“They want to give me a parade? A parade?”
Maggie Benson walked next to her younger sister, Grace, as they made their way toward the lights of the high school football field. As much as she was annoyed with the fuss the town wanted to make, it was good to be home.
“It’s not your parade. It’s the annual Christmas Boat Parade. They want you to arrive with Santa. Sort of like he’s bringing our hero home as a gift for the whole town.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake. I’m not a hero. Far from it.”
“Of course you are!”
“No, I’m not.”
“Maggie, you’ve served your country honorably in a war zone. You’ve done some amazing things. You’re an inspiration.”
“It’s nonsense.” Maggie certainly didn’t want to be anyone’s inspiration. Not the way things ended for her.
She felt many things, but she didn’t feel like a hero. Maggie felt broken, empty, and for the first time in her life, she was scared. This was her first visit back since her crash two years ago. Two long years since she’d laid eyes on the harbor, the town square with the gazebo, and the shingled house on Lighthouse Drive that her family had called home since Grace, and her twin Claire, were babies.
After leaving town twelve years ago to go to college, Maggie made a point to come home regularly. Whenever she was able to get leave, she would fly from the ends of the earth to see her parents and her siblings. They were close and she missed them. Everything changed two years ago over the Middle East when a lucky shot disabled her plane.
She’d been a hotshot naval aviator, an adrenaline junkie who didn’t think there was anything wrong with being catapulted off the deck of a ship in a flying bomb. But even she wasn’t crazy enough to eject over territory where being an American could get you killed, but being a woman could be even worse. So she flew a failing, crippled jet towards the carrier, fairly sure she’d be able to get the plane on the deck. But it was a day nothing went as planned. A fire broke out in the cockpit, and Maggie had no choice but to eject.
It was a blur the second the explosion sent her already injured body out of the cockpit. She remembered her chute opening, and her body splashing into the Med. So much happened in such a short period of time, but she didn’t remember very much of it. Weeks of memory were nothing but a haze of images, nausea and pain.
Maggie had never been afraid of dying. She knew when her time came, she’d have lived a life she could be proud of. No, death was never the issue. War made Maggie afraid of surviving.
And that’s exactly what happened. She survived.
Even when she didn’t want to.
Now her town wanted her to be in a parade because she didn’t die. Great.
“Earth to Maggie?”
Her sister’s hand waving in front of her face brought her back to earth.
“Sorry,” Maggie said. “Side trip.”
“So,” Grace said. “What do you think?”
“I just wanted a quiet holiday, Gracie.” Maggie stopped walking and looked up at the starry sky. It was less than two weeks until Thanksgiving, but it had gotten cold, the chill coming in from the bay went right through her. Suddenly a cheer went up from the crowd, with chants of Matt! Matt! Matt! cutting through the night air.
Her brother was the star running back on a team that seemed impossible to stop. The All County Football Championship was a mere two wins away, Matt was leading his team and the entire town was buzzing with excitement.
“So what do you think?” Grace pressed.
“I know Mom is happy to have me home, but did she have to tell everyone?”
“Yeah, she kind of did. She’s over the moon, Mags. We all are.”
Maggie took in her sister, who with her silky nut brown hair and big brown eyes, was as pretty as she was smart. Four years younger than her, the twins couldn’t be more different. Grace was a hospice nurse. People talked about Maggie being a hero? Gracie should be in that parade. Helping the terminally ill to their rest, giving comfort to families whose loved ones were dying—that was pretty amazing in her book, Maggie didn’t know how she managed it. Her sister Claire taught children with special needs, her father was a county police officer who ran the local CYO basketball league and every season kept the team of boys who were considered the most at risk for himself. Dad loved those boys and they loved him right back. People thought Maggie was something special just because she wore a military uniform, but it was people like her sisters and her dad—who helped the sick and dying, who taught children with special needs, who coached disadvantaged kids—they were the ones who should be getting the cheers. Not her.
The athletic complex was built at the bottom of a hill, with large expansive bleachers for the home team fans built into the side of the slope, and a set of bleachers for the visiting team on the other side of the field.
Rounding out her siblings was Matt, her little brother who wasn’t so little. Seventeen and the undisputed All-American boy, he’d committed to play football at Army the following year. His goal? To be a helicopter pilot.
Mom wanted him to be an accountant, and there was no small blame laid at Maggie’s feet for her brother wanting to enter the military.
The deep voice warmed Maggie’s heart. Daddy. Looking to her right, she saw her father waving frantically. She hadn’t seen her parents in over a year, begging them to let her recover on her own. She felt guilty about that. They only wanted to make things easier for her, but what she had to go through wasn’t easy. However, seeing her parents for the first time in forever, Maggie felt overwhelmed. She’d missed her family, and it was only now, when she saw them again, that she realized how much.
