Chapter One – Chloe

The day I bury my brother is the worst day of my life. Worse than when our father died from cancer or when Mom died from her heart breaking, literally.

At least when they died, I had Kevin there to hold my hand and tell me everything would be okay. But when they lower his coffin into the ground, I will officially be alone.


Ian Keller, tall and gorgeous enough to turn the head of every female present, even if we’re standing at a funeral, holds out the only thing I have left of my big brother. And he’s staring at me with the same striking green eyes I fell in love with when I was six years old.

Damn him.

I can’t even look at him.

Instead, I focus on his hands.

The same hands that I used to love caressing my skin are holding the last bit of my brother, and I’m barely holding myself together.

I think I’ll follow Kevin into the ground as I stare at the Stars and Stripes that are meant to offer comfort. My heart fractures into unbearably tiny pieces as I stare at that flag, tremors fighting for control over my body while I try to force myself to take it. The black dress I put on this morning presses against my skin, making it impossibly hard to breathe. The sun beats down on my head, causing sweat to build up on my scalp and on the back of my neck.

I can’t move.

I can barely breathe.

How am I supposed to get through this?

How am I supposed to do this?

Every eye in the crowd is on the two of us. I don’t have to look up from Ian’s hands to know that they are watching, waiting for what comes next. They want me to collapse into Ian’s arms. To seek the comfort that they know he can give me.

After all, we’re supposed to get married. At least, we were gonna get married before my brother died.

“Chloe.” Ian says my name quietly when I don’t lift my hands to take the folded-up flag he is offering like the most precious gift imaginable. “Chloe, you need to take the flag. It’s yours now.”

Ian was my brother’s team leader. The man responsible for keeping Kevin alive during his deployments. I’m not stupid. I know that was before… He had been the team leader, before Ian got out of the Marine Corps.

Now, as he stands in front of me in his dress blues, I want to scream at him. 

“Chloe, please.”

Numbly, I take the flag right as a bugler starts to play “Taps.”

Why do I have to take the flag?

Why is this important?

None of this matters.

Not with Kevin gone.

Marines surround me, just like I know they would any time I need them in the future.

Kevin’s unit.

Men he trusted with his life… and men who left him to die as they moved on with their lives when they got out of the Marine Corps and he chose to take a final deployment, extending his contract even though he didn’t have to.

I don’t even have his body.

Just an empty hole in the ground, where an empty coffin will be buried.

“I hate you,” I tell Ian when I finally raise my eyes to meet his. “I hate every single one of you.”

“I know you do.” He stares at me with an expressionless face. The same one he used growing up to lie when he got in trouble with his parents. “But if there’s ever anything that I can do for you, you know where to find me.” His face may not have any sort of expression or tell, but his eyes are wild. Without blinking, I watch as anguish, fear, agony, and finally acceptance pass over his face.

He knows.

He knows that I can’t love the man that I blame for killing my brother.

I don’t acknowledge his offer. Do I know where to find him? Yes. Yes, I do. After all, I’ve been his neighbor since the day I was born.

“If I could trade places with him, I would, just to spare you this pain.”

My heart lurches at his words, at the truth in his expression. I see his parents out of the corner of my eye. They are standing to the side, watching our interaction as though it is the only thing in the world worth watching. Like they aren’t lowering an empty coffin into a grave at that very moment for Kevin.

“They miss you almost as much as I do. Mom talks about the wedding like it’s still happening. Like it could heal everything that’s broken. Even if you don’t want it, you’re part of our family.”

The lurching pain in my chest amplifies to a sharp twist of the knife I can feel pressing against my ribs. Tearing my eyes away from his parents and the grief I can see in their eyes, I face the man I thought I’d spend the rest of my life with.

“I gave you the ring back, Ian.” I thought it was impossible to feel this way. But I was wrong.

He’s staring at me as though I’m the answer to every problem in the world, and I can’t Stand it.

“I didn’t want it back, Chloe.”

