If you enjoyed Bree getting a Father for Christmas last year, you'll love Bree getting a Pet for Christmas this year. [Both A Father for Christmas and A Pet for Christmas are PG-rated, and part of A Veteran's Christmas Series]
To those who still suffer the wounds of war.
This book is a sequel to A Father for Christmas
Excerpt - Chapter One
~ Kelly ~
“Tell me about my father.” My five-year-old daughter, Bree, taps the oak dining table with her fork and knife right after we’ve said grace. Her blue eyes are large and expectant.
Everyone gathered around my mother’s Thanksgiving table gawks at her before turning to me.
“We just spoke to him on the video call.” I try to avoid the question on everyone’s faces. “He’s helping children in Afghanistan, remember?”
The baby in my belly kicks and reminds me how exhausted I am with Tyler, my fiancé, traveling again. He assures me he’ll be home for Christmas. I can only hope.
“Not Tyler.” Bree pouts and her eyebrows narrow with that determined look of hers—the kind that tells me she’s not about to be put off. “I want to know about my real father.”
Uh oh. This is not the type of thing I want to be discussing with company. My mother knows, and so does my sister and her boyfriend, Jaden, but we also have church friends gathered around, including Mr. Wong, the widower who recently started dating my mother. The turkey is waiting, as are all the trimmings, dressing, candied yams, potato salad, butternut squash casserole and cranberry sauce.
“Tyler is your father.” I pat her shoulder, gently. Last year, right before Christmas, Bree asked Santa for a father. She met Tyler Manning, a war veteran, soon afterward sitting under the giant Christmas tree at a mall in San Francisco. We both fell in love with him, and I assumed the rest would be history.
Bree blinks and looks away from me, or at least my face since she’s staring at my protruding belly. “I want my real papa. The kind who puts babies inside mamas. We didn’t know Tyler when I was a baby.”
Various throats clear around the table as my mother’s guests pretend not to hear Bree’s request.
“Pass the turkey, please.”
“I’ll have a helping of mashed potatoes.”
“Anyone want yams?”
Beside me, Bree rattles her plate with her fork and pouts. “A real father would be here for Thanksgiving.”
So should Tyler. I’m disappointed too, but now’s not the time or place to go into it. I serve a scoop of mashed potatoes onto Bree’s plate. “Sweetie, Tyler misses you and wishes he could be here. You know that, don’t you?”
Bree crosses her arms and shakes her head, making her blond curls bounce. “He promised he would give me the biggest drumstick.”
“You can still get the drumstick.” I take the platter from my sister. “See, here? Just for you.”
Bree grabs it, looking happy for a split second, before her lower lip protrudes again. “When my baby brother gets here, he’ll take the drumstick, won’t he?”
“A turkey has two drumsticks,” my mother interjects and rubs Bree’s head. “I’m sure you and your brother can share.”
“Only Tyler’s his real daddy, and he’ll get everything.” Bree stares at her drumstick as if it’s the last good thing she’ll ever get.
“He’s your real daddy, too,” I remind her. “You asked Santa for him, and you found him under the Christmas tree.”
Bree flings the drumstick onto her plate and climbs off the chair. “You’re not supposed to find a daddy under the Christmas tree. They told me at school.”
She stomps down the hallway to the guest bedroom she stays at whenever I work late. Great. I wonder what else the kids at school have been talking about. She’s only in kindergarten. However, these days, they know everything, although I doubt they understand artificial insemination, which is why I’ll never be able to find Bree’s biological father.
The baby inside me, Tyler’s baby, kicks and turns as a wave of exhaustion crests over me. Some days, I don’t believe I can do it all—work a full time job chasing insider traders for the government, be a mother to Bree, and hold onto my high-risk pregnancy.
“Are you okay?” My mother grips my arm. “Any contractions?”
“I’m sorry Bree ruined everything. Please continue with your dinner. I’m going to rest.” I didn’t want to let her know about the contractions and tightness around my womb. I’d been spotting off and on during this pregnancy, and while I haven’t been ordered on bedrest yet, I have to monitor myself by counting contractions and kicks every day.
“It’s okay.” My mother rubs my back. “Everyone here is family or friends. We understand.”
“Thanks. Maybe I should call Tyler again and let Bree speak to him. May I be excused?”
“Of course. It’s hard to talk to him when all of us are around. Obviously, Bree heard something from school.”
I nod and smile to everyone around the table and push myself away. I can’t expect Bree to understand the stress Tyler is under. He still suffers from PTSD caused by his combat days, and even though he hides it from me, I’m only too aware why he’s chosen to travel so much.
