Authors: Alexis Morgan
“Give it some time, Leif. Concentrate on flirting with your therapist or some of those nurses hanging around the place.”
His friend snorted in disgust. “My therapist is built like a linebacker and answers to the name of Bubba.”
Leif sounded much put-upon, but Nick couldn’t help but laugh. “Seriously? Bubba? I’m sure I requested a gorgeous brunette for you.”
“Well, he’s about as far from that as possible. You must have checked the wrong box on the order form.”
“Must have. How are you doing otherwise?”
Leif let out another long breath. “Bored senseless. I’ve never watched this much television in my whole life. I’ve tried reading, but nothing holds my attention.”
Nick could sympathize. “I’ve had the same problems.”
“Yeah, but at least you’re mobile. I’m getting damn sick of looking at these same four walls. Where are you, anyway?”
Should Nick tell him?
“I’m in Washington.”
“Then why haven’t you been by to see me? I could use an outing. I’m sure a trip to the closest bar to lift a few beers would count as therapy.”
“Not D.C., you idiot. The state.”
Nick settled back on the couch and waited to see how Leif reacted.
He sounded incredulous. “You actually drove all the way out there to see Callie Redding in person?”
“Yeah. I have to find a permanent home for Mooch. I thought she might like to have him.”
“And the same people who shipped the mutt to your folks couldn’t have shipped him directly to her?”
Well, yeah, if he was going to get all technical about it. “I thought it would help if she met him first. What if she and Mooch didn’t hit it off? Or if she lived in an apartment that didn’t take pets?”
All logical reasons for him to deliver Mooch in person; none of them were the real reason he’d driven more than two thousand miles to show up on Callie’s doorstep.
Leif wasn’t buying it, either. “And so did she agree to adopt the mutt?”
Damn, his friend had him cornered. “I haven’t asked her yet, but we only got in town a few hours ago. After traveling for almost a week, neither of us are at our best. I thought it was better to wait until Mooch had a day or two to recover from the trip before bringing up the subject.”
Leif knew him too well. “That’s bullshit, Sarge, and you know it. We both know why you’re there.”
Nick’s temper, always close to the surface these days, exploded. “I’m here because I got the man she loved killed. Is that what you want to hear, Leif? That it’s my fucking fault Spence died?”
He didn’t wait for a response. After disconnecting the call, he threw the phone down on the couch. It started to ring within seconds, but he ignored it.
“Mooch, come. We’re out of here.”
Then he charged out into the night, knowing full well that no matter how fast or far a man walked, he couldn’t outdistance his conscience.
ick rolled over and buried his face in the pillow, hoping to fend off another fur-ball attack. Mooch whined louder this time and poked his cold, wet nose in Nick’s ear in the process. At least the idiot was smart enough to dive back off the bed when Nick came up swinging. Deprived of a target for his temper, he sat up on the edge of the bed and glared at his tormentor.
“Damn it, dog. Pull that trick again, and I’ll ship your ass right back to where it came from.”
Mooch knew an empty threat when he heard one. Satisfied his human was now awake, he wagged his tail and trotted right back over to lay his head in Nick’s lap. He stroked the dog’s head and tried to find the energy to stand up.
Morning had come brutally early, especially considering Nick hadn’t staggered upstairs to fall into bed until well after midnight. He’d give anything for a few more hours of sleep, but that wasn’t going to happen until after he let Mooch out. He pulled on a T-shirt and headed downstairs in his flannel pajama bottoms to open the front door.
By the time the dog had made a quick circuit of the perimeter and reported back that all was well, Nick was too wide-awake to go back to bed. Still grumbling, he put on a pot of coffee, fed the dog, and parked himself on the steps out front with a bowl of cereal.
Mooch gulped down his own breakfast and went back to exploring the wilds of Spence’s front yard. The grass was so high in spots that all Nick could see of the dog was the tip of his tail.
“Careful, dog. I hear they have bears in this part of the country. I bet they’d love a Moochburger for breakfast.”
Mooch poked his head up for a brief look in Nick’s direction. He yipped his acknowledgment of the warning and went back to sniffing out the local wildlife. A few seconds later, he barked and went bounding across the yard to chase a pair of squirrels up a tree. Looking damn proud of himself for having vanquished the enemy forces, he came trotting back to Nick.
“Yeah, be glad those varmints went up the tree, Mooch. You think you’re tough, but I’m betting even money they could take you in a fair fight.”
The dog recognized an insult when he heard one and went into immediate play stance, daring Nick to bring it on. It was a game they both enjoyed. They rolled across the porch with first Nick and then Mooch coming out on top. At least Nick managed to fend off his friend’s determined efforts to give him a victory face licking.
“Dog, if you behave long enough for me to finish my coffee, we’ll go for a run.”
Mooch didn’t have a huge vocabulary, but then English was his second language. He’d mastered all the important words, though, and knew what “run” meant. Before Nick could stop him, Mooch was heading down the driveway.
“Mooch! Let me get my shoes on first!”
He paused to see if the dog had listened to him before ducking back inside long enough to change into running shorts. He waited until he was back outside to put on his shoes to make sure Mooch hadn’t gotten tired of waiting and taken off on his own.
He also brought the leash he’d bought for Mooch, another word the dog now knew and hated. Mooch had grown up wandering free on the streets of Afghanistan and had yet to adjust to the trappings of civilization, in particular collars and leashes.
“Come on, boy. You know the rules.”
Mooch came slinking over to cower at Nick’s feet. “Aw, dog, I’m not mad at you, but rules are rules. When we’re here in the yard, you can run loose. Out there on the road, we’ve got to at least pretend to be like everyone else.”
