The Release Series: Book Two
Just released from the military, wounded warrior Eric Tremaine is trying to put his life back together like the doctors reassembled his shattered leg. He’s a man with no home, since his Louisiana family rejected him, so Eric winds up in Texas with his old Army buddy, Adam Winchester, and his lover, Sage.
When Eric decides to stop sitting on his ass feeling sorry for himself, he is introduced to trainer Troy Daniels, who lost both his legs in a teenage accident. Troy knows what it’s like to feel as if your body is your enemy. While Eric and Troy have a bumpy start, they soon find enough common ground to make a friendship, if not more. But taking it to the next level means finding out what they have to offer each other, and the world, before they can trust that the love they find together won't cause more pain than pleasure.
“Documentation is all in order. Injury impairs subject’s ability to perform his duties.”
“Internal fixation of the hip joint, severe loss of muscle in quadriceps region with damage to the quad tendon and patella.”
Eric Tremaine had heard it all and more. In fact, he felt as if he’d been talked to death, in and out of the hospital. In therapy. Through the evaluation of first the civilian, then the military doctor. His CO had made all the sympathetic noises, even while signing off on Eric’s inability to continue his job at 1st Cav.
So in a week, he was gonna be a free agent. Starting over. No more working toward his twenty years and retirement. Eric was about to be a civilian.
Fuck. What the hell was he supposed to do now? While he sat in the waiting room, he pulled out his phone and thumbed through his contacts, which he really needed to update.
His mom and dad were out of the question. Eric only had their number on file in case he was killed in action so they could be notified. His sister in Arkansas wouldn’t want to explain him to her church community.
All his other contacts were still in the fucking Army, and now Eric was the equivalent of a rodeo widow. No one wanted to admit what had happened to him could happen to them, so they simply didn’t talk to him anymore.
Which left him with one name, one number. Adam Winchester had been smart and had gotten out after his six years. The Med, then Baghdad, which was where Eric and Win had met. They’d bonded over something neither of them was supposed to ask or tell back then, and their friendship had stood the test of time.
Eric took a deep breath, then hit the little call icon next to Win’s name. He could only hope the guy was still willing to do a favor for an old Army buddy.
It rang a few times, and then he heard, “Adam’s phone.” That was not Win.
“Oh. Uh, hey. Is Win around?” He cleared his throat, surprised as fuck for some not-Win guy to be answering Win’s phone. “This is Eric. Eric Tremaine.”
“Hey, Eric. I’m Sage. Sage Redding. Adam’s right here, yessir. He says give him two minutes to wash up. He’s been bathing a skunked dog.” Someone sounded as if he was taking unholy pleasure in that.
“Oh. Hi, Sage.” That had to be Adam’s feller. He’d heard bits and pieces in e-mails. Someone was hooked through the balls.
“Hello. Here he comes.” Eric heard the phone change hands and a soft, “Next time when I tell you to leave her in, you will, I bet.”’
“Yeah, yeah. Hey, Eric. What’s up, man? I thought you were in Afghanistan. Someplace with a -stan.” Win’s voice was like a balm, friendly and familiar. Not quite home, but absolutely not foreign.
Eric was from Louisiana, so his accent had a little more… roundness to it, maybe. Still, a friendly voice was always welcome. And, God knew, he needed both—a friend and a welcome.
“Disability discharge. Our caravan was attacked.” The words cracked a little in his throat.
There was a single, soft breath, and then he heard, “Oh fuck. No shit? Where are you? What do you need?”
Eric closed his eyes in pure, unabashed relief at the immediate questions, the offer of help that he knew was honest. Win and him, they were friends, but he hadn’t known for sure if they were still good ones.
“I… I know it’s a lot, but I need a place to stay for a few weeks. Just until benefits get straightened out and I get a fucking clue.” He bit his lip, knowing he was probably gonna be a huge intrusion.
“Sure. Sure. Can you drive? Are you still at Hood?”
“I’m cleared for short distances. I’m mostly in Darnall at Fort Hood.” His leg ached at the idea of getting his truck to Greenville in East Texas.
“We can be there in… an hour, give or take. I’ll come around 183, avoid the mess in Austin.”
