We continue to bring A Thousand Stolen Moments by Connie Ann Michael book installment throughout the summer. Read the next chapter below!
Chapter 1 / Chapter 2 / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 5 / Chapter 6 / Chapter 7 / Chapter 8 / Chapter 9 / Chapter 10 / Chapter 11 / Chapter 12 / Chapter 13 / Chapter 14 / Chapter 15 / Chapter 16 / Chapter 17 / Chapter 18 / Chapter 19 / Chapter 20 / Chapter 21 / Chapter 22 / Chapter 23 / Chapter 24 / Chapter 25 / Chapter 26 / Chapter 27 / Chapter 28 / Chapter 29 / Chapter 30 / Chapter 31 / Chapter 32
“Where do you want the couch?” the delivery man asked.
Doogie had been home for three months and found a cute apartment on the beach. The deliveryman was bringing all her furniture. She’d hoped to get everything in place before Raven got state side. They’d been able to Skype up until he left on his last mission. The last time they talked, the mission was supposed to be short, and he would be in Germany in a few weeks. He’d let her know the exact date he’d fly in from there.
“By the wall there. So I can see out the window and watch the ocean.” Doogie moved around, adding special knick-knacks to make it look more like a home. She wanted everything perfect when he got back. Her cell phone buzzed with an incoming call.
“Emme, I’m on my way to your place. Are you ready to go?” Vanessa, Emme’s best friend yelled into the phone. Doogie smiled as she envisioned Vanessa using the speakerphone in her car and not realizing she didn’t need to yell.
“I’m ready.” She went to the bathroom and checked her faded jeans, tank top, and ponytail. Probably not what Vanessa wanted, but she wasn’t changing.
Vanessa must have been a few houses down because she almost immediately pulled into the driveway. Doogie shooed the deliveryman out and hopped in Vanessa’s car.
“Oh no, you are not wearing that.” Vanessa scrunched up her face like Doogie smelled.
Vanessa looked like a fashion model in a sundress and wedges.
“You remember I was in the military, and they gave me one choice on outfits.” Doogie pulled her seatbelt around her.
“You aren’t in the military at this moment, and I would think you could have tried a little harder.”
Doogie rolled her eyes and tilted her head back. “If I had something cute and pretty, I would have worn it. This is the best I have. Can we please just go?”
“Well, I can see we need a fashion intervention, but I’ll leave that for another day.” Vanessa pulled out of the driveway and headed toward the city park.
They had tickets to a concert going on in the park. The park was overflowing when they got there, but somehow Vanessa found them a spot to lay down their blanket near the front. They had a small cooler full of soft drinks, and Vanessa cracked two open while they waited for the music to start.
“When is Raven coming home?” Vanessa took a long draw of her drink.
“A few weeks, I guess. He’s out, so I haven’t heard from him.” Doogie followed suit and drank, too.
The opening act started, and the people around them sang along with the group. The group was good, singing popular country songs. Doogie bobbed her head with the music, enjoying her second drink and trying not to constantly look over her shoulder for insurgents.
“I have to go to the bathroom. You going to be okay alone?” Vanessa hopped up and headed off into the crowd.
Doogie nodded and hoped she really would be okay. She didn’t do well in crowds and didn’t want to freak out and have a panic attack.
The band finished up the set and started talking to the crowd. Doogie didn’t pay much attention until they started talking about the troops overseas and how much we should be thanking them for their service.
“They are away from their families, and we need to give them a big thank you for their service,” the man said.
She glanced up in time to see Vanessa, standing on the edge of the stage. She waved for Doogie to come over.
“I would like any veterans to come up on the stage to be honored this afternoon,” the lead singer said.
Doogie leaned her head back and tried to ignore his request, but Vanessa was yelling for her to get up.
Old, young, and in between ages moved toward the stage, climbing up the stairs, and filling the stage. Conceding, Doogie followed up the rear.
Vanessa was bouncing on her toes when Doogie reached her. She gave Doogie a push and moved her closer to the front of the group.
“Jeez Vanessa. What’s your problem?” Doogie shot her a dirty look.
“We have a special guest tonight. A few of our service men just returned and . . .” The lead singer turned to the other side of the stage.
