MILITARY GRADE MISTLETOE
Copyright ©2017 by Julie Miller
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
Coming December 2017
“You’re not the first Marine this has happened to.”
But it was the first time it had happened to him. Master Sergeant Harry Lockhart didn’t fail. When he was given a mission, he got the job done. No matter what it cost him. But this? All the doctors, all the physical training and rehab, all the therapy—hell, he’d talked about things nobody knew about him, and it had gutted him worse than that last firefight that had sent him stateside in the first place—and they were still going to give him the boot?
Harry didn’t know who he was going to be if he couldn’t be part of the Corps, anymore.
His given name was Henry Lockhart Jr., but nobody called him by his daddy’s name unless he or she outranked him or wanted a fist in his face. Henry Sr. was serving his time in a prison in Jefferson City, Missouri, for a variety of crimes, the worst of which was being a lousy excuse for a father. Between Henry’s drinking, neglect and natural affinity for violence, it was a miracle Harry and his older sister, Hope, had survived to adulthood. Hope wouldn’t have done that, even, if at the ripe old age of nine, Harry hadn’t picked up his daddy’s gun and shot one of the dogs that had attacked her when she tried to leave the house to get him food so he wouldn’t starve.
A muscle ticked beside his right eye as a different memory tried to assert itself. But with a mental fist, he shoved that particular nightmare into the tar pit of buried images from all the wars he’d fought, determined to keep it there.
“How many years have you been in the Corps?” The doctor was talking again.
If Dr. Biro hadn’t also been a lieutenant colonel, Harry might have blown him off. But Biro was not only in charge of his fitness assessments, he was a decent guy who didn’t deserve his disrespect. Harry met his superior’s gaze across the office desk. “Seventeen, sir.”
Biro nodded. “A career man.”
Hope was the only family he’d ever had, the only person he’d ever trusted, until he’d enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on the day after he’d graduated from high school. The Corps had whipped his rebellious butt into shape, given him a home with regular meals on most days, introduced him to the best friends he had in the world and given him a reason to wake up every day and live his life.
Now his sister was married and had her own family. So he’d really, really like to keep this one. His physical wounds from that last deployment had left their mark on his stiff, misshapen face, but the scars were a sign that those had healed. He knew it was the mental wounds the lieutenant colonel was worried about.
Not for the first time in his life, Harry was going to have to prove himself worthy. He was going to have to earn someone else’s unshakable trust in him again.
He was going to have to relearn how to trust himself.
Do this. That was Harry’s motto. He couldn’t lose the only home he had left. He scrubbed his fingers over the bristly cut of his regulation short hair. “You said I was improving.”
The medical brass seemed to like it when he talked, so he tried again. “I’ve done everything you asked of me these past four months.”
Biro grinned. “I wish all my patients were as dedicated to following my orders as you. Physically, you could handle light duty, maybe even a training assignment.”
“But…? Tell me the truth, Doc.” Was he washed out of the Corps or not?
The lieutenant colonel leaned back in his chair. He wasn’t smiling now. “You need to get your head on straight or we can’t use you.”
“You’re not comfortable sending me out in the field?”
“I’d be doing you a disservice if I did.” Biro leaned forward again, propping the elbows of his crisply pressed lab coat on the desktop. “At the risk of oversimplifying everything you’ve gone through—something broke inside you. I believe it’s healing. But the scar is still new and I don’t want you to rip it open again.”
“I appreciate the honest answer.” Harry did some mental calculations on how long he’d have to play this game before he could come in for his next assessment and change the doctor’s prognosis. “So, peace and quiet, huh? Normalcy?”
The lieutenant colonel didn’t understand how far away from normal civilian life was for Harry. The jarheads he served with didn’t care where he’d come from or how rough his altered face looked, as long as he did his job. But on the outside, expectations were different, and he was ill-equipped to handle them.
“That’s my prescription.”
“And I don’t need pills on the outside? I just need a shrink?”
