Royals & Rogues

By: Heather Long

If her family denied her desire, she could make it on her own.

I can. Too bad her gut didn’t agree with her brain.

* * *

At 0400, on the dot, Hugh Dillon’s eyes opened. He rolled out of bed and into pushups. By the time he hit fifty, adrenaline sparked through his system and he was ready to dress and begin his morning run. Afterward, he’d shower, have coffee, and go over the day’s schedule. The camp was on a down week, which meant he didn’t have any recruits to abuse. Stretching, he blew out a breath. Opening the camp had saved his family property in Georgia, even if the wannabe survivalists and soldier-for-a-week visitors annoyed the hell out of him.

Most of his clients wouldn’t survive in the real Marines, but they weren’t paying him to make the cut for boot camp. They paid him for the experience. Standing, he rolled his head from side to side. The vertebrae cracked and released tension. Pay to play Marines—the thought once disgusted him. He served at home and abroad. Following orders, he’d worked with foreign military personnel on training one month, then dug in and went into the mountains of Afghanistan the next.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, he used the sharp pressure to bring focus back to his thoughts. During the time he spent overseas and in firefights, his father fought to hold onto their acreage in Georgia. Years of unpredictable weather and bad press took a toll on the tobacco crops. More, decades of bad habits took a toll on his father. With his parents facing bankruptcy and not even his paychecks able to help them, he’d made the choice to step back from his service to his country to come home and help them.

Two years later, he’d not only turned the situation around, but he’d also allowed his parents enough income to comfortably retire while his father battled emphysema. As campaigns went, he’d dealt with far worse in the ass end of nowhere than he did in Georgia.

Dressed in a light t-shirt and shorts, he shoved his feet into his shoes. The old sneakers had seen plenty of action. He could make the run in boots, something he did with his recruits, but when it was just him and the trails, he preferred the comfort of his old friends. Leaving the darkened bedroom, he grabbed his phone off the charger and strode for the front door. He’d just stepped outside into the pre-dawn mugginess when the phone rang. It might be autumn everywhere else in the world, but in Georgia it just meant a body could simmer for a couple of hours before the heat turned up.

For one split second, concern rippled through him. Had something happened to his dad? The number on the screen allayed the fear. It was an international exchange. Hitting answer, he put the phone to his ear. “Dillon.”

“Sergeant Dillon, Michael Grace, here.” The stern, solid British intonation transported him back to his training assignment with the Royal Marines.

“Good morning, sir.” Pacing kept his muscles warm, so he strode down the path from the guesthouse he’d renovated when he moved back onto his parents’ property. Helping out, reconditioning the land, and even taking over the day-to-day operations was one thing. Moving back in with his mom and dad at thirty-five was not on his bucket list. “How can I help you, Major?”

He and the major were not friends. The last time Hugh could even recall talking to Major Grace had been during his last day in England before he’d PCS’d to rejoin his unit in the Middle East.

“It’s my understanding you’ve opened an ersatz boot camp for prospective Marines in the United States.”

Ersatz was one word for it. “It’s a fitness camp based loosely on Marine training, sir, though I wouldn’t say it’s designed for prospective Marines so much as for those who want to experience boot camp while not having to actually devote themselves to the several weeks of conditioning required to graduate.” Marketing 101, don’t make fun of your own endeavors. “It’s more of a fitness vacation and guests pay for the experience, while we also provide some comforts that would be unfamiliar during real training.” Amenities like private bungalows, family suites, and physical therapy massage—all of those additions had been part of his year two planning and paid off in spades. The following summer, he would be able to open the camp to kids and teens, including specialized programs designed to get them off their damn video games and into nature.

But one step at a time.

“Interesting. When you say loosely, what exactly do your recruits—guests—experience?” The man’s genial tone disguised a razor intelligence. He’d served in the Royal Marines for nearly as long as Hugh’s lifetime. He’d also proved invaluable in easing Hugh’s training time with the royals.

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