Swirling blue and red lights danced across the bricks outside of St. Elmo’s Fire. The dancing lights only intensified Kade’s pounding head as he was shoved into the backseat of a police cruiser. Six hundred minutes. That’s all it took ex-SEAL Kade Kingston to find trouble his first day home. He’d managed to survive covert operations in the hostile mountains of Afghanistan, only to be brought down by a baseball bat.
“Jesus, what a clusterfuck,” Kade groaned, leaning back against the seat.
“My brother didn’t kill anyone,” Kyle shouted from outside the car. “He’s a war hero for Christ’s sake.”
“Kyle!” Kade barked from the open door before they closed it, “call Prez before they fly out.”
“I thought you said they were leaving for an eighteen month deployment?”
“They are, but I need them to know what’s happening before they leave.”
The door slammed on his words. Kyle put his hand up to the cruiser’s window as the officer climbed in the front, so Kade did the same. He and Kyle were close; had looked out for each other since the day they’d watched their mother walk away.
Kade held his brother’s eyes as the cruiser pulled away. When he lost sight of him, he closed his eyes to the pounding in his head. “Jesus. Six hundred fuckin’ minutes is all it took for trouble to find me. Seems like old times,” Kade mumbled.
Thinking back over the night, he knew if he had the first five hundred minutes back, he would have only had one drink instead of the multiple shots the bar patrons had bought to welcome him home. He’d have been clear headed then and would have forced Sutton into telling him what the hell was going on with him. As it stood now, he and his old friend were dead in the water—literally and figuratively.
Six hundred minutes, that’s all it took to lose everything he’d worked so hard for, including his freedom.
Eighteen months later . . .
“You’ve been listening to Born Under A Bad Moon by Thieving Birds. It’s the top of the hour at TK 101 and time to bring you up to the minute on breaking news, weather, and sports. First up, the murder trial of Kade Kingston came to a close late last night. A Jury of his peers found him guilty of the 2013 murder of Stan Sutton. Kingston, a local war hero and former friend of the deceased, is said to have stabbed Sutton during an altercation behind St. Elmo’s Fire bar. The stabbing took place on the same night Kingston returned home after serving twelve years in the Navy to care for his ailing grandfather. Witnesses said the two had words inside the bar, and then a short time later, when Sutton left, Kingston followed. Sutton was found stabbed to death behind St. Elmo’s Fire after Kingston stumbled back into the bar holding the murder weapon. Kingston pleaded not guilty, insisting there were three unknown men in the alley besides him. The prosecution argued the defendant had a prior history of aggression with the deceased and no evidence to corroborate his claim that three unknown assailants committed the crime. After eight hours of deliberation, Kingston was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to fifteen years at Renault Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison an hour outside of Pensacola. Kingston’s former SEAL team was contacted for comment, but are currently on assignment and unable to respond. . .”
“That’s a travesty of justice if I ever saw one. Kingston’s trial was rushed through the courts quicker than a whore in a room full of Johns. A jury of his peers?” my dad scoffed as he angrily switched off the radio. “A jury of his peers would have been twelve men who’d fought by his side in Afghanistan. What the hell do civilians know about military men?”
“Nothing,” I answered my hold-nothing-back-speak-his-mind-don’t-shit-a-bullshitter father as I switched on the coffee pot in my office. My dad, a former Navy man himself, believed in Kingston’s innocence from the first moment we’d heard about the murder. He’d dealt with Kade on several occasions when he’d come into our auto repair shop over the years and didn’t believe for a minute that he was guilty.
“That’s right. Nothin’. If Kingston said he followed Sutton outside because he was acting like a man with the devil on his back, and found him being attacked by three men, then that’s how it happened.”
“But they found no evidence that anyone else was in the alley,” I argued, playing devil’s advocate like I always did when the topic of whether or not Kade Kingston was a killer was brought up.
“Then how do you explain the lump and the blood on the back of his head, Harley? Did he shove his own head into a wall to make himself look innocent?”
“No. He was attacked from behind just like he said he was,” I answered without hesitation.
“Damn straight he was attacked from behind. It was sloppy police work that convicted Kingston,” Dad seethed.
“Right. Sloppy police work and no witnesses to verify what actually happened in that alley.”
“It’s bullshit, that’s what it is. SEALs serve with honor and integrity on and off the battlefield. There’s no way he took anyone’s life unless it was during combat. You mark my words, Harley. When his team gets back, they’ll find out the truth about what happened that night. Kingston may have been a bit of a tomcat in his youth, but he’s no killer.”
I nodded in agreement because I hoped like heck that he was right about Kade’s former SEAL team coming to the rescue. Why? Because Kade Kingston was, or is, basically, the man of my dreams and had been since I was sixteen years old. Unfortunately, for me, he didn’t know I existed.
He was an all-around wild child who’d enlisted in the military straight out of high school. He’d been a badass and a blatant womanizer in his youth, but he was no killer. At least not in my father’s eyes—or mine for that matter.
The first time I met Kade was in high school. Or, more accurately, the first time I met Kade, he knocked me on my ass. It happened during a fight on the football field. One he’d started after an offensive lineman from my own Milton High School—a small town outside Pensacola where Whiting Naval Airfield was located—had cheap shot him during a play. Punches were thrown as both sides joined in the melee, which ended up on the sidelines just as my cheer squad had lifted me to the top of a pyramid. To this day, I don’t know how I managed to escape injury.
The fight crashed into our tower of pom-poms, so I, of course, came tumbling down, landing on top of the players. When the dust finally settled, a large lineman was pulled from on top of me and the hand that reached out to help me was attached to Kade. He’d been big in high school; looked more like a college player than the junior he was at the time. Suited out in his pads and helmet, he’d looked more like Goliath to my sixteen-year-old self. When I took his hand to stand up, he’d grinned sheepishly at me and mumbled, “Sorry,” as he helped me to my feet. To this day, I still remember how my heart skipped a beat at that smile being turned in my direction.
I’d noticed him, of course, before the game started; he was hard to miss considering he towered over the other players. But when he’d helped me up and our eyes met, as he smiled that sheepish grin, I was determined to learn his name.When the game was over, I asked a cheerleader I knew from his high school and that’s how I learned his name. And his reputation. But that didn’t stop me. He may have been known as a troublemaker, one most parents wanted their daughters to stay away from, but that grin and apology told me all I needed to know. Deep down, he was a good person; he was just misunderstood.
I’ve always believed you can’t change the core of someone. Either you’re born with a good heart or you’re not. Kade may have had a rough childhood—according to the papers, he’d been raised by his grandfather after both his parents took off—but rough or not, I was certain that deep down at his core he was a good man. I saw that about Kade immediately. So I didn’t care about the rumors and went looking for him before his team loaded their bus. Unfortunately, when I found him, he was in a group of players celebrating their win with a girl wrapped around him. Disappointed, he had a girlfriend, and secretly crushed he hadn’t had the same reaction to me when our eyes locked, I’d walked away. I never forgot about him, though. Any time I ran into someone from his school, I’d inquire about him. Each time we played his school in any sports I looked for him at the games. It was always the same, though: he’d be surrounded by his friends and have some curvy girl hanging all over him.
High school ended for Kade a year before me and he left Pensacola. I thought I’d never see him again and moved on, but even so, he always hung in the recesses of my mind, popping up from time to time when I would think about the type of man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Every man seemed to pale in comparison to the memory of that boy with the grin.
Years passed by and I’d almost forgotten about my muse when he popped back into my world for a brief heart-stopping moment. My dad owned an auto and bike repair shop just outside Milton near Whiting Field. Kade owned a bike and he’d driven into the forecourt of my dad’s repair shop looking for a part for his bike. He’d been on leave from the Navy. He was Special Forces by then, which made him even more of a badass than he’d been in high school, and was heading to Whiting Field to fly out for another mission when he stopped in. I was in the office handling the accounts receivable when I heard the deep rumble of his pipes. I stood to see who had arrived and watched with fascination as he slung his long, muscled leg over his bike. I recognized him immediately and froze in place; a trance like state overcame my body as I tried to remember to breathe. He approached my dad and shook his hand. While they were talking, he’d turned his head and caught sight of me at the window. He’d paused in mid-sentence when he saw me, almost as if he recognized me as I did him. A slow grin pulled across his mouth and he jerked his chin in acknowledgment before I could duck in humiliation at having been caught drooling like a lovesick fool.