Lt. Col. Biro opened a folder and pulled a pen from his chest pocket. “That’s my recommendation. If you can’t sleep, or the mood swings become unbearable, call me. Otherwise, take the time off. Relax. Give yourself a few weeks to reconnect with civilian life. Enjoy the holidays. Get yourself a Christmas tree and eat too many sweets. Kiss a pretty girl and watch football all New Year’s Day. Whatever you like to do to celebrate.” Relax and celebrate sounded like daunting tasks for a man who didn’t have much experience with the examples on the good doctor’s list. “If you still want to after that, make an appointment with my office in January and we’ll reevaluate your fitness to serve. Or, if you decide the clean break is what you need, I’ll have your honorable medical discharge waiting for you. It’s not like you haven’t earned it.”
Harry stood, clasping his utility cover, the Corps’ term for a canvas uniform hat, between his hands. “I’ll be back, sir.”
The lieutenant colonel nodded before signing off on his medical leave papers and dismissing him. “You’re from Kansas City, Missouri, right?” Harry nodded. “You might have snow there this time of year.”
What was Biro going to prescribe now? Building a snowman to get in touch with the inner child Harry had never had the chance to be? “Sir?”
“My best buddy from basic training was from KC. I’ve always enjoyed my visits. I’ll have my aide give you some recommendations for therapists you can see there.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Harry’s cover fit snugly over his head as he pulled the bill down and hiked outside into the sunny Southern California weather. He drove to the base housing he shared with two other Non-commissioned Officers or NCOs, slammed the door on his truck and hurried inside before he cussed up a blue streak that would have all of Camp Pendleton talking by sundown.
Thankfully, his bunk mates were both on duty so he had the house to himself. But that empty echo of the door closing behind him was a curse as much as it was a blessing. Damn, he missed the way his best friend used to greet him.
The remembered thunder of deadly fireworks and images of blood and destruction seared him from the inside out, leaving him with beads of sweat on his forehead and his hands clutched into fists.
Hell. The doc was right. His head wasn’t on straight.
Using some of the calming techniques Lt. Col. Biro had taught him, Harry breathed in deeply through his nose and out through his mouth. Then he grabbed the pull-up bar hanging in his bedroom doorway and did ten quick reps until he felt the burn in his biceps, triceps and shoulders, and the anger that had flared behind his eyes receded.
He took the pull-up bar off the door frame and tossed it onto the bed beside the duffel bag he’d already packed that morning, having known he was either shipping out or going home by the time the medical team was done with him today.
“You need to get your head on straight or we can’t use you.”
The lieutenant colonel’s blunt words made the tiny, impersonal bedroom swim around him. Squeezing his eyes shut against the dizzying, unsettled feeling he hadn’t felt since he was a little boy wondering if he was going to eat that day, Harry sank onto the edge of the mattress. He needed to find that happy place inside him. He needed to feel the holidays and the hope they inspired. He needed to find a way to push aside the nightmares and the anger and learn how to cope again. Or else the brass wouldn’t let him be a Marine anymore.
On instinct, he opened his duffel bag and pulled out a bulky, crumpled manila envelope that held the lifeline to sanity that had gotten him through that last hellish deployment and the long days in the hospital and physical therapy which had followed. He brushed his fingers over the torn envelope flap before sliding his thumb underneath and peeking inside. Now here was a little bit of sunshine. He pulled out a homemade angel ornament that had been a gift to him last Christmas. Then he studied the stack of cards and letters that were battered and smudged from travel and rereading. Words from a compassionate oracle who understood him better than he knew himself. His stiff jaw relaxed with the tremor of a smile that couldn’t quite form on his lips.
Harry hadn’t been this uncertain since he was that starving little boy with a black eye and clothes that didn’t fit. He didn’t need a shrink. He needed the Corps. But he’d need a miracle to make that happen. He needed the angel from all these cards and letters to work her magic on him again.
None of them were recent, but that didn’t matter. The effect on him was always the same. He opened the very first letter and started to read.
Dear MSgt. Lockhart…