“No shit? I thought you were still north of Dallas.” That was fast.
“Nah. Dripping Springs. I’m doing private security in Austin, and Sage has his horses. We skipped town like a pebble over the water.”
“Oh wow. That’s great, man. You don’t mind? I mean, I’ve been a little out of touch, I know, and this is a big fucking favor.” He wanted to say please come get me, but he had to give Win the out.
“Bah.” The single sound brought back Win to him in a rush. He could see the big guy, playing cards in a tent, drinking shit coffee and telling “no shit there I was” stories. “We’ll bring the truck, and Sage can drive your car back.”
Relief made him dizzy for a moment. “Oh God. Thank you.”
“No problem. Text me your address and we’ll make it happen.”
“Thanks. Thanks, Win. I didn’t know where else to go.” He felt a little like he might hyperventilate.
“We’ve got this big old ranch house, man. Plenty of space, privacy. Peace.”
“I have enough savings to pay some rent. I’ll text the address.”
“Good deal. See you soon.”
Just like that, he had a place for a few. Space. Privacy. Peace. Oh please God.
“Thanks again.” Eric texted the number once they hung up, then realized he had to get his shit together. He levered to his feet and grabbed his cane.
He could do this. He could. He had a place to go. Eric took a deep breath, surprised at how the thought calmed him.
Win was a good guy, solid as a rock, and Eric… fuck, he needed a friend. He’d never once thought he would have to leave the Army before retirement, before most of his buddies. This was all he’d ever wanted to do—serve his country, retire with his pension. Then maybe he’d open a wee restaurant. Nothing fancy. Breakfast and lunch, because he’d be old by then and wanting to be in bed by nine. He’d had a plan, goddamn it, and now….
Now it was, quite literally, blown to hell.
“Stop it. Quit wallowing, you fuck.” It was way easier to tell himself than to actually accomplish, but whatever. Clawing his way out of his injury was tough. Finding a whole new life was gonna be worse. Time to pull up his socks.
At least he had his disability check; he had the VA. He had… he had a friend.
When he finished packing his bags, he sat down to wait. He didn’t have much. Hell, his medical braces and wraps took up the most space.
It didn’t take a terrible long time, really, before a huge black Ford F-150 pulled up, Win’s familiar face in the driver’s seat. Eric didn’t recognize the passenger, but the guy was a pocket cowboy with a tanned face and curious eyes, so that had to be Sage.
Totally not what Eric had thought was Win’s type, but go Win for finding someone long-term.
Eric raised a hand, wondering if he looked too eager sitting outside. That sterile room inside was awful, though.
Sage eased himself out of the truck, walked over to him, and stuck one square hand out. “Hey there. Sage. Sage Redding, pleased.”
“Hey.” He shook hands, liking how firm and direct Sage’s demeanor came across. No bullshit in this one, not a bit. “I’m Eric Tremaine. I really appreciate this.”
“Not a problem. Adam speaks real highly of you, and we love having folks. I hear tell you can cook eggs and all too.”
Yeah, God knew what Sage had heard from Win.
“I can. I used to be able to. I mean, I still ought to.” He stopped himself from babbling and handed over the keys to his truck. “Win says you’ll take my pickup.”
“Absolutely. I’ll follow y’all.”
“Hey, man!” Win had put it in park and hopped out to help with Eric’s duffel. “You all logged out in triplicate?”
Eric chuckled, relieved to see a face that wasn’t unhappy to see him. Win had a grin that promised mischief and a steadiness about him that made Eric feel like it was all gonna be okay.
“Yep. Papers all good.”
“Rock on. You ready to hit the road? I know you—you ain’t got a lot of shit.”
“God, yes. Mine is the red Dodge over there, Sage.” He pointed at the truck, which he had to admit he’d spent too much time customizing and not enough time driving.
“Okay, I’ve got my phone. Holler if y’all need me.” Sage headed over to the Dodge. As he walked through the parking lot, Eric noticed the weirdest little roll in Sage’s gait, an oddness, but nothing he could put his finger on.
Eric then stared at the door of Win’s truck, utterly overwhelmed at the sheer height of the floorboard. There was no way.
