The Darkest HourMaya Banks
She dropped the casserole dish on the table and flew around to hug them both. Joe gathered her in his arms and swung her around, and she was promptly swept into Nathan’s as soon as Joe let go.
“My boys, oh my God, what are you two doing home?”
“Hey, Dad,” Nathan said as Frank got up.
Frank enfolded both the boys in a hearty embrace. When he pulled away, his eyes were suspiciously wet.
“What the hell are you two doing home? Why didn’t you call us?”
“We weren’t sure we were going to wrangle the leave,” Joe said. “We tried to get home for . . . ”
“We’d hoped to get home on the sixteenth,” Nathan said quietly .
“That was good of you,” Marlene said. “I’m sure Ethan would have appreciated it. ”
“Where is Ethan? We stopped by his house on the way in but no one was home. ”
Marlene exchanged a look with Frank.
Nathan and Joe didn’t miss it.
“What’s going on, Mom?” Nathan asked.
And then for the first time he and Joe seemed to notice Rusty, who was sitting at the table looking very much as if she’d like to sink into the floor.
“Boys, I want you to meet Rusty. She’s staying here for a while. ”
As Marlene had expected, they both scowled and immediately looked at their father. To his credit, Frank didn’t so much as flinch.
“Boys, say hello to Rusty,” he said in a gruff voice.
“Hello, Rusty,” Nathan said. Joe just nodded and then flashed a questioning look at his mother.
“Sit down, sit down,” she urged. “You’re just in time to eat. You’re probably starving. ”
“It wouldn’t matter if we weren’t,” Joe said with a grin. “It’s been so long since we had home cooking that I’d eat even if I was about to bust a gut. ”
Marlene managed to get them all herded to the table, and she dished up generous portions. She gave Rusty’s hand a reassuring pat as she passed her a plate. It was inevitable that she’d meet all the boys at some point. Better that it happened in stages than all at once. Marlene knew her boys were a handful, and even she was overwhelmed when they all got together.
“Now what’s the story with Ethan?” Joe asked after things had settled down a bit.
“He went to work with your brothers,” Frank said. “That’s all. ”
Marlene pressed her lips together but didn’t say a word.
“Uh-huh, okay, what are you about to pop a blood vessel over there about, Mom?” Nathan asked.
She sighed and glared at her youngest child. Never could fool any of them any more than they could fool her.
“I don’t rightly know,” she admitted. “Just something’s off about the whole thing. Your father called Ethan on the morning of the sixteenth, and Ethan sounded horrible. The next thing we know, Sam, Donovan and Garrett are off on some classified mission. With Ethan. ”
Joe frowned. “All of them?”
Frank’s brows drew together. “You know I didn’t even consider that. They never all go. Sam’s adamant about it. ”
Marlene nodded vigorously. “You see, I’m not crazy. There is something going on. I don’t like it one bit. ”
Joe turned to Nathan. “You said Van emailed you a few days ago. Did he say anything?”
Nathan shook his head. “Just the usual bullshitting. ”
“Are you all a bunch of spies or something?” Rusty blurted out.
Joe and Nathan both jerked around like they’d forgotten she was there. Not difficult since she hadn’t uttered a peep the entire time.
The corner of Joe’s mouth turned up. “No, not spies. Military. ”
Rusty looked suspiciously at him. “Military spies?”
Nathan laughed. “If we told you, then we’d have to kill you. ”
Rusty rolled her eyes and went back to her food, muttering something under her breath.
“How long have they been gone?” Joe asked.
Frank’s brow creased in concentration for a moment. “Few days. They left about a week after the sixteenth. ”
“Well, hell, they had to have been in the planning stages when Van emailed that they were doing absolutely nothing and that things were quiet. ”
“They probably didn’t want to worry you,” Marlene said soothingly.
“That’s just it. ” Nathan piped up. “They’ve never been worried about telling us shit before. Why would they start now, ironically when Ethan crawls out of his hole?”
“I don’t like it,” Joe muttered. “Sam’s number one rule is that all of them never go on the same mission. ”
Marlene yanked her worried gaze to Frank.
He reached over and put his hand over hers. “Don’t worry, honey. You know our boys can handle themselves. ” But she didn’t miss the uneasiness in his eyes.
She sighed and turned her attention to the boys she hadn’t seen in nearly a year. She wasn’t going to let worry over her other boys overshadow the twins’ homecoming.
“Eat,” she ordered. “I swear you’re both too thin. Doesn’t the army feed you?”
They both grinned at her. “Not nearly as well as you, Ma,” Nathan said.
“Oh, I’m so happy to see you both,” she said. “You are staying here since your brothers aren’t home, right?”
Joe raised his eyebrow in Rusty’s direction. “You have room?”
Marlene snorted. “Room? Do you forget all six of you boys grew up in this house? Rusty’s going to have to get used to the chaos sooner or later. ”
She saw Nathan and Joe exchange pointed looks. They were staying quiet for now, but they’d ask plenty of questions later when Rusty was out of earshot.
“So tell me what’s been going on with you two,” Frank said. “I know you email every week, but it’s not the same as hearing it in your own words. ”
“Our tour is up,” Joe said.
Marlene gasped. “Really? I thought you had three more months. Oh, that’s wonderful!”
“We pulled out ahead of schedule. ”
“How long are you home for?” Frank asked.
“Ten days. Then we’ll be back at Fort Campbell,” Nathan said.
Marlene clapped her hands together. Tears pricked her eyelids. “That’s fantastic. It’ll be so nice to have you close to home again. ”
“Let’s help your mother clear the table and then we’ll go into the living room and have a beer,” Frank said as he rose.
