The pain that shot through my right leg left me panting. I fought to ride through the gut-wrenching nausea that always followed when I stupidly decided that moving was a good idea. It had been seven weeks since they’d removed the piece of shrapnel that had lodged in my shin bone when Dino, one of the squaddies I’d been out on patrol with, had unwittingly stepped on a landmine. Seven weeks of searing pain every time I moved.
I shut my eyes to block out the images, scents, and sounds of Dino being blown to pieces while several of the other guys and I sustained shrapnel wounds. It was supposed to have been a routine patrol, and the area had allegedly been swept for mines. The intel hadn’t been correct though, and Dino had paid for it with his life. A wave of grief crashed over me and I sucked in a sharp breath, while my hands clenched the bedsheet.
Dino and I had been buddies from the outset. He’d had a quirky sense of humour and wasn’t offended by the fact I was openly gay. I was gutted that I’d missed his funeral, but I’d been too out of it after my first surgery. I ended up having a second surgery to attempt to save my lower limb after infection got into the bone. It turned out that it was resistant to the antibiotics, and I now had osteomyelitis. The surgeons had done their best, but with the antibiotics not working, they’d come by two days ago to talk options for the next step.
Step, that was a joke!
My heart thudded against my ribs.
Amputation, holy fuck. They were gonna cut off my lower leg! A band of tightness I’d become familiar with over the last two days worked to stop me taking another breath.
It didn’t matter how many times I’d thought it or said it aloud, it was still shocking to comprehend what that was going to mean to me, to my life, to what it was going to be like once I was medically discharged from the army. They’d said it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but I knew better. The army had been my life since I was twenty, and I have no family to speak of, having spent my youth in foster care. The army had been my family. What did I have if not that? The answer was easy, nothing. The thought left me feeling as if I were floating at sea with nothing to cling to, no one to help, no one to love me and tell me it was going to be all right.
Dino lost his life; all you’re losing is a small part of you!
A sob tore at my throat, then air hissed through my clenched teeth as the door opened. My heart sank. Why now? Why did he have to show up now?
I swiped at my damp eyes and relaxed against the bed, willing my body to behave in front of the one man I didn’t want to show weakness.
“Sarge, this is a surprise.” My voice hitched with the effort to keep control.
His dark brows rose. His coal black eyes swept over me and my heart cinched in my chest at the look that crossed over his face that he refused to acknowledge. The fucker loved me, he did. It’s not enough, you’re not enough.
Coldness seeped into my body as I defiantly met his gaze.
I’d first encountered him when he’d been assigned as my Sergeant in the army. For me, it had been lust at first sight. That had been ten years earlier, and my feelings had grown for him, only he’d made sure to keep his distance, putting the army barriers between us.
Why couldn’t I move on and find someone else? I scrutinised him. His hair was cropped short and the black held a lot more silver than when we’d first met. There were more lines around his coal black eyes. His face was ruggedly handsome, and age sat well on him. His army greens always appeared to be stretched to capacity around his solid barrel chest, muscular arms, and thick tree-trunk legs. When I looked at him, I had the urge to go and crawl into his lap and be…petted.
Everything about him ticked all my kinky arse boxes, and that was before I’d got to know his intelligent mind, caring nature, and strong sense of right and wrong.
“—didn’t you contact me?” His voice held a hint of hurt and pulled me from my perusal.
Not sure what I’d missed, I shrugged. “I’m no longer under your command, Sarge. You made it perfectly clear the last time we spoke that…” I trailed off, recalling the hurt at his rejection.
I rubbed at my face, hoping to dispel the memory of his closed expression after I’d declared my feelings for him.
“I’m sorry,” he stated in a rough voice as he came closer, his hand reaching out before it fell back to his side.
Unsure if he were apologising for rejecting me or for me being in the hospital, I remained silent, waiting to see if he’d have the courage to say more.
The seconds stretched, along with my nerves, and I barely resisted the urge to move. It was the certainty that I’d never be able to hide the pain that kept me still.
He gave a heartfelt sigh and took the seat next to my bed. The plastic chair creaked under his weight. His nose twitched, and I prayed it wasn’t because of the scent of my decaying leg. I wasn’t sure if the room stank or not. I’d got so used to the smell, it was hard to tell sometimes. They’d moved me into the small room on my own due to what was happening later today. I was grateful for the privacy because I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to react to waking with half my leg missing.
His gaze fell to the bed sheet covering my lower half, and I flushed.
“I came to see how you are.” He paused and licked his lips before his gaze returned to mine. “I also wanted to let you know that I’m being discharged from the army next week.”
There was a depth of sadness and regret in his dark eyes, and I was left speechless. The army had been his life and he’d never even hinted that he’d give it up. What had changed? “Did something happen?”
“It’s just time…I’m forty-six, and there has to be more to life than this.” His arms lifted to encompass the white box-room in the army base hospital. I was clearly missing something, but his face became unreadable and the ‘mind your own business’ sign over his head couldn’t be missed. I’d seen it too many times to misunderstand, he didn’t want to talk to me.
“You didn’t answer my question, how are you?” His gaze yet again drifted down to my legs. It was hard to miss that my right leg was covered in a bulky dressing.
“I’m fine.” I lied through my teeth and gave him a fake cheery smile. “A few more days and maybe they’ll release me, and then I’ll be on the dreaded restricted duty.”
Lines appeared to deepen around his eyes and mouth as he gave me a speculative look. “How are you coping with Dino’s death?” he asked ever so gently, reminding me why he was good at his job. He cared.
My hands trembled and I clenched the sheet. “Gutted, to be truthful. I never got to say goodbye to him.” A lone tear slid down my cheek and I blinked to clear my vision. “I’ve an appointment to see someone to talk about it.” I didn’t add that my new sergeant had insisted, knowing I was about to lose a limb. It was nice someone cared about where my head was at, even if it was only because they were paid to make sure I didn’t lose it.
He nodded. “That’s good.” He seemed to struggle to find anything more to say to me and I got it. After I’d told him I love him and he’d rejected me, we’d avoided each other until I’d deployed several months ago. We’d not seen or spoken since, and what had once been an easy relationship was now besieged by uncomfortable silences.
A nurse bustled into the room and, taking in Sarge’s rank, stood to attention. “Sergeant, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave as we need—”
Scared she was about to say more than I wanted her to, I jumped in. “He’s just leaving.”
Her face lost a little of its colour at my rudeness, but Bailey stood. “I’ll leave you to it.” His posture was stiff and his face unreadable as he glanced between me and the nurse before he shook his head. His lips pinched together as if he were about to say something then thought better of it. A flash of sadness broke through a crack in his defences, I was sure of it, but before I could look closer, he was gone.
The silence was deafening as my heart wept for the one thing it couldn’t have.
“That was nice of the sergeant to come and wish you well for your surgery.”
Was it? It didn’t feel like it when my insides felt scraped raw. The nurse continued to chat as she took my blood pressure, pulse, and temperature. And I didn’t dissuade her of the notion as she got me ready to go to theatre. Why would I? There had been nothing between us, and now there never could be.
Bailey hadn’t wanted me whole, there was no way he’d want me after the surgery. Tears clogged my throat and I swallowed them back, sniffling.
Fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it!
It was time to move on and accept that the love I hungered after wasn’t for me.
Let’s see how that works for you when it’s never changed in years!
I heaved a sigh and shut my eyes. I can change, I can!