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Thank you all who have been reading and following along. I always appreciate getting feedback. It helps with becoming a better writer and it’s always an ego boost, so feel free to reach out. I will always respond!

The usual spiel: This isn’t a stroke story, (more porn with plot.) Be warned, it’s very long. 33+ chapters, and many sexless ones to come before it gets sexy, which is why it was originally published under novels/novellas, but readers asked for it to be put under gay male due to content, so here we go.

This book is dedicated to all of the brave service members and their families who sacrifice so much every day so that the rest of us can enjoy the liberties that they swear to protect and uphold.

Although references in this novel may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are complete works of fiction. They are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental. In an effort to do the United States Army justice, and to show my respect to my country, I have applied all possible efforts to merge fact and fiction to entertain, while portraying the military, and the hardships and achievements of soldiers, with respect, dignity and accuracy to the best of my abilities. It’s my hope that I’ve done you all justice, and that all of the creative licenses taken with this novel are understood to be the efforts of imagination, and not any judgment or disrespect against the U.S. military. Thank you all for your service.

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

—Bob Packwood.

Of all the things I’d expected him to say, that wasn’t even on the radar. It blew my battleships right out of the water, and left my brain scrambling for the right thing to say. I had nothing.

Ben’s low chuckle didn’t sound happy as he pulled his hand away from mine to sink both into the grass. “I know…I’m not proud of it, but it worked for me at the time. I was newly out and cut off from my family. Having all the sex I wanted to with men who paid me very well for the opportunity was a dream for a while.”

I nodded. There wasn’t room for me to cast stones since I’d never been very discriminating in my hook-ups.

“So how’d you end up here?”

“The company I worked for specialized in wealthy older men; the type who have enough money not to merit the bat of an eyelash when they show up with a pretty boy on their arm. My last client lived out here, and he asked me to move in with him. We were together for about a year.”

It was difficult for me to ask since my green-eyed monster didn’t want to know the answer. “Did you love him?”

Ben nodded. “Charlie took me out of the life, treated me well.”

“Very Pretty Woman.”

Ben’s smile was small. “Not exactly, but close enough I guess. He was older than I was at the time with some medical issues, and he needed a caretaker/companion. We didn’t go out often since Charlie was a bit of a loner. He liked me to read to him, and he gave me access to his extensive library collection that included books on theology. That was when I started questioning my life choices.”

“He didn’t mind?”

Ben shook his head. “No, like I said he was older, so we did casino şirketleri more talking than anything else. He encouraged me to explore new avenues of thought, and got me to believe that I could reset my life, no matter what awful things I’d done in my past. It was because of him that I joined the Episcopal Church.”

“Where is he now?”

His sad smile told me the truth before Ben’s words caught up. “Charlie’s prostate cancer progressed to stage four just a few months after we got together.”

“I’m sorry, Ben.”

“It’s okay. That’s how I met Father O’Brian, the head of our parish here. I saw what comfort he brought to Charlie, to the people in his church, and I wanted that. Charlie had no living family so when he died, he left me everything. I gave a lot of the money away to charity, and used some of it to buy Maplewood. What I put into stocks helps maintain it. I also loaned a friend a good portion to launch his new business venture.”

“You didn’t keep any of it for yourself?”

Ben smiled. “I’m not that idealistic. I bought my house outright with most of what I had left.”

“Charlie must be rolling over in his grave,” I muttered.

Ben laughed, some of the tension leaving his face. “He probably is. But I’m happy, and I know that’s what he wanted for me. Becoming a priest was the best decision I’ve ever made—the only one I’ve never questioned.”

It was difficult for me to reconcile the handsome man in front of me with a rent boy, but it did explain a lot, like the innate compassion he’d offered me since we’d met, and his need to serve and to drag others onto better paths even if they did a little kicking and screaming along the way.

We remained in silence for a few moments. Ben must’ve taken that as a judgment instead of my own difficulties with communication. His head dipped so he wasn’t looking at me.

“I’m not my collar, Sam. What I do now, it’s what makes sense for me. But beneath it, I’m still just a man.”

Shame overcame me for having made him feel bad due to my being a social moron. I nudged his shoulder with mine gently.

“I’m glad you told me. I know what it feels like to be judged to an unfair, higher standard.”

“Military life and the Church traditionally have a lot in common.”

“Big closets?”

Ben’s smile was worth the weak joke. “Past that, they share a theme of service. We give everything to others, but often forget to look after ourselves. It doesn’t usually work out well.”

“Neither does being a selfish douche-bag, which I was for too long.”

“Are we going to talk about that now?”

I hadn’t been planning on it, but when he asked, there was no real reason to say no, especially in light of what he had shared with me. I picked up a stone, skipping it across the grass. My gaze followed the path it took instead of looking at Ben when I answered.

“The guy I was with at the time, Devlin, cheated on me. With Connor. I found out after…after…” After almost my entire team had been killed in action on my watch. Good men who’d never have betrayed me the way Connor and Devlin had after I got them out of there.

I closed my eyes, trying to keep it together. “At a bad time,” I finally said. “It poured salt in a wound, and I couldn’t forgive them. When I was casino firmaları assigned to a new unit that didn’t support his, it gave me an out. I broke all contact with both of them after that.”

Sympathy flashed through Ben’s eyes when I glanced up. “I’m sorry, Sam. Did he ever tell you why?”

