The Wounded Warrior #2
Love of a Marine
Retired Marine, Cluny McPherson, wonders if life has passed him by during his struggles with PTSD. It got in the way of building a life with a woman. His buddies were settling into marriage and family. Cluny yearned for a wife, for kids of his own. The only females in his life at the moment were Queen, his service dog, and his 9-year old niece.
Graciella Jefferson, widowed single mother, devotes her life to her young son, Santos. She keeps the memory of the SEAL father he never knew alive for him, while concealing the terrible truth. She’s wary of becoming involved with any man, especially a military man. Then her son gets curious about the stranger and his dog on the beach.
Release Date: November 17, 2020
Genre: Contemporary | Military Romance
A PINK SATIN ROMANCE
Thursday, Zuma Beach
Who is that man? Why is he here every day?
Graciella Jefferson turned her attention to her nine-year-old son, Santos, chasing wavelets at the edge of the surf on Zuma Beach. They’d been here every morning since school let out two weeks ago. He loved the ocean, but hadn’t worked up the nerve to go in above his knees. She smiled, knowing he’d get there in his own good time. His father had been a genuine frogman.
“Santos, time for lunch!”
He smiled and waved, took a last flat-footed jump in the shallow water then ran to join her on the blanket under the big carnival striped umbrella. “Mama?”
“See that man and his dog over there?” He tilted his head in the direction of the rocks near Point Dume.
“Yes, I see him. Why?”
“They’ve been here every morning this week, and they’re still there when we leave. They must love the beach as much as I do.”
Graciella pushed up the brim of her wide hat to get a better look. Santos was right, the man was always there. He and the dog stared out to sea. Every now and then the man would reach down and rub the dog’s head.
“What is the dog wearing, Mama, a T-shirt?”
“I can’t be sure, but it looks like a vest, the kind service dogs wear.” She squinted to get a better look.
He took a big swallow of lemonade and wiped his mouth on his forearm. “What’s a service dog?”
“Use this.” She handed him a faded, old cloth napkin. “A service dog is a companion that is specially trained for certain tasks.”
“You’ve seen seeing-eye dogs working with the blind.”
“But that man can see. He watches the ocean a lot. His dog just sits there next to him, not doing anything.” He pointed his skinny arm toward the rocks where the man sat on the sand with his hands dangling between his knees.
“It’s not polite to point, Santos.”
“He’s not looking at us.”
“It’s still not polite.”
She tousled his curly black hair. He looked so much like his late father it nearly broke her heart. “Enough questions. Eat. We have to head back in about an hour. I have a class to teach this afternoon.”
Santos tucked into the rest of his sandwich, guzzled the rest of his drink and mopped his mouth with the napkin. “I’m done.” He darted back to the water’s edge.
Graciella watched him for a bit, then picked up her book and got comfortable in the sand chair to read. After several minutes she looked up and her heart skipped a beat when she didn’t see him. She dropped her book and scanned the beach. He was walking toward the man and his dog, kicking his toes in the wet sand. He glanced back at her, a broad grin on his face, and waved.
* * *
Cluny and Queen had had another bad night. There had been a lot of them this past six months. He didn’t understand why he could go months, even years, without the nightmares and the shaking, then they’d return. A year ago he’d gotten Queen, on the advice of his buddy, Dwayne Dempsey, and a therapist at the VA.
A skinny, dark-skinned kid about nine or ten walked in their direction. The boy and the woman had been about a quarter klik down the beach every morning. He figured it was only a matter of time before the kid got curious.
Queen stood. “Easy, girl.”
“Hi, mister.” The boy slowed to a stop about three yards away from him. He stood quietly, expression tentative.
“Hi.” Cluny smiled. He glanced down the beach and saw the woman stand. He waved at her.
“Why is your dog wearing a vest?” He shaded his eyes from the glare of the sun.
“She’s working this morning.” Cluny laid his hand on Queen’s back.
“I didn’t see her do anything.” He took a few steps closer. “What does she do?”
“Right now, she’s keeping me company.”
“Is she friendly? Can I pet her?”
“I’ll ask her.” He unbuckled Queen’s vest, and she stood, shook and stretched. “Want this good lookin’ boy to pet you, Queen?” She wagged her tail and took a step in the boy’s direction.
Cluny smiled at the woman strolling toward them. “What’s your name, son?”
The boy knelt in front of Queen. She sat on her haunches and lifted a paw. The kid giggled and grasped her foot. “Santos Jefferson, what’s your name, mister?”
Cluny stood and brushed sand from the seat of his shorts. “I’m Cluny McPherson.” He tilted his head toward the tall, willowy woman approaching them. “Is that your mother?”
“Yes.” The boy buried both his hands in the dog’s ruff and scratched vigorously. He laughed when Queen groaned with pleasure. “She likes it.”
“I think we should go meet your mother. She looks concerned. Come, Queen.” He stooped to pick up the dog’s vest and stuffed it in his cargo pocket. The boy joined him, and they walked toward the woman.
“Mom! Isn’t she beautiful? Her name is Queen. She keeps him company.”
Cluny extended his hand. “Ma’am.” She was almost as tall as his six-one in bare feet, her skin a luscious golden honey-brown, with eyes to match. “Cluny McPherson.”
She hesitated and then took it. “Hello. Graciella Jefferson. My son was curious about your dog.”
Her deep voice had a slight, intriguing accent, her handshake as firm and strong as she appeared to be. Cluny was stunned by her beauty.
He cleared his throat. “Yes, Santos asked me what she did other than stare at the water.” He grinned and a thrill jolted through him when she returned his smile.
