Shifter & Spice, a Clan Conroy Holiday giveaway – EMMA ALISYN #FreePNR #ARC #ReadtoReview 

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Who doesn’t love Marines and Bad Girls? #DhCameron #SemperFi #Excerpt #PartialFreeRead #Links

Semper Fi by DH Cameron (With the Bonus Rock Hard Included!!) – Buy Now before the price increases!!

Semper Fi – A BBW Stepbrother Romance is 99 cents for just a couple of more days and free on Kindle Unlimited.

The Kindle version includes a second novel, Rock Hard, at no additional cost<<<

I’m a bad girl. I don’t follow the rules or do what I’m told. But that isn’t working out so well. I’m just a lowly beautician with a string of questionable choices following me around. I’ve got secrets I hope no one ever discovers.

Erik Winters, my stepbrother, is perfect. We never got along. He’s a Marine, a war hero and everyone adores him…everyone except me. But when he came home awounded warrior, that all changed.

Erik lost more than just his leg over there. He lost his identity. He’s as broken as I am and there’s an undeniable and powerful attraction in our shared misery. We need one another.

In that thin line between love and hate, two broken people might just find salvation…if they aren’t torn to shreds first.

Publisher’s Note: Semper Fi is a full length, standalone novel with a happily ever after ending and no cliffhangers.
Length: 537 pages

D. H. Cameron Presents
Semper Fi
A BBW Stepbrother Romance
>>O<<

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Before you head off to read Semper Fi, check out my other stepbrother title, Hot Damn! It’s a wild, sexy ride with a sassy BBW heroine and a bad boy with a heart of gold hero. It is free on Kindle Unlimited and you might find it free even if you’re not a Kindle Unlimited subscriber. Subscribing to my newsletter is the only way to be notified when my books go free. Here’s the link and an excerpt:
Click the title or cut & paste the link into your browser to buy.
Hot Damn! – A BBW Stepbrother Romance
(www.amazon.com/dp/B0124M070Y)

“A good old-fashioned Arizona sunset. I haven’t been treated to tr sun doesn’t set in Texas like it does here,” I told him.

“Cheap wine out of a solo cup, a pretty sunset with your stepbrother, what’s not to love?” Tyler said. I laughed.

“Right now, it’s perfect,” I told him. Tyler pulled a blanket out of his trunk and offered me a hoodie that was in the back seat. It was spring but already plenty warm in southern Arizona. I didn’t need it. We sat down as the sun approached the horizon, a big orange ball in the sky. Tyler unscrewed the cap and poured us some wine.

“You don’t really like Chablis, do you?” I asked him.

“I’ve had much worse,” he told me. That sparked a memory.

“Like when you and that kid…what was his name…oh yeah, Bobby, got wasted on NyQuil,” I said. Tyler chuckled.

“That shit is nasty but I slept like a baby and my sinuses were clear as a bell,” he replied. I laughed.

“You were such a hooligan,” I remarked.

“Still am,” he said.

“Yeah, I saw that this afternoon,” I reminded him. He shrugged, unable to defend himself.

“I am what I am,” was all he said. I sipped my cheap wine as Tyler swirled his around in the plastic cup.

“You don’t have to drink it,” I told him.

“Jesus, thank you. This shit is so fucking gay,” he said. I laughed again.

“My fiancé loved a good Chablis,” I told Tyler. He cocked his eyebrow and glared at me.

“Really?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I assured him.

“So, let me get this straight. He drinks white wine and he left you? What a fucking moron,” Tyler said. I wasn’t sure how to take that. I mean it made me feel good but Mike had left me for a better looking woman.

“I won’t argue. He’s a jackass. But he left me for somebody…thinner…better looking,” I said. Tyler frowned.

“Don’t do that,” he said.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Run yourself down,” he told me.

“I’m not running myself down,” I replied.

“Uh, yeah you are. She might have been thinner but better looking? I fucking doubt it. He left you because he was a shallow prick. You are a fucking grade A sweetheart Vicky and any man that can’t see that is…well, he’s a jackass,” Tyler said. I wasn’t sure how to reply to that. Instead I just wore a goofy smile and tried to evade.

“Fine but she was better looking. Definitely thinner and prettier than me. I couldn’t compete,” I argued but I don’t know why. I was doing what he told me not to. I was running myself down as I argued against myself.

“That’s your insecurities talking. I don’t know anything about the chick he left you for. For all I know she’s June fucking Cleaver with the body of Kate fucking Upton. But if that prick left you just because she’s better looking, that’s his issue, not yours,” Tyler said, suddenly monologuing and on a roll leaving no profanities unsaid.

“You, little sister, are smoking fucking hot. She might be skinny but skinny is over fucking rated. Personally, I like a girl with curves and shit. I like big ol’ titties and big round asses. I like a woman who’s got a little something to hold on to, if you know what I mean. Don’t you ever sell yourself short, Vicky. Not fucking ever,” he gently admonished me.

I was taken aback, breathless to be honest, by his frank words and impassioned arguments. I wasn’t sure I believed it but it certainly made me feel good to hear it. I knew Mike was a shallow, self-serving jerk. He never accepted me the way I was. He badgered me about my weight all the time and honestly, I wanted to live up to his expectations. I wanted to please him. I dieted and worked out even though I hated it. I even considered getting some kind of surgery though I knew it was stupid. I did it all for him.

But then he left me. He never said it and I never asked but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out he’d been sleeping with her before he dumped me. I wasn’t good enough despite everything we shared and all the stuff we had in common. It wasn’t me, it was him, but I didn’t feel that way. I beat myself up over my weight and anything else I could think of. It was devastating to be told the man you love doesn’t love you back anymore and all because of something I couldn’t fix or change.

I wasn’t going to lose weight. I wasn’t even all that big anyway. I was hippy and busty and I liked to eat but I hated to workout. I wished my whole life I could have inherited my mom’s genes and could be thin and lithe like she was, but I wasn’t. I got my body from my dad’s side of the family, apparently. Sure, I could have lost a few pounds and gone to the gym but I was never going to be skinny like the woman Mike left me for. He thought he could change me but he couldn’t. It was probably the only time I hadn’t lived up to someone else’s expectations and it felt horrible.

“You’re right, Tyler. I won’t say it anymore. I hate feeling that way, like I’m inadequate and unworthy. I’ve always tried to live up to what everyone expected but in that case, I couldn’t. I don’t want to feel like that anymore. I want to feel good about myself,” I told him. I’d never opened up to anyone like that. Especially not my wayward stepbrother.

“I wish I could be more like you sometimes. I just can’t see my way to please other people. Someone tells me to do something, it’s not good enough to ignore them. Usually I need to do the opposite to prove a point. I’m not ashamed of who I am but I’m not stupid. I realize I’m my own worst enemy sometimes. All I can do is try harder. Maybe you need to stop trying so hard,” he told me. That made some kind of strange sense.

I took a gulp of wine as I stared at Tyler. We couldn’t have been more different and when we were younger, that put us at odds. But now, as adults, each with our own failures already behind us, our differences seemed to be bringing us closer together. I remembered what my stepbrother had just said about me and about the kind of women he liked. It warmed my heart and…well, it was oddly exciting. I brushed my blonde hair from my face and behind my ear. The silence now wasn’t awkward. It was bursting with possibilities and energy.

“You’re so fucking pretty, Vicky,” Tyler said suddenly. I gasped softly as Tyler leaned closer.

“Tyler,” I muttered. He hesitated, his eyes searching for something, for some response. Then he met my gaze again.

“Vicky, I’m not the kind of man that hides what he wants. I’m impulsive, to a fault. I want you, Vicky. I want to tear your fucking clothes off and make wild, animal love to you. I want to make you scream,” he said. I didn’t move or even breathe. I just stared back into Tyler’s eyes and there I found passion and lust and desire. There I found all of that and it was all for me. But we couldn’t. It was wrong, so deviant yet so delicious all the same.

“Tyler…we can’t. You’re my stepbrother,” I told him. I didn’t deny him. I didn’t tell Tyler no. Part of me hoped he would listen to reason, as weak as it was, because I knew at the end of this path there was trouble, maybe more than I could handle. But another part of me knew Tyler was beyond reason. Part of me longed for him to ignore what I had said and take me right then and right there. But Tyler, as usual, surprised me.

“I know you’re my stepsister. I know my old man and your mom would freak the fuck out if they ever found out. It’s forbidden. It’s naughty. Vicky, that’s the kind of shit that makes this miserable life worth living. C’mon, for once in your life be the bad girl,” he argued. I was shaking. That logic didn’t just weaken my defenses, it tore them apart. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to speak the words I so desperately wanted to say.

But Tyler didn’t wait. His hands cupped my face and he pulled me close, his eyes locked on mine until his lips met my lips. I melted as my stepbrother kissed me, forcefully and with a passion I’d never experienced. I let him do it, unable to respond at first but then I grabbed my stepbrother’s wrists and kissed back. I felt everything but my desire for Tyler fade away. My insecurities, my need to meet everyone’s expectations and my sense of failure in both my engagement and my career were gone in an instant, not banished entirely but held at bay as we kissed.

I broke the kiss and gazed at Tyler, the young man that bowed to no one, that did as he pleased and that lived life on his terms. I wanted some of that. I wanted to be free of my cares and concerns. I desired to worry about what I wanted out of life instead of worrying about what others thought I should do. I needed to just give in to my baser instincts for once in my life. My breathing was ragged and harsh while my heart pounded within my chest.

