Step Up With Me

an excerpt



Chapter One

April



"Doctor Dillon," Jack murmured into his phone as he tried to engage his brain. He'd gotten home from an emergency and crashed hard. Now, it looked like he was in store for more. Christ, maybe he should think about what Heather had mentioned to him, another vet would--

"Jack! Focus!" his brother in law's voice came through the phone.

"Tom? What the hell? You need to get sleep before the babies arrive," Jack said as he shifted under his blankets. Maybe he was going to get more sleep tonight after all.

"You need to get your ass to the hospital right now if you want to meet the babies. Your sister is in labor and threatening every male around so be prepared. Really need you here." Tom sounded proud and worried at the same time.

"Sandy's in labor and you're on the phone with me?" Jack started to pull the phone away from his ear as his sister's voice sounded in the background.

"Get your ass out of bed and here now!" Jack chuckled at his sister's demand.

"I'm assuming you heard her so get here now!" Tom hung up before Jack could reply, but really? What was he going to say? No? Not likely.

He climbed out of his bed, pulled on some clothes and drove to the hospital in record time. When he got to the reception desk and gave them his name, he was directed to the maternity waiting room. Jack sat down and tried to get comfortable. No telling how long he'd be waiting. Next thing he knew he was looking up to see Tom standing there with a huge smile on his face. Jack glanced around and noticed light coming through the windows. Okay, maybe he'd fallen asleep.

"Babies? Sandy?" Jack asked as he stood and crossed to Tom.

"They're all good. One boy and two girls. Sandy was a champ." Tom threw his arms around Jack and started to cry.

"Hey...hey... it's okay. Everyone's good and healthy. You've got this. Congratulations, Daddy." Jack patted Tom's back and let him have a moment.

Tom pulled back and wiped his cheeks on his shoulders before pulling Jack toward the hallway. "Come meet the babies." Tom pushed open the third door on the left and led Jack into the room. Jack looked over and there was Sandy propped up in bed a baby in her arms and he could see a basinet next to the bed.

"Hey Uncle Jack. Come meet your nephew," Sandy greeted him holding out the baby. As Jack took the baby in his hands, she said, "Ethan, this is your uncle Jack. He'll always be there for you and your sisters."

"Your mama's a smart woman, Ethan. I will always be there for you." Jack placed a kiss on the baby's head before turning toward the basinet. "What are the girls' names?"

"Faith is on the left and Grace on the right," Tom said as he stroked their cheeks.

"Hello, princesses. I'm your--"

"Oh, hell no! Princess is unacceptable," Sandy snapped. "My girls will know that they are more important for what they do and how they act than how they look. I'm putting a list on the refrigerator." Jack looked over at her and could tell that she was dead serious.

"Okay, no princesses. I'll find a different nickname for them. For now, hello little ones, I'm your uncle Jack."

The sound of the door opening had the adults turning toward the door.

"Why is the fag holding the baby? Don't want him to give them AIDS," Tom's brother, Harry, said as he walked in with his wife following behind with a sneer on her face.

"Harry! Leave that outside or you're not welcome here," Tom said, frowning at his brother. "Nice of you to finally show up. Called you hours ago."

"Wasn't like the babies weren't going to come whether I was here or not. Why sit in an uncomfortable chair when I could get more sleep?" Jack watched as Harry looked around the room, not coming closer to see the babies at all.

"Would you like to hold our nephew?" Jack asked politely. He was going to be cordial if it killed him. He was not going to get into a fight with the jackass in his sister's maternity room.

"Why would I want to hold him? He's a baby. They're all the same."

Jack tried to keep his mouth from falling open at that statement. Okay, yes, all babies were similar at birth but to not want to hold your nephew or niece? Yeah, he'd have to be dead to not want to cuddle these little bundles of joy.

"Out! Get out of this room now!" Sandy screamed, waking the babies who expressed their displeasure with loud cries. Tom reached into the basinet and handed one of the girls to Sandy before picking up the other baby and turning to his brother.

"You heard Sandy. Get out and don't come back until you've found your civility."

"You can't kick us out. We're family," Harry sputtered. Jack wondered if his wife ever opened her mouth. She was just standing there with a pout on her face. Jack shifted Ethan to his shoulder, supporting his head, and soothing him by rocking.

