Not all officers are gentlemen — some are villains.
Not all protectors care for your heart — some shatter it.
He was all of that and more.
One look at him and something inside of me woke from a three-year slumber.
One realization and I knew I would never be able to unleash that desire.
My world started to crumble. Fear crept in and I knew I needed Titan more than I could ever admit, or I could lose everything I had worked so hard for.
Lines were crossed.
We fell in love — in the cruelest of ways.
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Growing up, Tanner Titan was what they called a “troubled youth.” His aversion to authority and the inability to sit still during class caused the son of a single mother with three part-time jobs to spend more time with the school psychologist and principal than in an actual classroom.
Misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis, failed behavioral medication after failed behavioral medication, he grew tired of being judged by his peers and educators.
As he got older, he took his anger and frustration out at the local gym, becoming stronger and more fit, and then on whoever it was who talked down to him.
Already having received his last warning, one more smart-mouthed jock called him the wrong name, pushed him one too many times, and he lost his restraint and fought back. It just so happened that the smartass was the high school football coach’s son.
At the suspension hearing, Coach Kelly extended Titan an olive branch, and not wanting to end up uneducated and working shit jobs all his life, he took it.
His punishment became his reward.
He became a starting wide receiver for the varsity football team as a freshman.
With the threat of being ineligible to play due to failing grades, Tanner was forced to “do the work.” Consequently, when he began putting forth the effort, he shot up to the top of his class, and the school quickly realized that this troubled youth—what he was labeled as for more than a decade—wasn’t a problem after all. The problem was that he was smarter than everyone around him. He was unchallenged, brilliant, and had an IQ of one-sixty.
With Division I college football scholarships offered to the valedictorian, Tanner had no plans on dumbing himself down for higher education. So, when Coach Kelly gave him an alternate plan and a letter of recommendation from the governor of Texas, he knew this was a way out. Not just for himself, but also for his mother and sister.
He applied to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis to become something more … something he could respect—a US Naval Officer—and still be able to play the game he loved.
With knowledge comes power.
IN THE PAST…
On the eve of deployment, the men and women who proudly wear those invisible capes that deem us real-life superheroes for the United States Armed Forces have rituals, traditions, and superstitions to prepare us mentally and physically for missions. My boys and I have our own.
Since graduating from the Naval Academy, Jaxson Irons, William Cruz, Jedediah Shadows, and I break bread together. Then we head to our local watering hole to get buzzed enough that we’ll still wake up ready to fly the next morning and to find something nice and hot to slide into to keep us warm that night.
Jaxson and Will didn’t often participate, but Shadows … well, let’s just say, after previous preflight cocktails, didn’t understand what the words, “I’m not interested in a relationship. I’m only interested in making you come until you can’t move,” meant, we decided a “joint venture” was a better way to drive that point home … with one in the front and one in the back.
There were no mincing words, a no was a no … even if they changed their minds and nearly begged to “take flight.” One ounce of hesitation and it was strictly a no-fly zone.
“There’s our preflight cocktail.” I point at the woman in the neon pink tank top and denim skirt, sipping some pink girly drink from a stir stick.
“Barely five-foot-tall, sun-kissed skin, blonde hair, gonna guess she has blue eyes,” Shadows grumbles as he leans forward to get a better look. “The woman has no tits. Ass looks good, though. Your typical for sure. Not mine, selfish prick.”
Looking at my watch, I see it’s close to twenty hundred hours. It’s earlier than normal, but we’re on the eve of destruction. Needs have to be met, rituals must be performed, and traditions must carry on.
“You’re the one who likes ’em short.” I stand up and begin to walk over, knowing damn well he’ll follow.
Standing next to her, I see her out of my peripheral, checking me out. This is nothing unusual. Even as a poor kid in middle school, going through my awkward phase, girls checked me out.
Tall, dark, and handsome is a thing, or so I’ve noticed. I’ve always been tall and dark. And even when I wasn’t what I would consider handsome, I still got the once-over from girls. Which was also why I caught the other look from the high school hero type. The look that said, I saw my girl looking at you, or the one that said, I’m stupid enough to think you’re not going to stick up for yourself.
They were relentless, never letting up on the constant ridicule … until I became their fucking king.
I order a beer.
“Make that two,” Shadows says as he stands on the other side of her. Then he looks down at her, game face on, and winks. “How about you, PYT? Would you like another drink?”
She swallows hard and shrugs. “What’s PYT?”
Her voice is high, a sign of nervousness, but in this case, it’s also ID—instant desire.
“Pretty young thing.” He sighs loudly as he shakes his head.
