Ball & Chain (Cut & Run 8) - Page 1

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  • Chapter 1

    Kelly stood at Zane’s side behind a barrier at the bus depot of Camp Lejeune. Zane didn’t know him well enough to read him, and he wasn’t interested in trying. He couldn’t get past his own butterflies to analyze his companion’s state of mind.

    It had been six months since they’d watched Sidewinder walk down the gangway to their plane. Six long, lonely months of confusing feelings and dread whenever the phone rang. Zane had woken every morning expecting to hear horrible news about the men he considered friends, and not a day had passed that Ty hadn’t been on his mind.

    The call Zane had lived in fear of receiving had never come, thank God. In fact he’d only received a single satellite call from Ty in all the time he’d been gone, the one telling him when they’d be coming home. It had been like a drop of water to a dying man, and coming just weeks before Christmas, the best present Zane could have asked for.

    Kelly had admitted to much the same type of existence as they’d driven there from the airport. Every day a struggle to keep his mind on something besides the fact that he wasn’t there to help protect them.

    “You nervous?’ Zane asked him.

    Kelly took a deep breath, nodding. “I’ve never been on this side of it.”

    “Is it any easier on the other side?”

    Kelly glanced up at Zane, shrugging. “Not really. You sit there with all your buddies, men who’ve been your world for months, years. You think about the people at home, wonder if they’ve missed you. Pray they’ve missed you. Your mind cycles through everything that could have changed, and the nerves start building. Even the smallest thing can hit you like a hammer when you come out. I’ve seen guys break down and cry because their wives got a haircut.”

    “That why you made me shave?”

    Kelly grinned and nodded as the first buses began to pull in. Nerves skittered through Zane as tired Marines in rumpled uniforms began to trickle into the tented areas where family awaited. Kelly inhaled sharply. Zane’s hand began to tremble. “God,” he said under his breath.

    “The first ship holds seventeen hundred men. We might be here awhile,” Kelly warned.

    And they were. An hour and a half later, they were still standing behind the roped-off area, witnessing reunions, waiting. Zane was watching a man embrace two blonde toddlers when Kelly slapped his arm to get his attention. Zane scanned the crowd almost frantically, searching for whomever Kelly had caught sight of.

    He only saw one familiar face, and it wasn’t the one he was desperate to lay eyes on. “I thought they’d be out together,” Zane mumbled. He glanced to his side, but Kelly was gone. He’d bolted and hopped the barrier, taking off at a dead sprint through the celebratory crowd.

    Zane laughed as Kelly cut a swath toward the unsuspecting Marine. Nick was striding through the crowd of young sailors and Marines, nodding as they saluted him in passing. He looked long and lean in his uniform, hair shorn close and face clean shaven. He had more stripes on his arm than Zane remembered seeing in photos, and he walked with a change in his gait, like he might have been hiding a limp.

    Zane hustled after Kelly, but he couldn’t keep up. People parted for Kelly, sliding out of his way like they knew he wasn’t going to let them slow him down just to be polite. He pushed off a few people receiving hugs, hopped around a few children too tiny to get out of the way. It was probably those erratic movements that caused Nick to spot him in the crowd.

    A smile graced Nick’s tanned face, and he braced himself at the last minute as Kelly leapt at him and tackled him to the ground. They disappeared from Zane’s sight briefly, and Zane hurried to join them.

    Kelly didn’t seem to care who saw them, or what anyone thought of his lack of decorum, or even what Nick thought. He hugged Nick hard. Nick flailed under him, trapped between Kelly and the seabag still on his back. He finally wrapped his arms around Kelly and stopped struggling, laughing instead.

    “Jesus Christ, if that’s the welcome wagon, I think I’ll walk home,” Digger said as he approached. He shook Zane’s hand and patted him on the shoulder. Then he dumped his seabag at Zane’s feet and threw himself on top of Kelly.

    A moment later, Owen appeared from the sea of faces and launched himself at the other three, wrapping his arms around all of them as they formed a dog pile in the middle of the crowd. Zane almost felt sorry for Nick being on the bottom. Almost.

    He glanced up, scanning the crowd for the only person he desperately needed to see. He was searching so hard that he almost skipped right over him, standing just a few yards away and gazing at Zane with a smile.

    Zane’s breath caught. “Ty.”

    “Hi,” Ty said with a bigger grin. He was tanned and bearded, which was why Zane hadn’t immediately recognized him. His hair was longer than when he’d left too, obvious even under the hat he wore, and he was far leaner. But his hazel eyes still glinted like they always did.

    Zane started toward him, not caring who might see or what the consequences would be. Ty jogged the rest of the distance and threw himself into Zane’s arms. Zane buried his face in Ty’s neck, relishing the warmth and solidity of the man. He breathed in his scent, even though it wasn’t the one Zane usually associated with Ty. It was still him.

    “Oh my God,” Zane gasped finally. He tightened his arms around Ty, clutching at his uniform.

    “I missed you,” Ty whispered in his ear. His hands gripped at Zane’s hair, and he stood on the toes of his boots so they could cling tighter to each other.

    The thought of a kiss never entered Zane’s mind. He didn’t even think about stepping back so he could look at Ty’s face, the face he’d seen in his dreams and forced himself to remember every night as he lay awake. He just squeezed his eyes closed and held on to Ty like he might be taken away again, clutched at him as he would grasp for his very soul in a pit of a thousand reaching hands.

    Ty held to him the same way.

    “Can’t breathe!” a pitiful voice finally called out, interrupting the joyous reunion.

    Ty pulled back only enough for him and Zane to glance over at the tangle of limbs and laughter that were their friends. Nick was trying to extricate himself from the bottom, with little luck.

    Ty shook his head. “Don’t care,” he muttered as he finally looked Zane in the eyes and grinned widely. He took Zane’s face in his hands. “Hello, beautiful.”

    Zane returned the smile, only to have it ruined as Ty pressed their mouths together, kissing him for all the months they’d missed. It was usually at this stage of a dream that Zane would wake up, alone and so heartsick he thought he might cry. But the kiss lingered on. Ty’s hands on his face were still warm and solid. His beard was scratchy at Zane’s cheek. He was real. This was real, and Zane wasn’t about to let it slip away.