“Make me your bad girl, Tyler,” I told him. Tyler grinned, a wicked smile that was full of dark promise and forbidden desires. That was the green light he wanted but still he wasn’t entirely sure I meant it.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“Yeah, fuck it,” I said. Tyler pulled me to him and kissed me again. This time his tongue entered my mouth and I sucked it greedily. His hands dropped to my breasts and he lovingly squeezed them like it was his first time. All sense had left me and it felt wonderful, liberating and real.

“I love these beauties,” he told me after breaking the kiss. The way Tyler looked at me was unlike any man had ever looked at me before. Mike never had such hunger in his eyes. I had no illusions. This was likely to be a one-time thing, an act of desperate passion never to be repeated, but probably regretted, and I didn’t care. I needed to feel loved. I needed release. I needed my stepbrother.

Hot Damn! – A BBW Stepbrother Romance
(www.amazon.com/dp/B0124M070Y)
>>O<<

Table of Contents
Semper Fi – A BBW Stepbrother Romance
Rock Hard – An Erotic Rock & Roll Romance

Semper Fi – A BBW Stepbrother Romance
Act I

Darlene

He cast a shadow that I could never hope to emerge from. He was larger than life, the hero, the golden boy, the smug, holier than thou United States Marine. Everyone loved Lance Corporal Erik Winters. Everyone except me, that is. I was ignored as he was adored, I was a nobody, just an afterthought. I was just his pathetic, overweight, underachieving stepsister. Even my dad went gaga for Erik.

I was never good enough. I could never live up to the standard Erik set. Few could. No, I was just a lowly beautician who wasn’t defending freedom from the bad guys, who wasn’t sacrificing herself for the greater good and who wasn’t all truth, justice and the American way. I was just a big girl with little dreams and a little chip on her shoulder.

Okay, maybe it was a big chip…a two-by-four…a freaking log. I can admit it. I might have had a complex where Erik was concerned. I acted out to get attention. I made bad choices just so someone might notice. I did stupid things that were a hell of a lot of fun sometimes that got me in trouble. I got lectures and reprimands. I got life advice and self-help books. What I never got was the adulation I so craved.

That was the status quo, the reality I lived with and I thought I had learned to accept. I was who I was. My dad loved me but he wasn’t especially proud of me. Maybe that was partly my fault. I hadn’t done much to earn his pride, though I’m not sure I should have to earn it at all. My mom was long gone. She died from brain cancer when I was seven. I’m pretty sure that didn’t help my disposition. Erik’s mom, Janice, was sweet and loving, but I wasn’t hers.

Erik, well he and I never saw eye to eye. We were heading in opposite directions, we were wildly different people, or so I believed. We were siblings in name only. I had little affection for him and he had little time for me. We ran in different crowds back in the day and we had settled into entirely different lives. I was just getting by and Erik was defending democracy half way around the world. He was a ghost, a memory from my past and an occasional flesh and blood visitor I barely knew.

“Your four o’clock is here, Darlene,” I heard Gail shout out the back door. I took one last drag on my vape and tucked it into my purse before I went back into the salon to give some wealthy housewife a dye-job.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m coming,” I complained quietly as I went. Inside I found what I was expecting. A fifty-something woman with fake boobs, a fake nose and a fake tan waiting to get her roots dyed platinum blonde. At least these one-percenters tipped well…usually.

“Hi, come right this way,” I greeted the woman. “I’m Darlene,” I added, putting on my customer service smile. I didn’t miss her eyes looking me over, judging me. I was the help and nothing more to her. At least that’s how she made me feel.

“Mrs. White. Nice to meet you,” she told me. “I hope you’re better than the last girl. Her work turned my hair brassy. I was absolutely horrified,” she continued.

“I’ll do my best, ma’am,” I replied.

“I certainly hope so,” she said, her meaning quite clear. If I didn’t please the princess, she’d have words with the owner and I’d likely be out on my ass. I might have a penchant for making bad decisions but I knew how to color hair and win people over.

“Your husband will forget his mistress’s name when I’m through with you,” I told my client as I showed her to my chair. She looked at me sharply but the wry grin on my face gave me away. She laughed out loud at my little joke. Whether there was any truth to it, I couldn’t know.

“Who says I give a damn what he thinks? Maybe this is for someone else,” she replied and winked at me.

“The pool boy?” I asked, a bit brazenly. The woman looked around and then leaned close to me.

“Actually, the young lady from El Salvador that works as our maid,” she told me and then held out her hand. “You can call me Gladys,” she said. I shook Gladys’ hand.

“You naughty thing, you,” I teased her. These women were all the same. Most were wealthy and miserable. Their husbands were indifferent to their needs. I was friendly, sassy and sometimes even a little suggestive. They liked it. I was real with them, something they didn’t experience often. Most of the help, it seemed, were eager to suck up but rarely related to women like Gladys as people. Of course, some didn’t respond well to it but most did.

“You have no idea, Darlene,” she replied.

“Tell me, we’ve got time,” I said as I prepared to color her hair. Men had bartenders to act as advisors, confidants and therapists. Women like Gladys had their hairdressers. She told me all about her escapades as I went about my job. It was nothing I hadn’t heard before. She liked women and her husband liked working so she dabbled when he was away. I listened, laughed and acted shocked when I was supposed to. An hour or so later, Gladys had a new head of silky, platinum blonde hair and I had a nice portrait of Benjamin Franklin tucked away in my bra for my trouble.

“You should come back every two weeks. No one will ever know you weren’t born blonde,” I offered.

“I will. In fact, I’ll book you for six months,” Gladys told me.

“Thanks,” I replied and then got an unexpected proposal.

“I’d love to have you over for dinner, Darlene,” Gladys said, leaving little doubt that she didn’t mean food.

“I never date clients. I am tempted though,” I told her. Gladys nodded but wasn’t offended.

“Too bad. Those are magnificent,” she told me referring to my breasts. I looked down and then back at Gladys.

“I’ll wear something low cut next time,” I said. Gladys smiled as she turned to leave. She didn’t look back as she shook her finger in the air.

“You’re good,” she told me as she went to schedule her future appointments and pay for her newly colored hair. I laughed to myself. There were worse things you could do for a living than befriend lonely, wealthy women who liked to tip well. It wasn’t glamorous and I’d never get rich, and I’d certainly never save the world but it wasn’t bad. I took pride in my work, even if no one else did. I was sure my stepbrother was probably doing something heroic and everyone would make sure I knew about it. I had no idea.

>>O<<

Erik

“Good shit, right?” Martinez asked me.

“Fuck! Your wife made these?” I replied as I munched on the chocolate chip cookie he’d given me.

“Yeah,” he told me.

“You don’t deserve her. She should divorce your Mexican ass and marry me,” I replied.

“Fuck you, Snowman,” he shot back but then smiled. Snowman, that’s what they called me, ever since boot camp when my drill instructor first thought it up. Winters…Snowman…get it? Anyway, it stuck.

“You’re right, she couldn’t handle me. I wouldn’t want to hurt the poor girl,” I teased. Martinez laughed.

“You are pretty fucking ugly. You’re hurting me right now just looking at you,” Hanson told me, waking from his short nap.

“Eat shit and die,” I replied. Typical Marine discourse. Endless insults all made in good fun. Hanson pursed his lips and blew me a kiss. “I love you too,” I told him. We were riding back from a patrol in an MRAP, a mine resistant vehicle. It was hot and dusty but it beat humping it with 80 pounds of gear on your back. Being a Marine was a hard life. The war was technically over but they were still sending guys home missing legs and in body bags. Things were winding down but if you got complacent, bad shit could happen.

I loved it though. I was born to be a Marine. I mean, I hated the sleeping arrangements, the food, the hiking, being away from my family and friends, lack of showers, shitting in a hole and just about everything else about being in Afghanistan but I loved it. I was probably crazy but there’s no place I’d rather be than with these guys, my brothers, complaining about how much it sucked. Marines loved misery.

“What did you get?” Hanson asked me.

“Chili Mac,” I replied, referring to the MRE, the rations we were issued.

“You got Skittles? I’ll trade for my peanut butter and crackers,” he offered. Peanut butter was highly prized but it wasn’t worth a bag of Skittles.

“The peanut butter and the hot sauce,” I countered. Hanson thought it over. Everything tasted better with hot sauce.

“No fucking way,” he said. I laughed.

“Pussy,” I said. He just stared at me smugly as he poured the pouch of hot sauce over his cold entrée. It was a long ride back to base so we were taking advantage, packing some calories away. It wasn’t really that far but we couldn’t take the roads and we always drove a circuitous route to confuse the Taliban. They couldn’t set IED’s, improvised explosive devices, if they didn’t know where you were going to be. But sometimes they got lucky.

“Mmm, this vegetarian shit tastes damn good with all that hot sauce,” Hanson said.

“Whatev…,” I began to say but I was cut short by a huge fucking explosion. The MRAP came to a halt. We knew what happened. One of the other MRAPs got hit. We dropped our food and grabbed our rifles. Moments later, we were piling out the back to provide cover for the damaged vehicle. It wasn’t bad. They’d all live, that’s what these trucks were designed for after all. But it might be an ambush. More Marines joined us from the vehicle ahead of ours.

“Holy shit!” Barker remarked. He was a boot, fresh out of infantry training. Poor bastard.