Doogie didn’t hear him anymore; her gaze was on the heads bobbing on the other side of the stage. Raven promised not to make his return a spectacle. She told him she didn’t want to be surprised. But at that moment, she would give anything to find him standing on the other side of the stage.
“We want to welcome home . . .” His voice faded out again. Raven’s broad shoulders broke through the crowd.
Pushing herself through the men standing in her way, tears streaming down her face, she fought to get to Raven. As soon as he saw her, he stopped and waited. She ran at him, slamming her body into his, and wrapped her arms around his neck. A strong arm grabbed her around the waist, holding her tight. His other hand grabbed the back of her head and pressed her mouth to his.
“You promised not to do this,” she said through their kisses.
“I promised not to be a baseball catcher or a pastor.” He smiled and kissed her again. Slowly, he lowered her to the ground. “I promised I’d come back to you.”
Doogie buried her head into his chest, not wanting to let go. “Don’t make me leave again.”
“Never. You’re stuck with me.” Raven ran his hands down her back. “Let’s go home.”
Vanessa had been in on the whole sneak-attack and handed Sawyer her car keys as soon as they left the stage. Raven threaded his fingers through Sawyer’s and gripped her hand like he would never let it go. She couldn’t stop the continuous tears from falling. Somewhere deep inside, she’d never thought this day would come.
“Thank you,” she sniffed to Vanessa.
Vanessa grabbed her in a bear hug. “Take him home,” she said into Sawyer’s ear before releasing her and shoving them toward the parking lot.
The first band started to play, and the crowd pushed in around them. Raven’s body stiffened as he wrapped a protective arm around her. He hadn’t been back long enough to lose the ever present alertness being in combat caused. Sawyer tried to squeeze his hand to reassure him, but her nerves weren’t much better.
When they reached the car and had settled in, Raven let out a loud breath. “That was intense.”
Sawyer gave him a sympathetic look. “It gets a little better. Sometimes I can go to the grocery store during the day now instead of at two a.m. when no one else is there. Still have to map it out like a mission, but at least I’m organized.”
He reached across the console and grabbed her hand. Raising it to his mouth, he ran his lips across her knuckles. He closed his eyes, his dark lashes rested on his cheeks. “I’ll go with you now. I can provide cover in the cereal aisle.”
“I think the insurgents prefer the produce section.”
Raven smiled and opened his eyes, locking them onto hers. “You look so good, Sawyer. I couldn’t believe when I saw you walking across that stage. Who knew you were hiding all this under your digis. Probably a good thing the men didn’t know, or I would have had to bust some major chops.”
Sawyer reached out and ran her fingers down Raven’s cheek. “You don’t clean up too bad yourself.”
Raven closed his eyes again and pushed his cheek into her palm. “I was afraid you’d been a dream. That I’d show up, and you wouldn’t be waiting.”
Sawyer leaned in and pressed her lips against his. “I was afraid of the same thing. I kept myself busy getting an apartment ready for when you came home. They gave me one by the beach.”
Raven looked tired when he settled back into his seat. “I can’t wait to see it.”
Sawyer had spent every second since she left Afghanistan imagining what it would be like to be on home soil with Raven, and somehow, this particular scenario never came into play. With a sigh, she started the car and headed to her apartment. Her body buzzed with anxiety the closer they got to the beach. Now that they were together, she wasn’t sure where they would end up. Coming home didn’t mean leaving everything behind. They both carried baggage that would need to be dealt with eventually. She just wasn’t sure when eventually would come. Even though she was home, she hadn’t really slept. The nightmares that filled her sleep in Marjah were just as vivid in San Diego. When exhaustion finally did take over, her dreams were filled with that day at the school or Tahk’s last moments.
“Hey baby, what are you thinking?” Raven’s soft voice pulled her out of her head.
She looked over and gave him a sad smile. “We have a lot of to deal with.”
“Not today. Today we find the humanity that frickin country took away.”
Sawyer’s breath caught in her throat as she turned down the street where the apartment was nestled behind a grassy dune, and then pulled into her designated parking spot. She closed her eyes and rested her head on the steering wheel.
Raven’s eyebrows pulled together.
“I just need a minute.” Sawyer drew in a deep breath. She wasn’t the same person she had been in Marjah. She was broken and afraid Raven wouldn’t want her anymore.