Still taking care because of a sometimes wobbly gait, Maggie went down the bleacher stairs as fast as she could. It felt like forever, but once she was wrapped in her father’s waiting arms, it was like she’d never left home.
“Aw, Maggie. It’s so good to have you home,” he said.
Maggie turned and wrapped her arms around her mother, who said nothing. Mom just cried. She could feel her tears as they embraced and if she had any regret about staying away, this was why. She’d hurt her parents by pushing them out of her life. She’d hurt so many people.
Her mother stepped back and looked at her from arm’s length. “You look wonderful, Mary Margaret. As beautiful as ever.”
Maggie didn’t feel beautiful, but her mother’s words still warmed her heart. Fiddling with her watch, her fingers brushed the burn scar on her left arm. The change in the skin’s texture still surprised her, even two years later.
Innately, her mother touched the scar, and kissed her cheek again. No words were necessary. With her mother, the love just came through.
“Mags! Maggie! Hey!”
Looking toward the field, just as the teams broke for halftime, she saw her brother jumping up and down and waving his helmet like a madman. She left her parents and sister and couldn’t get down the steps fast enough and into her little brother’s waiting arms.
God. She missed him.
“I’m so glad you’re home,” he said crushing her in his arms. “Are you okay? How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay. The best I’ve been in a while.”
“How’s the leg? Or…ah.” He turned his eyes away. “I don’t know what to ask.”
“It’s better.” That was the truth. She was a long way from the mess the rescue team had fished out of the Med. “I’m mostly used to my regular prosthetic. And I actually have a blade so I can start running if I want. It’s an adjustment.”
“A blade? I bet you look like a bionic badass.”
Maggie had to appreciate that people were far less freaked out about amputees than they used to be. The recent wars had produced more disabled vets than anyone ever expected and seeing soldiers without limbs wasn’t so unusual anymore.
“I don’t know how badass you’ll think I am when I fall on my face. It’s a bit of overkill.”
“I will laugh just like always,” he smiled. Thank God for Matt. The rest of her family was still so tentative regarding her injuries, she was happy to have her brother to keep her in line.
“Hey Coach!” Matt extended his hand to a very tall man who’d stepped up next to her. He looked familiar, but she couldn’t place him. And she wished she could, because damn he was good looking. “Maggie, do you know Coach Fitzgerald?”
“Oh, uh. No.” That was all she said, flat and indifferent. Not a hello, or nice to meet you. Nothing. She was an idiot.
“Was he here when you were in school?” Matt asked.
Was he? Maybe…oh, now she recognized him. Yes. Mr. Fitzgerald was a brand new English teacher when Maggie was a senior. She’d never had him, but she remembered a lot of her friends talking about the gorgeous new faculty member. If memory served, he was a former pro basketball player. Which made sense since he was over a foot taller than she was. Use your words, Maggie!
“I never had you, Mr. Fitzgerald, but you were hard to miss.” She shook his hand, not quite believing she’d said that. Hard to miss? Oy. “Maggie Benson, Matt’s sister.”
“Call me Will, please. If I remember, you pretty much ran the place when you were here. Star athlete, student government president…”
“We all had our jobs.” She shrugged. “Someone had to keep things running smoothly.” It was an ongoing joke when she was in school that the principal checked with her before making major decisions. It wasn’t true, but she did do a lot.
Matt kissed her cheek. “I gotta go. I’ll see you after the game, Mags. Thanks for coming, coach.”
Watching as he ran off to be with his team, she was still aware of Will Fitzgerald standing next to her. How could she not be? The man was potent—a compelling presence. And he was so, so big. She remembered when he first came to the school. Tall and lean with dark hair, electric blue eyes and a killer smile, he’d filled out some since then. He had to be close to forty by now and it was looking damn good on him.
Really, really good.
“So have you been home long?” He smiled at her, and she saw a twinkle in his baby blues. “Matt told me it’s been a while, since you’ve been recovering.”
Maggie felt her back stiffen. This is why she hadn’t come home. She knew she’d been a topic of discussion, with her family, and around town. Now she had to be polite when she wanted to tell him to mind his own damn business. Crap.
“It has been a while. But, I’d rather not talk about it, okay?”
“Sure, of course. I’m sorry. Small talk.”
“It’s fine. I’m just not comfortable with it.”
“Understandable. It must be odd for you, so many curious people.”
“I’ve spent the last two years in hospitals and rehab facilities. At this point, any day without wound debridement, or physical therapy, is odd for me.”
She breathed in deep. Dammit. Why did she say that?
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk?” he asked innocently. She glanced over and took in his gorgeous face, which had gone soft and sweet. Great. He was concerned.
“Positive, thanks for listening. It was nice meeting you, Will. Officially, at least.”
“Nice meeting you, too, Maggie.”