“Shut up! Spread out. Watch for movement,” I ordered. The eight of us took up positions as the crewmen of the MRAPs called for help and I went to check on the damaged vehicle and its occupants. It wasn’t bad. A wheel was torn off but the explosion wasn’t a big one. Disoriented, the occupants began to emerge.

The MRAP crewmen helped the injured get away from the disabled vehicle as the rest of us watched for an attack. We knew the enemy’s tactics. They couldn’t engage us directly so they focused on targets of opportunity seeking to erode our morale more than thin our ranks. I was exposed so I moved to seek cover behind the tire that had been blown off the MRAP. That’s when the second IED went off.

I was thrown back, my ears ringing and my senses reeling. I landed hard on my back, knocking the air from my lungs. I could taste the explosives. I heard shouting. I shook my head and tried to get my bearings.

The smoke and dust cleared, revealing a small crater several yards from where I was laying. That was stupid. I should have known they’d have secondary explosives to try to get some of us while we were in the open and exposed. But they didn’t get me.

I began to laugh until I noticed my boot lying on the ground ten feet from me, my foot still inside. That’s when the pain hit me. I stared at the hamburger that was my lower leg and the pool of blood forming on the ground. Men came running to give me aid as I tried to wrap my head around what had happened. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be.

>>O<<

Darlene

“So, did your maid like my work?” I asked Gladys as she sat in my chair.

“She did,” Gladys replied and winked at me.

“I’m glad. Have you ever considered some highlights, maybe some color?” I asked and held up the purple streak in my own sandy blond hair.

“No, I haven’t. I like that though,” she replied.

“Your husband might not like it but I bet your maid will,” I advised Gladys.

“Oh, fuck Jeffrey,” she said and laughed. Gladys was wealthy and we probably had little in common but I liked her.

“I could put a pink streak in, a temporary streak that will wash out after a few days,” I offered. Gladys considered that.

“Why not? But purple, like yours,” she replied.

“Consider it done,” I said just as my phone vibrated. I lifted it from my pocket and peeked at the screen. It was my dad. I dropped the phone back into my pocket. I’d call him later.

I made ready to dye Gladys’ hair as my phone vibrated again. It was my dad.

“I need to see what my dad wants. It will only take a moment,” I told Gladys.

“Take your time,” Gladys told me. It paid to befriend my clients. I walked a few feet away, pulled my phone out of my smock and answered.

“Dad, I’m at work. What is it?” I greeted my father.

“I…um…,” he stammered. That wasn’t like my dad.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him.

“Erik. He’s been injured. Janice and I are on our way to the airport. We’re headed to Germany. Erik should be there by the time we arrive,” he said. I was speechless as the news sunk in. Erik and I weren’t close but I had to know one thing.

“Is he going to live?” I asked.

“Yes. Yes, he’ll live,” my dad told me. I breathed a sigh of relief as he paused. “But, Darlene, he lost a leg,” my dad explained. I locked up, unable to speak or even think. The room began to go dark. I dropped the phone and a moment later, to me anyway, I came to on the floor.

“No, she’s fine. She fainted,” Gladys was telling my dad. “Hold on, she wants to talk,” Gladys told my dad as I reached for the phone. She handed it to me.

“Are you okay, Darlene?” my dad asked, his voice breaking.

“Yeah, dad. I’m good. I just…I was overwhelmed, I guess,” I said.

“Thank God. I need to go, Darlene. We’ll call you when we land. Erik will be okay. Don’t worry. I love you,” he told me.

“I love you too, dad. Tell Erik…just tell him to get better,” I said.

“I will, honey,” he replied and hung up. I did the same and realized half the salon was standing around me. My boss, Mrs. Kowalski, knelt next to me.

“What happened?” she asked.

“My dad called…my stepbrother was injured in Afghanistan,” I told her.

“Oh my! I’m sorry, Darlene. Will he be okay?” she asked.

“I guess so…yeah,” I told her.

“That’s good. Look, why don’t you head home. I’ll get someone else to take care of Mrs. White,” she told me.

“No, that’s fine. I’ll take Darlene home and reschedule,” Gladys told my boss.

“Oh…very well,” Mrs. Kowalski replied.

“Can you get up?” Gladys asked. I nodded and she and Mrs. Kowalski helped me to my feet. I looked about. Everyone was staring at me.

“You don’t have to…,” I began to tell Gladys but she wouldn’t hear of it.

“No, I’m taking you home,” she said firmly.

“Thank you,” I said. I gathered up my purse, feeling rather unsteady and numb. Gladys helped me out of the salon as the other beauticians and clients stared after us. She took me to her Black SUV, helped me inside and then walked around to join me. She slid into her seat and pat my knee before starting the engine.

“I’m glad to hear your brother will be okay,” she said and smiled warmly.

“He lost his leg,” I told Gladys.

“Oh…I’m sorry. Still, he’s alive. My son served in Iraq…the Army. He died,” she told me.

“Gladys, I…,” I stammered.

“Don’t. That was a long time ago. I’ve come to terms with it mostly. I know what you’re going through, Darlene. I want to help,” Gladys told me. I began to cry. Gladys hesitated for a moment but then leaned over and pulled me into her arms.

“I know, sweetie. I know. Let it out,” Gladys told me as she rubbed my back. I pulled away after a moment, gaining some control over my emotions and wiping the mascara tinged tears away.

“Thank you, Gladys. I mean that. And I’m sorry about your son too,” I said.

“Thank you, dear. Let’s get you home,” she said and pat my knee again. I nodded. Gladys put the SUV in gear and then pressed a button below the screen on the dashboard. “Tell the computer thingy your address,” she said.

“Oh…3790 Wilson Ave,” I said. The screen almost instantly zoomed in on a map of the city and showed the way from the salon to my apartment.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Gladys asked me.

“Yeah, it is. My car doesn’t even have a radio,” I told her. Gladys smiled at me.

“Sometimes, I turn mine off and sing to myself,” she admitted.

“That’s what I do,” I told her. We both laughed. Gladys didn’t just take me home, she came inside and made sure I was doing okay before she left. She offered to send someone to get me some groceries but I assured her I’d gone shopping just a few days before. I’m glad she didn’t look in my cupboards or refrigerator. I went shopping but both were still mostly empty.

“I’ll call the salon and reschedule my appointment. You should take a few days though,” she said.

“I’d love to but I need the money. I’ll be fine. Erik is…he’ll be fine,” I said.

“Well, take care. I left my number on the sticky pad in the kitchen. Call if you need anything,” Gladys told me.

“You don’t need to…,” I tried to object.

“Victor was my only child. Let me play mom,” Gladys told me.

“Okay. Then, thanks. I’ll do your purple streak for free,” I said.

“I’ll just give you a bigger tip,” Gladys warned.

“It’ll make me feel better,” I assured her.

“Fine, free,” she replied and turned to go. But Gladys stopped short and turned back. She walked up to me and kissed me on the forehead. “Take care, Darlene. Call if you need me,” she said.

“I will, thank you,” I replied and Gladys left me alone. I removed my smock, realizing I still had it on, pulled out my vape and plopped onto my lumpy sofa. I’d barely given a thought to Erik while he was deployed. Like I said, we were siblings in name only. I worried, I suppose, but it was superficial. I’d have worried about anyone I knew that was deployed to a war zone.

But this, this hit me hard and I wasn’t sure why. Suddenly, Erik was all I could think about. Not knowing any real details made it even worse. He lost a leg. What did that mean, exactly? I wish I knew so my mind would stop imagining the worst. I felt bad for my dad and Janice too. Especially Janice. Erik was her only son. At least, she hadn’t lost him like Gladys had lost her only son.

The whole situation sucked and I tried hard not to make it about me. But I was alone here. I knew very little and had no one to talk to about what had happened. I considered walking to the liquor store and buying a bottle of…no! I didn’t do that anymore. I went to bad places when I drank. I took a hit off my vape but it didn’t help much.

I wish I was still at work. Here, in this dump I called home, I had nothing better to do than think. I didn’t feel like playing my PlayStation. I didn’t like thinking very much. My thoughts were always dark. My mind had already begun to wonder if my dad and Janice would have flown half way around the world to visit me. I couldn’t help but think the answer was no, they wouldn’t.

“Shut up!” I told myself. I was better. I was holding it together. But a bit of bad news or something not going my way was all it took. I wanted a drink so bad. I wanted to forget. Fuck! And poor Erik. I didn’t like him but I didn’t really hate him. It’s just a word I threw around. He was a self-important prick, but he didn’t deserve this. I took another deep drag and the nicotine helped take the edge off ever so slightly. This was going to be a long night.

>>O<<

Erik

“Mom! Robert!” I exclaimed as my mom and stepdad appeared.

“Hey, baby,” my mom exclaimed, shoving the flowers she held into Robert’s hands and came rushing over to hug me. She stopped just short and I knew why.

“You’re not going to hurt me. Give me a hug,” I told her. My mom grinned even as she began to cry and hugged me tightly. I hugged her back. I was glad they had finally arrived. The nurse told me they were coming.

“We got you these and some chocolate,” Robert said, referring to the flowers.

“Thanks,” I told them. My mom let go of me and kissed me on the cheek.

“You look to be in good spirits,” she observed as she took the flowers from Robert and put them on the table next to my bed. He handed me the box of chocolate.

