Marked Men - 3


Jay Crownover

Dedicated to all the men and women who are serving or have served our country in any branch of the armed forces. Thank you for your service.

Also to the families, friends, and loved ones who love and support their service members while they are near, far, and everywhere in between.


First of all, I want to say that I have nothing but respect and admiration for the men and women of our armed forces. I think it is admirable to choose to serve for the good of others. It’s selfless, heroic, and all-around commendable.

I live near Fort Carson, in a town that is full of men and women on active duty. My grandfather was in the army, which led to my mom being taken all over the world when she was young. My cousin served overseas in the army and he is a delightful, truly wonderful young man who did not come back entirely unaffected by his experience. My most recent job was at a bar located near a university here in town that served as the unofficial hangout of a group of ex-soldiers who were all back in school on the GI Bill, building their postservice life. I’ve heard the stories, good and bad. Seen the highs and lows that getting out of the service can bring. That being said, Rome is in no way meant to be a portrait, in a generalized or documentary way, of the kinds of lives these military people lead.

Rome is a man on a journey, just like we all are, and he’s only trying to do the best he can. Any liberties I have taken with the truth are my own doing and only designed to develop his character and tell his tale.

Thank you all and happy reading!!!



Cora, the Fourth of July

It’s my favorite thing ever to have all the people I love in one place at the same time. Pair that with a day off from work, cold beer, barbecue, and fireworks, and I couldn’t be a happier camper.

And I would have been ecstatic, if only a dark, looming, man-shaped cloud wasn’t bound and determined to rain all over my parade.

It was a long holiday weekend and everyone from the tattoo shop I worked at, plus the other boys, Jet and Asa, as well as the girls, was gathered in the backyard of Rule and Shaw’s brand-new house for a barbecue and a housewarming. Everyone had a beer in hand; Rule and Jet were manning the grill, looking slightly ridiculous while doing it. It was supposed to be fun and relaxing, only someone had missed the memo.

I was rolling my sweating beer can between my hands and trying really hard to keep my mouth shut because in a few short minutes I’d determined that Rome Archer had to be the least fun person I’d ever met. Sure, the guy had just gotten home from a war zone and was dealing with some pretty serious family drama, but that didn’t excuse the fact that he seemed bound and determined to infect the rest of the festivities with his vile mood.

Ever since he had walked in the back gate, he had been alternately scowling and sniping at anyone who got within spewing distance of that unchecked fury. He had on mirrored aviators, so I couldn’t see his eyes, but I could practically feel the disdain and dissatisfaction pouring off of his massive body. I had never met anyone who I could actually describe as “hulking” before Rome started hanging around, and like the green monster, his temper seemed to be something everyone else feared. I was getting sick and tired of watching my friends tiptoe around him and try to placate him.

Hell, he should be jumping for joy that his horn dog of a sibling had settled down and was making a real commitment to someone, that Rule had found his perfect match and was a better man for it. But no, all Captain No-Fun could do was sneer and grunt at anyone trying to make conversation.

No, I was pretty sure I was not a particular fan of Rome Archer in any way, shape, or form, be he a war hero and beloved older sibling, supposed nice guy, or not. I personally thought the man was going out of his way to be an ass hat and make everyone else as miserable as he seemed to be.

The boys who grew up with him and even my girlfriend Shaw kept repeating the litany that the ex-soldier really was a great guy and that he was just struggling since coming home. I wasn’t sure I believed it because nothing I had seen thus far indicated he was anything but a grumpy, slightly unhinged bully. Which was a shame because the guy was gorgeous, like it-hurt-to-look-at-him gorgeous. All the Archers had some kick-ass genetics, but where Rule, my coworker and best friend, was gifted with all kinds of troubled, bad-boy swagger, Rome was straight-up masculine perfection.