“Bree?” I stop in front of the bedroom door. “We can’t call Tyler until after six our time.” Afghanistan is twelve and a half hours ahead of California. “He’s sleeping right now.”
“I don’t want Tyler. I want my real father.” Bree flips through a storybook. “My real papa will buy me a dog and play with me all the time. He’ll read me stories and take me to the zoo.”
“Oh, sweetie.” I sit on the daybed next to her. “You have so many people who love you. Me, Nana, Ella, and Tyler.”
Bree continues flipping through the storybook. It’s my mother’s old Barney Beagle book, a story about a dog waiting at a pet shop for his very own special person.
Bree stops on a page where a girl with a fancy coat takes Poodle home with her.
“See how happy they look.” She echoes Barney, the little beagle, who is left overnight in the store without a boy or girl. “Will Tyler bring me home a puppy?”
“Maybe,” I say idly.
Bree used to call Tyler “Papa” when we first got together last year just after Christmas. Everything was great back then. Tyler had been a homeless veteran, but had landed a job as spokesperson for Warspring, International, an organization that raises and distributes funds for charities benefiting children who are orphans because of war.
He moved in with us, and I thought we’d get married, eventually. We were so perfect together, me, Tyler, and Bree that I got careless about birth control. Once we found out we were pregnant, Tyler redoubled his efforts on finding speaking engagements to earn money to save for a down payment on a house. I don’t know why I never noticed, but little by little, he began traveling more frequently and staying away longer.
“Bree,” my sister, Ella, calls from the dining room. “Nana says you can have dessert first. How about a hot fudge brownie and strawberry ice cream?”
“A brownie!” Bree drops the storybook and bounces off the bed. “I want a brown puppy just like Barney Beagle. Mommy says my real daddy will bring me one for Christmas.”
~ Tyler ~
Sweat ringed Tyler’s head and he rolled, tangled in the damp sheets, unable to sleep. The chill of an Afghan winter did nothing to cool the heat coursing his veins. The sports compound he was in charge of was in the northeastern part of Afghanistan, near the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains separating Afghanistan from Pakistan.
Minutes and hours ticked by, and he still had a million things he needed to do. Much needed supplies had been delayed, and money was missing from the books. The center director had quit, and key staff members hadn’t shown up for work. Instead of running a sports camp for boys, the walled compound had filled up with refugees from areas where the Taliban and other insurgents fought for control after the US withdrew the bulk of its forces last year.
In any case, Tyler couldn’t turn needy people away, and after months of being back in Afghanistan, he had to conclude that the sports idea was unfeasible when there were so many children in need of basic shelter, food, and medical treatment. About all he’d accomplished was replacing the sacks used for street soccer with real soccer balls for the children to use.
Not that he’d given up. He still held matches for the residents and taught them how to exercise. Playing sports was healthy, and even the tiniest smile was a reward for his efforts.
Which were never enough. Ever.
He wiped his palms over his face and breathed to calm his galloping heart. It was Thanksgiving in the States, and he’d chatted with Kelly and Bree by video call right before turning in. Kelly had put on a cheery smile, but her eyes were tired, even though she’d assured him she was doing great. Bree, however, had barely looked at him, only answering when Kelly told her to say “hi” and “bye.”
Then there was the baby. Kelly said her checkups were normal, and there was nothing for him to worry about. Her mother and sister were eager to let him believe everything was okay, but deep in Tyler’s gut, he knew something was off.
Bree. His darling girl—the daughter he’d promised to adopt, hadn’t asked him for anything, not a trinket, a souvenir, a flower, or a piece of candy. She also hadn’t called him “Papa.”
Everything was not fine, no matter what Kelly said, and of course, it was all his fault. He loved Kelly and Bree more than his own life, but lately, he could do nothing right.
Tyler’s gut clenched, and he stared at the ceiling in the cold, dank office of the refugee center. What was he doing in this hellhole? The place that had stolen his life? What had he done to deserve the guilt?
You killed a little boy. You shot him dead. You’re a killer. A monster. You’ll never atone for it. You let your buddies die.
The continual rattling of machine gun fire stuttered as background noise to the deafening explosions of mortar fire. His brigade was under attack. He had to call in for air support. Where was his com unit? Why couldn’t he connect? He repeated the request. They were taking heavy fire from several machine gun nests hidden in the rocks above the hillside. An unidentified vehicle barreled through the checkpoint, not halting on command.
The roar of an explosion shocked his eardrums as a giant column of orange flames and thick, putrid smoke ascended in an upward column. Another explosion rocketed the entire compound. Heat flashed in a ball of flame and walls crumbled.
His skin melted off his body, and he was deaf except for the pounding of his heart. A wall of orange surrounded him, yet he felt no pain.
