.
The words blurred together. Hospitalized. Stitches. Psychiatric ward.
He breathed deeply and looked at his NCO leadership. “When can I leave?”
It was the sergeant major who spoke. “I can’t let you go. Your daughter’s life isn’t in immediate danger. She’s safe. Your ex-wife didn’t request your presence.”
A loud buzzing filled Gale’s head, blocking out the sound of the sergeant major’s words. “My daughter’s in the hospital,” he finally managed. “I need to be there.”
Sarn’t Major shook his head, his expression flat and emotionless. “That’s not going to happen, Sarn’t.”
Gale couldn’t say what happened next. An urge to do violence slammed through him. He imagined driving his fist into the sarn’t major’s face and beating the lines off that sun-worn leather skin. All the rage, all the fury, boiled up in a single violent flash.
The next thing he knew, he was back outside. Tellhouse’s hands were driving into his chest, holding him against the wall. “Stop. Sorren, fucking stop.”
Tellhouse’s words finally penetrated the fog. Gale blinked rapidly and looked at the other platoon sergeant. He stopped struggling to get free.
Tellhouse took a step back but still kept his body between Gale and the door. Gale stood there for a moment, reality crashing through the haze of violence, grief, and rage. Helpless, potent rage. “I need a few minutes,” was all he could manage before he executed an about face and walked away.
Then there was no rage. No more red-tainted visions of violence. This was something more. Something he couldn’t name and couldn’t process.
Jamie was in the hospital. His daughter was in the fucking hospital and Melanie hadn’t requested his presence.
He barely felt the gravel beneath his boots as he walked back to his CHU. He was stuck half a world away in a fucking war that he no longer even hated, and there was nothing he could do.
He closed the door to his CHU. Locked it behind him with a solitary, metallic click.
He stood for a moment in the Spartan emptiness. There was a light coat of dust on the old leather chair he’d gotten from a major on his way out of country.
A box of unopened Pop Tarts had fallen over.
All around him was dust and dirt. There was an explosion somewhere in the distance. A pop of gunfire at the test fire pit. The war was fucking everywhere.
He stood there in the center of his CHU. There was something broken inside him when he couldn’t even cry over his fallen soldiers anymore.
Something broken that he was unable to name, that he couldn’t be there when his little girl needed him.
The air conditioner in his CHU kicked on. His cheeks were suddenly cool.
He lifted one hand at the unexpected sensation.
His fingertip came away wet.
He unclenched his other hand. The Red Cross message was still there, crumpled at his fingertips.
The Red Cross message that told him his daughter was in the hospital.
The wetness on his cheeks grew colder, spread down his neck as the words on the paper blurred.
He dropped to his knees, doubled over as the violent, unrestrained grief ripped him apart.
Fort Hood, Texas
It was fucking hot and it wasn’t even summertime yet.
He’d thought he knew hot. Hell, he’d spent enough time at Fort Benning and in Iraq to be intimately familiar with just how hot the planet could get.
But somehow, Fort Hood took hot to a whole new level. It was a dry heat, his last sarn’t major had said when he’d given Gale the news that he was getting his assignment wish and being sent to Hood.
It was just past the ass crack of dawn and the sun slowly slipping over the horizon, and it was already a hundred degrees. And it wasn’t even summer yet. Next to him, his commander, Captain Ben Teague, was busy being a smart ass. It was his totem animal, or so he said.
“I wonder if the sarn’t major would let us run in just our PT belts.”
Gale shot him his best are you high expression. Teague grinned and raised his hands. Teague was Gale’s commander and technically that made him Gale’s boss but the commander/first sergeant relationship was… How had Sarn’t Major Cox put it once when Gale had threatened to kill one of his platoon leaders for getting drunk with the soldiers back at Benning? It was an arranged marriage. A unique description, Gale supposed.
“I’m thinking that might get us both fired,” Gale said mildly.
“No, not really. It’ll get the sarn’t major’s boot surgically implanted in my ass.” Gale stopped a soldier and told him to tighten his PT belt around his waist. The new Corps sergeant major had a thing about uniform violations and a loose PT belt was a cardinal sin these days. “Besides, it could be worse.”
“We could be patrolling Sadr City in this weather in full kit.”
“You know—” Teague snapped his fingers— “that is an excellent point.” He shoved his hands in his pockets as they walked toward the PT formation area. “I really wish we didn’t have mandatory fun today.”
