Unraveled, p.1
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       Unraveled, p.1

         Part #3 of Woodlands series by Jen Frederick  
Unraveled
Page 1

 

  CHAPTER ONE

  Gray

  “YOU SURE I CAN’T GIVE you a ride, Sgt. Phillips?” the sixty-year-old woman I’d sat next to on the airplane asked for the fifth time.

  “No ma’am,” I replied promptly. “Where can I put these for you?”

  “Right here is just fine. ” She pointed to a luggage cart.

  “I’d be happy to carry them to the car for you. ” The cart might be easy for her to maneuver but lifting the heavy luggage into her trunk by herself? Not happening.

  “My son is picking me up and I promise I won’t lift a thing. ”

  I looked around skeptically but didn’t see anyone but my own ride. I gave Bo Randolph a chin nod of acknowledgment but held on to the carry-on bag that looked like someone had puked flowers all over it.

  “What’s up, man?” Bo bumped my fist in greeting and then pulled me in for a hug.

  “Just making sure Mrs. Kremer gets to her car in one piece. ”

  “We’re waiting for my son,” she chirped. “And there he is now. ” Mrs. Kremer’s son looked to be balding and forty. One glance from Bo and we silently agreed that despite her son showing up, we’d still be helping them out. Over both their protests, Bo and I picked up the luggage and placed it in the back of the four-door sedan. Mrs. Kremer gave us both a kiss, leaving behind the smell of lilacs and baby powder.

  "Always the good Samaritan,” Bo joked as we walked to his crackerjack box of a car.

  “You helped. ”

  He just shook his head. “Only because I’d have looked like a fool standing there while you hauled her luggage around. ”

  “She looked frail,” I protested. “Besides, you and I’ve both carried far more weight over much longer distances. Enough about the woman, let’s talk about your damn car. Will my pack even fit in there?”

  “Yes, princess, it will. How come you didn’t ask Noah to pick you up if you hate my baby so much?” He hit a button and a sorry excuse for trunk space appeared at the rear of the vehicle.

  “I didn’t want to make you cry. You’re an ugly crier,” I said. I threw my seabag and pack into the trunk and wedged myself inside the even tinier interior.

  “True that. Seriously, forty-five days? Howd you manage that?"

  "How do you think? Im a lucky fuck. "

  "So The Honorable Dennis Phillips came through?"

  "Guess so. " My old man was on the House Armed Services Committee and had pulled some strings to get special dispensation for me to take forty-five consecutive days of leave at the beginning of summer. The fact that it went through was helped by the fact Id taken almost zero leave for the past six years and that I possessed a spotless record, but it was still a big deal. Other Marines would have killed to have even half that many days off in the summer. Literally knifed me in the gut. I shifted in the seat, which was too narrow for my six-foot-one, two-hundred-and-five-pound frame. "This car is too fucking small for you. "

  "I like em tight. " Bo stroked the leather dash of his sports car.

  "Given your dick is so tiny, its no wonder you need em small. AnnMaries still a virgin then?"

  "What?" He jerked his hand back and glared at me. "No talking about AnnMarie and sex. Besides, I saw you staring at my junk plenty while we were in A-stan. "

  "Because you whipped it out every five seconds. "

  "Cant help that my dicks so big my regulation pants couldnt keep it in. "

  I shook my head but knew I was grinning like a loon. "Missed you, man. "

  "You too," Bo said, smiling back. "Forty-five days is going to be gone in a blink of an eye. "

  "I know. " My grin dimmed a little. This wasnt entirely a vacation. My exact orders from Congressman Phillips were to pull my fucking head out of my ass and sign my re-enlistment papers or start applying for college. He wanted me out and my grandfather wanted me to stay in. I felt a little like a sorry bone between two angry pit bulls.

  I had eight years under my belt, a new meritorious promotion to staff sergeant that I wasn’t sure I deserved, and some serious doubt about whether being a career Marine was the right choice for my future. During our family Christmas, I had made the mistake of mentioning that evaluating everyone’s “knife hands” while running during physical training didn’t hold a lot of meaning—and Dad had pounced.

  “There’s plenty of room for you outside the Corps,” he’d said.

  Then Pops had bristled. “Corps was good enough for me and good enough for you. No sense in planting doubt in the boy’s head where there was none before. ”

  Match to kindling, the two had gotten into one of their heated arguments. Having two career Marines scream at each other like they were trying to make the other break first had resulted in Mom leaving the table in tears and my two older brothers glaring at me. I’d wanted to sink under the tablecloth but since I’d started it, I sat there and took it like the man I was supposed to be.

  Since then I’d told Pops that my commitment was as sound as ever and Dad that I’d think about college. When Bo and Noah, two former Marines in my platoon, invited me to spend my leave at their posh pad with a bevy of college coeds at the ready, I fled before the yelling could start again.

  “You really in a tizzy about whether to re-enlist?” Bo asked, surprise evident in his voice.

  “Marines don’t get into tizzies,” I scoffed. “We get angry. Also drunk. Shitfaced. Tired. No tizzies, though. ”

  “Which one are you?”

  “Tired. I’m supposed to shit or get off the pot. ”

  “Is shitting staying in or getting out?”

  “We all know that re-enlisting is for the motards who can’t stop wearing all their USMC gear off the base, have more than one Marine tattoo, and can recite the Marine Hymn by heart. ”

  “So you, essentially. ”

  I slunk down in the seat and pressed a thumb to my temple. “Which is why I should get out before I become one of those Marines that we all made fun of when we were lance corporals. ”

  “What’s the real problem?”

  I pressed harder. “The real problem? Let’s see. I didn’t sign my re-enlistment papers yet, causing Captain Billings to call my dad, who then decided to gleefully tell Pops he had lost. They yelled. Mom cried. Oh, and my ex is sniffing around again. ” And it sucked being responsible for people instead of just equipment, but I didn’t admit that last one out loud.

  “Do whatever you can to make your mom stop crying,” Bo advised. “If mama isn’t happy, ain’t no one gonna be happy. ”

  “Maybe. ” The sad truth of it was that someone was going to be unhappy. Because I cared about all of them, that sucked. Hoping to change the subject, I said, "You fuckers better have something good planned for me every day. "

  "We said you could come stay with us and hang out, not that wed be your cruise directors. "

  "All I want to know is whether AnnMarie and Grace are bringing some single friends over. Im a Marine on leave. I need some special attention. "

  "AnnMaries neighbors got a thing for guys, Im pretty sure. "

  "Yeah. ” My interest was piqued. Both Noah and Bo had been single in the Corps and for two years after they separated. The minute they’d moved up here to go to Central College, they’d each hooked so tightly to a girl that neither could move without the other feeling it. I hoped it wasn’t something in the water. I didn’t need or want that kind of complication. But hot girlfriends meant hot single female friends and that was all good in my book. “Hot? Good personality? What?"

  "Hes bi-curious, according to AM. "

  I groaned. "Sorry. Gray dont play that way. What about AnnMaries roommate? Seem to remember that she had a tight ass and body. ”

  "Taken. "

  "Do you know any single women?"

  "Im not a pimp either. "

  "You suck. "

  "That was your fantasy, wasnt it?"

  "How did you end up with such a classy piece like AnnMarie?"

  "Dunno but if you fuck it up for me, Id have to kill you. " He was dead serious. That was another thing that just didn’t make sense in my world anymore. Bo had once been the biggest skirt chaser in our platoon. It didn’t matter if the girl was big, small, or Martian, he’d do them. Now all he could talk about was one chick. And if that didn’t set a lad’s mind spinning, I didn’t know what would. It confused me because all I knew of women was that they’d cheat on you the second your back was turned. I learned that lesson early on and that cheating girlfriend had been my last.

  “You’ve discovered my evil plan. I’m here to lure your girl back to San Diego with me. ” I rolled my eyes. He knew, like all the guys in my platoon, that I didn’t believe a relationship with a woman could ever survive repeated deployments or a twenty-four-month unaccompanied tour to Okinawa or some other overseas duty station.

  “You still believe in the no-relationships-while-serving thing?” This time, it was Bo rolling his eyes.

  “It’s not a thing. It’s a truism. Semper Fidelis only matters within the Corps. Feel free to fuck your brother’s girlfriend, sister, mother, so long as you’re true to the Corps. ” The bitter taste of infidelity always sat on the back of my tongue no matter how many times I tried to swallow it away.

  “That’s healthy. ”

  “Thanks, Oprah. I’ll let you know when I need more relationship advice. ”

  “Just pointing out that the odds aren’t much better outside the Corps, if thats one of the reasons youre thinking of not re-enlisting. ”

  “Does Noah have to suffer your Dear Abby musings?” Noah Jackson and Bo were my kind of Marines. They fought hard and didn’t complain, but they knew how to have a good time when we weren’t busy picking sand out of our asses.

  Noah was the more serious of the two and I’d thought he would have made a career of the military, but his ambitions were different. He wanted to build an empire and you couldn’t do that on a military salary—no matter how much combat pay you received. We’d both signed up for every possible tour we could in all the most dangerous places. My burning ambition was to have as much adventure as possible. Unlike Noah, I didn’t need to own the world to be happy. These days, though…I wasn’t exactly sure what I needed.

  When I was ten, Pops had given me a knife engraved with Semper Fidelis on the blade. He’d retired after thirty years in the Corps, and my father had made it to twenty. But neither of my two older brothers were interested, and so it had fallen to me to carry out the tradition. After years of hearing whispered stories of bravery and honor and brotherhood, I couldn’t wait to wear the dress blues and the white gloves and carry that damn sword. Because I enlisted during war time, I got to do things that had meaning.

  Since the troop drawdown, though, I’d felt…unmoored, to borrow a Navy term, as if I was standing on ever-shifting sand. People I’d known for a long time were changing. All around me, guys were settling down, picking out furniture, and going to flea markets on the weekends. They did couples things, like couples’ showers and shit like that, and while I didn’t want to go to those damn things, I felt like everyone else was moving on and that I was just stuck, spinning my wheels like I was some stupid groundhog that should be put out of my misery.

  I don’t know what it was, but every time I had gone to sign those re-enlistment papers, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. On one side, I had my pops and my commanding officer, Captain Billings, warning me about how boat space was shrinking and that even for an exemplary Marine like myself I could be squeezed out if I didn’t hurry my ass up. On the other side sat my dad, who sang an entirely different tune—that I should get out now while I still had time to go to college, find a job, settle down.

  Then there were the men in my platoon. Good men who would place their lives in my hands. I wasn’t just making sure that my weapon was ready now but that theirs were too, and that was a responsibility you didn’t take lightly.

  “Nah, you know Noah doesn’t speak unless it is absolutely necessary,” Bo said, answering my earlier question. “His frozen yogurt palace is always stuffed full of estrogen. We could swing by and scope out the women there. ”

  “I thought you’d said that the only females in Noah’s shop were a mess of teenage girls and soccer moms. ”

  “So? They’re still females. ”

  “My choices are to be a pedo bear or cougar bait?”

  “Better go cougar. They’re in their sexual prime. They could teach you something. ”

  “Let’s just head to your place. ” Upon arriving, I pulled my gear out of the trunk and followed Bo into the home he shared with Noah and three other guys—one complete with full floor to ceiling plate glass windows at the rear that overlooked a pool. The weather was great here. Id missed the beach back in San Diego, but I needed to get away. The more distance I put between the base and me, the better I felt. Right then, I wanted to pound some beer, ogle some women, and relax.
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JEN FREDERICK SERIES:

Woodlands

 

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