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Skin Deep [SEALs at the Ready]
by Katie Blu

Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Romance
Description: Hotch has been half in love with his best friend's girl since he first heard about her, but there's no way he'd encroach on the relationship of a fellow Navy SEAL. They're closer than brothers. So when his friend dies and Erin is left equally as devastated at the funeral, and equally as needy, grief sex seemed like a good idea. Two years later the guilt has compounded and Erin is back--with a child. Nothing's ever easy in the military, but especially when he finds out that Erin's the daughter of his disapproving Commanding Officer. There's a spark between Hotch and Erin that's undeniable, but the baggage just might trip them up. Will they get lost in the battle, or find each other despite all the things that conspire against them?
eBook Publisher: Resplendence Publishing, LLC, 2012 January
eBookwise Release Date: March 2012


6 Reader Ratings:
Great Good OK Poor
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [121 KB]
Words: 25966
Reading time: 74-103 min.

Nebraska was barely warm in his grave and all Hotch could think about was fucking Nebraska's girl. As crass as it sounded, as irreverent as it felt, he needed one last connection with his best friend. Hotch scrubbed a hand over his face, wishing he'd thought to bring a flask. It would help ease the pain. Something had to.

The last time he'd seen the easy-going, tow-headed Nebraska native Troy O'Neal, they had been in the Gulf. There'd been nothing new about the maneuver, no chinks in the game plan. They'd stood inside the Navy SEAL modified submarine, waiting for orders to deploy. The trunk had been silent. Nebraska had sent him one of his wide, toothy grins as the doors locked and the compartment filled with seawater. The pressure equalized. The five of them would swim up the side of the sub to the breathing station near the top, conserving their rebreathers for the long swim to shore. Then they would hang out at the breathing station waiting for the last ten members of the Skins team.

But something had gone wrong. The outer door jammed eighteen inches from the bottom. They were used to working in tight spaces, so when the opening held steady, Hotch and the others had squeezed through with their rebreathers in hand, instead of on their backs. Nebraska held the team record for holding his breath underwater, and he waved the others on until he could wedge through to safety. The sickening clarity of memory replayed the rusty, cranking sound of steel against steel as the doors unjammed, reversed and crushed his best friend's ribs in an unyielding vise.

Hotch had known instantly that it was too late. It was the flag of blood trailing from the corner of Nebraska's mouth that had given it away well before the lifeless float of his limbs.

Bile still filled Hotch's throat when he thought about it--when he remembered the muted shouts through the trunk porthole where the other men impotently watched. Hotch had planted his feet on the door, grabbing Nebraska's arms and pulling with everything he had. One of the other team members had held back at the sound of the door closing instead of swimming up to the docking station. He'd tried to get the rebreather into Nebraska's mouth.

Nebraska's ribs crackled beneath the steel jaw. His body tore in a cloud of blood before they finally got the door stopped. Half in, half out, bisected and all dead, Hotch was left to float there, holding Nebraska's upper body. Darkness closed around Hotch's vision.

An auxiliary trunk opened. Divers pried his fingers from Nebraska's body and pushed it inside the trunk lock for the last group to retrieve. Too deprived of oxygen and losing consciousness, Hotch finally accepted a rebreather. Two teammates took either arm and swam him to the breathing station.

Commander Hawking ordered them to proceed with the mission. Death was an expected outcome in this job, he'd said later. If you survived, that was a government perk. It still left a sour taste in Hotch's mouth.

A hand dropped on his shoulder, bringing him back to the moment. Nebraska's mom pulled out the chair beside him and sat. Hotch took her hand between his. "You holding up okay, Mrs. O'Neal?"

"The only easy day was yesterday," she quoted the SEAL training mantra with a sad twist to her lips.

It hurt to look at her. She had the same slightly strawberry tint to her blonde hair and cornflower blue eyes. Her callused hand between his larger ones, made him think of other things, like what would happen next for her? Who would take care of her now that Nebraska was gone? A widow and now childless, she lived alone on land she'd long since leased out to neighboring farmers. He froze out the thoughts as they came, preferring the emotional wasteland where he'd been operating since Nebraska had died.

