ALWAYS FOR YOU—JACK
by Alexis Morgan
Sergeant Joe's Boys, Book 1
April 19, 2016
Praised by Susan Mallery as a bestselling author whose "heartfelt, touching stories never disappoint," Alexis Morgan introduces Sergeant Joe's Boys: three brothers living up to a legacy of courageous military service—and pursuing the women who have captured their hearts.
No one understands family loyalty like Jack McShane. He'd do anything to honor his foster father's last wishes, even if it means putting his own plans on hold to manage Joe's construction business. An ex-Special Forces operative, Jack thrives on the thrill of globe-hopping rescues. But now he's needed closer to home. His foster mother has her hands full with a troubled teen, and when Jack meets the hired tutor, he discovers a woman who stirs his protective instincts—and his deepest desires.
Caitlyn Curtis knows that good looks can hide a hot temper. After an abusive marriage crushed her dreams of a happy ending, she swore off men—until one intoxicating dance in Jack's strong arms breaks down every emotional barrier. Tough but tender, he leaves Caitlyn yearning for more of his gentle seduction. Despite the violence he's seen, Jack is a good man. And even though passion can be dangerous, the promise of Jack's kiss tempts her to believe that love is a risk worth taking.
Twenty-one shots rang out, and three men in uniform snapped to attention. As the sound faded away on the breeze, a solitary bugler slowly lifted a brass horn to his lips. Within seconds, the haunting strains of Taps brought tears to the eyes of more than a few of the people gathered around the new grave.
A small woman sat front and center, her shaking hands clasped in her lap while soldiers carefully folded the flag that had draped her husband's coffin. When they were done, they saluted and then presented it to her along with the heartfelt gratitude of the nation and its commander in chief. She clutched the symbol of her husband's service to their country and held it close to her heart just as she had the man himself.
As soon as the soldiers moved away, the sons of her heart relaxed their stance and gathered her into their arms. She was so proud of the men they'd become, each in his own way a reflection of her husband. They were Joe's true legacy, the source of the greatest pride in his life. He'd gifted each of them with a sense of purpose, a place to belong, a family.
Now it would be her job to help them find the one last thing they each needed: someone to love them as she'd loved her Joe. If she could do that for her boys, then she would count her own life well lived.
Two days had passed since the funeral when Jack McShane and his two brothers walked into the office of a local law firm. After they identified themselves, the receptionist led them into a conference room dominated by a heavy wooden table surrounded by ten chairs. "Gentlemen, please make yourselves comfortable. I'm sure Mr. Beaumont will be right in. While you're waiting, can I offer you some coffee or bottled water?"
Jack answered for all three of them as they took seats at the far end of the table. "Coffee. We all take it black."
Actually, he didn't know how his siblings took their coffee these days, but he wasn't in the mood to listen to a lot of discussion about flavored creamers and sugar versus sweeteners. If there was one thing he'd learned while serving in other parts of the world, it was that the people in the Pacific Northwest took their coffee a little too seriously.
Since neither of the other two protested, either he'd gotten it right or else they also weren't in the mood to hassle with meaningless details. Within seconds of sitting down, Tino started shifting restlessly in his seat. Jack figured it was the situation and not the chair that was making his middle brother so uncomfortable. Predictably it was Mikhail who gave voice to their concern. "I wish we knew why this lawyer guy wanted to meet with just us. I still think we should've insisted Mom come with us."
Jack didn't bother to respond. They'd had this same conversation multiple times since the attorney had called to ask them to come in today. He had assured Jack that their mother was aware of the situation, and they were free to discuss it with her if they felt the need. Hell, yeah, they'd felt the need. There was no way any of them would go behind Marlene's back. To their surprise, she'd simply verified what the lawyer had told them and said it was best they go alone.
The door opened a few seconds later, and Mr. Beaumont entered with a stack of files tucked under his arm and carrying a small tray containing four cups and a coffee carafe. Jack wasn't sure why he felt compelled to stand, but at least his brothers followed suit.
"I appreciate your patience, gentlemen, and may I start off by expressing my condolences over Joe's death. He was one hell of a man, and I was proud to call him my friend."
Once again, Jack took the lead. "Thank you, Mr. Beaumont. I know he thought highly of you as well."
One by one, they shook the attorney's hand before resuming their seats. After passing around the coffee, Mr. Beaumont handed each of them a file folder. Jack noted his was specifically labeled with his name. Interesting.
"Inside those folders you'll find a copy of your father's trust or at least the portion that applies to the three of you. We'll go over the high points here in a minute. Regardless, I would recommend that you study it for yourselves, and Marlene has the complete document for the trust at the house as well. She has already indicated that you are welcome to read over it in its entirety. I will be glad to answer any questions you might have, either now or after you've all had time to mull things over."