Good. He deserved to die. He let others die. He killed a kid.
Die, asshole, die.
An electronic rendition of “Jingle Bells” played merrily in the hellhole he was in. Tyler kicked and his limbs twitched. He bumped his head and the springs on the cot squeaked. Opening his eyes, he sat up.
Again, “Jingle Bells” chimed. It was his phone. Stumbling to his feet, he hit his knee on the desk and knocked the phone onto the floor. His shirt was plastered to his sweat-drenched back, and the room seemed to tilt and turn.
Patting on the dusty floor, he found his phone. Missed call from Kelly. At four in the morning? Of course it was afternoon for her, but she knew the time difference.
What if something had happened to the baby? He checked his wifi connection and called her from the video conference app.
She answered immediately. “I woke you. Are you okay?”
“Are you okay?” He ran his hand over his damp forehead and tried to calm his breathing. “How’s the baby?”
“He’s fine. I just had to hear your voice.” Her face was distorted, being so close to the phone, and if he wasn’t mistaken, she was sitting on the toilet at her mother’s apartment, because he recognized the towel rack hanging behind her.
“Are you sure? You’re not bleeding, are you?”
“Only the usual.” She blinked and sniffled, wiping the corners of her eyes.
“Usual? What does that mean? Has your water broken?”
“No. Just spots, not the type to worry about, according to the doctor.”
“Kel, you don’t have to hide it from me.” Tyler wanted to reach across the miles and hold her. “Get it checked out. I mean, you’re hiding in the bathroom. Why?”
“Because of Bree.”
“Bree? What’s happened to Bree?” Tyler’s voice hitched. “Is she okay?”
“She’s fine. Ella’s playing with her.”
“Then why are you hiding in the bathroom?”
“Because I want to talk to you alone. Everyone’s out there having Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t want to ruin it for them.”
“Ruin?” Tyler’s chest tightened, and he found it hard to breathe. “Is there something I should know about?”
Kelly swallowed hard and nodded. Her hazel eyes were dark and watery. “I need you to come home. I really do.”
Shit. Something had to be very wrong. Kelly was a strong woman. She’d always insisted she could handle it all: the pregnancy, working, and raising Bree. Still, through it all, she was as beautiful as ever. Her warm honey brown hair was longer than he remembered, and tangled. But she had circles under her eyes, and her shoulders drooped with exhaustion.
All he wanted to do was to pull her into his arms and make all the pain go away—except he’d put it there. He and his effed up stress disorders or whatever the weenies stateside wanted to call them.
Tyler swallowed hard and touched the screen. “I should be home soon. Right after the convoy arrives with the supplies for the winter. I need to take delivery and transfer the funds.”
“Okay, I’ll wait. There are things we need to talk about.”
An electric spark jiggled over his shoulder blades. He was already on alert, every minute and every second, anticipating a bombshell or attack. “What is it? Is something wrong? Is it me?”
“We’ll talk when you get home. I’m sorry I woke you. I just had to see you.”
“Something happened. You sure the baby’s okay?”
“He’s fine. It’s Bree I’m worried about.”
“Is she sick or has something happened at school?”
Kelly bit her lip. “She’s been bugging me to find her real father—the one who donated the sperm.”
“Are you saying there might be a problem with the adoption?”
Kelly did that eye flip females often did when he wasn’t getting something.
Dammit. Why doesn’t she just spit it out? She was through with him and his problems, his jumpiness and inability to focus. Worst of all were the nightmares and violent episodes where he found himself running out in the middle of the night looking for insurgents. Life with him was one never-ending rollercoaster of pain and worry.
“Kel? Tell me. Are you upset with me?”
She blew out a breath. “You promised me you’d stop running, but you’re still out there running.”
“We agreed that I should come here. I have to fix this. I started the charity and people depend on me. Once it’s stocked for the winter, I’ll be back. Promise.”
Kelly didn’t understand how harsh the Afghan winter could be. The mountainous passes were dangerous enough with bandits and terrorists, but in winter, they could be impassable. He had to secure the compound and supervise the delivery of supplies, or corrupt officials would steal everything and the people would suffer.
“Sure, Tyler. We agreed.” Kelly stiffened her upper lip. “I’m sorry I’m being selfish. I just miss you so much.”
“I miss you, too.” He couldn’t help the cracking of his voice and the lump growing in his throat. “I love you so much. Give Bree a kiss from me. I love her, too. I’ll be back before you know it.”
She moved her mouth up to the camera and made a kissing sound, and as stupid as it was, Tyler also kissed his phone camera. It was pathetic.
“I love you, Tyler. Take care of yourself.” She wiped her eyes and pressed her lips together. “See you soon.”