“I’m doing okay. Eager to get out of here and start rehab,” I told them. It had been ten days since I lost my leg to an IED. Well, part of it anyway. My knee and part of my lower leg was intact. My prognosis was good for a complete recovery with the use of a prosthetic. I was lucky. With some hard work and determination, I could be back with my unit in a few months.

“You should rest, baby,” my mom told me.

“Yeah, you’ve got plenty of reason. We’re so proud of you, son,” Robert told me. He took to calling me son after I joined the Marines. I smiled, uncomfortable as usual with the unnecessary adulation.

“Thanks. I’ve got to wait for my leg to heal so I’m stuck in this hospital bed for a while yet,” I told them.

“So, when do you get shipped home?” my mom asked me.

“I don’t. The hospital here has all the facilities. I can get my new leg, rehab and all that right here. Hopefully, I can be back in Afghanistan in time for the fighting season,” I told them. My mom went stiff.

“You’re not going back. How?” she asked me, stunned that such a thing was possible or, more likely, that I’d even want to. I was making assumptions, of course, but the prognosis sounded good. I’d served with a couple of guys that had artificial legs and you’d never know it. They were as good as ever.

“I don’t know. Look, it’s a long way off. Let’s not talk about it,” I said. My mom was proud of me, too proud sometimes, but she worried.

“You’re right, baby. I’m just glad we’re here. Robert is right. We’re so proud of you. You’re such a fine young man,” she said. I smiled again. That placating smile I used when my mom or Robert began to gush about my service.

“She’s right, son,” Robert said. “We really appreciate your service and sacrifice,” he continued. Jesus! I knew they meant it but they always laid it on so thick.

“You guys got a room?” I asked, trying to change the subject.

“Just off base,” Robert said. Great!

“You should do some sightseeing. How often do you get to Germany?” I suggested.

“No, baby. We’re here for you,” my mom said. I smiled again. Same smile.

“Wonderful,” I said. Did that sound sarcastic? I hoped not. My mom and Robert stayed with me most of the day. I was grateful for the company and they stopped gushing after a few hours. It beat staring at the wall or watching German television. They wheeled me down to the chow hall for lunch. I wasn’t used to that, being wheeled around. I kept asking for crutches but the nurses told me I might fall. The visit was pleasant but when my mom and Robert finally left, I felt like I needed a nap to recover.

That evening, after they left, my dad called. I wasn’t shocked he called but I wasn’t expecting it either. He only called when it suited him.

“Hey, dad,” I greeted him.

“Erik, I trust you’re doing well,” he said.

“I’m doing good, thanks,” I replied. As always, it was uncomfortable. We didn’t see eye to eye.

“Good. I called Colonel Powell. He assured me you were getting the best care possible,” he told me. My dad liked to think he was a big wig. He knew everyone that was everyone or so he claimed. His ego wouldn’t let him believe otherwise.

“Yep, they’re taking good care of me,” I assured him.

“I expect no less,” he told me and then there was an awkward silence that always crept into our conversations. My dad wasn’t much of a dad or a husband to my mom. He was too busy running his business and making himself feel important to bother with little things like family. “Well, then. I’ll talk to you later, Erik,” he said.

“Sure, dad. Love you,” I told him.

“Of course,” he replied. I always told him I loved him…just to mess with his head. I didn’t have much affection for the man. The phone went dead. I hung up the receiver and shook my head.

“Touching,” I remarked to myself. My mom, if anything, was too affectionate. Always fawning over me, telling me how proud she was and all that shit. My dad, well he was her complete opposite. He was all about himself and I got over him a long time ago. My mom, on the other hand, I loved dearly. She could be a serious pain in the ass but she was all heart.

>>O<<

Darlene

“There’s no need to worry. Erik is just fine. He’s even talking about heading back to his unit,” my dad told me from Germany.

“Really?” I wondered.

“You know Erik,” my dad said. I knew what that meant. Erik, the golden boy who could do no wrong. I was glad to hear he was doing well but who else would have lost a leg and decide to go back into battle? Erik, that’s who. Mr. fucking wonderful.

“Yep, I know Erik,” I said and rolled my eyes.

“We should be home in a few days. We’ll fill you in on all the details when we get back,” he told me. We said our goodbyes and hung up. I guess I was happy Erik was doing well. If anyone was going to go back after losing a leg, it was Erik. I’m sure my parents would go gaga over it too. As if becoming a Marine wasn’t enough, now he would be a Marine with an artificial leg. The adulation from my dad and Janice would be sickening. Ug!

At least, I didn’t have to worry about Erik. The darkness might fade away a bit. It was a rough few days. My dad didn’t call me when he landed or even later that day. He told me it was the time difference. Whatever. They were focusing on Erik and I was, as usual, an afterthought. I could hear how small and petty that sounded. Erik was wounded, after all.

But that’s how it had been since the beginning. Erik was the quarterback, the star pitcher, the homecoming king. I was his awkward and pudgy little stepsister and most of the kids I went to school with didn’t even know that he was my stepbrother. I wasn’t so obtuse that I didn’t recognize that I might have seen slights where none existed but there was also no doubt that our parents often ignored me while they fawned over Erik.

And Erik ate it up. He loved it. Smug asshole. He all but ignored me too. I simply existed during high school, both at home and at school. All I heard was Erik this, and Erik that. He turned down a full ride baseball scholarship to join the Marines. What an idiot, right? No, that earned him even more praise. He was sacrificing to serve his country. Let’s slobber all over him some more.

So, in response, I started smoking. Took my parents three months to discover that. And then I got a lecture. A lecture. I didn’t even get grounded. Next was drinking. I liked drinking. I liked it too much. That got me grounded. Didn’t stop me. I wanted to be yelled at. I wanted rage and anger and disappointment. I got a shrug of indifference, or that’s what it seemed like. What’s a girl got to do to get noticed anyway?

Getting arrested for possession got me noticed. Having to pay for counseling to keep me out of jail made them pay attention…for a while. Look, my dad was always a softy and Janice was a spare the rod and spoil the child type too. I guess it was stupid to try to get attention from them by getting in trouble but that’s what I did. I got lectures and encouragement, I got love but I didn’t ever get the adulation Erik did.

I guess that’s all I wanted. I wanted people to tell me I was wonderful and special. I’m not dumb. I get that I went about it all wrong but I wasn’t Erik. I was Darlene, the awkward, chubby girl, the girl that got tattoos and vaped to stay away from cigarettes. The girl that liked whiskey way too much. I guess what bothered me the most was that I knew I could never be like Erik.

Man, I was fucked up.

>>O<<

Erik

“Looks like you’re going home soon. The leg is healing well. It was a fairly clean amputation so the complications should be minimal,” the doctor told me. She was kind of hot for an Army doctor.

“Oh, I’m not going home, doc. I’m going to stay in, rehab and go back to my unit,” I told her.

“Who told you that? Says here you’re being discharged, honorably, of course,” the doctor asked.

“No one, really. But I don’t want to leave the Corps. Everyone says I’ll be as good as new with a prosthetic. Right?” I replied.

“That’s true. You should be getting around like before after rehab. But the chart says you’re being discharged. Let me look into it,” she said.

“Yeah, thanks,” I replied.

“I’ll talk to the Marine liaison. I’m sure it’s a mix up. I’ll send him in to discuss it after we speak,” the doctor assured me.

“Thanks, doc. You’re the best,” I told her. She smiled and maybe even blushed. As I expected, I didn’t see anyone for over two hours. That’s how it was, hurry up and wait. My buddies had packed up my stuff and shipped it to me. I had my laptop so the wait wasn’t so bad. The wi-fi was free and it actually worked so I caught up on some of the movies and television shows I’d missed.

“Lance Corporal Winters?” a Captain greeted me. I tried to sit up to salute, but he stopped me with an outstretched hand. “At ease, devil. I’m Captain Fuller,” he told me.

“Nice to meet you, sir,” I replied.

“So, Doctor Gilson tells me there’s a problem,” he said as he sat in the chair near my bed.

“Yes, sir. My chart says I’m being discharged. I want to stay in, get well and go back to my unit,” I told him.

“I see. You realize you’re missing a leg?” He asked, tongue in cheek.

“I’ve noticed. I can be good as new, sir. I can do my job,” I assured the Captain. He smiled warmly at me.

“I’m sure you can, son. Let’s cut the bullshit, shall we?” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I replied.

“Five years ago, hell, three years ago, we wouldn’t be talking about this. Things have changed. Budget cuts, war coming to an end, downsizing of the military. It’s all garbage but even the Corps has to live by the rules. We’re sending you home, son. We’ve got more Marines than we know what to do with right now. I’m sure you would kick some ass, even with a metal leg, but there’s a Marine out there with two good legs who can do it too. It’s fucked up, but that’s life,” he told me.

“But I can serve, sir. I swear, I’ll work my ass off. There’s got to be something you can do,” I said, my voice trembling.

“Son, you’ve done your duty and sacrificed a leg. You should be proud of your service. I’ve seen your file. If it were up to me, I’d keep you. It’s not up to me. You’re going home, Winters,” the Captain told me and stood up to leave.

“What the fuck am I going to do at home?” I asked him, not really expecting an answer.

“Live, son, live. Live your life, find a girl, settle down. We all have to do it sometime. If it makes you feel any better, you’re going home mostly whole and not in a flag-draped coffin,” he told me.

“It doesn’t, sir,” I replied. Captain Fuller stopped just short of the door. He turned and stood at attention, raising his hand in salute. I climbed out of bed this time, stood on my remaining foot and returned the salute.