No fucking way.
Hell, he had days where the curb was no way.
“Can you give me a hand up, Win?” He hadn’t wanted to ask in front of Sage.
“Sure. No problem.” Win helped him like… well, like it was second nature.
Eric got to his feet, weaving a little, before taking his cane from Win. “Got it. Thanks. Still getting my balance with all this mess.”
“No problem. It took Sage a coon’s age to get used to his new knees.”
Ah. That was why Sage had that odd hitch in his getalong.
“Both of ’em, huh?”
“Yep. Sucks, but they’re so much better now.”
“I bet. They talked about replacing my hip, but the rest of the injuries made it impossible.” Eric stared at the big pickup again, not sure how to even start imagining getting up in there.
“Damn. Hold up. I got Sage’s steps.” Sure as shit, Win pulled a set of folding steps from the back. “They’ll hold you. I swear.”
“I feel like an elderly Labrador retriever.” Eric let Win steady him, though, and took it one step at a time.
He settled—the truck cushy, comfortable, the smell of hay and molasses and leather strong. He smiled, thinking of when he was a kid. Man, that seemed like a lifetime ago. Bouncing around in the bayou, splashing and spooking gators. Still, he’d had an old cow to milk, a couple of horses. He knew that smell.
The engine roared to life, and Win turned the radio down, waved to Sage, and they headed out.
Eric got about, oh, five minutes of quiet before the questions started.
“So, you’re tore up pretty good,” Win said, utterly matter-of-fact.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m…. It’s bad.”
“Not trying to pry, but if there’s anything you need me to know in order to help, just holler.”
So practical. Win made it easy to list his injuries without emotion. “Shattered knee. Muscle loss in my thigh with some shrapnel damage to the bones. Plate and rod in my hip. Some nerve damage in my toes from lack of blood flow during recovery.”
“You get a decent percentage for it?”
“I guess.” He snorted. “I get the VA, right?”
“You do, but if you didn’t get a great disability percentage, you’re getting fucked.”
“I think I did okay. I’ll let you look over all the papers.” Win had always been the champion of the underdog. Man against the machine. “So, you and Sage are like, permanent?”
Win glanced over, then grinned, the expression pure joy. “We’re solid, yeah. He’s it for me. Is that gonna be a problem, buddy?”
“Why the fuck would it be? I’m tickled as a pig in shit. Where’d y’all meet up?”
Win laughed out loud, the sound holding a little relief, Eric thought. “Back in Flats. It’s a long story. Longer than we got for this drive.”
“Well, I don’t intend to make any trouble. I just need to figure my shit out.”
“No worries.” Win got them really moving, heading out on the smaller roads. It didn’t take much longer before Win turned on the satellite radio and began singing with George Strait. Eric was a Tim McGraw man himself, but he knew all the words, and the drive took no time. Especially after he fell sound to sleep.
When he woke up, they were sitting outside a sprawling old ranch house, newly painted a bright white, with a big old red pit bull dog ambling around outside. The place needed a mowing and the rose bushes trimmed, but he could see the work in it.
“Sage stopped at the Salt Lick to pick up supper. He’ll be half an hour or so behind us.”
“Oh. Shit, man, I’m sorry.” He did that a lot, actually. Snoozing.
“For what?” Win didn’t look a bit worried. “Let me get Miss Penny locked away in the run so she doesn’t jump on you. She loves new folks.”
“Thanks.” His hands shook a little when he reached for the door handle. He needed to start working out. Get stronger. Get human again.
The pup was rounded up and put away in a huge dog run, and then Win headed back over to help him out of the truck. He climbed down, leaning hard on Win, trying not to moan out loud.
“You got pain pills you can take, Tremaine?”
“I… yeah. Somewhere in my bag.” His vision was graying out, his head feeling three sizes too big. “Sorry. Sorry.”
“Shh. Here.” Win scooped him up like he was just wee, headed right in, and put him on a soft, cushy couch. “I’ll get you a drink and a pill.”
“Okay.” He leaned his head back on the cushions, mortified that Win could carry him so easily.
“Stop it. No one will know. You still drink Dr Pepper out of a can?”