“Then you shouldn’t have killed my brother.”

I turn away before I can see the pain in Ian’s eyes at my words. I know I’m wrong, that he wasn’t the one who actually pulled the trigger, but that doesn’t change how I feel. The betrayal that I’m going through.

If Ian was there… Kevin would be alive.

And I refuse to think about the fact that if Ian were there, I might have lost them both.

With my back to Ian and the rest of Kevin’s unit, I hold on to the flag with all my might, praying I’ll wake up from the nightmare all around me.

Wake up, Chloe.

Every inch of my body is on fire as my nerves are forced to accept reality.

This is my nightmare.

This is my reality.

Forced to watch as I lose the last of my family.

But when the bugle fades and the bagpipe starts a melancholy rendition of “Amazing Grace,” I have to go.

I can’t stay.

I can’t let them see me break.

I can’t let Ian see me collapse into pieces.

I leave, hating the way the black dress I want to rip from my body swishes around my calves with every step. I despise the way my black patent Tieks sink into the grass and mud of the cemetery, like even the ground itself wants me to stay by grabbing onto me any way it can. The soft material of Kevin’s flag weighs more than I want to admit, and my arms ache as I carry it, along with all the memories that will forever live in its folds.

I don’t want a flag.

I don’t want a funeral without my brother’s body.

What I want is to to burn the world down.

I want to demand answers from a military that won’t give me anything but the promise that my brother died serving his country.

I want to scream. To let myself shatter into pieces so small that there will be no chance of ever putting me together again.

But nothing will bring Kevin back.

And nothing will take away my pain.

Nothing but maybe the bottom of the bottle of tequila I have sitting on my kitchen counter. The last of Kevin’s weak attempts to help me celebrate my twenty-first birthday a few years ago.

Walking away from Kevin’s grave is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. With each step, the haunting strains of the man playing the bagpipes fades more and more until I reach my car and slam the door shut, cutting off the final strains of music.

When I pull into the driveway of my parents’ house, the one Kevin and I inherited and agreed to fix up together when he got out of the Marine Corps, I can’t see through the tears in my eyes. The flag sits on my lap, pressed against the steering wheel, and I know it’s absorbing the tears that slip from my cheeks.

By the time I finally pry my fingers away from the steering wheel, the sun has started to drop in the sky.

The worst day in my life is almost over.


Taking the final steps into the house is harder than I ever thought it could be. Perfect, depressing, and all-encompassing silence meets my ears when I finally close the door behind me.

Ghosts of the people who should be standing there with me start to play in my mind. Mom and Dad, wrapped in a blanket together on the couch while they watch replays of their favorite movies, insisting that both Kevin and I join them for a marathon until we are arguing about the reality of lightsabers and Jedis into the early hours of the morning.

I can almost see us waving tubes of wrapping paper around while we try to prove our point.

Crying doesn’t help the ghosts and memories fade. If anything it just brings them all back with a force I’m not prepared for. And because I pushed him away, Ian isn’t even here to help me put the pieces of my broken life back together again.

Even as my traitorous heart aches for him, I hate him. I hate him and all the rest of Kevin’s original unit. The men who got out of the Marines years before my brother. The ones I have had to see every single day while he still served in a country across the world.

Like I summoned him with my traitorous heart, I see familiar headlights pull into my driveway while I sit on the edge of my couch, clutching Kevin’s flag in one hand and a bottle of alcohol in the other.

I should have known there is no way in hell that Ian will leave me alone. The man doesn’t know when to quit, and he doesn’t know when enough is enough. I used to love that about him. But right now, I just want him to let me leave him.

“I’m coming in, Chloe. Don’t shoot me.” His voice rings out loudly through the open window next to my front door.

I don’t answer. I’m too busy trying to work up the courage to drink Kevin’s whiskey to get up off the couch or even say anything to the man I used to love. “Have you had that entire bottle?”