They were both in ACUs. Gale resented the hell out of any morning that didn’t start off with PT, but he damn sure resented it when he was forced to skip PT to go to breakfast. What kind of animals started their days with food? Give him coffee and a good six-mile run any day of the week. “Don’t get me started.”
“At least there’ll be coffee.” Teague frowned and glanced at him. “There will be coffee at this kind of thing, right?”
“Do I look like I have the slightest idea what we’re doing today?” Gale needed to be spending time with his formation, not doing whatever the hell they were going to do this morning. He was still getting to know his troops and their issues—and there were a lot of them. Issues, that is. “It’s not like I spend my free time checking the battalion’s social roster.”
“Hell, I don’t know what you do on the weekends other than bailing kids out of jail.” Teague glanced over at him and Gale braced for more sarcasm. “Do you even have free time—oh hey.”
Instantly his commander’s expression softened. Gale followed his line of vision to see Teague’s other half, Major Olivia Hale, talking to the battalion commander.
“I know what you do with yours,” Gale mumbled and tried not to be jealous of the new and shiny love between his commander and the battalion’s lawyer. Major Hale nodded at Teague in acknowledgment and turned back to her conversation with the battalion commander.
It was the subtlety of her gesture that convinced Gale that she and Teague had a good chance at making things work. They were a good fit. She kept Teague honest in more ways than one, and they were both very good at keeping things professional at work.
It was a nice change from all the drama Gale dealt with on a daily basis. Angry spouses, cheating soldiers, and everything in between. Life in the Army sometimes felt more like a reality TV show than a professional organization.
He peeled away from his commander and headed to the front of the formation where his platoon sergeants were talking with each other. Sergeant First Class Iaconelli was the headquarters platoon sergeant, and while Gale had his misgivings about a recovering alcoholic on the team, Iaconelli had proven to be a rock since he’d come to work for him.
“Are we set for the range tomorrow?” Gale asked Iaconelli.
Iaconelli nodded. “Roger, Top. Final checks today before lunchtime.”
“Make sure we pull some camo out for shade.” When one of the other platoon sergeants started to protest, Gale talked over him. “We don’t need to practice being hardcore in the heat. We need to be able to shoot, and we can’t do that if soldiers are dropping from dehydration.”
Iaconelli nodded. “Got it, Top.”
Gale jerked his chin, and Iaconelli stepped away from the formation. “You talked to Foster today?”
Foster was on convalescent leave for surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He was also struggling with an addiction to methamphetamines. “Roger. He called in like he’s supposed to.”
“How is he doing?” If Gale had serious misgivings about Iaconelli, he had even more about keeping Foster in the ranks, but these men meant a lot to Teague. He was keeping a very close eye on both situations, however. If the time came that he needed to recommend the commander take action, Gale would do what needed to be done.
“He sounded steady. I’m going to swing by and check on him after PT.”
“Good. If you get even a hint that something is wrong, I want every pain pill counted.”
“Roger, Top.” There was resentment in Iaconelli’s answer, too obvious for Gale to ignore.
“Something you want to say?”
Iaconelli looked out over the formation, grinding his teeth until the muscle in his jaw looked about to snap. “It’s hard enough staying sober without everyone looking at you like you’re using all the time.”
Gale studied the other man silently. “Are we still talking about Foster?”
Iaconelli didn’t look away. “It doesn’t matter. But maybe give him the benefit of the doubt?”
Gale folded his arms over his chest. He wasn’t looking for a fight with one of his platoon sergeants. If Iaconelli needed to get this off his chest, then so be it. Finally, when Iaconelli let the silence stand, Gale spoke. “The fact that he’s still in the Army and recovering from surgery while he’s trying to get clean is benefit of the doubt.”
“You don’t know him,” Iaconelli said.
“And you do. And that closeness blinds you to the reality that he’s got a long hard slog ahead of him to stay sober.” No point in pulling his punches, regardless of whether they were talking about Iaconelli’s personal issues or Foster’s.
“Oh I’m very much aware of the road he’s on.” After another moment, Iaconelli turned and stalked back to the formation. Whatever was eating at him wasn’t going to come out today. But soon. The situation needed watching. Closely.
Gale let the other man go. He didn’t need to get into a dick-measuring contest with his platoon sergeant. Foster wasn’t one of Gale’s boys. He was just another soldier, another face in the crowd. If he soldiered, Gale would let him continue to soldier. If not, he was going home. Gale had a war to train his men for and he needed every single body able and fit to fight.
