Deacon McConnell spends his days as a woodcarver and his nights as head of one of the most secretive government agencies in the United States. When he meets a man troubled by his time spent in the Middle East, Deacon feels drawn to the pain in the handsome man's eyes. He makes the decision to help Aaron Ellis any way he can.
Dishonourably discharged from the Army, it takes everything Aaron has to get out of bed each morning. He's become used to faking his way through life, putting on a happy face when the situation calls for it is a lot easier than dealing with his buried memories.
The day Aaron wanders into Deacon's store for the first time, the last thing he expects is an immediate connection with the shop owner. For the first time since leaving the service, Aaron begins to believe there may be light at the end of the dark tunnel. The nights he spends in Deacon's arms slowly begin to drive the shadows from his heart.
After years spent serving his country, Deacon yearns for a normal life. The move to Cattle Valley is the first step, opening up to Aaron the second. When duty calls Deacon out of town, he begins to wonder how much more he'll be forced to give up for his country.
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Aaron Ellis stared at the blinking cursor next to his bank account balance. It was one of the few things he used his computer for besides the occasional evening of watching free porn. The four-year old machine had been a splurge when he'd first returned from Afghanistan. Although refurbished, the computer had seen him through the first six months of his life after he was discharged from the Army.
He glanced around the minimally furnished, one-bedroom apartment. It had taken a leap of faith to move out of the garage apartment loaned to him by Matt Jeffries and into the newly constructed apartment building at the edge of town. When he'd first moved to Cattle Valley he wasn't expecting to stay long, but over time he'd started to build relationships with the men at the fire station and his therapist, Dr Pritchard.
The account balance in front of him would barely cover the cost of the purchase he had in mind. To make it worse, it was an unnecessary extravagance.
The intricately carved headboard he'd spied through the window of Falling Limb Creations would eat away the rest of his meagre savings, but he hadn't been able to think of anything else for three weeks. Since the moment he'd first spotted the handmade headboard, he'd made it a point to go by the store every chance he got to make sure no one else had bought it. He hadn't allowed himself the luxury of going inside the shop. The thought of touching the soft-looking wood and not being able to own it was too much.
The responsible thing would be to wait until he saved enough to leave the cushion in his account that his grandmother had always insisted on. Aaron groaned as he ran his fingers through his short blond hair. Responsible was a label he'd been stuck with since the death of his parents when he was sixteen. Under the supervision of child services, Aaron had not only made funeral arrangements, but he'd been the one to pack up his family's belongings and arrange for the sale of the house his mother and father had purchased only ten years earlier.
With enough money to help with bills and college, Aaron had left Virginia to live with his only living relative, his grandma Alice, in Urbana, Ohio. Life had been bearable for the first year, but one catastrophe after another had quickly eaten away Aaron's savings. It wasn't his grandma's fault. At seventy-eight, Alice hadn't been in good health when she'd been left with the task of raising Aaron. A series of strokes had left his grandma bed-ridden and in need of medical attention that her social security didn't quite cover. Add in constant maintenance of her two-hundred-year old farmhouse and it didn't take long to deplete Aaron's college money.
I'm gonna do it, he thought and powered down his computer. For seven years, he'd done what he'd had to do. It was time he did what he wanted to do. Aaron grabbed his coat from off the back of the kitchen chair and left the apartment before he could talk himself out of it.
It was a quick five-minute drive to downtown Cattle Valley. Soon, he was parked in front of Falling Limb Creations. His heart sank as he stepped up to the front display window only to find out the headboard was gone. Aaron's chest tightened as he realised he'd waited too long. It was just a piece of furniture, he tried to tell himself. So why did it feel like so much more?
A knock on the glass startled him, causing Aaron to drop his keys on the sidewalk. He bent and picked them up before coming face to face with the handsome man he'd seen through the window several times. Although he'd never officially met Deacon McConnell, his co-worker, Luke, often talked of his new friend. Deacon motioned Aaron inside.