Nathan and Joe both cracked grins then stood and carried their plates over to the sink. Marlene watched them, her chest about to burst with pride. She felt that way about all her boys. It seemed over the last year that they had scattered to the winds, all going different directions. It just wasn’t the same after Rachel’s death.
Her heart gave a pinch, and she mentally scolded herself for allowing sadness to encroach on her time with Nathan and Joe. They were home, and she was going to enjoy every minute of it. And she was going to push her worries about her older boys right out of her mind.
Rusty stayed close to Marlene while Frank and the boys went into the living room. It didn’t take a genius to figure out how intimidated Rusty was by Nathan and Joe, but at least they’d largely ignored her. It wasn’t the most polite thing, but Marlene couldn’t blame them. And the alternative would have put Rusty over the edge.
“Come on, dear. You’ll have to face them all sometime. ” She gestured for Rusty to follow her into the living room, where the TV was already on and, typically, the men were arguing over sports.
Nathan and Joe patted the space between them on the couch and promptly each put an arm around Marlene when she sat down. She was treated to a big sloppy kiss from both, and she beamed and patted their cheeks in return.
Rusty took a seat in the chair next to Frank’s recliner and attempted to blend in with the upholstery.
It was loud and chaot
ic, just the way Marlene liked it. She sighed in contentment and patted both boys on their legs. It didn’t matter that they were approaching thirty. They were still her babies.
The sound of the front door slamming made her sit up straighter. Frank heard it too, because he immediately hit the mute button on the remote.
“Mom, Dad? You home?”
“Sam,” Marlene breathed.
She looked up to see Sam stride into the living room, followed by Donovan. They were both a mess. Camo, boots, dirty torn shirts, and they looked like they hadn’t had a bath in two days. They never came home like this.
A soft moan escaped her lips. Ethan and Garrett weren’t with them.
SAM halted in the doorway of the living room, stunned to see his younger brothers sitting on the couch next to his mom.
“Nathan? Joe? What the hell are you guys doing home? Is something wrong?”
“That’s what we want to ask you,” Nathan said as he stood. Joe also stood, and the two men looked warily at their older brothers.
“Van,” Joe said with a nod in Donovan’s direction.
“What’s goingon?” Frankbarked. “You’re standinga round likea bunch of damn strangers and you’re scaring your mother to death. ”
Donovan grinned hugely and strode across the room. He stopped in front of Nathan and then took him down in one swift motion. Nathan landed on the floor with a thump just as laughter burst from his chest.
“Goddamn it, Van, get off me. ”
Joe wrapped his beefy arms around Donovan and lifted him clear off the ground. Donovan may have had the element of surprise when he got to Nathan, but being the smallest of the Kelly brothers put him at a major disadvantage.
Sam finally managed to shake off the shock of seeing Nathan and Joe. He held his hands up and barked an order for his brothers to quiet down.
Nathan and Joe looked up in surprise. His mom and dad looked at Sam with worried eyes.
Sam crossed the room and grabbed both his youngest brothers in a rough hug. “It’s damn good to have you both home. ”
“Where’s Ethan and Garrett?” Joe asked in a steady voice as he pulled back.
It suddenly occurred to Sam what they all must have thought with him and Van bursting into the house looking like they’d both been rode hard and hung up wet and without their other two brothers.
He and Donovan exchanged quick glances.
“Tell me,” Marlene demanded.
Sam held his hands up in a soothing motion. “They’re fine, Mom. I promise. ”
“Want to tell us what’s going on, son?” his dad said.
Donovan spoke up. “I think everyone should sit down. Ethan and Garrett are fine, but there’s something we need to tell you. ”
“It’s good news, Mom,” Sam said quickly as he took in her stricken features.
Their worry all turned to puzzlement as they slowly took their seats. It was then Sam noticed a young girl huddled in a seat next to his dad’s recliner. He raised an eyebrow in his dad’s direction.
“We’ll worry about that later,” Frank said impatiently. “Now tell us what’s on your mind before your mother bursts. ”
Sam scrubbed a hand through his hair. There was no easy way to explain everything that had happened. He could pussy-foot around the subject and take forever or he could just put it out there.
“Rachel’s alive,” Donovan broke in before Sam could get it out.
Dead silence fell over the room. No one stirred. No one said a word. Their mom’s face was frozen in shock. Their dad simply looked like he hadn’t heard correctly, while Nathan and Joe’s faces darkened with fury.
Nathan launched himself from the couch. “What the hell, Van?”
“Nathan, sit down,” Sam said.
Nathan’s eyes widened at the authority in Sam’s voice.
“Sam, what’s going on?” his mom asked in a quivery voice.
“You better have a damn good reason for coming home and springing this sort of thing on your mother,” Frank growled.
Sam sighed and sat down on the steps leading down into the living room. “Ethan got evidence on the sixteenth from someone claiming that Rachel was alive. ”
“And from this you come over and give your mother false hope?” Frank demanded.
“Dad, listen to him,” Donovan cut in.
“He came over to the house with pictures. Of Rachel. ”
“Oh, Sam, how could someone do that to him?” Marlene cried. “To any of us?”
Sam leveled a look at his mother. “Mom, she’s alive. I’ve seen her, held her. So has Donovan. Ethan is with her now, as is Garrett. ”
Marlene gasped. Frank went completely white. Nathan and Joe looked at Sam with open mouths.
“But how?” Marlene finally managed to get out. “My God, Sam, where has she been for a year? Did she run away? Did she leave him?”
Sam took a deep breath, knowing what he had to say wouldn’t be easy for his family to hear. “The mission that we went on—that we all went on—was to rescue her. She’s been held prisoner in South America for the last year. ”