When he turned back to my dad, I drank in his body and all that had changed since high school. From the top of his dark-brown, cropped short hair, to the strong shadowed jaw with a day’s old growth, further down to his lean waist, supported by muscled thighs, all the way down to his standard-issue military boots. His eyes were as dark as his hair and they told a story. A story that said he’d been exposed to horrors that most would never encounter in their lifetime. But his smile . . . his smile was still the same sheepish grin that haunted my dreams. His dark looks and haunted eyes, coupled with his powerful body and natural masculine grace, spelled out badass perfection in Navy fatigues. And everything about him made my body hum.
I went to move so I could introduce myself, but once again, as if the fates were determined we never officially meet, he left before I could. He’d looked at his watch and stopped my father while he was talking, pointing at the time. He clapped my dad on the back then looked over his shoulder at me one last time before climbing on his bike. He drove away as I stood rooted to the spot, and that was the last time I’d seen Kade before he was arrested for the murder of Stan Sutton.
“Did you hear? He’s going to that prison where you train your dogs,” Dad mumbled, breaking me from my thoughts.
“I caught that,” I replied as I switched on my computer to get ready for another day at Dirty Harry’s Auto Repair.
“You know a man like Kingston would be a good candidate to help rehabilitate one of your abused dogs.”
“He would, but he’s got to prove to the prison counselor that he isn’t a threat before he can be considered for the program. That could take up to six months.”
“Do your old man a favor and see if you can push it through faster.”
“I can try, Dad, but Kade has to want to help. If his heart isn’t in it, he won’t be successful with the dog he’s assigned.”
Placing both hands on my shoulders, my father leaned in, becoming deadly serious for a moment.
“A man like Kingston, one who’s used to leading soldiers into battle, isn’t gonna shy away from the challenge of rehabilitating a dog. Promise me you’ll try to push it through. Kingston’s been stripped of his identity and his rights. Placed behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. He’ll withdraw and focus on the wrong that’s been done to him, Harley. He’ll lose himself in the hate; you gotta keep him in the light until this mess can be straightened out by his team.”
“What makes you so sure that his team will come?”
“Leave no man behind, baby girl. It’s a code among all military men. SEALs are intensely loyal to each other, all the way down to a newborn baby. Once a SEAL, always a SEAL. They won’t leave him behind to rot in prison; you’ll see, as soon as they can break free, they’ll be here. In the meantime, you work on getting him approved for IDTP and keeping him focused on something besides hate.”
IDTP was a dog-training program I had heard about on the news years ago. I’d sought them out and became a volunteer. You see, I’d wanted to be a Veterinarian growing up; had planned to attend veterinary school after high school. But I never attended because my mother became ill my senior year and I’d stayed home to care for her. Then my father needed me. My mother had always handled my dad’s books and when she became ill, I had to step in. After graduation, my friends left Milton for college and never returned while I stayed behind working in my father’s garage and caring for my dying mother. I wouldn’t have changed a thing; being with my mother at the end of her life was the only place I wanted to be. However, in the time since my mother’s passing, only two things had changed in my life.
One) I’d been married for two years at the age of twenty-four to a man who was more of an escape than the love of my life. I’d met Mike at a time when I was restless and missing my mother fiercely. He was two years older and he made me laugh so we naturally assumed marriage was the next step. I’d seen my friends leave and start their lives while I was still in the same house with the same job, watching my life speed by without me. So when Mike casually said we should get married, I accepted. Fortunately, we’d both seen the error in marrying for the wrong reasons and divorced amicably. In fact, we were still friends to this day.
I still felt restless though, as if trapped in an endless cycle of time passing me by while I watched others live their lives. At least I was wise enough now to direct my restless frustration in a direction that helped others as opposed to jumping into another loveless relationship.