She appeared to size him up quickly, and then asked, “Would you like some lemonade? We’ll be leaving soon and it’ll be one less thing for me to carry back to the car.”
“Yes, thank you, ma’am, I would.” He followed her back down to their spot under the big umbrella, and knelt on the blanket. Queen and the boy followed close behind.
Graciella, she’d pronounced it grah-see-ay-la with an r roll, took a small bottle of lemonade from her cooler, shook the droplets off and handed it to him. He couldn’t help noticing long, tapered fingers with bright orange polish on her short nails.
“Thanks.” He opened the bottle and took a long drink. “I didn’t realize I was thirsty until just now.” He held the cold bottle to his forehead.
“Santos, the dog might be thirsty.” She opened a thermos, poured water from it into the cup-lid and set it in the sand.
Cluny gazed at the stunning woman as she gestured to her boy. Her thick dark brown, curly hair fluttered around her shoulders in the breeze, the brim of her straw hat flapped, and she set her hand on top to keep it from blowing away. She lowered her body to sit on the blanket across from him, as graceful as a swan.
“Where’d that breeze come from all of a sudden?” She laughed and held tight to her hat.
Queen trotted to the water cup and quickly lapped it up. “Queenie was thirsty,” Cluny said. “Thanks.”
She nodded. “You’re welcome.” She turned to her boy. “We have to leave soon, Santos.”
“Aw, gee, I just made friends with Queen.” He eyed Cluny. “What does she really do when she isn’t keeping you company?”
Cluny laughed. “She sleeps a lot, which is good, because her job is to help me fall asleep at night.”
“I watch TV until Mama yells at me.”
Cluny pressed his lips together. “That usually works for me too, but sometimes Queen helps me.”
“Where’d you get her?”
“She’s a genuine wounded warrior war hero. Queen is retired from the Navy SEALS. I got her from Wounded Warriors.”
Santos’ eyes got huge. “Are you a wounded warrior? Were you a SEAL? My dad was a SEAL. He got killed in Iraq by some bad guys. I wasn’t borned yet, so I never even got to meet him, but I know what he looked like because I have a picture of him. Want to see it?”
“Santos.” His mother put her hand on the excited boy’s arm.
“It’s okay.” Cluny smiled at her. “Yes, I’d like to see a picture of your dad.”
Santos dug through a cloth carry bag and pulled out a jacket. He soon found a laminated photo, attached to a house key, and handed it to him. “Mom says I look like him. Do you think I look like him?”
“Cluny studied the photo of a very large, very fit black man wearing standard field-issue SEAL camos. The man grinned for the photographer, a sniper rifle resting casually on this shoulder. “Yes, I see the resemblance. What was your dad’s name?” He handed the photo back to the boy.
A prickly sensation crawled over Cluny’s back and up his neck. The man looked familiar. He glanced at Graciella. “Where was the picture taken?”
“Fallujah. The day he was killed.” Pain flashed in her soulful eyes.
“Oh, God, ma’am, I’m so sorry.” His stomach twisted into a painful knot. For a moment he thought he might throw up the lemonade, but he gritted his teeth against the nausea. Queen nudged his hand.
She answered in a soft voice, “It was a long time ago.”
Santos apparently hadn’t noticed his discomfort. “Were you a SEAL too?”
He shook his head. “No, a Marine, but I knew some very brave SEALs in Iraq. I fought in Fallujah, too.”
“What happened to you?”
Before answering the boy, Cluny glanced at his mother. He wasn’t sure how comfortable she was with the conversation. She nodded slightly.
“Me and some buddies were in an M-3 Bradley that got hit by an RPG one day when we were in a convoy heading to Baghdad. One of the bad guys found us first.” He swallowed and took a breath. This was something he rarely talked about, and never with a kid.
“Did any Marines get killed?” The boy’s rapt face stared steadily, waiting for an answer.
“Nope. Nobody got killed, except the bad guys. Some of my buddies got wounded real bad, and I took a hard knock on the head. We were lucky.”
“Is that why you can’t sleep?”
“Sometimes. I don’t think about it much.”
“Was your dog in Fallujah, too?” Santos rested his hand on Queen’s back. “What happened to her?”
“I didn’t know Queen then. She was guarding Baghdad airport. She got shot by a sniper.” He smiled at his dog. “You’re fine now, aren’t you, Queenie?” Her tail thumped the sand.
Graciella stood and folded the sand chair. “It’s time we got on home, Santos. Help me pack up.”
Cluny stood and pulled the umbrella stake from the sand and folded it for her. “I’ll help you carry your things to the car. We’re a long way from the parking area.”
“We can manage.”
“I’m sure you can, but I’d like to help.” He slapped his leg and Queen leapt to her feet. He took her vest from his pocket and buckled it around her chest. In an instant she was back in work mode. He rested the umbrella on his shoulder and took the handle of the cooler and pulled it on its big sand tires to the parking lot.
Graciella and Santos grabbed the rest of their things and walked alongside him. She pointed to a small blue SUV. “That’s our car.” The back window wore a SEAL Trident decal.
He loaded the umbrella and cooler in the back hatch. She shook sand from the blanket then tossed it in on top of the folding chair. “Thank you, Cluny McPherson.”
He nodded. “You’re welcome, Ms. Jefferson.” He put his hand on top of Santos head of tight black curls. “Nice meeting you, Santos. You do look like your dad. Have a safe trip home.”
Cluny returned to the sand and waved as they climbed into the car, haunted by the eerie feeling from the photograph of the big Navy SEAL.
Queen leaned heavily against his leg, made a soft whimper, and stared into his eyes.
“I’m good, girl. I’m good.”