"Whatever you need, Mrs. O'Neal, you tell me," he said.

Her eyes welled up with tears. "You don't owe me anything." She patted his hands with her other one.

"He was like a brother to me," Hotch confessed.

"I know."

"I couldn't get to him." He stopped himself from saying more. The mission had been secret and he wasn't sure how much Nebraska's mom had been told about the accident.

"I know," she said softer still, cupping his cheek. "He'd have known too."

Hotch took another deep breath. "I mean it, Mrs. O'Neal. Anything you need, I'll take care of it."

Mrs. O'Neal turned her head, her eyes locking on Nebraska's girl. "She needs you."

"Erin?" She barely resembled the faded picture Nebraska had kept of her in his breast pocket.

Mrs. O'Neal nodded. "I married a Navy man, and I knew the risks. When I lost my husband, I at least had that much comfort. I can say the same for my son. My boys died in service to their country. But Erin won't be told anything about Troy's death. She won't have anyone to talk to or anyone who will talk to her."

"I can't tell her much."

"But you can be there for her, son." Mrs. O'Neal's light blue eyes were direct. "You were Troy's best friend. She was his best girl. He was going to ask her to marry him next Christmas."

Hotch nodded, remembering the clear joy on Nebraska's face when he'd shown Hotch the ring. He'd vibrated with so much life it seemed impossible that he'd been extinguished so young. That his lifeless body, trapped between the trunk and the ocean and waiting limply for the mission to end while Hotch had been powerless to save him. To give him the dignity of pulling him to dry dock moments after it had happened. All the impending potential for joy, crushed into impotence in the span of a few heartbeats and one mission away from proposing to his girl.

He wondered if Erin would forgive him. He couldn't forgive himself. She nodded in conversation with a family member over a plate of untouched potato salad. The ham and cheese bun resembled more of a loadstone than sustenance. She was gracious and more beautiful than Nebraska had let on.

Hotch tried to remember things he'd heard about her. Green eyes, brown hair. That stuff he could see for himself, but the other things Nebraska had told him about her, the fact that she preferred wild flowers to roses, had a birthmark smudge under her left shoulder blade, that she made love with her eyes closed and didn't get along with her father--those were things he knew that weren't visible. Those were things Nebraska had discovered and passed along to his best friend.

Mrs. O'Neal dropped a peck on his cheek, tearing his attention away from the girl for a moment as she reminded him that he needed to talk to Erin. She had questions, Mrs. O'Neal told him. Who the hell didn't? Hotch wondered. But he agreed. Nebraska would want him to. And Hotch had something to give her, some little piece that he held onto that belonged to her now that Nebraska was dead.

Hotch walked over to her. Erin looked at him through eyes the color of cloudy green sea glass. She blinked at him distractedly but finished her conversation with a woman next to her.

He wondered if everything felt like it moved in slow motion to her too. The voices were muted, as though the words were spoken through cotton, the intensity of the industrial fluorescent tubes overhead leeched the color from faces and clothing alike, and though they were in a fellowship hall where noise echoed dully, Hotch couldn't shake the dreamlike feel of his surroundings.

Except for her. She gave his eyes an anchor. She loosened the tight fist of emotion that banded his lungs. He didn't even feel anything beyond the wool cuffs of his naval uniform.

Numbness. That's what it was. His whole body, all his senses had died with Nebraska O'Neal. The older woman moved on, and Erin lifted her face to give him her full attention. She looked tired. Did she feel numb too?

"Erin, I'm--"

"Lieutenant Micah Hotchkiss. Hotch. He talked about you," she said.

She didn't smile. Her eyes grew moist and though she blinked the tears back, her gaze didn't waver. Nebraska would have been proud of her strength. Hotch was, and he was only half in love with her based on rose-colored stories told by a lovesick SEAL. She'd been myth for so long--someone he'd been nearly convinced Nebraska had made up. But looking at her now, he could see why his friend had been over the moon for her.

As soon as he thought it, the guilt took over, and he pushed the fledgling stir of attraction aside. Some best friend he was.