“They both said it just worked between them. Connor didn’t want to leave the military and come back to Sofia or the girls. He told me I shouldn’t either, that we were both too damaged.”

“That sounds like a pretty pathetic cop-out to me. I never met your brother, but I know he was a coward to try and run from his problems. Devlin sounds no better. At least you had the stones to try and fix what they broke.”

“I only got on that plane because I had to bring Connor home for his family’s sake.”

“Maybe, but you’re staying put instead of catching another flight out.”

My lips quirked short of a smile. “It’s difficult to get the hell out of Dodge when you’re being held hostage by a priest.”

Ben smiled. His hand left mine to caress the line of my cheekbone briefly with his thumb. My skin heated the instant he touched me. I pulled away because my reaction felt too intense for a public place. No one around us seemed to care, but after having had to be discreet for so many years, the chaste gesture raised the hinky hairs on the back of my neck.

Ben didn’t try to pull me back in as if sensing I needed the space right now.

“How long were you and Devlin together?”

“Almost a year.” Something in my gut sank. We’d invested short of 12 months of our lives into each other. All wasted when Devlin fucked my brother. “We’d been friends since he enlisted, but one night we got drunk while playing cards. One thing led to another and it just lasted.”

“Were you in love with him?”

“No. But things are different out there. The fear, the adrenaline, they get you mixed up, and all relationships feel more intense. I was devoted to protecting him. He was my responsibility.”

“For an entire year?” Ben pursed his lips, as if he was rolling the words around in his mind. “That’s an extreme sense of obligation.”

I forced a smile and rolled my head around on my shoulders, feeling it crackle from the tension.

“Tell me,” Ben said.

I glanced up in confusion. “Tell you what?”

“Whatever it is that’s making you strangle yourself.”

Ben reached out to unravel the mangle of chain that my dog tags had become as I wound them around my hand.

“I’m a people watcher by nature,” he said. “Whenever you’re upset or nervous, you play with your dog tags. Sam, we don’t have to talk about this if—”

“They were killed together,” I said, interrupting him before I lost my nerve.

“What?”

Swallowing down any hesitation, I said, “There was an insurgent bomb in a public square. Connor’s team was called in to defuse it. But something went wrong. Connor’s CO told him to get out. He didn’t, and Devlin broke rank to go in after him. When the bomb detonated, they were both in there.”

“And you weren’t, so you blame yourself… That’s a big cross to be carrying around your neck unless you’re planning to seek canonization one day.” Ben’s thumb rubbed back and forth over my hand. “Look, I get it. You were hurt, and güvenilir casino made the stupid choice of abandoning your family because you were angry with Connor.” His hand tightened around mine to still me before I could pull away. “You can regret it, but cutting yourself off from the world won’t change the past, Sam. You just need to deal with the fact you messed up and move on.”

I was shocked that the gentle understanding in his tone took out all the sting from the words and I didn’t pull away. “I’ve made so many mistakes already, Ben. I need to get it right this time.”

“And you will, but you don’t have to do it alone. Sam, you’re the first guy I’ve wanted to know intimately in years.”

“Which baffles the fuck out of me. I’ve been a mess since we first met.”

“I’m a good judge of character. After what happened at the funeral, I know that you’re a man who thinks with his heart instead of his head when his guard is down. That’s a more admirable trait than you think.”

Ben ran the tip of his thumb up and down the inside my wrist. My skin tingled from just that chaste touch, and a corner of his mouth rose as if he saw right through me and knew exactly the effect he had over my body.

“Your ex cheated on you because he was a moron. Max is willing to let you slip through his fingers while he’s focused on his flavor of the week, so he’s another idiot. I like to think I’m more evolved.”

“I don’t know how to be in a real relationship, Ben, and you don’t sound like you’re talking about hooking up for one night.”

“I’m not. But I’m a good teacher if you’re willing to be my pupil.”

Despite every dysfunctional tidbit he knew about me, the confidence in Ben’s eyes didn’t waver, and it created a temptation like I’d never known before. If I’d believed in happy endings, it would be easy to take what he was offering me; a white picket fence with Sofia and the girls. I just didn’t trust myself with that level of responsibility.

“I can’t,” I said getting up and dusting grass off the seat of my borrowed sweats. Ben immediately slid to his own feet, moving to cut me off.

“Why not? Are you still hung up on Max?”

“Max isn’t here.”

“He has to come home eventually,” Ben said, sliding his hands into his pockets after he reached for me and I moved back. “I’m willing to put the work in to show you what believing in someone who cares for you can be like, but if you’re waiting for him, just tell me and I’ll back off.”

I made a dismissive gesture. “Max is the least complicated of my issues right now.”

“Then just one date. I know you’re attracted to me…it’s pretty obvious sometimes,” Ben said with a smile that managed to be sweet despite the cocky phrasing. It made me feel the way I had since I’d first met him…weak in the knees and exposed, like if I didn’t protect myself, I’d fall so hard I’d never be able to find which side was up without his hand in mine. I couldn’t trust anyone that much, so the only choice was to walk away. Unlike last night, today I forced myself to listen.

Starting a backward retreat, I said, “I have to go home and check on the girls. Thanks for picking me up. I’ll make sure the clothes get back to you.”

“Sam—”

I didn’t hear what he said, because a coward’s speed urged my steps away from Ben after I waved a hasty goodbye. Despite my hangover and fatigue, I managed to fall into a pace that quickly put enough distance between us to let me breathe again. It was amazing how fast you could run when you had a reason.

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