I still felt restless though, as if trapped in an endless cycle of time passing me by while I watched others live their lives. At least I was wise enough now to direct my restless frustration in a direction that helped others as opposed to jumping into another loveless relationship.
Two) Three days a week, I traveled to Renault Correctional Facility and helped inmates train abused and neglected dogs so they can be adopted by good families. The Inmate Dog Training Program saved one canine at a time while also teaching inmates life and job skills that would help them when they reentered society. I’d been volunteering for five years now and it gave my life a purpose besides balancing books.
“Well? Will you try and rush through Kade’s acceptance to the program?”
Nodding my head in agreement, I grabbed my father’s hands and squeezed once before replying.
“I promise, Dad. I’ll drag him kicking and screaming into the program if I have to.”
My dad didn’t have to ask me to intervene, though, as soon as I’d heard he was heading to Renault, I’d already made a mental note to request Kade for IDTP. He’d be a perfect candidate. Someone like Kade would take great care of a dog that had known nothing but a life of neglect and abuse. And the dog would give Kade something to focus on besides the fact that he was behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Now, all I had to do was push it through and pray I could actually talk to the man when we finally came face to face.
Six months later . . .
Grenades exploded around Kade as he watched Sutton slump to the ground. The smell of cordite burned his lungs and eyes as he tried to reach his fallen brother. Two enemy soldiers had taken him out; one held Sutton’s arms behind his back while the other shoved a knife deep into his chest. Reacting to the sight of his fallen brother, Kade’s boots hit the pavement as his long legs ate up the distance from the bar to where Sutton lay dying. His thundering shout alerted the enemy of his approach, but he was prepared to handle them both. With his eyes trained on the man holding the knife, he didn’t see the third man until he felt the blow to the back of his head. Crumbling to the ground, dazed, he watched Sutton reach out his hand as blood dripped from his mouth. Moments later, his eyes closed slowly for the last time while Kade lost his own battle with consciousness.
Bolting upright, drawing deep breaths into his lungs, then letting them out slowly, Kade tried to shake the dream he’d had almost nightly since Sutton’s murder. It was always the same; two deadly nights intertwined into one: the night they’d infiltrated a cave in Afghanistan, where grenades flew and bodies piled up, and the night Sutton ran out the back door of St. Elmo’s Fire like he’d seen a ghost.
Turning on his cot, he placed his feet on the floor of his 6x8 cell. He looked around at the dimly lit cage, he called home, and his mind drifted back to that fateful night like it always did when he woke from the dream. It had been two years since Sutton’s murder and a little over six months since he’d been found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit.
He’d left Pensacola and joined the Navy to escape his wild youth, only to land right back in the thick of it without even trying. A former rebel without a clue, he was lucky he didn’t have little Kade juniors running all over Florida. After too many narrow escapes, he’d only seen one option to keep from being another sad statistic of a broken home: join the military and make something of his life instead of ending up dead by the time he was thirty from booze, drugs, or both.
His father had abandoned them when he was five and his brother Kyle was two. His mother couldn’t hack being a single parent at the age of twenty-five so she’d walked out as well. She’d left to relive her youth with only a phone call to his paternal grandfather saying, “I’m outta here, come get the boys.” She hadn’t bothered to look back in twenty-seven years. His dad had made an appearance once every five years or so to borrow money from his grandfather, until one day he didn’t. No one had heard from him in ten years and Kade’s guess was, he overdosed without I.D on him and was buried somewhere in a John Doe's grave.
This was why Kade had acted out in his youth. Nothing screamed abandonment issues and reckless behavior like being left high and dry by your parents. He’d felt that betrayal to his core and let everyone see it until the day he shipped off to boot camp. Except for his grandfather and brother Kyle, who he’d protected fiercely while growing up, he had nothing but bad memories of his childhood in Pensacola and had not intended to return. No, he’d intended to be career military and had worked his way up to Chief Ensign 2nd Class when he’d gotten a phone call from his brother, saying Pops, his grandfather, had cancer, and he needed to come home. Hearing that, he’d taken a 30-day leave of absence and hopped on a plane. When he arrived home and saw his fragile grandfather in a hospital bed, he knew he couldn’t turn his back on the man. He owed his grandfather more respect than a visit once a year while he fought for his life. So, after twelve years in the Navy, and his re-up just a few short months away, he returned to base and informed his commanding officer of his plans and filed for discharge. Sixty days later, he’d packed his bags, said good-bye to his team, and returned home to Pensacola and the life he’d left behind.
