By: Melissa Schroeder

But first, she wanted to know what made him look that way, and just why the hell he looked so sickly.

• • • • •

“Your sister’s a looker,” Chief said from the backseat.

Kade barely held back the growl that rumbled in his chest. He couldn’t help it. Seeing her had brought about so many emotions that he still didn’t have under control. The possessiveness hit him out of left field. And what right did he have to feel that way? Four months had passed. Even if he had reasons for staying away—good reasons—they didn’t mean anything right now. She wasn’t his, never would be.

Mal laughed. “Hey, watch yourself, Chief. There’s a good chance she’d beat you with your injured arm.”

“You’re not going to warn me off her?” Chief asked.

“Naw, if she doesn’t want you, she’ll let you know. Right, Kade?”

He glanced at his best friend, trying to figure out if there was another meaning. He had been tossing out strange comments for over a month now. But every time he looked at Mal, he appeared relaxed and gave Kade no hint of any other meaning.

“Sure. After running a bar for a few years, Shannon can handle herself.”

Chief sighed. “Not that I can do anything about it tonight. I’m so damned tired from the trip. Damn bones are creaking.”

“That’s because you’re old, Chief,” Mal said.

“You got that right,” Chief replied. “Although something did smell good in the bar.”

“If I know Shannon, she’ll be bringing us something home to eat, and I am sure it will be jambalaya.”

Kade would normally welcome a bowl, but he hadn’t had much of an appetite since returning from their mission. He knew the commander, along with his doctors, were worried about it. Mal pulled up to Shannon’s house and parallel parked in front of it. She had one of the historical homes in the Garden District with the iron work fence, the famous balconies, and a garden Kade’s mother would definitely kill in two weeks. He had always loved the house, probably almost as much as Shannon did. It always felt like he was coming home when they visited.

“Wow, this is your sister’s?”

Mal nodded. “Yeah. It was our grandmother’s years ago. She sold it and moved north. Shannon bought it a few years ago after Katrina. She had to repair a little bit here and there, but it is looking pretty good.”

They grabbed their gear, and Kade felt the familiar twinge of pain in his knee. After pulling in a few breaths, he followed Mal and Chief up the walkway and into the house. It was dark and panic settled in his chest. He thought after three months, he would be over this stupid fear. Now, though, he felt his heart hammering against his ribs and his throat was closing up.

Mal turned on the lights in the foyer and tossed him a glance. Checking on him again. Like he was some kind of damned invalid. He had never told Mal about his new problem—problems—but he knew his friend sensed it.

“Why don’t you take the guest room down here? The stairs are going to be a bitch on your knee.”

He nodded and headed off to the room. He needed a shower and a shot of whiskey. Or maybe two whiskeys. He pulled off his clothes with just a few twinges. When he was finally naked, Kade stood there, looking at himself in the mirror. He was a fucking mess. The injuries were healing, but there were still times he was amazed he got through the day without losing it.

He glanced down at his knee and cringed. It was swollen again, but nothing that a little ice wouldn’t fix. He didn’t need to look at the marks on his back. Even though they had healed, he could still feel them as if he had just been injured. He probably always would.

He heard the front door open just as he stepped into the shower. The house was old, and the wood flooring made it easy to hear movements. He heard her approach the guest room, hesitate, then after a moment or two, she walked away. With a sigh that was half regret and half relief, he picked up the soap and the rag. The hot water pounded on his back, releasing some of the tension that had been keeping him on edge.

He could admit that he’d been worried about facing Shannon. He had avoided it for months, broke off any contact after the total fucked up mess their assignment became. He knew she deserved an explanation, but he’d taken the cowards way out and not called. Hell, he didn’t even email her. And there was one thing that he hated being and that was a coward. He would have never thought it would happen to him. He’d taken life in the Seals as one of the greatest adventures. Now, though, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to put his gear on again.

He closed his eyes, trying to stamp out the feelings that thought brought about, but it didn’t help. Every time he did, images from the firefight, of watching one of his best friends get shot, feeling the bullet piercing his skin...

Fuck. People who thought that you didn’t remember things like that were fucked in the head. They didn’t seem to understand that people would live with the memories the rest of their lives. And fuck, he didn’t need to go back there, didn’t want to remember how screwed up everything had become and how all of them had come back with more than just a little baggage, including the coffin of one of their own.

He pushed aside the irritation and the damn fucking vulnerability that seemed to choke him constantly and finished his shower.

He might consider himself a coward in a lot of ways now, but it was definitely time to face Shannon.

Chapter Six

Shannon finished pouring the casserole into a pot to warm up when she heard footsteps behind her. She didn’t have to turn around to see who it was. She knew it was Kade. Something stirred on the back of her neck anytime he was near.

“It should be warmed up in just a sec.”

He hesitated for a second, then he stepped over the threshold. She didn’t want to turn around until she was composed. She didn’t want to cry, didn’t want pity from a man who would probably disdain female tears. The only men who didn’t complain about her tears were her gay friends.

When she had herself under control, she turned to face him.

“Do y’all know how long you’re going to be in town?”

He studied her for a second. “We have a week off before we have to go back.”

She nodded. “Why don’t you have a seat at the kitchen table? I’ll get some bread cut up.”

Before she could do that, he said, “Shannon.”

She knew that tone, knew that he was going to try and let her down easy. She wasn’t in the mood. Her feelings were too near the surface, a bubbling caldron of irritation, pain and shock.