"I have something of his for you." Hotch reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a worn, faded picture of Nebraska kissing a laughing Erin's cheek. "He took it everywhere."

She accepted it, tears falling freely now. He wouldn't have known she was crying if he hadn't seen it. She made no noise.

He also held out a key. "This is his too. I have the box in my car."

"What is it?"

Hotch shifted his weight. He hadn't prepared an explanation. There really wasn't an adequate way to describe the kill-box filled with all the things a soldier didn't want family to know about him. Usually it was up to the buddy to get rid of it. In this case, Hotch had been instructed to give it to her. Nebraska never had anything to hide anyway.

"Something he asked me to give you in the event of his death."

She nodded. "The kill-box."

She knew?

"He told me about it. I just forgot. I never expected him to die." She laughed through the tears. "Youth is invincible, right? And the SEALs, they never give up."

"He didn't give up."

Her eyes pled with him to continue. How could he? Even if he were allowed to tell her the details, would she want to know that her lover's last minutes were crushing pain and drowning? That he'd been split in half? That the only fortunate thing about the way he'd died is that his rib must have punctured his heart and killed him seconds before his body was torn in two? The alternative suffering would have been more horrific than the actual death.

Hotch still had the nightmares, replaying over and over, about how he could have saved Nebraska. How he should have been the one who waved the others on. Nebraska had someone to live for back home. Hotch didn't. It should have been him.

"I need to get out of here," Erin blurted, gripping his forearm. "Take me out of here? I need to be alone, but I don't want to be--alone."

He nodded, pulling his arm back until their hands touched, then he squeezed her fingers. "We'll get that box."

"Thank you."

He understood. Words were useless. They spilled from between numb lips with about as much sentiment as cold oatmeal. The words were a distraction from the pain inside, from the flight of thought and the ache of loss. He had no use for them, and she appeared just as fatigued from trying to use words adequately, of trying to think of responses when all her being just wanted to feel and keep feeling because Nebraska no longer could. Because Nebraska was dead and gone and no amount of stupid, pointless talking about it would bring him back. No amount of wishing would reverse it. He knew. He'd tried. He'd begged. He'd failed.

Hotch's head pounded with unshed tears. His throat clogged with emotion, the high burn behind his eyes spreading to his temples and the urge to run and run and run hitting him so hard that Hotch shook as he held Erin's hand and barreled through the chapel doors into the night air. Winter slapped him hard across the face, waking him enough to realize that he dragged her out there, and she jogged to keep up.

Slowing, he drew her close to his side, put his arm around her. "I'm sorry."

She looked up just as wordless and lost as he felt. Her lips trembled, and he knew that feeling. He knew how unspoken her grief was, and he just wanted to make it better. For both of them. To make his hands stop shaking. To make her lips stop quivering. To still any recrimination from them that she might have because Hotch had failed to save Nebraska, and what kind of man did that make him?

He fumbled with the keys to his SUV and slid onto the driver's seat as he reached for the kill box. He held it for a moment, fearful of handing over the last thing of Nebraska's he had. He'd do this thing, and it would be over. Nebraska would really be gone then. There would be nothing left.

He looked at her, trying to find the right words with which to present her the box. Tears slid down her cheeks. Her sob broke free.

He didn't think, he just acted. The box hit the passenger seat and he pulled her between his knees, holding her as tight as he could. He buried his face in her shoulder. She turned her head, crying into his neck, her arms so tight around him, he felt like their bodies had fused. Her tears gave his permission to fall as his defenses dissolved in her arms.

He rocked with her. Mutual solace from mutual pain, and like a soul-wrenching fire it ate him alive from the inside.

Erin stroked his hair. "It's not your fault," she whispered over and over.

Though her voice broke with emotion and tears wet her face, she continued to reassure him. Didn't she know it was his fault? He could have died instead, and she wouldn't be grieving. None of this would have happened because he didn't have a family.

He'd spent a lifetime guarding his heart, and Nebraska had relentlessly weaseled his way in. A breaking spot in his emotional defenses he had not foreseen. Nebraska had gotten in there somehow and with his death, the crack became wider still as he accepted comfort from Erin.