When he returned and stepped off the plane, he realized the angry young man he’d been when he left, hell-bent on never returning, had been trained out of him. He was now a lethal fighting machine with the patience of Job, one who had buried his demons through discipline. Being home for good had surprisingly felt right, and for the first time in his life, he pictured a family with a white picket fence instead of a career protecting his country.
That dream had been short lived.
He’d gone out with his brother for one drink his first night back, but one shot after another had been bought for him by bar patrons as a thank you for his service, and he’d over indulged. When Sutton came into the bar, a man he’d gone to high school with, he remembered he’d pissed the guy off when he’d nailed a girl he was sweet on. The result of his youthful indiscretion had ended in a fight that Kade had easily won. Wanting a clean slate now that he was home for good, he’d tried to talk to Sutton. Instead of allowing Kade to buy him a drink and shake hands for old times’ sake, Sutton had been on edge, belligerent, wanted to be left alone. He sure as hell didn’t care that they had feuded in high school, so Kade had backed off. But Kade’s training told him something was off with Sutton; that he might be in trouble. Out of habit, he kept an eye on his old friend and noticed immediately from across the bar when Sutton turned ghostly pale. Before Kade could turn to see who or what had spooked his friend, Sutton had left quickly out the back door. Kade being Kade, which meant he was a SEAL to the core, he’d followed Sutton out of concern. Followed him right into an ambush he hadn’t seen coming because his focus was off from one too many shots. Now, Sutton was dead and Kade was in prison for a crime he didn’t commit
The police had pinned the murder on him from the moment they’d arrived, and Kade had been helpless to stop them. No bail had been set since he was a flight risk due to his military training, and with his grandfather sick, they couldn’t afford to hire a defense attorney. He’d been left to the mercy of a public defender who was wet behind the ears and didn’t believe in his innocence. And why should he? Kade had handed himself over to the police on a silver platter.
Stunned by the blow to the back of his head, he’d stumbled back into the bar, holding the murder weapon. Between the booze and his dazed state, he hadn’t been thinking; he’d been in seek-and-destroy mode and the knife was his only weapon. The killers hadn’t returned of course; they’d left him to take the blame for Sutton’s murder instead. And the police had all but tied a bow around his neck as a present to the States Attorney.
Stretching his tight limbs after being forced to sleep on a cot that was too short for him, Kade moved to his sink and turned on the water. Considering some of the desolate places he’d slept during his career, a cot with minimal padding, and a blanket to boot, was civilized in his book. Hell, he had running water, a toilet that flushed, and three squares a day. If it weren’t for the fucking bars, lack of women, and not being able to see how his grandfather was doing, Kade would think he was on vacation.
“You up, King?”
Turning at the sound of Cooter Hays’ voice, Kade responded. “I’m up, old man.”
Cooter was a lifer, had been inside since 1985 for the premeditated murder of his wife’s lover—a murder that most men could understand. You don’t piss in another man’s backyard; if you did . . . all bets were off.
Cooter’s cell was next to Kade’s; when they were locked in, the man kept him company with his tall-tales whether Kade wanted to hear them or not.
“Did I ever tell you about the time my cousin Jim-Bob and I stole the sheriff’s car and took it for a joyride?”
Moans could be heard from the surrounding cells. Cooter’s story about the time he stole the sheriff’s car when he and his cousin were thirteen had been told no less than twenty times since Kade had been in prison.
Smiling, Kade responded, “No, Cooter, I don’t think I’ve heard that one.”
The resounding “Fucks” made Kade chuckle. No one would say a word in defiance to The king, as they had dubbed him, if he wanted to hear Cooter’s story again. Once word spread he was an ex-SEAL, he was given a wide berth. Not even Fat Bastard, the prison godfather, had looked at Kade sideways.
