Pretend You're Mine

Medal Ceremony


Aldo Moretta tugged on the collar of his jacket and paced behind the heavy velour curtain. Luke tried to remember the last time they’d worn their dress blues. Together they’d spent more than their fair share of time in combat uniforms staring down the enemy. But put them on a stage in their blues and watch them sweat.


“Calm down, man. It’ll all be over soon,” Luke told his oldest friend, who looked like he was in need of more deodorant.


Luke peeked through the curtain and spotted Harper running herd on the kids. His wife and family. The beauty of that little phrase still hadn’t worn off on him and he doubted it ever would. The same with his wife’s beauty. It was more than just the blonde hair and those smiling full lips. It went deeper than her flawless skin and those spectacular long legs. Beyond the way she looked at him as if he hung the stars in the sky just for her.


There was a light about her that he’d seen from the very first moment she’d opened those gray eyes and looked at him. And it was that light he’d been chasing ever since. She’d pulled him out of the darkness, given him a home and a family, and never asked for a damn thing in return.


But he’d vowed to spend the rest of his life making hers perfect.


He watched her glue seven-year-old Henry to the chair between hers and his older brother Robbie’s, sweet Ava rested her dark head on Harper’s shoulder. Next to Harper was Aldo’s Gloria and Mrs. Moretta and behind them Luke spotted his parents, his brother, James, and the pregnant and just-starting-to-show Sophie with her husband Ty and their son Josh. And beyond them was his National Guard family. The men and women he’d served with, toured with, fought with for as long as he’d been an adult, lined up solemnly in the folding chairs of the base’s auditorium.


They’d all turned out today to see Aldo receive his purple heart.


His best friend, his brother but for blood, had been wounded on their last tour. But losing a leg wasn’t enough to slow a man like Aldo down. He had come home, bounced back by kicking PT ass, and swept the beautiful Gloria Parker off her feet.


“She out there?” Aldo asked peering through the curtain.


“Of course your mom’s here,” Luke joked.


“Funny. Gloria, man. Is my fiancée here?”


The man had it bad, and Luke knew exactly how he felt.


“Where the hell else would she be?”


“She could have run for the hills.”


“It’s a big day, I don’t think she’s going to run. She looks pretty excited.”


“So you think she’ll show up later?”


“You mean at the altar? Yes, I think Gloria will show up and marry your ass this afternoon.”


Aldo took a deep breath and then another one. On his third, Luke smacked him on the shoulder. “One more and you’re gonna hyperventilate.”


Aldo nodded spastically. “Right. Right. Okay. No more breathing. Not ‘til I’m married.”


“You gentlemen ready? I’ve got a golf game in an hour.” Brigadier General Nancy Cowell marched toward them like the no-nonsense missile she was. Her heels clicked on the wood floor.


“Yes, ma’am,” Luke and Aldo answered her in unison with matching salutes.


She returned their salutes with a snap of her wrist. “Lieutenant, if you pass out on me out there I’m going to be pissed,” she warned Aldo.


Luke elbowed him in the gut. “He’ll be fine, general.”


“How are your fingers, captain?” she asked him. “We’re not going to have any puncture wounds on stage are we?”


Luke held up his hand, steady as a rock. “No first aid necessary,” he promised.


“All right. I’ll go out and give the introduction, you two get your asses out there, the lieutenant here will get his purple heart, and then we can all go about our day. I’ll make my golf game and I hear you’ve got a wedding today.”


“Yes, ma’am,” Aldo said regaining the power of speech. “She’s here.”


“Isn’t it bad luck to see each other before the wedding?” General Cowell asked, and Luke cringed on the inside.


Aldo’s eyes widened to the point of popping out of his skull.


“Relax, lieutenant,” she sighed. “This is a big deal and if you didn’t have her here, you’d be hearing about it for the rest of your married life. She should be here.”


“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.” Aldo’s head bobbed like a bird.


“Keep him on his feet,” General Cowell ordered Luke and strode through the curtains onto the stage.


Luke took Aldo by the shoulders. “You’ve deployed four times. You were blown up and survived. You run a six-minute mile with a prosthetic leg. Your engineering company is a gold mine and you landed the woman of your dreams. Your life is perfect.”