He was tall, way taller than the other guys, which was saying something since none of the crew was exactly petite, and he was big. He was broad and strong and strapped with muscles that looked like they had been used for survival not just show. He had short, dark hair cropped close to his head, and over the reflective lenses of the sunglasses there was no missing a jagged white scar that hooked through his eyebrow and down next to his eye. His face had a vivid intensity about it that just made him stupidly hot, even without the body that was bound to make the opposite sex dumb. I bet if he ever bothered to smile, panties across the nation would melt.

I looked up as one of my other coworkers, Nash Donovan, popped up behind me and rested his hands on my shoulders. Nash was Rule’s best friend and currently living with the mountain of doom and gloom I was sitting next to on the lawn. The camp chair he was sprawled in looked like it was going to snap under his considerable bulk at any minute. I couldn’t imagine a guy as mellow and laid-back as Nash living with someone so dour and grumpy, but considering he and Rule pretty much hero-worshiped the guy, I figured it would behoove me to just stay out of it for as long as I could.

“How goes it, Tink?”

It was a simple question, but there was a lot behind it. I recently found out my first love, the guy who was responsible for shattering my young heart into a million irreparable pieces, was getting married at the end of the summer. I was having a hard time with it and all the guys from the shop were worried about me, because I was typically unflappable.

“Oh, you know, still looking for Mr. Perfect.”

That was my default answer. In order to prevent the same mistake, to prevent myself from giving my heart away so carelessly, I was bound and determined to wait for a guy who was all in with me. I wasn’t settling for anything less than perfection, even if I had to wait forever to find it. The idea of compromising and ending up as lost and broken as I was when things with Jimmy didn’t work out was too terrifying to consider.

“Tink?” Rome’s voice was gruff and as rough as the look on his handsome face.

Nash snickered and moved to take a seat on the other side of the older Archer.

“Tinker Bell. She looks like a punk-rock version of Tinker Bell.”

A dark eyebrow lifted behind the sunglasses, and I smiled sweetly at him. I do look kind of like a cartoon fairy. I’m short, have spiky blond hair that kind of ends up all over the place, and my eyes are two different colors. I also have a riotous sleeve of flowers and filigree tattooed from the top of my shoulder to my wrist on my left arm. It’s brilliant and bright. I love the vibrant ink and often changed the stud in my eyebrow ring to match the different colors. The nickname suited me, and I didn’t hate it when the boys used it because it showed me they loved me as much as I loved them.

Rome whipped his sunglasses off and rubbed his hands over his eyes. When he was done I could see that not only were his eyes the most beautiful, clear blue that I had ever seen, but they were also rimmed in dark circles and bloodshot with lightning bolts of red. He was most definitely a babe, but he looked like shit.

“I shouldn’t have come. This is all so wrong. Everyone pretending like Rule and Shaw playing house is something to be excited about. It’s all just going to blow up, they are going to end up destroying each other, and I’m going to have to be the one to clean up the mess.”

At first I thought I heard him wrong, but I saw Nash wince and Rowdy, one of my other boys from the shop, tense up. So far he seemed to be the only other person at this ramshackle gathering who hadn’t been initiated into the Rome Archer fan club. That was a good thing because Rowdy was probably the only guy in the group who could give the soldier a run for his money physically, should he decide to be a handful.

“Dude, chill out. Be happy for Rule and Shaw. That’s your family.” Nash was always the most practical of the bunch, but I could hear the underlying tension in his voice.

I flicked the tab on the top of my beer and narrowed my eyes. I wasn’t about to let this guy rain on my friends’ day, even if he seemed determined to. Those eyes that really were too pretty to be in such a sour-looking face narrowed at Nash, and I could literally feel the heat of uncoiling anger rolling off those wide shoulders. So far I had been quiet, I had watched and judged. I had sipped my beer quietly and let everyone else try and get this guy to loosen up. I was here for fun, to enjoy having all my friends in one place, to celebrate the cohabitation of two people I adored and the recent wedded bliss of two more people I loved and considered my own. My group of friends was quickly pairing off and to me that was worth throwing a party for. I knew how hard it was to find a perfect match, and I loved that people I cared so much about were doing exactly that. Captain No-Fun better get with the program real fast or it was going to get ugly.