Aaron shoved his keys into his pocket and opened the shop door. A small set of brass bells strung over the entrance welcomed Aaron into the amazing store.
"It's not there," Deacon said, leaning heavily on his cane.
"I see that," Aaron acknowledged.
Deacon stared at Aaron for several moments. "Come with me."
Aaron hesitated, but eventually followed Deacon to the back of the store into what appeared to be the workroom. The smell of wood wrapped around Aaron like a warm blanket, reminding him of the years spent chopping wood with his dad in Virginia.
"I've seen you admiring this, so I thought I'd put it back for you," Deacon said, lifting a drop cloth off the coveted headboard.
Aaron reached out and touched the bluebells and violas carved into the woodland scene. "I can't believe you did this for me," he replied, without taking his eyes off the headboard. "How'd you know I'd decide to buy it?"
Deacon stepped up beside Aaron. "I saw it in your face the first time I noticed you admiring it. When you returned almost every other day, I figured you'd eventually be in. Turns out I was right."
"It reminds me of my childhood in Virginia." Aaron traced each flower with his fingertips.
"I grew up in West Virginia. I originally carved this piece for my bedroom, but that was before I bought the store and decided to live upstairs. Unfortunately, I don't have room for a king-size bed up there. I told myself I'd eventually buy a house so I held onto it, but who am I kidding, right? I'm not a man who enjoys change. I reckon I'll live upstairs until they bury me in the ground. I hate to let go of it, but I'm glad it's going to someone who loves it as much as I do." Deacon leaned closer to a relief of a buttercup and picked at it. "To be honest, it's not my best work, but I've learned a few things."
"It's perfect," Aaron said. The headboard was even more beautiful than it had appeared through the window, and he was determined to have it no matter what. "Is it still on sale for twelve ninety-nine?"
Deacon shook his head. "Sorry."
Aaron's hopes began to fade.
"It wasn't selling so I've lowered the price to nine ninety-nine. I could give it to you for seventy-five less if you don't need the bed frame."
Before Aaron knew what he was doing, he'd pressed himself against the piece of furniture, enveloping the inanimate object in a semi-hug. "I'll take it."
"I won't be able to have it delivered until tomorrow, unless you want to take it with you," Deacon told him.
Aaron cleared his throat and released his hold on the headboard. "I'll be on shift tomorrow, but I'll be home Thursday."
"Thursday it is." Deacon held out the drop cloth. "Help me cover it back up. I'll be working in here between now and Thursday."
Aaron took a long last look before settling the material over his new bed. He turned away and studied the rest of the shop. "You do all this yourself?"
"Yeah. It helps me deal with the shit in my head." Deacon picked up a long, tapered piece of wood and handed it to Aaron. "Hickory. I find it's the best wood for canes because of its strength, but that also makes it too hard to carve by hand." He gestured to a set of power tools against the walls. "I try to use those to do the bulk of the work, but there's nothing like working a piece of wood by hand to get me out of my head."
"Maybe I should take up woodworking," Aaron muttered. The thought of being able to get out of his head sounded like a dream come true.
"You serious? Because I could teach you the basics."
"You'd really do that, Sir?" Aaron asked.
"Sure, as long as you stick with Deacon and leave the sir at home."
Aaron felt his face heat as a blush worked its way up his neck and over his cheeks. "Sorry. Too many years being trained by my grandma Alice first and the military second, I guess." As soon as the words were out of his mouth he wanted to suck them back in. He was speaking to a decorated Marine. What had he been thinking to let something like that slip.
"Which branch did you serve?"
Aaron shook his head. "Army, but I don't discuss it."
Deacon furrowed his brow. "I can respect that. I haven't spoken to a soul about my years in the corps. There are some things a man needs to deal with in his own way."