“Yeah.” Aldo nodded. “Yeah. My life is fucking perfect. I’m getting married today.”


“And you’re being awarded the purple heart,” Luke reminded him.


“Yeah, that, too.”


“You sure about this retirement thing?” Luke asked. It was a decision they’d both made, just as they’d decided to enlist. But to Luke, the Guard had been a lifeline through dark times. He had a few nerves about saying farewell to it.


“How in the hell are you going to run a business, take care of your eight thousand kids, keep Harper out of trouble, and stay in the guard?”


Aldo had a point.


“You’ve earned a life, man,” Aldo reminded him with a sound slap on the shoulder.


As always, they had each other’s backs. And that wouldn’t change with retirement. They’d raise families together, grow businesses together, coach Little League or football together. And they would do it all knowing they’d served their country honorably.


“Good talk,” Luke said, with a tight nod. “Now lets go pin some shit on you so you can go get married.”


——–


Luke had warned Harper that ceremonies like this were solemn occasions in case she felt like busting out a wolf whistle or trying to lead a standing ovation. He’d made her swear she’d behave. Even still, he kept his expression firmly impassive as his eyes swept her face. She winked at him, letting him know his sternness didn’t scare her, and his heart melted just a bit.


The general was speaking of honor and commitment, her remarks clipped and concise. Luke felt Aldo next to him and remembered. Playing in the creek all summer long, backyard campouts, high school football games, long summer days at the lake. The day they enlisted. Their first deployment together. Their last deployment together. The last moments they experienced on a battlefield together, Aldo’s blood flowing from a leg wounded beyond repair. The firefight that raged around them. And Aldo’s immortal words as Luke tied the tourniquet, “Shit. That’s gonna hurt.”


Aldo had stood next to him on his wedding day, just as he would stand next to Aldo today as his best friend said his vows to Gloria. Each would always stand for the other. And today he would honor his friend.


“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise,” General Cowell ordered and the crowd came to its feet. The general crossed to them and handed Luke the medal. It had weight to it, as it should.


He opened the clasp and slid the pin through the blue wool, securing it to Aldo’s coat.


“Congratulations, Lieutenaut,” Luke said, shaking Aldo’s hand.


“Thank you, sir.” Aldo nodded briskly and saluted.


Luke returned the salute, his throat a little tighter than he liked, and stepped back so General Cowell could hand over the certificate.


Aldo was just saluting the general when a “Woooo!” rang out from the crowd.


Luke shot Harper a look, but she pointed two seats down to where Mrs. Moretta was standing on her chair in her lime green pantsuit, snapping picture after picture of her son.


“Oh, what the hell,” General Cowell said. “Let’s hear it for the Lieutenant.”


The crowd broke into thunderous applause and Luke distinctly heard Harper’s whistle. He grinned at Aldo who smirked for the cameras.


When the crowd noise began to die down, General Cowell addressed them again. “Now, since I have you all here and since we’ve already got him on the stage, I’d like to take this moment to present Captain Lucas Garrison with the State of Maryland Distinguished Service Cross for going above the call of duty and demonstrating remarkable heroism, facing personal danger to save the life of our Lieutenant Moretta.”


Luke swallowed hard and stared at Harper, who didn’t look the least bit surprised. He shot a sideways glance at Aldo who was grinning ear to ear now.


General Cowell gestured at her aide who carried over an open box. Her fingers moved with efficiency, plucking the medal from the velvet backing and affixing it to Luke’s coat.


“For your service to your fellow soldier, captain.” She shook his hand firmly.


“Thank you, ma’am,” Luke said quietly. He lifted his hand in a salute and she returned it.


She moved in closer. “You boys have made me very proud all these years. Now, go on and live your lives. You’ve earned them.”


“Yes, ma’am,” they said together.


She signaled the crowd and again they cheered.


Harper was cheering and crying. The boys next to her grinned up at him, proud too of their new dad.


He waited until the general dismissed them, made sure Aldo made it down the short flight of stairs to the floor first, before sweeping up his family in a hug. “You’re crushing me, Dad,” Robbie said.