Jack looked to Sandy and Tom, then placed a kiss on Ethan's head again. "They can and will kick you out. Don't make me put Ethan down and escort you from the room. I will if you push me. You've upset Sandy and all the babies. They don't need this hours after the birth. Now leave." Jack could tell that Harry was weighing his options before he turned and stormed out.

"Well, that went well. Can I hold one of the girls now?" Jack asked.

Tom blew out a breath and chuckled. "After that? Yes, you can hold one of your nieces. Here's Grace. Give me Ethan. And Jack? If we weren't sure before that display, we're listing you as guardian for the children. There is no fu--" Tom stopped himself then continued, "way we'd ever want my brother and sister-in-law to raise them if, God forbid, something happens to us."

"Whoa! Whoa! Let's have no talk of anything happening to anyone when these little ones have just arrived." Jack backed up a bit, still holding his nephew.

"Jack! Snap out of it. We have no intentions of going anywhere. We're planning on long happy lives raising these three but just in case...promise me?" When Jack looked into his sister's face, he could see this was important to her.

He looked down at his nephew sleeping so peacefully and then at the two little girls in their parents' arms. "I promise."


****


July



Tank walked out of the meeting with Sergeant Love and had no idea where he was going. Really had didn't know what he was going to do. The overweight program? He'd always been on the larger side but to not even pass the tape test? How long did he have? What was he going to do? Were they going to kick him out? He was sure that Love had told him but right now he didn't even know his own name.

"Tank! Wait up!" Randolph called out as he physically pulled Tank to a stop.

When Tank looked around, he was standing on the edge of the parking lot and couldn't remember how he'd gotten there. "Oh, hey, didn't hear you."

"You didn't hear me? I'm not exactly shy and retiring when trying to get someone's attention. You okay? You look...off."

"Not sure really. I'm kinda numb," Tank said before starting to walk again.

"Want to get some lunch and tell me about it?" Randolph was walking next to him, but Tank really wasn't paying Randolph any attention.

"Sure, guess I have to eat but... whatever."

Tank's thoughts were rolling around in his mind. What was he going to tell Mama? She was going to be so disappointed in him. Mama had been proud when he got assigned to the Firing Battery, now he was going to have to tell her that he was being kicked out for being fat. He really didn't know what happened. If anything, he was working out so much these days between PT and the dojo. Maybe he needed to drop a few pounds but his clothes still fit so he couldn't have put on that much weight. Vaguely he remembered Coach Kelly lecturing him about food and exercise and calories and something but nothing of it made any sense. Maybe he needed to see a doctor? Talk to a personal trainer? Oh, yeah, that would be fun. He'd be able to bench press his own trainer. What was he going to do if he was discharged? He didn't have a--

Randolph's voice interrupted Tank's panic. "Here's the half salad, soup combo and some tea. Eat up because once you're done? You're spilling it. Something's wrong and you're going to tell me. If not, be prepared to hear from every single member of the crews, individually, until you tell us so we can help you. Now, easy or hard? Your choice." Randolph sat back and dug into his salad.

Tank ran his spoon through the soup for a minute or two before he put it down and leaned back in the booth. Sighing heavily, he started talking. "Had a meeting with Sergeant Love this morning. I'm on the overweight program as of today. I've been doing every fucking thing I can think of and can't lose a fucking pound or inch."

"What? You're solid fucking muscle. They taped you?"

"They did. I'm not sure what the fuck to do. Maybe Siah or one of the civ crew have suggestions? I know I don't eat the best, I never have, but this? What the fuck am I going to do?" Tank dropped his head into his hands again. Mama was killing him for sure.

Tank watched as what he'd said ran through Randolph's brain. There was a reason they never invited him to poker night. Randolph's expressions were too easy to read. No sense in having him there just to take his money. Finally, he started nodding, holding out his hand.

"First, you're going to track your food and water. Where's your phone?" Randolph was scrolling through something then clicked a few times and handed him back his phone. "Create a log-in. I'm downloading it, too. The crews will get you squared away."

"But--"

Randolph raised an eyebrow which stopped Tank cold.

"Next, eat your lunch then we're back at the unit. I'm going on a run this afternoon after last formation before heading to see Briar. Guess what you're doing?"

"Going for a run this afternoon before you go see Briar?"

"Smart boy, smart boy," Randolph said before picking up his fork and digging into his salad.