“I do. That sounds amazing.” Cold and fizzy, that would clear cobwebs.
“Good deal.” The TV came on; the remote was pressed into his hand.
“Thanks.” He floated, listening to the news, maybe. Maybe Oprah.
He got a Coke, a pill, and then he was dozing, as comfortable as he’d been in months.
When he came back around, he could hear laughter from the kitchen, soft teasing. He smiled, the sound reminding him of happier times, when his folks still let him come home. There was a soft light making a little headway into the front room, but the sun was still up, dusk barely turning things purples and pinks through the big old plate glass window.
“I’ll feed the beasts, love. You want to see if your buddy is hungry?”
“Sure. He’s been resting for quite a bit.” Win sounded a little concerned.
“It’s fucking harsh, trying to knit back together. Wears a man to the bone.”
“You know better than me, babe.”
Eric heard very little talking for a few moments and tried hard not to think what they might be up to. Then he heard another laugh, husky, happy.
“Get on now, you. Be friendly, and I’ll feed beasts.”
“Come on back for supper, huh?”
A few moments later, Win appeared next to him in the front room. “Hey. You want some supper?”
“I do. It smells amazing.” He’d had Salt Lick before; the one near the Dell Diamond was stunning, but this smelled even better. He guessed it was the pit at the original one, being all seasoned and stuff.
“Sage got you pecan pie too. He didn’t know how you’d feel about cobbler.”
“Oh. That was dear. Does he need help outside?”
“Sage? Oh good God, no. That is his universe, his job, and no one messes with feeding time.” Win had this amazing, vaguely horrified look on his face.
Eric laughed, feeling less frantic than he had in weeks. “Well, you let me know if I need to help with anything.”
“You can eat and help me teach Sage three-handed pinochle.”
“Sure.” Pinochle he got. Their unit had played obsessively.
“You need help up, man?”
“I—yeah. Thanks.” God, he was a worthless piece of shit.
Win simply hauled his ass up, no drama, no bullshit. So good to stand without all the “you can do it” crap he’d been dealing with.
The sky was going dark, flashes of lightning in the distance as night fell. Spring in Texas. He grinned. “Can you hand me my cane?”
“Surely.” Win looked outside and frowned. “Just FYI, Sage’s daddy died in a tornado a year ago October. He says he’s cool, but….”
“Oh, that sucks.” He’d lost a few relations to hurricanes. “You need to go check on him? I can set the table.”
“You mind? I just… I worry.”
Okay, that was adorable.
“I got this. The nap did me good.” He could be a little nosy while Win was gone. Check out the house.
“Thanks. We’ve kinda got two masters, so you have a bed and a wee sitting area deal right down that hall, with a bathroom right outside the bedroom door. One day Sage wants to actually turn it into a real master, but we’ll have to see.”
“Dude. That rocks.” That was more than he could have hoped for.
“We got a good deal, and Sage can fix anything. It’s unnatural.”
Eric laughed, waving Win on out of the house. He could do this once he got his bad leg moving. He should have brought his crutches.
The house was simple as a sack of flour, but clean enough you could eat off the floors. The dishes in the cupboards were stacked up like little soldiers, both sets. There was a Corelle set for everyday and a stoneware set in black for company, he guessed. It could be cheap for breakfast and lunch and the good for supper, but he didn’t see any in the sink, so he bet they used paper. He set the table with the Corelle for three, because, hello? Barbecue. Then he discovered the silverware drawer next to the stove and grabbed forks and butter knives before nature called and he limped hard back to his new room to use the pot.
The guest room was totally acceptable, if obviously decorated by a sixty-five-year-old woman, complete with doilies. He would bet that was Win’s mom, maybe, or Sage’s. Hell, maybe it had come that way with the house. It smelled clean, if a little like Old Spice mixed with roses.
Still, it had a queen-size bed, room for his clothes, a bathroom with a walk-in shower. There was even a wee card table set up with a jigsaw partially done on it. So much nicer than the hospital or the rehab unit.
He looked out the window into a copse of trees and what promised to be a decent-sized little pond. Eric grinned. He wondered if they stocked their pond with fish.