Another soldier who was distracting from the mission of prepping to head back to Iraq wasn’t going to garner much sympathy from Gale.
The cannon sounded, and Gale called the formation to attention and present arms as reveille trumpeted over the installation. They saluted the flag, and there was a moment of somber pride as the colors were hoisted up at the division headquarters. When it finished, Gale turned the troops over to Iaconelli, who took charge of the formation for PT.
Teague fell into step with him as they headed toward the parking lot.
“So. You call your ex yet?”
Gale sighed but said nothing. He never should have told Teague that Melanie lived in Harker Heights and that he was still summoning the courage to call her.
“I’ll take that as a no?”
Several weeks had gone by since Gale had reported to Hood. He’d told himself that he needed to get situated first. That there would be time.
But he was lying to himself. Because the truth of the matter was he was afraid. Afraid of seeing the daughter who’d nearly died almost two years ago. Afraid to look at her and see the hate and the blame and the guilt looking back at him. Oh, he knew he wasn’t going to win any parenting awards for stalling. He should have been on the first plane smoking and to hell with what the sarn’t major had said.
But he hadn’t been. He’d damn near been court-martialed back in Iraq and it had taken Sarn’t Major Cox almost eighteen months to save his ass. The fact that Gale was on his second tour as a first sergeant despite the assault said a lot about how well connected Cox was. Only Cox and Tellhouse knew his history from downrange in this unit and Gale intended to keep it that way if he could.
But even the charges and the job didn’t excuse Gale’s action or lack thereof. He told himself that Skype calls and text messages were enough, that she was okay. That Mel had a handle on things.
But even those were convenient lies. Fear was a powerful thing and yeah, he was afraid. He’d finally gotten his wish of being stationed near his ex-wife and their daughter and he was paralyzed by fear. Fear of what it meant to live in the same town as Mel and Jamie. Fear that if he tried to be a dad after all these years that he would fail miserably. Or worse, that Jamie no longer needed him because he’d been gone too long.
He was afraid to face the bitter truth: that Melanie didn’t need him after all these years.
Maybe she never had.
Melanie was reasonably certain that the fire had not been an accident, but she wasn’t in a position to comment. She was a liaison between the business owners and the real estate council and random speculation like that could cause problems for her office.
She fought the urge to check her cell phone for the tenth time that morning. She told herself that Jamie was fine. She’d dropped her off at school that morning after the requisite fighting about whether or not the sky was blue or if the sun was actually going to come up tomorrow. Because all they did was fight.
The fights were exhausting, but it was the fear that kept Mel up at night. Fear that Jamie was slipping away again and Mel wouldn’t be there to save her next time.
The captain moved away, leaving Mel alone. She stole a quick glance at her phone. No text but no missed calls from the school either. Relief crawled over Mel’s skin. Jamie was still in school then.
She tucked her phone back into her purse as she spotted a friendly face—someone she wouldn’t mind actually talking with—and made a straight line for Major Olivia Hale. “I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Mandatory fun and all that,” Olivia said with a smile. Melanie envied the woman—even in ACUs, which were not exactly made for women’s bodies, Olivia looked stylish and effortlessly well put together.
Melanie smiled back. “Life isn’t the same without you on the Council harassing the slum lords trying to screw over soldiers.”
“It was one of life’s true pleasures,” Olivia said dryly.
“There is no one to play the Faux Outrage Drinking Game with me anymore. The monthly meetings are epically more boring.” She sipped her tea, watching the room. “How’s life down in the new unit?”
“It’s good. I have a sense of purpose again.” Olivia smiled warmly.
Melanie set her tea on a nearby table. “So what are we doing here? And I’m not interested in the official bullshit line, either, so don’t waste your breath.”
Olivia grinned wickedly and it was the smile that Mel remembered all too well. The smile the other woman used when she was about to rip someone a new one. “Well, since you put it that way.” She took a sip of coffee. “We’re trying to build relationships that will strengthen the community. We’ve got a massive problem with soldiers being involved in misconduct off post and we want to get civilian agencies involved before the police get involved.”
And just like that, all the pieces clicked into place. “So you’re bribing the landlords with shitty coffee and donuts in the hope that we’ll call you guys instead of the cops?”
“More or less.” Olivia set her coffee down and retrieved a folder from the table. “We’ve got this handy little quick reference guide with all the unit phone numbers. Kind of a cheat sheet of names and numbers to call. We even laminated it to make it durable. Isn’t it nice and shiny?”