Hotch pulled away far enough to stare at her. There was another one? Someone else who could sneak under his defenses? Her lips still shivered. Her eyes, colorless in the shadows, peered back at him through her anguish.

He couldn't fix the pain since he drowned in it too, but he could stop the trembling. He could do that.

Hotch tipped his head and smoothed his mouth over hers. Just to warm them, he told himself. To connect with the last thread of Nebraska through Erin and nothing more, he insisted to his conscience. Erin leaned into it, clutched the back of his head with the same desperation he had tried to keep at bay.

A tear flavored their lips, and Hotch knew a kiss wouldn't be enough. He needed her like he needed air to breathe, like this fire needed his guilt to keep burning. In kissing her, he saw a glimmer of solace, just a whisper-like hope flickering in the distance of despair. And like the bastard he was, he followed it in mindless pursuit.

But she parted her lips and tangled her tongue with his. The numbness slid away, and without its gauzy protection his soul rioted with grief, and pain, and feeling, making everything raw again. Making it new. Making it hurt, dear God it hurt so fucking bad.

Slowly his arms woke. He pulled her onto his lap and twisted his body so that they were in the car. Erin broke away. He thought he'd overstepped, but she leaned out only to grab the door handled and close them away from the world.

Their gazes clashed. White puffs of breath chased from their lips on the wisping tails of the previous one. Only a momentary calm in the storm that raged unceasingly, the break ended as quickly as it started, and he kissed her again.

The seat gave out under him, and he jerked before understanding that she'd reclined them. His hands smoothed the outside of her thighs beneath her dress hem. She didn't stop him and suddenly kissing wasn't enough. He needed to feel her heat. It reminded him that life continued.

They were both lonely. His fingers inched over the thin satin covering her pussy. It was warmed by her body and damp, and he hated it for holding anything of her away from him. With a grunt, he tugged it to the side and pushed his fingers deep inside her. Erin gasped sharply, her mouth open and hovering over his as though she hadn't known where this was going. But she had, and she proved it when she sucked his bottom lip as she opened his belt buckle and zipper.

He lifted his hips, and she pushed his pants out of the way. Hotch barely pulled his fingers out before she grasped his cock and sank on it. He groaned. She swallowed the sound. He held her hips. She lifted and sank, rocking her hips on the downstroke.

Erin cried, but, then, so did he. He shared her grief and flooded his body with the intensity of all the emotions his pathetic human soul could manage.

He hadn't died. But he'd die a mini-death with her tonight. Both inevitabilities occupying a place at opposite ends of the spectrum. One tied up the loose ends of living. The other celebrated living. One extreme to the other. There was no in between with grief. Death or life. Love or hate. All or nothing. It was the SEAL way, or maybe it was humanity.

Erin rode him. She closed her eyes and weirdly he remembered what Nebraska had said. She makes love with her eyes closed. Nebraska had thought it was cute.

Hotch didn't have an opinion on it, except gratitude that they could both get lost in pleasure, alone. He closed his eyes too. He bucked into her. She panted wildly, making soft, high-pitched noises as though she were reaching for something almost within her grasp. He focused on the sound, using it to drive his need higher.

It took him by surprise when it happened. She pounded his cock; her body milked him greedily. Cum ripped from him without preamble. His climax was sharp, intense, and satisfying as blessed fatigue soaked into him.

Erin cuddled against his chest. He shifted her, tucking her shoulder underneath his arm and holding her. Her face touched his, side by side almost, though her legs still covered his lap. The numbness didn't return, but neither did the acute loss. Grief was given its outlet, and was now shared with someone equally stricken.

His breathing eased. She'd barely stirred, but he knew she was awake from the occasional flutter of her eyelashes on his cheek when she blinked. From time to time a car door slammed, an engine started. Then a long time passed, and he heard no other cars.

"Can I drive you home?" he asked.

"I'd like that. It's been a long day."

And once again, words sifted through the air, meaningless, superficial, with no acknowledgement of the counseling their bodies had given each other.

This time, it was a relief.

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