He’d bet if they hadn’t, they were planning to.
“Hey, you okay, buddy?” Win called to him, and he clumped back to the kitchen.
“I am. You get everything done?”
“Yeah. Sage is washing up a little outside and will be in.”
“You beat the rain?”
“Looks like. Brisket and sausage?”
“Yum. Potato salad looks good.” For a moment, the whole situation seemed unreal. Normal had been Army for far too long.
Sage came in. “Rain’s starting. Your truck drives real nice…. Are you an Eric? Adam calls you Tremaine.”
“Eric is fine.” He chuckled. “Old Army habits die hard.”
“Yes, sir, and thank you for your service. I do appreciate it.” Sage hung his hat on a rack, then worked his boots off.
Eric tried not to stare, but he had to admit, his curiosity was a living thing. He wanted to know more about the kind of man Win would be all permanent with.
“I’d like just brisket, Adam,” Sage said as he went to pull a pitcher of iced tea from the fridge.
Win already had Sage’s plate fixed. No sausage. Good to know. He waited for Win to get food before filling a plate.
“You drink tea, Eric? We got milk too. Looks like y’all got the last two Cokes.”
Tea and milk. He looked at Win. He expected Dr Pepper and Bud Light.
Win grinned. “We didn’t have time to go to the store and get Cokes, Sage, and there was only the one left. We’ll make a list later, huh?”
“Tea is fine,” Eric said, feeling a little like he’d been dropped headfirst into some queer sitcom set in the fifties. John Loves Chachi or Happy Gays.
Three glasses were poured, boom, boom, boom, and barbecue sauce, mustard, sliced onions, and pickles landed on the table.
Eric grinned, then sat, apologizing. “Sorry. Leg is about to go.”
“No worries.” Sage met his gaze, still as deep water. “Took me forever to ride again.”
“That sucks, huh?” Eric knew cowboys had to ride.
“I missed it. I do good now, though. I been working with a trainer, like I’m some damn football star. Adam insisted.”
“Yeah?” He’d been with a lot of therapists. A trainer sounded less medical.
“Yeah. I go three times a week for an hour and a half. Name’s Daniels. Troy Daniels. He’s kick butt.” Oh, someone was fierce about this Troy, not in a sex way, but in a Doc Holiday “you’re my huckleberry” way.
It was cute as fuck.
“That sounds pretty good, actually. People coddle too much.”
“That’s what I told Adam.” Sage winked at Win, and it was so fond, so familiar.
Win snorted. “I worry that he’s gonna encourage you to go skydiving or ski jumping or some shit. I do not coddle. Or mother. You have a momma for that.”
“God, yes.” Sage made a wide-eyed, happy face.
Eric snorted. “You got one of those moms, huh?”
“Ellen is a force of nature,” Win said and winked.
“She’s amazing. Adam’s mom is too.”
Eric nodded. “I used to hear all sorts of stories about her. She sounds like a hoot.”
Win nodded. “She hasn’t changed a bit.”
“Well, she likes me now.” Sage chuckled when Win made a face. “I know, she was never mean, but she didn’t want to get to know me.”
“Why not? Are you evil?” Okay, that wasn’t delicate.
“Well, she sure thought so.” Sage gave Win this look, somehow incredibly wry but intimate at the same time. “I’m not the most popular man in our hometown.”
Win loaded a plate up. “Sage went to jail for a bit, Eric. He’s a little shocking to folks there.”
“No shit.” Well, he didn’t know what to say, his teeth sitting in his mouth, too shocked to click. Wasn’t Win a cop? Could cops date ex-cons?
Sage’s cheeks went dark red, the blush looking damn painful, but obviously the man was willing to brazen it out. “Most of Adam’s family believe I killed his cousin, even.”
Win met Eric’s gaze head-on, sure and serious. “He didn’t, just so you know. But I figure you ought to know. You stay here with us, you’re bound to hear things.”
“Hey.” Eric held up his hands. “Win is my friend, man, and you’re Win’s… uh….”
Sage chuckled. “Partner. I ain’t gonna be all rainbow flag waving and shit, but I ain’t ashamed. He’s my partner.”