When she glances at me, I have to ask, “Are you even old enough to drink?”
“Pft, I’m twenty-six.”
I look at the bartender as he sets our drinks down. “Bartender, get her a drink.”
Not to be overshadowed, Shadows calls her attention back to him. “You were closer, Titan.”
She looks back at him questioning.
“He thought you were twenty-five.”
“And you?” she asks.
“Age never matters to me,” he answers indifferently.
“Is that a nice way of saying you thought older?”
“No, PYT, I thought you were illegal.” He winks. “They don’t normally grow ’em like you around here.” He’s laying it on thick for someone who said she wasn’t his type. “We were just sitting over there”—he nods back at the table we had just vacated—“rock-paper-scissoring which one of us got to come over and buy you a drink.”
“Oh yeah?” She smirks at him then looks back at me. “So you won, huh?”
Shadows leans close, whispering in her ear, “We tied.”
“So, what’s the tiebreaker?”
“There lies the problem.” I lean against the bar. “For all intents and purposes, we’re a team.”
“Navy?” she asks, smiling.
“What gave it away?”
“The hair, the cocky way you carry yourselves …”
I shake my head. “I think you’re confusing confidence for cocky.”
She takes a sip of her drink before saying, “I know the difference. I just left one of you.”
“One of us?”
“A sailor, huh? Not making you feel … appreciated?” Shadows asks.
“Everything was great until I found messages from others that he’d been making feel appreciated.”
“Exactly why we should all avoid relationships,” I state.
Shadows shoots me a look, one that tells me he thinks I’m going to blow this.
“How long has it been since your ex fucked up?”
Her brows crease, thinking. “A week.”
“Still fresh then.”
“Still pissed, yes. But I’m not sitting home, pining after him.”
“Are you here looking for a boyfriend, or to get him out of your system?” I ask.
“I’m …” She pauses and looks at me curiously.
“We’re not looking for relationships. We’re—”
Shadows cuts me off. “What he’s trying to say—”
“There’s clearly an attraction between us, or you would have walked away by now. So what I’m trying to say is, the old expression that revenge is best served cold is bullshit. Revenge is best served warm.”
She looks between the two of us.
“You don’t have to choose.”
She laughs. “What are you two going to do? Arm wrestle for me?”
I remind her what I had already said. “Sweetheart, we’re a team.”
“One man fucked you over, let two fuck you right,” Shadows adds.
“So what? The three of us leave here, go to some seedy motel, get naked, and—”
“We don’t do seedy,” Shadows interrupts.
“No?” Her voice is a little huskier now. She licks her lips.
“No,” I state matter-of-factly. “We have a room. Five stars.” I then toss some bills on the bar and turn toward her. “It’s your decision. We don’t leave with you unless you’re one hundred percent sure.”
She has no objections, asks no questions, and shows no sign of hesitation as we exit the bar, three by three.
It’s morning and, as per my norm, I wake up in my own bed. There are no overnights, no awkward moments of waking up with a woman who was between you and one of your best friends hours ago. Neither Shadows nor I have ever crossed those lines; neither of us wanting a relationship.
Growing up, we had our share of hardships. Both of us could have easily ended up living the lives we were born into, but the United States military gave us a chance to better ourselves. We took the opportunity and planned to never fuck up our lives or the lives of any female by giving in to the notion of a happily ever after. Our primary objective is to keep our country and its people safe and secure. There will be no white picket fences or two-point-five kids and a golden retriever waiting in the yard when we return from the safety of a nine-to-five job.
As we learned early on in our careers, safety is an illusion, and we are the masters of making sure the people of the United States of America can continue on believing that there is nothing behind all the political smoke and mirrors that hide the chaos ensuing around the world. Chaos kept off the shores of our country by our military. Without the men and women of the United States Armed Forces, that illusion would be nearly impossible to sell. Without them feeling safe and working to pay taxes, we wouldn’t have the means to keep them that way.
It was one hell of a pill to swallow when I realized just how fragile a state our country is in. It became easier, though, when I grasped just how lucky We The People are compared to the rest of the world.
Our freedom comes with an expense that the majority hasn’t a clue as to just how high-priced it is. We lost Will in a training exercise, and Irons is now medically discharged due to a similar accident and is now on a much different career path, married to William’s kid sister.
For the men and women of the United States military, sometimes that price is living without a partner, without children, or taking a simple vacation without looking through classified information and doing months of intel to make sure it’s safe enough to enjoy yourself without looking over your shoulder. I have no plan to take a starry-eyed American beauty and soil her with the reality that her life is an illusion, and that someday … I may not come home, no matter how many women offer.
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