“Semper Fi, devil,” he said and turned to go.

“Semper Fi, sir,” I said as he left. I sat back down and ran my hands over my short hair. The Marines were my life. I was going to re-up, maybe try to go to officer’s school when the war was over. What the fuck was I going to do now? Get a job? Doing what? Go to college? Screw that! I wasn’t cut out for civilian life. What a bunch of fucking garbage!

>>O<<

Darlene

“I thought he was staying there,” I replied to my dad.

“He was but the Marines said otherwise. Budget cuts and downsizing, I guess. In any case, Erik’s being honorably discharged due to his injury and he’ll be home next week. We’re throwing a party for him,” my dad explained. A welcome home party seemed appropriate, but I knew that somehow it would become so much more. It would be the Erik show, the injured war hero edition…okay, that was snarky.

“That sounds nice,” I replied.

“I’ll text you the time and date once we nail it down. I’m so excited your brother is coming home,” my dad said.

“Stepbrother, dad,” I reminded him.

“You know what I mean. In any case, we need to make his homecoming special. Erik’s not happy about being discharged so…if you could be extra nice to him,” he told me. I sighed and rolled my eyes.

“Sure, dad,” I said.

“You’re the best. Love you,” my dad said.

“Love you too. Bye,” I said and hung up. “Fuck!” I exclaimed and then double checked my phone to make sure I had really ended the call. It was nice without the golden boy around but now he was coming home. I mean, it wasn’t like my parents fawned all over me in his absence but at least they paid me some attention. Between sending care packages to Erik anyway. I never got care packages and I could really use one now and then.

I guess I should prepare myself. It was going to be Erik this and Erik that all over again. In fact, the more I considered the situation, the more I was convinced it would be worse. Erik wasn’t just a Marine, a hero in the eyes of our parents, now he was a wounded warrior, as they were called. Our parents were going to fawn all over him like never before.

Over the next week, I steeled myself against the neglect I was about to endure. I mean, sure, my parents had every right to throw him a party and welcome Erik home. But it wouldn’t end there. I’d be treated to soliloquies about Erik’s sacrifice, poems about his bravery and songs praising his nobility. Okay, maybe I was exaggerating a tiny bit. I might have a complex where Erik was concerned, but it would be bad.

I arrived at my parent’s house at the time my dad had texted me. I had to park a block away there were so many cars lining the street. Couldn’t they have blocked off a “beloved daughter” spot so I wouldn’t have to walk a block in heels? I guess not. I got to the house and just walked in. There were dozens of people there. I made my way inside to go find the food. I couldn’t drink so food was all I had left.

As I approached the dining room and the lavish spread laid out on the dining room table, I saw him. Erik held court in the family room, people all but kneeling before him. That’s how I saw it anyway. Did I mention I might have a complex where…I did, didn’t I? In any case, I turned away, grabbed a plate and filled it with little smokies, Swedish meatballs and chicken wings. Classy.

As I began to eat my troubles away, I turned to see exactly what was going on. Some guests were talking amongst themselves but others surrounded my stepbrother. I spotted my dad and Janice. My dad glanced my direction and I caught his eye. He waved and turned his attention back to Erik. I fully expected Erik to be telling war stories to the delight of the sycophantic guests. He wasn’t.

In fact, Erik looked absolutely miserable. I mean, he was smiling and nodding, answering questions and shaking hands, but he didn’t want to be here anymore than I did. That surprised me. I expected Erik to eat this shit up with a spoon. Then my stepbrother randomly looked in my direction. Upon seeing me, he smiled a genuine smile. I waved back at him, trying to be nice. He rolled his eyes and shook his head subtly before turning to acknowledge yet another admirer.

I stopped stuffing my face with free food, the best kind of food, to consider Erik’s response to me. I couldn’t figure out what it meant. He lapped this stuff up, didn’t he? Maybe he was tired. Then again, he lost his leg. Maybe he was upset about it still. Erik was never one to wallow in self-pity but then again, he had never lost a leg before either. Was I feeling sorry for him? I think I was.

“Darlene? Little Darlene!” someone shrieked at me. I turned to find an older woman with a bad wig wearing way too much rouge and lipstick approaching. “It is you. I haven’t seen you since you were knee high to a grasshopper,” she exclaimed, reaching out and pinching my cheeks. Ouch!

“Yeah, it’s me…Darlene,” I replied. I had zero idea who this woman was…none.

“You don’t remember me. I’m your great aunt Rosalie,” she told me. Nope, nothing. “I know you, though. Your dad sent your school pictures every year. You’ve blossomed into a fine, full-figured woman,” my great aunt Rosalie explained.

“Uh…thanks,” I replied.

“The boys love a girl with meat on her bones,” she told me. Obviously, dear great aunt Rosalie had outgrown her filter.

“Not as often as I’d like,” I replied but Rosalie frowned. She didn’t get my admittedly weak joke. “Oh, look. There’s someone I know over that way. It’s been so nice catching up. Stay in touch,” I said, as I gave Rosalie a mock hug and walked away.

Jesus! Who the hell was that? Apparently, she knew my dad. Maybe she was on my mom’s side of the family. Most of them failed to stay in touch after my mom passed. The walls felt like they were closing in. I didn’t like big crowds and after my great aunt attacked me…okay, she was probably a sweet old lady but still…I needed some air.

It was early spring and in Idaho, that meant it was cold. I didn’t care. I needed some space and some nicotine. I slipped out the back door, zipped up my jacket that I hadn’t even bothered to take off and walked across the mostly brown lawn. I had a secret spot in the back yard from when I was younger. I guess it wasn’t that secret but behind the big blue spruce, next to the shed there was a spot you couldn’t see from the house. I sat on the short retaining wall, pulled out my vape and took a satisfying drag.

I wasn’t even sure the nicotine did anything. It was just the act of smoking, or vaping in this case, that calmed my nerves and made it all a little bit better. I exhaled a puff of water vapor and felt myself relax. Yeah, it was definitely some form of meditation rather than the chemicals, but it worked.

As I enjoyed a little peace and quiet and picked at my plate of rapidly cooling finger foods, I wondered what was up with Erik. Maybe he was overwhelmed, though he always seemed to enjoy crowds. Especially when they were gathered on his behalf. He ate it up. I wasn’t sure if our parents’ attention fueled Erik’s need for attention or if it was the other way around. In any case, I was always the odd one out.

When Erik was being crowned homecoming king, I was…well, I think I was getting drunk with friends down at the old quarry. When he announced he was going into the Marines instead of going to college I was…I think I had a therapy appointment. It was no wonder our parents celebrated Erik and ignored me. I hadn’t given them much to celebrate. I did graduate high school by the skin of my teeth. Erik was on the honor roll when he graduated. His graduation party was bigger than mine.

I guess I’d grown used to being in his shadow. It didn’t bother me quite as much as it used to. I moved out, worked two jobs while I went to beauty school and built my own life, such as it was. I wasn’t confronted on a daily basis with the disparity between Erik and I anymore. It still hurt sometimes but I had my job at the salon and a few friends to take my…

“How long have you been standing there?” I asked suddenly as the feeling I was being watched turned into my stepbrother. “Come out to gloat?” I demanded.

>>O<<

Erik

“Thanks, Mr. Collins. I appreciate it,” I told the portly, balding man that worked with my stepdad.

“Call me Frank,” he told me.

“Will do, Frank,” I replied, smiling. Frank shook my hand again and nodded at me. I leaned over towards my mom who stood next to me attending to other guests. “I need to get out of here,” I told her. She politely disengaged from the guests.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, overly concerned.

“I…uh…um…,” I said looking for a way to disappear without the entire houseful of guests following me.

“What is it?” my mom pressed, her face lined with worry. PTSD? No, she’d worry more.

“I need a smoke,” I said.

“A smoke. I thought you quit,” she told me. I had smoked pretty hard when I first joined the Marines. Tobacco and energy drinks were the foundation of a Marine’s diet. But I quit. Instead, I smoked the occasional cigar but more often, I vaped. It helped stave off the boredom and calmed my nerves when I was deployed.

“Vaping, mom,” I said.

“Oh, I don’t want you doing that in here. I’ll cover for you. Don’t be long,” my mom told me.

“I won’t. You’ll hardly miss me,” I told her and walked away. Holy fuck! This was the worst. I avoided entanglements with guests as I made my way to the back door. I closed the door behind me and leaned against it, taking a deep breath, happy to be alone.

Then I smelled it. Apple pie. But it wasn’t like a real apple pie. I recognized the scent and went in search of it. It didn’t take long to figure out the source. It was my stepsister in her not so secret spot. I peeked around the big blue cedar and found her vaping. I hadn’t seen Darlene in a long time. She looked good.

That’s when she noticed me.

>>O<<

Darlene

“Actually, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing,” Erik said and smiled.

“What are you doing out here?” I asked suspiciously.

“I came out to have a smoke,” he told me.

“You don’t smoke anymore,” I replied.

“Vape, whatever. Mind sharing?” Erik asked. I thought it over and decided it couldn’t hurt. I’d probably sneak out within the hour and head home anyway.

“Sure,” I said. Erik joined me on the short wall and I handed him my e-cig. “Your limp isn’t bad,” I told him. Erik glanced down at his leg, the artificial one, and then back at me.

“It’s just the temporary prosthetic. I won’t have a limp at all with the permanent one…or so they say,” he told me and took a drag before handing the e-cig back to me.