He paused to sip his coffee. "To begin with, you will find a sealed envelope in those file folders, which contains a letter from Joe. While I am not privy to the actual contents, he did tell me he had a few things he wanted to tell each of you individually, stuff he thought you should know. He was afraid that something might happen that would prevent him from doing so at the right time. This was his way to ensure he got the job done."
Jack jerked upright in his chair. "Dad knew he was dying and didn't tell us?"
Because if Joe had known and hadn't told them, that would piss off his sons big time. But the attorney was already shaking his head. "No, he didn't. His heart attack took everyone by surprise. I assure you that I've had these letters in hand for well over two years now. Joe gave them to me the last time he and Marlene came in to do a routine review of their trust to make sure everything was up to date."
Okay, then. Jack's blood pressure returned to normal. He nodded to encourage the attorney to get on with it.
"He said that the letters were not meant to be read immediately, but that each of you would eventually figure out when you most needed to hear what he had to say."
The lawyer smiled briefly. "You all knew Joe better than I did, but I'm guessing those envelopes contain the kind of advice a man wants to share with his sons when something major is going on in their lives. My recommendation would be to put your letters someplace safe, and when you most wish your old man was there to talk to, read what he wanted to tell you."
Evidently that was all he had to say on the subject, because he opened the file in front of him and said, "If you'll take out the excerpt from the trust, I'd like you to follow along with me."
When they each had the papers laid out in front of them, he continued talking. "Now, I'll give you a brief summary of what your father wanted me to discuss with you at this meeting. As you all know, after Joe retired from the army, he took over his father's construction company. All told, the company has been in existence for close to sixty years now. I'm sure you'll all agree that's an amazing accomplishment, especially considering the ups and downs of the construction business."
Where was the man going with this? He seemed to be waiting for some kind of response.
Jack made brief eye contact with his brothers before speaking. "There were definitely some tough times along the way, but Dad always managed to keep the company in the black and food on the table. He took great pride in that."
The attorney smiled. "He did, indeed. While I won't go into detail, be assured that Marlene's future is secure thanks to their hard work and careful investments. She should never have to worry about running out of money in her lifetime."
That was good to know. But even if Joe had left her penniless, her three sons would have stepped up to make sure she was provided for.
"So, now we come to the real reason for this meeting. As you will see in the trust, it was Joe's fervent hope that his family business would continue on into the next generation. In short, he has left each of you an equal share in the company. The transfer of ownership will begin immediately. Again, Marlene was deeply involved in this decision, and it meets with her approval. While she is willing to assist in the transition, she has no desire to maintain an active role in the business once you three have had a chance to get situated."
After that little bombshell, whatever else the man had to say was little better than gibberish to Jack. He suspected it was the same for Tino and Mikhail. Why the hell wouldn't Joe have asked them if any of them wanted the business before tying them up with all this legal mumbo jumbo? As far as Jack knew, both of the others planned to make a career of the military. Tino was part of the army's military police, and Mikhail was a recon marine.
Until recently Jack had himself been in the Special Forces. He'd left the service three months ago because of an injury to his right knee that would make a return to combat unlikely. Since then, he'd been working for a friend whose company provided security forces and bodyguards for companies with business interests in unstable parts of the world. These days, that was pretty much anywhere. The work was lucrative, but that wasn't why Jack had taken the job. He needed the discipline that it provided because . . . He cut off that line of thought when he suddenly realized the meeting was breaking up.
Shit, had he missed anything important? If so, hopefully Tino would fill in the blanks for him.
"Again, I'm sorry about Joe, and please let me know your decision about the business as soon as possible so we can process the necessary paperwork."
This time Jack let his brothers lead the way, each of them pausing long enough to shake the attorney's hand one last time. As soon as they were outside, he headed straight for Joe's old truck. "I don't know about you two, but I could use a beer . . . or three."
Mikhail clapped him on the shoulder, "Big brother, I love the way you think."
Twenty minutes later, the three of them were ensconced in their favorite booth at a small bar not far from the law office. When the first round was sitting in front of them on the scarred table, Tino got the ball rolling. "So, how do we want to handle this?"
Jack took a long, slow drink of beer, more to avoid responding than because he was thirsty. If he waited long enough, he could usually depend on Tino to answer his own questions. Jack liked that about his brother. That didn't mean he always liked what the man would say. His gut feeling said that this was going to be one of those times.
"It's clear that one of us has to step up and take over. You know, like immediately." Tino glanced at their youngest brother before continuing. "Mikhail and I both think it's obvious who that should be."
Maybe to them. Jack didn't see it that way, leastwise not if they were talking about him. To buy himself a little more time, he signaled the waitress to bring another round. The longer he held out, the better the chance that one of his brothers would jump the gun and volunteer instead.
The continuing silence made it clear that wasn't going to happen. Damn it all, they had him cornered and knew it. Thanks to his bum knee, he was the only one who didn't have to report back for duty. Besides, none of them would leave Marlene Lukash in the lurch, especially when she had just lost her husband of forty-plus years. He set his drink down on the table a little harder than was necessary.
"Fine, but I'm not making any long-term promises. For now, I'll sit down with Mom and see what needs to be done. If a job has been started, I'll finish it. If Dad already ordered materials for a job, I'll see that it gets done." He leaned forward, staring hard at each of his brothers. "But that's it. If he'd only written an estimate or had an appointment scheduled to write one, we should pass the work off to another contractor. Mom will know the best ones to recommend."
Mikhail was already shaking his head. "She won't like that, and you know it. Seeing the business close down will be like she's losing Dad all over again. Besides, I hate the thought of her rattling around in that big house all alone so soon after his passing. Not to mention she can't take care of the whole house and that huge yard."
Jack snorted. "Baby brother, I want to be there when you try telling her that. For sure she'll kick your worthless ass up and down the street for suggesting she can't mow her own lawn."
"That doesn't mean she should have to do it all by herself." Mikhail reached over to punch Jack's arm. "And I'm not your baby brother, asshole. There's less than a year's difference in age between all three of us."
Tino joined back in the conversation. "Mikhail is right on both counts. Mom won't like it if we shut down Joe's Construction Company, and she shouldn't be alone right now."
Mikhail clinked his beer bottle against Tino's. "Here, here."
Tino grinned. "But having said that, Jack is also right. You're ten months younger than he is and six months younger than me. Any way you look at it, that makes you the baby of the family."
He saluted Jack with his beer in a show of solidarity. "So, now that we have that much settled, what can we do to help you take over the business?"
Surrender tasted bitter. But after his time in the army, Jack knew when a battle was a lost cause. "If you two idiots can hang around for a few days, I'll make a trip back east to get my stuff packed up. If I'm going to be here for a while, there's no use in paying rent back there. I'll make arrangements to have it all shipped and just bring the things I'll need for the short term with me. Considering everything, it will take me a week or so to get back here with my SUV." Tino leaned back in his seat, looking far more relaxed than he had a few minutes ago. "I can hang out here for another week at least. While you're gone, Mom and I can go through active jobs to see what needs to be done. We'll call the customers to make sure they know why there will be a delay. I should have it all organized by the time you get back."
Mikhail joined in. "I asked for three weeks' leave, so I'll be here, too. While he works with Mom, I'll do the yard work and go through the house to see if anything needs immediate attention before I have to leave. And if she wants help going through Dad's things, we can handle that, too. If there's anything of his that you might want, let me know."
Jack caught himself rubbing his chest, trying to ease the ache that had taken up residence there the minute he'd gotten the call about Joe's death. The man had been the one rock in Jack's life, and his death had left a big hole in all of his sons' lives, that was for sure. He forced his hand back down to the table. The answer to Mikhail's question was easy. "I don't know if Mom will be weeding out any of Dad's library, but I'd like his collection of Zane Grey books if they haven't fallen completely apart by now."
All three brothers smiled. Jack didn't know about the other two, but he'd lost count of the number of times he'd seen their father reading those old westerns. He'd often thought Joe would've been right at home in the Wild West. He'd definitely had the personality to be a hard-nosed lawman always on the hunt for outlaws.
Mikhail nodded. "I'll let Mom know you'd like them."
Jack finished off his second beer and set the empty on the table. "We'd better get back to the house, so I can make travel arrangements."
It was Tino's turn to pay, so on the way out he tossed some money down on the table to cover their tab. Outside, they piled into Joe's old pickup. Jack turned the key, and the engine kicked over immediately. The truck was over two decades old and looked its age after all the years it had spent on construction sites. However, like everything else that was important in Joe's life, the engine and transmission were in perfect running order. That brought back another rash of images of Joe and the three of them spending hours together tuning up cars and lawnmower engines. Even now, Jack could almost hear the man saying, "Take care of your tools, boys, and they'll take care of you."
The memory made him smile.
They rode in silence the short distance back to the house. As they pulled into the driveway, Tino cleared his throat. "Um, guys, what are we going to tell Mom about the business? I don't want to lead her on and let her think we're champing at the bit to take over the company permanently when we're clearly not. Do you think honoring the last of Dad's commitments will be enough to make her happy?"
Jack already knew the answer to that. Hell, no, she wouldn't be happy. Marlene and Joe had dreamed of the day when their three sons would return home and start families of their own. No doubt the two of them saw giving them the company like this as a way of jump-starting that process. Jack didn't know how the other two felt about that possibility, but he had no intentions of ever saddling the world with another generation of McShanes. "I'll talk to her after dinner and let you know how it goes."
Then the three of them trooped into the house and tried to pretend it didn't seem awfully damn empty with Joe no longer living there.