Navy SEAL Jake Erickson is dead tired after two years without a break, so he takes his 1967 Mustang convertible and heads north. Shelle, who has only a few months left before she can sell her dead twin’s B&B and go back to her real life, has spent the past few years avoiding men, but when Jake’s sexy voice asks if she has a room, she can’t say no. They’ve got twenty-six days together, and before they're forced to part, they agree that finding each other isn't due to luck. It’s fate.
Jake had negotiated dates with his CO, filled out the required paperwork in triplicate, then waited for what seemed like forever before the powers-that-be authorized his first leave in way too long.
What he’d dreamed about doing was something quite different, something that would likely have gotten him not just a black mark on his personnel jacket, but might very well have him swabbing floors for the rest of his life.
He smiled as he threw his bag into the trunk, then made sure the convertible top was properly stowed away. By the time he settled into the front seat, he decided he was just going to pretend he’d done it his way.
Jake put the black Mustang into neutral and hopped out while it still coasted on the asphalt. Farley shifted over into the driver's seat and steered while Jake pushed the car quietly past the LT's office until he'd tucked it in behind the porch on the back of the Quonset hut.
Farley kept watch as Jake tiptoed into the office and left his cellphone right in the middle of the LT's spotless desk, a lime green post-it note taped to it.
Third time lucky, it read. I'm leaving this here. Farley knows how to reach me, but you'll have to torture him to get the intel if he doesn't think you really need it. Or me. I'll be back in thirty days.
He'd hesitated, then added: You owe me another eight weeks, but I'm not going to push my luck.
He figured that sentence alone would get him the thirty days. The government didn't like it when its employees accumulated too much leave. Every month, like clockwork, one of the higher-ups reminded him he had to either use his, or he would lose it.
Still, in case the sticky note wasn't quite enough, he left a copy of the most recent email underneath his cell on the LT's desk.
He laughed as he snuck out of the office. He had almost twenty-four hours before the LT would see the note, meaning he would be a hell of a long way gone in that amount of time.
Jake had known all along he couldn’t pull it off, would never take the chance, but dreaming about doing it his way had helped him keep it together. Sometimes, when he was sitting across the desk from the LT, he played the scenario over in his head, knowing he’d never do it, because he loved everything—except the absence of leave—about being a SEAL.
Sudden assignments had negated his last two leaves, one for a quick and dirty insertion onto a small island full of Somalian pirates, and the other for a sneak peak at some new weaponry being built at a factory in the center of a never-to-be-named city.
Jake was exhausted. He'd gone almost two years without a single vacation, and the few long weekends he had managed had mostly been used helping teammates with moves or weddings or deck building or adding new garages. He was desperate for a break.
He’d already decided to head north. The summer on Coronado had been brutally hot. Everyone he ran into was sweaty and grubby, unhappy with the heat and themselves. All he could think about was spending time somewhere cool, in a place where nobody knew him. He wanted to be just plain old Jake, a little less reckless than he used to be, and a whole lot wiser than when he'd first joined the SEALs.
He loved his job, he really did, but he was long way past burnt out. If he didn't take a break, he would likely do something stupid. Not that it would matter if he drank too much or drove too fast and hurt himself. He had no family to miss him, not since his mom died five years ago.
Jake had watched her waste away, the leukemia eating away at her until it had digested the last of her big heart and wonderful laugh. Letting her go had been for the best, but at times he still ached to speak to the woman who'd brought him up to be strong, brave, and true-hearted. Sometimes, too, he needed her counsel, her laughter, or her quick and often funny solutions to even the most difficult of problems.
He sighed and thought that if he did have an accident, he'd get more time off, even if he had to spend the time in the hospital. He didn't want that to happen, of course, but he worried even more about doing something stupid that might hurt his team.
He couldn't bear the thought of that happening.
So he turned left, then drove toward the sunset, planning to stay on that path until he hit the ocean. Then he'd turn right. North.
Jake couldn't remember the last time he'd done anything without a whole series of complicated plans and deadlines and anticipated outcomes. For thirty days, he had nowhere he had to be, no one he needed to report to, nothing he needed to do.
A couple of hours later, he roared up the Pacific Coast Highway, not quite out of reach of the LT if he happened to check in over the weekend, but far enough away that he wouldn't be able to find Jake without going to a whole lot of trouble.
Jake had stopped and picked up a pay-as-you-go cellphone so he had a backup, but he wouldn't use it for anything more than calling ahead for a reservation unless he got into a real mess.
He let the top down and reveled in the tunes blasting from the CDs Farley had handed him when Jake had dropped him off. Every time the song changed, Jake laughed again and sang along. He worked his way through Runaway, Vacation, and Sympathy for the Devil.