Oh damn. The look Sage got from Win was not for public consumption. Eric felt a knot settle in his belly. He’d given up on having anything like this when he settled on being career Army. Now he might have to revisit that idea. He’d never really thought of Win as someone who was intense. A good soldier, stable, steady, sure, but passionate? Not so much.
Maybe you didn’t know what was in a man that way unless you hooked up or whatever.
Sage squirted mustard in his potato salad and Win gagged. “It’s perfectly good potato salad.”
“It needs mustard.”
“You’re obsessed with mustard. It’s unnatural, babe.”
Sage glanced at Eric, who held up his hands. “I like mustard on my fries.”
“I do too, but I like it most in potato salad. And egg rolls. Not yellow mustard, the really hot stuff.”
Win shook his head, then a slow, evil grin appeared. “Sweet chili sauce.”
“What’s that?” Sage’s gaze sharpened.
“That’s what goes on eggrolls.”
“Is it good?”
Eric grinned and nodded. “It is. I mean, I like hot mustard as well as the next guy, but sweet chili sauce rocks.”
“Huh. I want to try that next, Adam.”
Win beamed, like this was some amazing trick. “You got it, babe.”
Eric couldn’t even fathom not having tried something so normal. He thought about asking how long Sage had been in prison, but he bit back the rude question.
“So, where are you from originally, Eric? I’m guessing bayou country.” Sage was good. Most people guessed Texas.
“Yep. Sugar cane and Spanish moss.” He chuckled, surprised that there wasn’t any bitter in the sound. “Don’t go back there much.”
“I’ve never been, but I’ve seen some neat pictures.”
“I want to go to New Orleans for a few days once I get more balance back. Soak up the humidity and the chicory.”
“People say it’s not a bad drive.” Sage gave him a grin, a nod.
“Yeah. Y’all are welcome to come.” Was that okay? He didn’t know if Sage was like, on parole or what.
Sage shrugged. “I don’t travel much. I tend to stick close to home. I bet Adam’d like it, though. Let his hair down some.”
“We’ll see. I don’t have that much hair to loosen.” Win’s tone made it pretty clear that he wasn’t going anywhere without Sage.
God, that was a weird-assed situation—an ex-cop and an ex-con. Eric nibbled his brisket, then hummed at how good it was, suddenly ravenous. Smoky, rich—oh hell yeah. He needed to buy some Gulf shrimp and make jambalaya.
That would be something he could do for these guys; he could cook. In fact, he was pretty fucking good at it, wasn’t he? Yes, he was.
Sage and Win kept up a general chatter. Nothing too busy or irritating, just talk, teasing, soft laughter. Eric ate and ate, but when he started nodding off, he jerked upright.
“Why? It’s a good dinner.” Sage gave him a grin that wasn’t a bit mean. “And you’ve had one hell of a day.”
He could see why Win liked the man. He could. “I guess so. I’ve been on a regimented schedule too.”
“Well, we’re going to play a few hands of cribbage and then watch Face Off. I like the way the people do the makeup and build stuff.”
“I haven’t seen that.” Eric pondered his next move. He could head to bed, but that promised a damn early morning with nothing to keep him company but his own brain and, the more it happened, the less good it was. “You mind if I doze on the couch and watch with you?”
“Not at all.” Win grinned. “Go on and sit. I’ll help Sage clean up.”
“I’ll let you.” That was partly why he’d set the table. So he could sit on his ass after.
“It’s on Syfy. You drink coffee after supper, Eric?”
“I’d love that.” Army people drank it all day.
“Just a little sugar.” Eric yawned hugely before he could cover it with his hand.
“Cool.” Win grinned at him like a monkey. “We’ll bring it in.”
“Thanks so much.” He levered up from the table, steadying himself on the edge.
He wasn’t sure if it was cool or odd that neither one offered to help, or seemed to worry about him. One way or the other, he managed to make it to the front room, and he took the chair that looked mostly unused so the guys could have the couch.
The happy chatter in the kitchen made him grin. Look at that. Win had a lover. A cowboy. Eric still couldn’t quite credit it, but he was damned glad for his friend.
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