“So, why are you really out here?” I asked. Erik didn’t come out here to bum a vape.

“I had to get out of there. It was getting to me,” he admitted.

“What was getting to you?” I wondered.

“The crowd. All the disingenuous praise. All the stupid questions,” he told me. I took a hit and handed the e-cig to Erik.

“I thought you liked being the center of attention,” I challenged him.

“What gave you that idea?” he asked.

“Oh, c’mon. You ate it up with a spoon. You love all the attention. I don’t blame you. I’d…I wish I got half of what you did,” I said. Erik listened as I explained but didn’t reply right away. He just stared at the ground in front of him.

“Is that why you don’t like me?” he asked. Now I had to take a moment to respond.

“Yeah, I guess so. That obvious?” I said.

“Sort of, yeah. Look, I didn’t want any of that stuff. I didn’t ask for…,” Erik began to explain but we were interrupted.

“There you are. Come inside, Erik. The guests are beginning to ask about you,” Janice said, finding us in my not so secret spot. “You too, Darlene. It’s cold out here,” she added.

“I’ll be right there, mom,” Erik told her. Janice waited, but seeing Erik meant to come in on his schedule and not hers, she reluctantly left us alone.

“You should go. I’m going to sneak out,” I told Erik.

“Can I go with you?” he joked.

“Sorry,” I replied and shrugged. Erik mocked disappointment, his shoulders slumping and he was pouting. I laughed softly.

“I’m going to be around a lot more. We should…uh…go out…I mean, grab dinner or something,” Erik offered.

“Why?” I asked.

“Since I’m going to be home a lot more. We should…I don’t know, make peace or something,” he said.

“I don’t spend a lot of time here,” I replied.

“Throw me a bone, Darlene. I need an excuse to get out of here,” he said. I understood, I guess. I got that he wanted to get out of our parents’ house but I didn’t understand exactly why. They worshipped him. Still, I wasn’t a complete cold-hearted bitch.

“Tomorrow? Lunch, dinner, whatever. Why not? Your mom, has my number,” I told him.

“Kill…I mean, cool. Sorry, Marine jargon. I have to get used to not using it,” he said.

“Alright, have fun at your party,” I told Erik.

“Yeah, right,” he said. We walked towards the house but I turned left to use the side gate. We said a quick but uncomfortable goodbye before I left. I think Erik really did want to leave with me. I almost felt sorry for him. But as I walked down the driveway he called out to me.

“What?” I asked but turned to discover he was carrying a foil-wrapped plate.

“I made this for you. Free food,” he told me.

“My favorite kind. Thanks.” I said.

“See you tomorrow, Darlene,” he replied and went back inside. I peeked under the foil and found more little wieners, chicken wings and meatballs along with some rolls. I smiled despite myself. I wondered what Erik was about to say before his mom interrupted. He said he didn’t want any of the attention. I wasn’t sure what that meant.

Erik seemed…different. Had he changed or had I? I wasn’t sure. Maybe we both had. It had been a while since we lived under the same roof and attended the same high school. Maybe he had changed. I know I had. Maybe my grudge against Erik was unfounded. I did have issues when it came to him. I guess I’d find out when we met up for dinner. I just hope he wasn’t the same stuck up ass I grew up with.

>>O<<

Erik

I watched my stepsister walk down the drive from the front window after I gave her the hastily thrown together plate of food. We never got along well. We were very different back before I joined the service. She was always in trouble, always doing stuff I’d never dare to do. I admired her for that in some ways. But Darlene never liked me much. She never said so but I could tell.

She’d grown up a lot since I left for boot camp. I’d seen her once or twice since then. The awkward girl had become a beautiful woman. I won’t lie. She put the eyeliner and mascara on heavy and wore clothes girls like her usually didn’t. She had tattoos and a purple streak in her hair. I knew my mom didn’t think much of her look. She told me often enough.

But I liked it. I liked it a lot. Hell, I thought Darlene was…I probably shouldn’t even say it. Fuck it, Darlene was hot. I couldn’t help myself. I hadn’t seen a woman as attractive as my stepsister in a long time. I knew the implications of that. I knew she was off-limits. Still, I could look, couldn’t I? I stared after Darlene in those black leggings, that tight blouse and her leather jacket. I wondered if there was a chance that we might…

“Erik, what are you looking at?” my mom asked. I almost jumped out of my skin.

“Uh…nothing. Just getting used to my new surroundings,” I told her.

“Come spend some time with the guests. They’re here for you. They really appreciate your sacrifice,” my mom said. “By the way, where’s Darlene?” she asked.

“She was right behind me when I came in. I don’t know,” I said. My mom shrugged and offered me her hand. I reluctantly took it as she led me back to the family room and all those people. I glanced over my shoulder but Darlene was already out of view. I was only half kidding. I wished she would have taken me with her.

The party wasn’t over soon enough. I slogged through it like a good Marine…former Marine. You know it’s bad when you’d rather be back in boot camp. That night I took a long walk by myself. It was cold but nothing like Afghanistan before I got sent home. I ended up at a bar and I didn’t make it back home until almost three the next morning.

I know my mom and Robert meant well but the party only served to remind me of what I’d lost. My leg didn’t bother me. I had served with guys that had lost legs and…and did what I wanted to do. It wasn’t the loss of my leg that bothered me. It was the collateral damage. Losing that leg cost me my career. It cost me everything that mattered. My buddies, my family. They were still there doing their job and I was home. I should have been there with them.

I know it wasn’t my fault but I still felt like I let them down. I slept in a real bed in a warm house and ate real food while they didn’t. I even had a toilet that flushed and I didn’t have to dig it myself. Fuck! As bad as it was over there, as much as it sucked, I wanted to be back there so bad I could taste it. Now what the fuck was I supposed to do. The only thing that mattered to me was gone and I didn’t know how to move on.

>>O<<

Darlene

“Hello?” I said as I answered my phone after pausing the game on my PS4.

“Hey, Darlene. It’s Erik,” my stepbrother replied.

“Oh, hey. Your name didn’t come up,” I said.

“I’ve never called you before,” he told me.

“Good point. You sound…like you just woke up,” I said.

“I did…well, about half an hour ago. You’re probably hearing the hangover,” he explained.

“Too much fun at the party?” I wondered.

“No, I, uh, wound up at a bar last night. Drank a little too much in an attempt to drown my sorrows,” he told me.

“Did it work?” I asked.

“No,” he replied.

“Yeah, never does but the desire to try never goes away,” I said, speaking from experience. “So, you’re calling to cancel dinner or whatever, I take it,” I said. I figured it was just a gesture on Erik’s part that he’d think better once he had time to consider it.

“No, I was calling to find out when you wanted to get together,” he said.

“Oh, I figured with the hangover and all…,” I replied, leaving the thought unfinished.

“Are you serious? I’ve run a PFT when I was still drunk. I puked five times on the three mile run and still scored a perfect three-hundred. A little run of the mill hangover isn’t going to stop me,” Erik explained.

“A PFT?” I wondered.

“Physical Fitness Test. Sit ups, pull ups, a three mile run,” he said.

“Oh, sounds like fun,” I replied sarcastically.

“Well, I don’t have to run them anymore. But you don’t want to hear about my problems. So, when do you want to get together?” he asked. Erik’s words sounded bitter but his tone didn’t.

“I don’t know. Dinner, around six?” I asked.

“I’ll borrow your dad’s truck and come get you. Text me your address…and add me to your contacts so you know who I am,” he told me.

“Um, okay. I’ll be ready at six. Are we going somewhere nice?” I asked.

“Maybe, I don’t know. Haven’t thought that far ahead. Just wear something sexy…I mean, you know what I mean,” Erik said, quickly trying to cover his tracks. Sexy? What did that mean?

“Like, what does that mean?” I asked.

“I don’t know. A dress and heels or whatever. I don’t know,” Erik said, obviously discombobulated.

“I’ll figure it out. See you at six,” I said and hung up. I smiled and unpaused my game. He was flustered. Sexy? That was a strange thing to say. I found it odd but didn’t give it too much thought. It might be nice to dress up a little. I didn’t very often. Sexy? That sounded nice too. Yeah, why not?

>>O<<

Erik

“Idiot!” I admonished myself. “Sexy? You fucktard,” I continued. Did I really just tell Darlene to wear something sexy to dinner with her stepbrother? She probably thought I was some kind of pervert or something. Maybe I was a pervert. I hoped she was going to wear something pretty out but I didn’t have to say it. I wondered what she might wear suddenly.

“Jesus, Erik! Get a grip,” I told myself. I know I’d been cooped up in Afghanistan and then a hospital for a long time but Darlene was my stepsister for fuck’s sake. But she was hot. Right up my alley. The tattoos, the attitude, the curves. Darlene was a…a bad girl. I preferred girls like her to the fake, plastic, made up chicks that tried to secure a Marine for a husband. Darlene was real.

I chuckled at my thoughts. Was I really digging on my stepsister? I was. I shouldn’t be. It was wrong, wasn’t it? So if that was true, why did the idea sound so exciting? I chuckled again. Nice fantasy but a dead end. As if Darlene would go along. She’d probably slap me and hate me even more than she already did. But then again, she did agree to go to dinner with me.