Mel shot her friend a wry look. “Is this even legal?”
“I’m not going to offer an official opinion on what I think of this program.”
“Why don’t you approve?” Mel asked, keeping her voice low.
Olivia sighed. “Because it enables some people’s misconduct to be hidden away and covered up. I prefer we work things through official channels. Transparency and all that.” Olivia’s smile could have cracked glass. “Community outreach with the realtors keeps problems handled through informal networks instead of the Bell County legal system.”
Melanie opened her mouth to speak but the words locked in her throat.
The tea in her stomach turned bitter and cold as her guts twisted with recognition and surprise at the last person she’d expected to see here today.
Her heart slammed against her ribs as anxiety and something else knotted in her belly. For a moment, she thought about turning away. About hiding from the man who’d just walked into the room like he owned it.
But it was too late.
The world tilted beneath her feet. He was supposed to be stationed at Fort Lewis, halfway across the country. And instead he was here. In this room. At this moment. As a first sergeant?
Closer than he’d been in over two years. His jaw was iron, his shoulders broad and strong. It was criminal how good that uniform looked on him. And damn it, she was not going to notice these things about him.
But despite herself, she noticed everything about him. His dark brown eyes were hard and filled with shadows now. Colder than she remembered. A smarter woman might have been intimidated by him. A younger woman might have already been wringing out her panties. But she remembered him for the boy he’d been. The boy she’d loved.
The boy she’d left.
He was not that boy anymore. And she was no longer the scared uncertain girl trying to find her way in the world.
“Are you okay?” Olivia’s voice came from very far away.
“Yeah. Excuse me a sec?” She hated bailing on her friend but this was not a conversation she wanted to have with an audience.
She offered a tense, flat line in place of a smile as he approached. Defenses up, that’s what she needed. She could not do this with him right now. “I’m not exactly sure what the correct greeting is,” she said, doing her damnedest to keep her voice level.
As though they were perfect strangers, talking about unimportant things.
The hush between them swelled into a living thing, pulsing with raw and ragged emotions.
“I can explain.” His voice was rough and deep.
“How long have you been here?” Her words were too sharp on her own ears. She sucked in a deep breath, trying to stave off the riot swirling in her belly. No matter how much time they spent apart, every single time they were around each other things went to shit in a rapid, predictable manner. She really wanted to avoid that at the present moment.
“Long enough.” Gale cleared his throat and had the decency to look embarrassed. “I should have called you.”
“And yet you didn’t, so there we are.” She turned, looking for her cup, needing space, needing distance between them before she broke apart into a million ugly pieces in front of her peers and coworkers and a half dozen random strangers.
Gale’s hand was rough and strong on her shoulder. “Mel…”
“Don’t.” She moved away from his touch, barely keeping her voice low. “You don’t have permission to touch me.” Mel bit her lips together, inhaling a deep, hard breath. Gale lowered his hand and they stood there at an impasse.
A few months. No call. No note. Nothing. Hadn’t tried to see Jamie. Just move to town and don’t say a word.
That told her all she needed to know about where she and Jamie stood in his priorities. Just like always, the Army won. She bit down harder, trying to divert the pain in her heart to the pain in her lip. “Jamie will be happy to see you,” she said finally.
She didn’t mean to throw Jamie in the middle but that’s the way things were with them. It was the way it had been since…since always.
He stiffened. His hands flexed by his sides. Like he needed to do something with them that hopefully didn’t involve her.
“I meant to call.” There was a rough edge to his voice. A blade, like cut steel, ragged and raw.
“I’m sure you did.” Her words were brittle. She headed for the door in what she hoped was a relatively inconspicuous manner.
She needed a few minutes to put everything back in the box she marked “Gale” and did her best to ignore.
Because she’d be damned if she was going to cry over this man one more time.
Jessica Scott is an Iraq war veteran, an active duty army officer and the USA Today bestselling author of novels set in the heart of America’s Army. She is the mother of two daughters, three cats and three dogs, and wife to a retired NCO.
She’s also written for the New York Times At War Blog, PBS Point of View Regarding War, and IAVA. She deployed to Iraq in 2009 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)/New Dawn and has had the honor of serving as a company commander at Fort Hood, Texas twice.
She’s holds phd in morality in Sociology with Duke University and she’s been featured as one of Esquire Magazine’s Americans of the Year for 2012.
I tried every gluten free flour on the market. This one stands above all the rest.