“See, Jim-Bob had this crazy idea. He figured if we stole the sheriff’s car and then drove it down to Atlanta, we could ditch it, take a bus back home, and no one would be the wiser.”
“What’d he do that made you want to steal his car?” Kade asked with a grin in his voice.
“The bastard caught us shooting off fireworks in the park and took them from us.”
“That’s all?” Kade asked. “You just shot off fireworks?”
“Well now, it mighta had somethin’ to do with the fact that we shot them off in the back seat of his cruiser.”
“It mighta,” Kade agreed.
“Or . . . it mighta had somethin’ to do with the fact he wasn’t alone and had his hand shoved up Mrs. Murphy’s shirt.”
On cue, Kade laughed at the story. Then he genuinely laughed when more groans could be heard from around the cellblock.
The sound of the steel door being buzzed open alerted everyone to morning roll call. Kade finished dressing, then walked to the front of his cell so he could be seen and counted. When his cell buzzed open, he dipped his head so his six-foot-four frame could clear the opening, then waited as old Cooter shuffled out of his cell into the common room.
At sixty-eight, Cooter was the oldest prisoner on the block. Which, in Kade’s opinion, afforded him respect. Kade let him lead while he followed the plump man with gray hair and a hunched back.
“Kingston,” Gerald Daily, one of the prison guards, shouted. Kade paused at his name, turned, and looked back at the man.
“You’re to report to Hinkle before breakfast.”
“Why? My regular counseling day is Wednesday.”
“Don’t know, didn’t ask.”
“Gotta rid you of those demons, boy,” Cooter chuckled.
Looking back at the old man, Kade flashed a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I don’t have any demons, Cooter.”
“If you believe that then you’ve got more than I thought,” the old man grumbled.
That hit closer to home than Kade wanted to admit, and for the first time since meeting the old man, Kade let his anger show.
“Yeah? You’d have demons, too, Cooter, if you killed as many men as I have.”
“Well, I’d say that’s the most honest thing you’ve said to me since walking into this place.”
“Save it old man,” he growled low, “I don’t need to be psychoanalyzed.”
Furious for losing control, he shoved past the old man and headed toward Daily, who handcuffed him in preparation to leave the cellblock. After a ten-minute walk through locked door after locked door, which put an exclamation point on his sudden foul mood, they reached Hinkle’s office. Daily knocked, waited for the counselor to answer, then opened the door and escorted him in. Kade was surprised to find a woman sitting in Hinkle’s office when he cleared the door. He was even more surprised when she stood, turned, and faced him. Christ, she wasn’t just a woman; she was Kade’s wet dream, one he’d dreamt about on and off since high school and was completely off limits because she was married.
Harley Dash Jordan.
Kade scanned her long legs, large, soft breasts, dark blond hair that had been kissed by the sun, and big brown eyes that reached into his very soul and his breath froze just as it had every time he’d looked at her. She was beyond tempting to any man, but to him, she was a highly anticipated Christmas present he could never unwrap. He hadn’t seen her in eight years, but his reaction was still the same. Lust surged swiftly, like the current of a fast moving river, the moment those brown eyes hit him, and he took a step back.
He’d fantasized about Harley after he’d seen her on the football field his senior year. He knew she was too innocent for the likes of him so he’d let her be instead of pursuing her like every molecule in his body told him to do. But that hadn’t stopped the wet dreams. Then, years later, once he’d straightened out his life; he’d seen her at her father’s garage on his way out of town and cursed his rotten luck he wouldn’t be back for more than two years. When he had returned, he found out she was a month away from getting married and he’d cursed his rotten luck again. Now, he wanted to howl at the moon that she was standing in his presence when he hadn’t had a woman beneath him in over two years.
“Take a seat Kingston. There’s an opportunity to participate in a worthwhile program I want to discuss with you.”
Shaking his head before they could tempt him with forbidden fruit, fruit that would make his time here unbearable, he answered immediately.
“Whatever it is, the answer is no. Not if she’s involved.”