Raven continued to stare at her like she’d grown a second head.
Finally, Sawyer grabbed the door handle and pushed it to get out. Raven’s mouth turned down in an expression she found strangely comforting; the pissed off expression of the man she’d left behind. Sawyer walked around the car and headed to the front door. Slowly, Raven came out and followed her up the walkway. His eyes darted back and forth as he assessed the area for the enemy. Sawyer reached out and ran her hand down his arm. “It’s okay. Come on.”
Sawyer pulled Raven into the small apartment the Navy provided for her. The movers placed everything exactly where she’d asked. Raven pulled away and moved to the large window overlooking the surf below. “It’s nice.” He kept his gaze on the water and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I don’t expect . . . you know.”
“It isn’t that.” Sawyer put her hands on her head and let out a nervous laugh. “It isn’t like I haven’t thought about it every second of every day since you kicked me out of the country.”
Raven turned around and leaned against the wall. “I didn’t kick you out of the country.”
Sawyer shrugged. “It’s different . . . being here . . . with you.”
Raven took a step toward her. “Sawyer. You were with me every second of every day. You were the reason I fought to come home. Every breath, every beat of my heart is because of you. I breathe you in and out every day since Tahk died. You saved me. I won’t let you go.”
Sawyer felt the tears falling before Raven reached her. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into him.
“I’m such a girl now.” Sawyer sniffled into his shirt.
“You’re a Marine.”
“I’m a sailor.”
“You’re my Marine. And sometimes, Marines cry.” He ran a thumb over her cheek to collect her tears.
“I don’t know how to do this.” Sawyer ran her hands up Raven’s back. “I don’t know how to feel. When I let the good in the bad comes out . . . I was afraid to leave you, and now I’m afraid to have you here.”
Raven’s hands moved in circles on Sawyer’s back. “I wish we could stay here and forget about our fears. Leave them where they belong, Sawyer. Don’t let them take over.” Raven leaned back and placed a finger under Sawyer’s chin, lifting her face to his. “What’s done is done. We can’t change the past. I can’t take your memories away. I can only give you new ones. Turn the page, Sawyer. Move time forward to where we leave the desert behind. But know, know with your entire heart, that every second that passes while you try to do that . . . I’ll stand by you. No one knows you like I do. No one will love you like I do.” Raven brushed his lips across hers. “Let me hold you.” He kissed her again. “Let me love you.”
Sawyer ran her hands over his shoulders and around the front of his shirt. His muscles were so tight, the stress of the day holding a vice around his body. Resting her palms against his chest, Sawyer felt his heart racing.
Raven reached up and grasped her hands in his. His voice caught when he spoke. “Sawyer, I just want . . . no . . . I need to hold you. Nothing more. Can we stay together tonight . . . just to be close?”
A sob broke from her before she could form words.
“Sawyer. I needed you so much. I felt like a piece of me went with you when you left.” Raven’s hands encircled her waist and pulled her into him. Tears wet his cheeks as emotions overflowed. This wasn’t just a homecoming; this was a chance for them to prove they hadn’t lost who they were in the war. With one arm pinning her to him, he raised the other to cup her face. “I’ve loved you since the day I met you, Sawyer.” His thumb dried the tears from her cheek. “I love the way you put others needs first. I love your faith. I love you.”
“I’m scared love won’t be enough. I’ve been numb for so long. I‘m afraid I won’t be able to love you without all the bad stuff overpowering me. That I’ll be able to give you what you need.”
“Just being here with you is everything I need.” He kissed the tears from her cheeks. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out together. I’ll help find your humanity.” Raven smiled before lowering his mouth to hers, teasing a kiss from her. Together, they shared the freedom of a kiss, unhindered by the worry of a sniper or an incoming attack.
Sawyer grabbed Raven’s face and pulled his mouth to hers for a hard kiss. “Thank you. I love you.”
Raven spoke into her kiss. “I love you, too.”
He leaned in and rubbed his nose against hers. “It feels so good to be back.
Sawyer breathed in Raven’s new scent, overwhelmed with the sensations he caused by just being near her. If this was what humanity felt like, she wanted to hold on and never let it go.
Can’t wait to read more? Buy A Thousand Stolen Moments today!
More books by Connie Ann Michael: