Home > The Way Back Home

The Way Back Home
Author: Carmen Jenner

For Lance Corporal Kent Ferrell and Military Working

 

Dog Zora

Thank you for your service and for allowing me to use Zora’s name. She made the ultimate sacrifice, and the free world is safer for it. I hope I did her justice. Semper Fi

 

For Mr. Jay McLean—yes, that Mr. McLean—this book could not have happened without your help in retrieving that file.

 

For Sam Hunt.

Thank you for helping a blocked writer get her groove back. Your music is everything.

 

 

As an author, sometimes you choose a story, and other times the story chooses you. This was the case with The Way Back Home. After releasing my first military romance, Toward the Sound of Chaos, in May 2016, I thought I was done writing Marines with PTSD . . . and then August Cotton happened. This angry, resilient yet somehow oddly fragile man came to mind, and I knew I had to tell his story. I also knew he needed a woman as strong as a hurricane to sweep him up, shake out all his demons, and force him to face them head on. He needed Olivia Anders.

The sad truth is, not all of our returned servicemen and women have an Olivia. Twenty-two U.S. Veterans take their own lives every day. Not every week, or every month, but every day. War doesn’t end when a Marine or soldier returns home. For some, it’s just the beginning.

In the U.S. there are a reported 44,193 deaths from suicide yearly. Each day in America, there are an average of 5,240 suicide attempts by young people in grades 7-12, and four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs.

If you are in crisis, or you suspect that someone you know is thinking of self-harm, please call or assist them by calling the following numbers:

United States: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.

 

Australia: Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800

 

United Kingdom: Samaritans on 116 123 or HopeLineUK at 0800 068 41 41

 

 

August


“Mr. Cotton, are you there?” Mr. White asks. I press the receiver closer to my ear to drown out the noise of the bar around me. It’s too loud. Everything is too loud after the stillness of the woods. The speaker crackles, echoing the panic I feel inside. I wanna leave. I wanna walk out the door and disappear, melt back into the trees and vanish. Instead, I rake my hands through greasy hair and lean against the wood-paneled wall. Three hundred miles. I’d been three hundred miles away from home when it happened. “Mr. Cotton?”

I scrub my hand down over my face and bushy beard. I sure could use a shower, a shave, and a decent night’s sleep. Sleep. Shit, I ain’t done much of that since I signed up for the Corps. “Yeah. I’m here.”

“I’m sorry to do this over the phone. Your parents were good people,” Mr. White says. “They were well respected in this town, and they are sorely missed by everyone.”

“Where was Bettina at the time?”

“She was in the vehicle. She’s alright now—a little banged up, and a broken wrist, but nothing she won’t heal from.”

I glance around the bar. A woman with teased blond hair and a tight animal print dress occupies a stool a few feet away. Her mascara is clumped on so thick it’s as if spiders are nesting beneath her eyelids. Red lipstick bleeds onto the butt of the cigarette, and I close my eyes, trying to erase the image of blood splattered on the desert floor. The first strains of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” blare from the jukebox, and it all feels like some cruel joke. “Where is she?”

“Miss Cotton is in the custody of the State. You should know, your parents expressed their wishes that you be her legal guardian in the event of their passing.”

“What?” I stiffen. My ears ring. The music grows louder, and I stare at the peeling laminate on the bar, uncertain I heard him right.

“You need to come home, August. There are affairs to put in order. The coroner has held off from the funeral as long as he’s willing to, but as you know, ours is a small town and there isn’t a heck of a lotta room in the morgue.”

The morgue. How many times did I picture my parents visiting me there on a cold metal slab? Yet here I am, somewhere outside of Bear Creek, wearing my shoes through with the miles I walk every day, completely unaware that my parents lay cold and lifeless in a fucking refrigerator for a week while my baby sister is in the custody of the State. “August?”

“Yeah, I heard you.”

“If money is a problem I can wire you the funds for a bus ticket.”

“No,” I say sharply. I don’t like handouts, and I don’t like being underestimated. “I got it.”

“You’ll come home,” Mr. White says. It ain’t a question.

Home. Why did my blood turn to ice at the thought of that one word? Home. One word, four little letters, and a shit-ton of regret.

This morning I’d been excited at the prospect of a hot meal and a real bed, and within seconds, my whole world’s been turned upside down. My parents are dead. My little sister needs me, and I am going home to Magnolia Springs—the one place I swore I’d never return to.

I don’t know the first thing about being a parent. Hell, I’m not even a fucking grown-up most days. I served one tour in Afghanistan—eight months of hell. I didn’t even make it a whole tour before I got myself blown up, and I returned home an echo of my former self. I can’t deal with crowds, I can’t deal with people—even my own mother’s pity had been too much for me, and the second my body had healed, I’d been outta that town like a shot. The dust hadn’t even settled on my pack. If I hadn’t been ripped apart by an IED, I’d have signed up for my next deployment and lost myself in another battlefield, but they don’t take invalids in the Marines. I’d been honorably discharged, and it had been a punishment worse than any we could inflict on our enemies because I’d wanted to die a hero, and instead I was living life as a cripple.

Now my parents were dead, and I was going home. Stepping into someone else’s life to take care of my sister, as if I could ever fill their shoes. As if I could ever be anything more than broken.

 

 

Olivia


I glance up the abandoned platform for possibly the hundredth time in an hour. Aside from the hanging baskets of Silver Bells and a giant clock that ticks loudly and is two minutes too slow, the bus station is empty. Greyson said he’d be here to pick me up at three, but it’s ten after four, and I’d bet my last dime that he isn’t coming. With a final glance along the platform, I gather up my cases and heft them toward the stairs.

There are a few things that the Cotton’s should know about me: One, I devote a good deal of my time to helping others. I rescue dogs from death row, and I pair them with broken Marines. It’s damn hard work, but I haven’t found a Marine yet who I couldn’t fix. The tougher the Marine, the tougher the challenge, and I ain’t ever been one to walk away from a challenge.

Two, I’m a southern woman, born and raised. That means I like my clothes pressed, my face made up, and my hair big. Three, my purse contains all the essentials and the kitchen sink. And four, I might have just the smallest itty-bitty obsession with nice lingerie.

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