Fighting for Everything:A Warrior Fight Club NovelBy: Laura Kaye
Noah Cortez was burning in his skin. The fire was all in his mind, of course, like a war that raged inside himself. Razing everything he’d once been and turning the landscape unrecognizable. And yet, here he stood, making small talk over burgers and dogs at his parents’ annual Memorial Day barbecue. His first one since he’d been discharged from the Marine Corps.
Joining the party had been a mistake. Just like he knew it would be. Because Noah sure as hell didn’t feel like he had anything to celebrate, least of all himself. He was trying his best to hold his shit together, but every time one of his parents’ friends thanked him for his service he kinda wanted to puke. Or punch someone. And since neither was socially acceptable, he’d retreated to the edge of the party. More observer than participant.
Which sounded a helluva lot like his life right now.
Because Noah was lost.
Johnson. Kendrick. Martinez. Fender. Smythe. Khan. Stein…
He concentrated on the names of his fallen buddies from the Marine Corps. Those were the men who deserved to be memorialized, and they were also the single best reminder of why Noah should be grateful to be alive. Because he knew he should be.
“Noah? Hey, Noah, you all right?”
Blinking out of the thoughts, Noah found his father and brother Josh looking at him with that expression. The one that said he’d totally checked out again, that they were worried about him, and that they knew he wasn’t all there. Not anymore.
Partial deafness and blindness from an IED explosion and brain injury did that to a man. Among other things.
Noah’s gut clenched and he tried to subtly shift his stance to put his good right ear closer to the conversation. “Yeah, sure,” he said, taking a swig of his beer. He’d been holding it so long it had gone warm.
His dad nodded, his gray eyes scanning Noah’s face and not missing a thing. Despite the fact that Elias Cortez was not his biological father, his stepdad had been able to read Noah almost from the very beginning, when he’d been a seven-year-old still grieving over the loss of his father in a car accident two years before. Inability to fake it in front of the man—in front of anyone, really—was one of the reasons Noah preferred being alone these days. “Was just wondering what time you can get into your new place on Saturday,” his dad asked louder.
“Rental office opens at nine,” Noah said, the gaze of his good right eye drifting over his dad’s shoulder to the colorful lanterns strung up around the big backyard. The sun was setting, making them glow against the surrounding woods. “I don’t have a lot to move, though, so it shouldn’t take long.”
He’d gone right from college graduation to five years in the Corps, so he’d never had time to accumulate much. In the seven months since he’d been medically discharged, he’d been living in his parents’ basement in Alexandria, Virginia. Trying to figure out what to do with his life. Going to physical therapy and doctors’ appointments to try to get his body working again. Occasionally seeing the shrink to get his head screwed back on right. The latter was a losing proposition, for sure. At least, that’s how it felt.
His dad nodded. “We’re giving you the furniture downstairs.”
Noah smothered the frustration that had built over months of his parents worrying about him. Like he couldn’t take care of himself. Like he wasn’t a grown-ass man with a healthy savings account and a body that was mostly able despite the fact it didn’t work like it had before. He knew they meant well. But what they didn’t know was that their good intentions were feeding into how bad he already felt about himself. Not that he really needed much help in that department. “Don’t have to do that. I can get what I need.”
His father smirked and arched a brow. “Your mother insists. Take it up with her if you want to register a complaint.”
“Better just take it,” Josh said, grinning. Two years older, his brother reminded Noah so much of the man he used to be that it was sometimes hard to be around him now. Big smile, wicked sense of humor, glass-half-full outlook, and his whole life planned out to the last letter. He was an associate in a law firm with a growing book of business and the respect of everyone who knew him.
“Hey, babe,” Josh’s fiancé Maria said, coming up to stand beside him. She threaded her arm through his. “Ready to grab some food?”
Josh kissed her temple, his nose nuzzling against her wavy black hair. “Absolutely. Wanna join?” Josh asked, looking from their father to Noah.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Dad said, clapping Noah on the shoulder. “Gonna go help your mother.”
Noah shrugged. “I’m good for now.” He tried to give them a smile, but wasn’t sure it came off.
As Noah watched the couple walk away, something squeezed inside him. Because there was another thing that Josh had that Noah didn’t, and wouldn’t—a relationship with a good woman who loved him. Josh and Maria were engaged to be married in August, and Noah was happy for them. He really was. At least, he tried to be. But he hated how Josh’s happiness made him feel even worse about himself.