Maybe we could just be friends. I always felt bad for her. She never quite could figure life out, or so it seemed. Our parents spent so much time stroking my ego that they didn’t have much left for Darlene. It wasn’t as if they neglected her but they didn’t shower her with adulation like they did me. Maybe she didn’t earn it or maybe she got in trouble because of it. My mom and Robert weren’t bad parents, they just focused too much on me.

In any case, Darlene was the best shot I had at finding a friend. I had a few high school buddies that were still around but we lost contact over the years. Some of them were married with kids. Most, however, had moved away, to California, Seattle or Portland. They wanted more than Twin Falls had to offer. They wanted city life, coffee houses, art studios and way too many people.

I was a stranger of sorts in my home town. I was grateful to my mom and stepdad for taking me in but I couldn’t stay here for long. I considered my mom and Robert friends of a sort, but not the kind I needed. Darlene was my sister…sort of. Sure, our parents got married when we were in our early teens but we never connected. She was always hanging with the wrong crowds. I was a jock. But for some reason, we seemed more similar than it might have appeared.

I had a dinner date with my stepsister…not that kind of date. It would help keep my mind off of…

“Who are you talking to?” my mom asked. Jesus! Somebody put a bell on that woman. She was a fucking ninja.

“Myself,” I replied. I sat at my old desk…yes, they kept my room just as I left it, staring at my laptop but not doing anything.

“Sounded like Darlene,” my mom said.

“Were you listening?” I asked her.

“I was doing some laundry and I might have heard something. Are you having dinner with her?” she asked. I chose to ignore the fact my mom was eavesdropping on my conversation.

“Yeah, we’re going out…I mean to have dinner,” I said. My mom smiled. Had she heard everything?

“You both could use a friend, I think,” she told me. I thought that was all she was going to say but I was wrong. “Wear something sexy, huh?” she added and walked away down the hall. Holy shit! I didn’t know what to think about that. I laughed quietly. I needed to get the fuck out of my parents’ house.

>>O<<

Darlene

“He’s your stepbrother!” I told myself. So why was picking out an outfit so hard? Throw something on and be done with it. But nothing seemed right. It was either too much or too little, too revealing or too boring. I had it narrowed down to three outfits. Finally, I closed my eyes, reached out and grabbed a hanger. I opened my eyes to see what fate had chosen.

“Naughty housewife it is,” I said. Look, if I had one weakness it was clothes. When I had a good week at the salon, that’s where the money would go. The funkier, the better. If it could be found at the mall, I probably wouldn’t wear it. Fate had chosen a dress with a fifties housewife vibe. Short sleeves, a boned bodice and a full gathered skirt in pink with white polka-dots. I had a pair of pink pumps with ankle straps just for this dress. Add a nice bra, a panty and garter set in white and tan stockings and I’d be in heaven.

I continued to get ready, treating this too much like a date I thought, but I didn’t get out often enough. It would be fun to dress up, have some fun and maybe even learn not to hate Erik. Worse things could happen, right? Besides, what he said still stuck with me. He didn’t want it. All the attention. I’m not sure why, but I had to ask Erik about that. I had to know what he meant.

I fastened the straps of my high heels around my ankle not a moment too soon. As I stood up to admire myself in the mirror, Erik knocked. I assumed it was Erik anyway. I hurriedly checked myself to make sure everything was in its proper place. I pushed my left boob, the bigger one, sideways to even it out and then decided I was as beautiful as I was going to get.

I walked to the door and opened it after peering through the peephole. You couldn’t be too careful in my neighborhood. It was Erik. “Come in,” I told him.

“Oh…wow,” he said as he looked me up and down.

“What?” I asked suspiciously.

“You look…pretty,” he said. I glared at Erik and decided he was being serious.

“Thanks. You don’t look half bad either,” I told him. Erik was in jeans, brown leather shoes and a button down shirt he left untucked, the long sleeves neatly rolled up to mid forearm. He stepped inside and I closed the door.

“Thanks,” he replied. This was awkward. Why was I so nervous? Why was Erik fidgeting?

“Uh, what’s the plan?” I asked.

“I was thinking the Anchor,” he told me. A bistro, sports bar kind of place but a nice one with a patio outside, that probably wasn’t open, live music sometimes and good food.

“Sure. I haven’t been there in a while,” I told him. I was a little overdressed, even for a fancier sports bar like the Anchor. But what the hell?

“Kill…I mean cool. You ready?” Erik asked.

“Yeah,” I replied and led Erik right back outside after I grabbed my handbag. He was in my dad’s big Ford F-250. Erik unlocked it and waited as I opened the door and tried to climb in. Between positioning my heels on the running board just so and trying to keep my skirt in line, I must have put on quite the show.

“Do you need help?” Erik asked.

“I got it,” I replied. He shrugged and walked around to get in himself. I managed to get seated about the same moment Erik did. “Easy as cake,” I told him. He chuckled, started the truck and we took off as I pulled my seatbelt around me and fastened it. The Anchor was downtown so we had some time.

“Glad to be home?” I asked, trying to make small talk.

“Not especially,” Erik said.

“Oh…I didn’t mean to…,” I replied. I guess it was a dumb thing to ask.

“Don’t sweat it. It is what it is,” he said. I wanted to ask about his leg but I wasn’t sure if I should. That never stopped me before.

“Does your leg…losing it, I mean, bother you?” I asked.

“It’s not preferable but it’s not that big of a deal. The prosthetic I’m getting is actually sort of bad ass,” he said. I laughed.

“I guess that is the only way you can look at it, huh?” I offered.

“It’s gone. No sense in crying over spilt milk,” he told me.

“So, why aren’t you glad to be home?” I asked.

“Janice and Robert for one. I’d rather be over in Afghanistan for two,” he said.

“Are they that bad?” I wondered, assuming the two were linked somehow.

“No, I’m just not used to all the attention. I’d rather be in Afghanistan because that’s where I belong, with my buddies doing my job,” he said. I had no idea he felt like that. I certainly wouldn’t want to be over there and I guess I couldn’t understand why he did.

“Why? Home’s better than that, right?” I asked.

“Better? Maybe. I belong with my buddies. It’s fucking garbage,” he said.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked,” I told him.

“Don’t be. I have to deal with it,” he said. I saw the Anchor ahead. I wanted to ask about why our parents were so bothersome but we had arrived. It would have to wait. We parked and as I opened the door, Erik told me to wait. “Stay there,” he said.

I watched as he walked around the pickup and then swung the door wide. He offered me his hand.

“What?” I asked.

“I should have brought mom’s Lexus,” he told me. I smiled.

“Was it that bad?” I asked, referring to my attempt to climb into the truck alone.

“Yeah, it kind of was,” he said. I took Erik’s hand and he helped me from the cab, his other hand on the small of my back helping to support me. I landed on the ground, no worse for wear, facing Erik. He stared down at me and all I could think was this was weird. The feeling I had as we looked at each other was strange and curiously pleasant.

“Thanks,” I said and the strange feeling dissipated. Erik smiled.

“No problem, Darlene,” he replied. He closed the truck’s door and we walked inside, the moment of odd tension forgotten. We were seated and given menus. Erik and I looked them over and after a few moments, Erik asked, “What looks good?”

“I am thinking the bacon cheeseburger. Can’t go wrong with that, right?” I replied.

“Fish tacos. I haven’t had a good fish taco…or any fish tacos since I was in infantry school. We’d go to Carlsbad when we had weekend liberty and chow down,” Erik said, reminiscing.

“Sounds healthy. Bacon cheeseburger,” I replied. The waitress came back and we ordered. I got a soda but Erik got a beer. We made small talk until the drinks arrived. “I need to ask you something,” I told him.

“What’s that?” Erik asked.

“At the party, in the backyard, you said something. You said you didn’t ask for it. All the attention and stuff. What did you mean?” I asked. Erik frowned. “I was saying how you loved being the center of attention. I said you ate it up with a spoon and then…,” I explained but Erik remembered.

“Oh, yeah. Just like I said. I didn’t want all that,” he replied. We had established that much.

“So, what does that mean?” I pressed.

“Why?” he asked.

“I want to know,” I told him. Erik considered it for a moment.

“I didn’t want it. I didn’t ask for it. I hate all the fawning and praise,” he said. I was confused by that. I never got that watching our parents and others and the way they drooled all over Erik.

“But you loved it, didn’t you? I mean, I assumed you did, you acted like you did,” I told him.

“Did I? Maybe I did. At first anyway. It didn’t take long to learn to hate it. Even before I shipped to boot camp, people acted like I’d won the Medal of Honor. I hadn’t done anything but sign some papers,” Erik explained.

“Boot camp. I hated boot camp,” I said.

“You hated it? You should have been there,” Erik said, playfully.

“You know what I mean. It’s all they talked about. Poor Erik this and brave Erik that,” I complained.

“Mom and Robert…your dad?” he asked.

“It was embarrassing. I wanted to puke. All the letters and fretting over what you were doing, it really was sickening,” I said. Erik glared at me. Did I go too far? I didn’t care. It felt good getting it off my chest.

“You’ve got issues,” he said. No shit!

“I do. I hate you. I hate all the attention you get. I understand your mom but even my dad is all gaga over you and the Marines. Fuck. I hate you, Erik,” I said. Erik smiled despite my words.

“Walk a mile in my shoes, Darlene. I mean it. I never asked for all of that. I didn’t want it then and I don’t want it now. I was just doing my job, a job I loved…,” he began to say but stopped and just stared off into space.

“Hey, golden boy,” I said. Erik looked up at me.