“Sorry, bud,” Luke said, loosening his grip marginally.


Ava patted his face with her chubby little toddler hand. “Dada,” she said in delight.


“Hey, cutie,” Luke said, nuzzling the little girl’s cheek.


He looked down at Harper, his wife’s eyes still glistening with tears. They didn’t need to speak the words of pride and love that resonated between them. They were felt deep.


Harper handed Ava over to him and wrangled the boys away so the rest of Luke’s family could swarm him.


He spared a glance at Aldo who was hugging Gloria. “Last picture, Ma,” he told Mrs. Moretta as she buzzed around them blinding them with flashes.


“Just two more,” she yelled.


“No more, Ma. Ma!” Aldo tucked Gloria’s face into his chest and flicked his mother off.


“Well, that’s not going to be the Christmas card this year,” his mother grumbled.


Luke accepted congratulations from his family and the men and women of his unit until Harper broke through the crowd again. “I’ve got to take Gloria to get her hair done,” she told him, her fingers brushing the new medal.


Luke pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Aldo, Ty, and I are taking the boys, right?”


She nodded and arched an eyebrow. “And your parents are taking Ava. Hopefully she’ll nap for them or else we’re in for some mid-ceremony screaming.”


“Meet you at the church?”


“I’ll be the girl in purple,” she said with a wink.


——–


Four hours later there was nothing to do but enjoy a dance with his wife in his arms. Aldo and Gloria’s ceremony went off without a hitch thanks to Harper’s dictatorial planning. The bride and groom were glowing so brightly from the center of the dance floor that he wanted to shade his eyes.


“Have I told you how incredibly handsome you look in your uniform?” Harper asked him, smiling up at him sweetly.


“Have I told you how incredibly sexy you’re going to look when I peel that dress off of you?” he asked.


“I’m glad you’re not mad at me for not telling you about the medal,” she said.


“About that. I thought we were supposed to tell each other everything from now on,” Luke teased.


“General Cowell called me personally to tell me. Made me promise I wouldn’t mention it. She pretty much scared the crap out of me,” Harper confessed.


“Baby, she scares the crap out of everyone.”


“Well, speaking of telling each other everything and things that scare the crap out of us…” Harper began.


“Oh, boy. I don’t know if I’m going to like this,” Luke said. “You didn’t get another dog, did you?”


She shook her head.


“Are we adopting another three kids?”


“Might I remind you that that particular decision was your idea, Mr. Smarty Pants, and no. We are not adopting another three kids,” Harper laughed.


“I give up,” Luke said, spinning her out and pulling her back in to Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”


“Believe it or not, there are other ways of having kids besides adopting them and I think we may have discovered one of them.”


Luke froze on the dance floor, his jaw slack. “Holy shit.”


“I took a test this morning.”


“We’re—”


“Pregnant.”


Luke opened and closed his mouth, yet no sound came out.


“I know we’d talked about it before we decided to adopt the kids. But we weren’t really trying and…Well, to be honest I’m as surprised as you are and a little freaked out. I mean what are we going to do with four kids? And college. What if they all want to go to college? And puberty. Oh my God, puberty!”


Luke dragged her in and forced her face against his chest, against the tattoo of a phoenix and the sun.


“Are you okay?” her voice was muffled. “Do you need to sit down? Should I get you a drink?”


He pushed her back just enough to see her face. “We’re having a baby, Harper, and she’s going to be just like you and drive me insane and I’m going to love every second of it.”


“You’re okay with this?” Harper asked nervously. “Because I’m not sure if I am, yet.”


“We can handle this,” he promised.


“Everything’s changed so fast,” Harper said, looking around the dance floor. Henry was busting a move with Sophie and Ty’s little boy, Josh. Sophie was sitting in a chair while Ty rubbed her feet and made her laugh. Charlie and Claire were scoping out the cake with Ava. And James was vying for a bridesmaid’s attention with Robbie. Aldo dipped Gloria precariously low on the dance floor and she laughed, looking into her husband’s eyes.


“Just remember. We’re family now,” Luke said. “We don’t do anything alone anymore.”


“Well, there is that one thing that we do that’s just the two of us.”