"Yeah," Aaron agreed. He was surprised Deacon didn't push like most good-intentioned people. "I'm cheating. I see Dr Pritchard on a regular basis."
"That's not cheating. Like I said, each man deals with pain in his own way."
Aaron reached out to steady himself against a partially finished willow- back chair. Although he didn't even know Deacon, the man seemed to reach right in to a soul Aaron thought he'd lost long ago. He pointed towards a small table. "Could you teach me how to make one of those to match my bed?"
"Tell you what, I'll teach you to make the table and you let me do the carving." Deacon held out his scarred hands. "These didn't come from combat."
"I'm glad," Aaron said. "At least those came from something you love doing."
The brass bells rang, indicating another customer. "I guess I should pay for the bed and get out of your hair." Aaron eased towards the doorway. "Do you accept debit cards?"
"Sure, but you can pay me later. If we're going to make that table we'll have to get started."
For the first time since the death of his parents, Aaron honestly looked forward to something. Maybe it was Deacon's quiet understanding that made Aaron feel so at peace around the older man. Aaron took one of the business cards from the stand next to the register. "I'll call you with my work schedule and we can set something up."
"Sounds good. I'll be waiting," Deacon replied before going off in search of his customer.
* * *
After closing the store for the night, Deacon eased his leg onto the wide leather footstool and sighed. Contrary to what most people chose to believe, Deacon hadn't been injured in the war. In fact, he hadn't even been active in the Marines at the time.
When the outgoing Director had asked him to head up the agency, Deacon had jumped at the chance. He loved serving his country but was tired of hiding his relationship with Bobby, his partner of six years. The first few years as Director had brought Deacon even closer to Bobby despite the occasional bit of required travel.
Deacon took a drink of his bourbon and silently cursed the direction of his thoughts. Although the car wreck that had taken Bobby's life and most of the muscle in Deacon's leg was no accident, no one had been charged with the crime of purposely running them off the road.
The phone rang, disrupting Deacon's trip down memory lane. He set his glass on the table before answering. "Falling Limb Creations."
"Hi, it's me, Aaron. I hope I'm not calling too late."
Deacon smiled. "Not at all, in fact, I'm glad you did. I was just sitting here feeling sorry for myself."
There was a slight pause. "Yeah, I know how that is." There was another moment of silence before Aaron continued, "I went by the station on the way home and got my schedule."
"Excellent." Deacon was really looking forward to spending time with Aaron. He couldn't wait to teach Aaron the skill his father had taught to him.
"Do you have a pen and paper handy?"
"Don't need one. I'm here twenty-four seven, so anytime you feel like getting out of the house, come on by." Deacon hoped he didn't sound too eager.
Deacon tried to wipe the constant smile from his face, but couldn't. Aaron lit him up on the inside and after years of living in the dark, it felt pretty damn good. He couldn't remember ever being so taken with a man after an initial meeting. Even though Luke had talked to him at length about Aaron's issues, Deacon hadn't prepared himself for a physical response to Aaron. "Yeah, really," he finally answered.
"I'd like that. Dr Pritchard has asked me for a while now to find a hobby. He thinks I spend too much time on my own."
"And do you?" Deacon picked up his drink.
"Generally, I don't feel comfortable around people."
Deacon rubbed the cool glass against his lips. "What about me?" he dared to ask.
"Yeah. I'd say it's because you were in the service, but I've met several people that fought and none of them ..." Aaron sighed. "Yes, I feel comfortable around you."
"Good." Asking Aaron out on a date came to mind, but Deacon knew it was too soon.
"Okay, I'll let you get back to whatever you were doing. I just wanted to tell you I'm off Thursday and Saturday. Next week I'm only working four days, so I'll have even more time to devote to making that table."
Deacon detected a hint of loneliness in Aaron's voice. "Have you eaten?" he asked.
"Not yet. I thought I'd microwave some soup."
"It's Taco Tuesday. Care to share a table with me at O'Brien's?" Deacon held his breath in anticipation of Aaron's answer.