“Don’t call me that. Look, I’m not blind. I felt bad for you. I felt bad for the way they treated me and you so differently. I get it. I took a hard job. I sacrificed, I guess. But lots of people do hard jobs. I appreciate the respect some people give to the military, I really do. Not everyone gets shot at on a semi-regular basis…or used to anyway. But damn, my mom and your dad…they went crazy and you got the short end of the stick,” Erik said but he had more to say.

“I’m sorry. Don’t hate me. I just wanted to be a Marine and do some good. I wasn’t looking to be the hero. I wasn’t looking to be the golden boy. You believe me, right?” he finished, almost pleading with me. I was taken aback by his words and his tone.

“I didn’t mean it. That was years ago and even then, I knew you were just a symbol for everything that was wrong. I don’t really hate you. I believe you,” I told him. The waitress was right on schedule to break up the moment we were probably about to have.

“Fish tacos,” she said and set the plate in front of me. “And a cheeseburger with bacon for the gentleman. Can I get you anything else?” she asked. Erik glanced at me and gave me a wry smile.

“Nope, that’s perfect,” he said. The waitress nodded and turned to leave. We waited a moment and then traded plates. We both laughed, easing the tension a bit.

“Look, I…,” I began to say but had to stop for a moment. I didn’t hate Erik. He was the focus of my frustration but it wasn’t his fault. And now I learned he didn’t even want the attention I so desperately craved. “I don’t hate you, okay. I just wanted some of the attention you always got,” I said.

“Thanks. You’re my only friend, you know that? My only friend here anyway. The rest of my buddies are over on the other side of the world where…well, where I’m not,” Erik said. He wanted to say more but I didn’t press.

“Really?” I asked.

“No shit,” he told me. I’m not sure why but my misplaced dislike of my stepbrother melted away. I saw him in a different light suddenly. He wasn’t the attention whore I thought he was. We might have more in common than I thought.

“So, friend, does that mean you’re buying?” I asked.

“So, I have to buy your friendship?” he asked playfully. I laughed despite myself.

“No, just dinner,” I told him. Erik chuckled. This was weird. For years and years, I looked at Erik as my opposite, the guy our parents focused on while they largely just let me be. Most girls like me would have loved it if their parents all but ignored them, leaving them free to get into whatever trouble they wanted.

I got in plenty of trouble but I was seeking attention. Even then, I knew the purpose behind many of my actions. I was hoping my dad and Janice would discipline me, yell at me or something. They didn’t. They let me make my mistakes while they threw their praise at Erik and he didn’t even want it. How fucked up was that? I thought I was the black sheep. I think our whole little blended family was nuts.

But Erik had changed in my eyes. He wasn’t the boy I loathed anymore. He was a man and I discovered I had no reason to hold a grudge against him. It left a kind of hollow feeling in me but that was counteracted by the affection I felt towards him now. He wasn’t what I thought and maybe it was my women’s intuition or my motherly instincts but I sensed he needed a friend. I could be that friend. I needed one too, I think.

>>O<<

Erik

“So, you want to hang out, get some drinks?” I asked Darlene after we’d finished eating. We made small talk while we ate, mostly discussing the hell that was the remainder of the previous evening. After Darlene left, I endured being the center of attention for several more hours until the guests finally ran out of free food and began to leave. Darlene was glad she left and I didn’t blame her.

“Um…,” she began to say. She seemed uneasy.

“We don’t have to,” I said, slightly disappointed.

“No, what the hell?” she told me.

“Kill…I mean cool,” I replied. I paid the bill and then we moved over to the bar. I looked over the taps and found what I liked. “Give me a shot of Jim Beam and a Sam Adams,” I told the woman behind the bar.

“And you?” she asked Darlene. She hesitated for a moment.

“Uh, do you have like a wine cooler or something?” Darlene asked.

“We’ve got Smirnoff Ice,” The bartender said.

“Yeah, okay,” Darlene replied. The bartender headed off to get our drinks.

“Wine cooler? I thought you’d be more of a beer and bourbon girl,” I remarked.

“No, not me,” she said. I shrugged and my eyes settled on Darlene as she looked away nervously. Holy fuck! That dress and those heels were driving me mad. Our conversation prior to dinner kept my attention elsewhere but now I couldn’t stop thinking about how sexy she looked.

The bartender served our drinks and I downed the shot of Jim Beam before I began working on my glass of beer. Darlene didn’t touch her bottle. “So, do you always dress like this?” I asked. I was sure Darlene would see right through me but if she did, she didn’t let on.

“No. I mean when I go out, but I don’t go out much,” she said.

“I like the tattoos,” I told her.

“Really? Some of them are pretty amateurish. I got them before I knew what I was doing. I found a better shop and they fixed some of them but mostly just surrounded them with better art,” she told me. Most girls with tattoos seemed loathe to show them off. They got tramp stamps or something on their shoulder. Darlene’s were on clear display and it was obvious the ink covered more than just her upper arms, shoulders, back and chest. I found I would like to see them all.

“I’ve only got a few. Too busy most of the time, you know,” I told her. Darlene nodded.

“I can take you over to the place I go if you want to get some more ink,” she offered.

“Thanks,” I replied. “You don’t want to drink that, do you?” I asked.

“Not really. I…um…,” Darlene stammered.

>>O<<

Darlene

This was a bad idea. I knew I shouldn’t drink but I didn’t want to go home and honestly, I wanted to stay here with Erik. Just one beer and maybe a shot. I could handle that, right?

“I’ll have what you’re having,” I said. Erik didn’t ask why I ordered the Smirnoff Ice and I didn’t want to tell him. He ordered himself another shot of Beam and another Sam Adams and told the bartender to get me the same. She shrugged, looking at my full bottle and did as Erik asked.

“I’m glad we cleared the air,” he told me.

“Me too. I guess I could use a friend too,” I told him.

“I figured you had lots of friends,” he replied. The waitress brought our drinks. I ignored mine.

“Hardly. I go out with a few girls from the salon now and then. I don’t know. I’m sort of a loner, I guess,” I told him.

“Well, here’s to friends,” he said and held his shot of bourbon up. I grabbed mine and we touched them together. Erik threw his back and after I took a deep breath, I did the same. Fuck, that tasted good. Too good. Pretty soon, I’d finished my beer and when Erik ordered us another round, I didn’t argue. We talked but as the alcohol worked its devilish magic, we both relaxed and pretty soon we were both acting like old friends.

“Show me your leg,” I told Erik at one point. He pulled up his jeans.

“It’s temporary. The permanent one will be kick ass. Titanium and carbon fiber,”

“Doesn’t it bother you?” I asked.

“Not really. It sucks when I wake up and it hurts or itches,” he said.

“What hurts?” I wondered.

“My leg,” he told me.

“Where it was…you know,” I replied referring to where it was amputated but I didn’t want to say it.

“No, the leg. It’s gone but sometimes I can still feel it. It’s fucking creepy. But it could be worse. I saw guys leave the battlefield a lot worse off than me,” he explained.

“To your leg,” I said and held up my beer. Erik clinked his glass to mine.

“To my leg,” he said and laughed. We both downed our beers and Erik ordered another round.

“It bothered me, especially when I thought you loved it, but you deserved all the attention. I could never do what you did. I’m not strong enough,” I told him.

“Bullshit. You went to beauty school. You got out of the house. I’m living at home again,” he replied.

“Yeah, I’ve got a glamorous job dying old lesbian’s hair,” I joked.

“Huh?” Erik replied.

“One of my clients. She’s cool but her husband is a workaholic. She’s fucking their maid,” I told him.

  • End of Preview!

my Review of Hunter (Big Girls and Bad Boys) Military Romance by D.H Cameron

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I really enjoyed the entire storyline. You have a strong woman Melinda with very strong beliefs. You also have a strong Hero, Hunter a marine that will do anything to fight for our country. After meeting at a frat party, a few drinks and they end up in each other’s arms, and more. The Second time doesn’t go so smoothly , Melinda not knowing Hunter is a marine starts ranting about her being a war activist. It hits a huge nerve with Hunter, and he takes off not wanting to talk to her again. Fate not allowing that to happen, and they find each other again. After talking they realize they aren’t that much different, but how can a Marine an a war activist really make anything work? She finds out her true beliefs, she doesn’t hate the actual military, but also is starting to realize they aren’t victims she once saw them to be.. I think a lot of what she thought she believed was because of her roommate Daisy, a hardcore activist hating the military all together. Being afraid though she lets him go again, until something happens that brings him back to her once again. Deploying to Iraq, and this time she’s truly scared, and they both know it’s time to put everything out on the table. His family fully supports there decision, they love Melinda as if she were there own, and gains a lot more then she ever thought possible. I did not give this 5 Stars, but also didn’t put it as low as a 3 were because of these reasons I really loved the storyline, the plot, and the characters, But I didn’t like how the conversing was written between the characters. There was to much of “Hunter said this” “Melinda said that” in the book. there are many times, when reading that you know who is saying what, and it kinda felt like I was reading something like how a younger kids book would be written with the understanding of the he said this, she said that , and it was becoming overwhelming at times for myself. If the dialogue was better written I definitely would have given it 5 Stars. I do admire that the sales of this book are going to a military charity! That in itself is a fantastic reason to buy the book, and enjoy the lives of Hunter, and Melinda, and Hunters very open, and somewhat crazy family 🙂 I was given this book in return of an honest review

Buy Hunter on Amazon Here