Then—no surprise—the CD shifted to country songs, George Strait leading the way with Amarillo by Morning, then On The Road Again, King of the Road, and I've Been Everywhere.
Jake turned up the volume.
Farley must have gone through the entire oeuvre of running away songs and then moved on to escape songs, because every single one was about one or the other.
The quiet thrum of the Mustang’s tires against the highway soothed Jake as much as the songs did, and each mile he drove north, each time he spotted a mile marker telling him how far he'd traveled from Coronado, the more his shoulders relaxed from their recent hunch up around his ears.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd laughed simply from the joy of the day around him, but this lovely Saturday afternoon did it for him. Okay, maybe not the sunshine glinting off the ocean, or even Farley's tunes, but knowing he had thirty days without stress, without being concerned about making a wrong move, of being too slow or too fast, calmed him like nothing had in a very long time.
He didn't have to sleep with one eye open just in case, didn't have to watch where he placed his feet, wouldn't have that itchy feeling on the back of his neck twenty-four seven.
He figured a few days would have to pass before he could relax enough to sleep without waking at every sound, before he could walk into a diner without checking out every person in it, or talk to a woman without sweat breaking out down his spine.
Maybe more than a few days.
Because he'd spent pretty much the entire past two years in a war zone of one kind or another, and he was tired. And although he had mostly managed to keep it under control, he was also feeling sick. He’d been having trouble eating and sleeping lately, and sometimes couldn't remember where the hell he'd left his keys or his cellphone or his favorite mug.
None of which were good signs. Some of his friends had gone right from this stage to full-out fucked up, and he refused to let that happen to him. A month off, a month away from everything and everyone who might push him that final step into fucked up, and he'd be fine.
Jake had been in this exact place almost ten years ago, only a couple of years after he'd joined up. He'd been lucky enough to get some great advice from his roommate's brother who specialized in treating children with PTSD, and it had kept him in pretty good shape until now.
"Take a break," Greg had said. "Get away from your regular life and go somewhere completely different. Go to the Midwest or the swamps of Louisiana. Or to the Rockies or the rainforest." He'd added, "It's not the length of the change that counts; it's that you do it regularly."
Jake had taken Greg's advice to heart and for the past ten years had taken short trips as often as he could, at least once every five or six months. Sometimes he traveled with friends, but more often he went alone. He'd discovered that time spent alone—when most of his time was spent with his team—kept him relaxed and calm and sane when the world seemed to be falling apart around him.
The first time Jake had taken a long weekend, he'd flown to Colorado and spent three days rock climbing. Over the years, he'd fished in the Gulf, spent time sightseeing in New York and Paris, walked the Appalachian Trail, and gone snow camping in the Sierras.
Every time he came back, he'd slipped right back into his routine, feeling refreshed and renewed. But this time?
A short trip just wouldn’t cut it. He'd let the stress go on for too long, and yet he'd had no choice but to wait. He couldn't—wouldn't—let his teammates down. So here he was, running away, escaping his life so he didn't fall apart.
The Mustang purred beneath him, as if it, too, needed a good long run. He settled his sunglasses on his nose and enjoyed the music as he drove. The soft hum of the wheels against the pavement lulled him, while the sunlight sparkling off the ocean lightened his mood.
Five hours into the trip, feeling far enough away from Coronado to take a chance on stopping, he pulled over next to a small diner advertising fish and chips, something he seldom allowed himself to eat, and smiled. Today was the first day of his month-long retreat, and he intended to grab everything he wanted. He would stop where and when he desired, eat fried food, and stay up all night watching the stars fall into the ocean. Then he would wake up late and start all over again.
Maybe, if he were lucky, somewhere along the journey he'd find someone who wanted to share some time with him, a woman happy to be with him with no strings attached, who just wanted to enjoy his company and happily say sayonara at the end of it.
He could dream, couldn't he?
And in the meantime, he would enjoy himself. Before he had a bite to eat, he'd take the blanket from the trunk and go down to the deserted beach. He was far enough away from Coronado to feel safe and comfortable enough to strip off and lay on the beach. He wouldn't take off everything, which he might have done if he knew the area better. But he wanted to shed something.
Jake made his way down the steep path marked by a chain running between steel posts set into concrete. Once he reached the beach, he took a deep breath and enjoyed the almost too-cool breeze before settling into a hollow carved out between two big boulders, where the wind wouldn't catch him but the sun would.
He took off his shoes and socks, then his shirt, and finally his jeans. He wrapped the shirt and jeans into a pillow, lay down, and closed his eyes. The sun on his body calmed him, and the rhythmic hush-hush of the waves lulled him into relaxation.
Well, every part of him relaxed except his cock, and that part of his anatomy chose this not-quite-private location to prove it still worked and was anxious for some action.
Jake laughed out loud.