"That's where everyone goes, right? I'm not sure I'd be comfortable."
Deacon remembered the months following Bobby's death and how hard it was to be around people. "Why don't I go over and pick us up a big batch and bring 'em back here?"
"You don't have to do that," Aaron replied.
"I know I don't, but it gets old eating alone every night. I'd enjoy the company." Although Deacon refused to think of it as a date, he realised it had been years since he'd sat down to dinner with another person. Knowing that person would be Aaron made it seem even more special.
"Okay, then, yeah, I'd like that. Should I stop and get beer on the way?" Aaron asked before chuckling. "I've finally managed to convince the lady who owns the liquor store that my driver's licence isn't faked, and I'm indeed old enough to buy it."
"I'm more of a bourbon man, but feel free to bring some for yourself if you'd like. Sorry to say, I don't have any here." Aaron's statement about the liquor store drove home the difference in their age. At twenty- four, Aaron still looked like a young man in his late teens. At forty-five, Deacon was easily old enough to be Aaron's father. He wondered if that's how Aaron saw him. Maybe the unspoken ease between them had nothing to do with a romantic connection and everything to do with Aaron's need for a father figure.
"I'll just bring a couple I have in the fridge."
The excitement Deacon heard in Aaron's voice gave him hope that he was worrying over nothing. "Meet you downstairs in thirty minutes?"
"Sounds good," Aaron said before hanging up.
Deacon set the phone down. He swallowed the last of his drink and struggled to get back on his feet. Leaning heavily on his cane, Deacon entered the bathroom. He studied his heavy five o'clock shadow and decided he'd better shave again. Deacon reached for his electric razor and went to work. Kissing Aaron was only an outside possibility, but he knew how badly the coarse heavy whiskers could damage a lover's skin.
Deacon blinked several times as he continued to run the shaver over his face. When had Aaron moved from someone he felt sorry for and wanted to help to potential lover? After Luke had asked him to help Aaron, Deacon had used his resources to find out everything he could about the younger man. The information he'd obtained had been enough to convince him the best way to help Aaron would be to wait him out. If Deacon had followed his initial reaction, he'd have scared Aaron off before they'd even had a chance to open a dialogue.
When Aaron had walked into the shop earlier, it wasn't hard to see the pain in his eyes, and unfortunately, Deacon knew exactly how it had got there. To even consider anything beyond friendship was despicable on Deacon's part. The last thing Aaron needed was a man of Deacon's size and age to push him into something he wasn't ready for. How many times had he been propositioned since Bobby's death, and never once had he been tempted to open himself up, even for a single night of uncomplicated sex.
After his face was once again smooth, Deacon reached for his toothbrush. He spat the toothpaste into the sink before running a comb through his hair, which was, knock on wood, still as thick as it had always been. The only thing left on his vanity list was to change his shirt. Deacon tried not to think about his choice too much, telling himself he'd picked the white button-up merely because it was the closest to the front. It had absolutely nothing to do with the way it showed off his dark green eyes or his naturally bronzed skin.
With a disgusted shake of his head, Deacon headed downstairs. It wasn't easy managing the steep steps, but he refused to put in an elevator, a lift. Walking through the shop, he took the time to turn on the small lamp in the centre of the large dining room table he proudly displayed in the showroom. Perhaps if he kept Aaron out of his apartment it would be easier to keep him out of his bed.
* * *
Aaron arrived at the store with half a six-pack tucked under his arm. "Hello?" he called upon entering.
When he received no reply, he shut the door behind him and tried again. "Deacon?" He made his way through the darkened store towards the only source of light, a large table with ornately carved legs. Aaron set the beer down and bent to examine Deacon's work. What must it feel like to produce something so beautiful and long-lasting?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shadow Soldier"
Copyright © 2012 Carol Lynne.
Excerpted by permission of Totally Entwined Group Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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