I look down at the almost-empty bottle of whiskey in my hand and blink, trying to figure out why he’d even ask me that or what he is doing in my house.

I don’t bother hiding from him that somehow I finished the tequila I’d originally planned to have, and I don’t remember getting the whiskey.

“I thought it was just tequila waiting for me,” I whisper brokenly. “I thought I could make the pain go away. But I finished it, and then I have this.” I don’t actually think anything will ever take away the pain. Not really. “Oh well.” When I try to tilt the bottle back and take a drink, my arms aren’t even strong enough to lift it.

How much have I cried?

“It was one mission.” Ian’s voice breaks as he watches the tears flow down my face. “One mission that went wrong.”

“Yeah,” I tell him without breaking eye contact, letting him see the hate I still feel buried in the depths of my heart. “And it ruined what was left of my family.”

“Not just yours,” Ian says quietly. “We were supposed to have forever.”

“Forever doesn’t mean shit when my family is gone.”

I pull Kevin’s flag closer to my chest, using it to keep a barrier between the two of us. Needing that space to keep from admitting the truth. To save myself from the fact that I’m pushing away the only family I have left.

“Come on, Chloe, I’ll get you to bed.” He steps forward and if I could have retreated back further into the couch, I would have.

Instead, I’m left holding the flag between us like it will protect me from the pain I’ve caused myself.

“What are you doing, Chloe?” Ian gently takes the flag from my hand, his eyes staying glued to the fabric, and I swear that his hands tremble while he carries it to the mantle above the fireplace.

I watch him place two fingers to his lips and then touch one of the stars and my heart breaks into impossibly smaller fragments.

I didn’t even know I had anything left of my heart.

With one hand held out for me to take, Ian waits patiently for me to pull myself together. Once I do, he guides me to my room, and it feels like I’m floating on air with every step we take.

“Chloe,” he whispers my name. “You hate alcohol. What are you doing?”

“Want to be numb.”

Can’t he see how much pain I’m in? How hard it is for me to even get out of bed every day, knowing I’ll never see Kevin again? Can’t he see anything anymore?

“I see all of it, Chloe. But I can’t walk away from you.”

I said that to him.

Normally, I would flush with embarrassment and apologize, but not anymore. I’m too numb to care and too hurt to worry about Ian’s feelings. I can’t find the strength to care about anything.

“Go away, Ian.” I sniff into a pillow that I don’t remember grabbing and turn my head to see him sitting on the edge of my bed. His eyes are locked on mine, watching me like I am the only thing in his world. “You don’t have any reason to stay.”

He doesn’t move, and I can’t tell if I’m happy he’s stayed or angry that he doesn’t respect me enough to leave.

“You are wrong, Chloe,” he whispers as I finally welcome the oblivion I’ve been searching for since I heard my brother is never coming home. The oblivion I have been trying to search for at the bottom of my brother’s last bottle of liquor.

Instead of telling him he’s the wrong one, I curl into the nest of pillows and blankets that offer the only warmth I want… at least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself until it is true.

“I have every reason to stay. One day, I’ll prove it to you. When you’re ready to face the truth. Right now, I can be your villain, if you need. I can be the one you blame. But that won’t stop how I feel. How I’ll always feel. And when you’re ready for it, my heart and the ring are both yours. They always will be.”

Ian’s words are the broken lullaby that finally chases away my demons, at least for a little while.

I dream that he brushes my hair out of my face and presses a kiss to my forehead.

“I love you, Chloe Young. No matter what you say or what happens that will never change.”

I have to be dreaming, right? Nobody can take all the hate… all the evil I’ve thrown at him and let it roll off his shoulders so easily. How can he tell me he still loves me? How can he promise forever when I can’t even let myself love him?

In my dreams, it’s easy to love him. Easy to forget that he came home and Kevin didn’t.

Maybe one day, my dreams can become reality. Maybe I can forgive him for choosing me over my brother.

Until then, all I have are the nightmares to keep me company.

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