He clipped on the leash. “Let’s go.”
Resigned to his fate, Mooch charged ahead, pulling the retractable leash out to its limit before slowing to match the pace Nick set for them.
At the end of the driveway, Nick pulled up to decide which way to go. Finally, he turned in the direction of Snowberry Creek. Spence had talked about his hometown a lot, and Nick wanted to see how well his mental image of the place matched up with the real thing.
He’d gone maybe half a mile before he passed another house, but after that it was clear he’d reached the outskirts of town. He reeled Mooch in closer as they turned right at a sign pointing to the business district.
As the two of them pounded down the sidewalk, he made note of the various businesses they passed. Although a bit smaller than his own hometown, Snowberry Creek possessed at least two coffee shops. The closest one, Something’s Brewing, promised fresh-baked muffins and pastries. The scent of roasting coffee and cinnamon had him wishing he’d brought his wallet.
“We’ll stop there next time, Mooch.”
If there was a next time. He’d yet to decide how long he’d be staying in the area. He shouldn’t delay asking Callie about Mooch any longer than necessary. She might need to think about it. And if she couldn’t take the dog, then Nick would need the time to make other arrangements for him. He had a limited amount of time before he had to let the army know his decision about reenlisting.
A lot also depended on how well his arm healed up. He fought the automatic urge to rub his biceps, knowing the pain was mostly in his head now.
“Time to head back, Mooch.”
The dog obligingly turned back at the first tug on his leash. As they started back through town, a car going in the opposite direction slowed down and stopped. Even if he hadn’t recognized Callie, Mooch’s reaction would have told him who it was.
He checked for traffic and trotted across the road to where she’d stopped her car. Mooch immediately put his paws on the door, wiggling with excitement in hopes of getting petted.
Callie obligingly reached down to scratch his head. The damn mutt acted as if he’d been neglected his whole life until that very moment. Of course, that might just be Nick’s jealousy talking. At least she shared her smile with him, too.
“You two are ambitious for your first day in town. Makes me feel guilty for driving such a short distance.”
He tugged Mooch back down beside his feet. “It’s the first chance we’ve had for a good run in almost a week. Don’t want either of us to get fat and lazy.”
Callie gave them both a good looking over. “I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
He wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he changed the subject. “There’s something I meant to ask you last night. Where’s the closest grocery store?”
She pointed behind him. “Mr. Hanson’s grocery is a block back that way. If you need more than a few things, there’s a bigger store in the next town over. Just follow this road north another five miles.”
“Thanks.” He shifted from one foot to the other, getting up the courage to ask one last question. “Are we still on for dinner tonight?”
Callie nodded. “Sure thing.”
Unfortunately, another car had pulled up behind her, so Nick stepped back. “I’ll call you later to get specifics.”
She smiled again. “Sounds good. I’m looking forward to it. Enjoy your run, guys.”
He led Mooch back to the other side of the road as Callie waved at them one last time before pulling away. She wasn’t the only one looking forward to dinner. As he and Mooch resumed their run, he let various scenarios play out in his head. Was she thinking casual and hamburgers? Or steaks and a tie? Not that he had one with him. Should he stop someplace and buy one just in case?
Another sign he still hadn’t acclimated to being back stateside. He hadn’t been out on a date since before he’d been deployed, not that this was really a date. He wasn’t sure what it was, though. They weren’t exactly friends, more like two people who’d had one friend in common. Two, if they counted Mooch. He just hoped they’d find something to talk about other than how much they both missed Spence.
Rather than dwell on it, he kicked it into high gear. “Come on, dog. I’m going to take a shower and then make a quick run into town to pick up some groceries for the two of us.”
Even if they left tomorrow, he’d need more kibble for Mooch and a few things for himself. After that, though, the long hours of the afternoon stretched out in front of him with nothing to do.
As they turned back into the driveway, he let Mooch off the leash. He dropped down on the porch step to cool off and catch his breath while the dog made sure the squirrels hadn’t returned in their absence. Staring at the overgrown yard, it occurred to Nick that maybe he could make himself useful around the place.
After he got back from town, he’d check out the garage and see what kinds of yard tools he could find. A few hours of manual labor out in the sun would go a long way toward taking the edge off his mood.
“Come on inside, Mooch. I’ve got places to be and things to do.”
allie spent the morning meeting with various people at city hall, talking about permits, building codes, and zoning. In the end, she’d come back home more frustrated than informed and not a little discouraged. All of her previous experience in dealing with home repairs was pretty much limited to calling a landlord to report a problem. Most of the time, it was fixed while she was at work, so she didn’t have the chance to see how things were done.
Yeah, her dad had always been pretty handy around the house, but she’d never done more than hand him the occasional hammer or screwdriver. She’d preferred to spend her time at home with her nose in a book or online playing video games. Looking back, she wished she’d paid more attention.
As she got out of the car, she heard a noise coming from next door. What was Nick up to now?
Her mind flashed back to earlier that morning when she’d seen him running through town. Hot damn, he’d looked so good, she’d been unable to resist stopping to watch. Even if he’d been a total stranger, she would’ve noticed him and the effortless way he moved.
And he’d claimed to be getting fat and lazy. Yeah, right. If anything, Nick looked as if he could stand to put on a few pounds. She hadn’t missed that long scar peeking out from the sleeve of his T-shirt. Although it had obviously healed, the wound had left behind a jagged red streak twisting down the side of his upper arm.
It looked recent enough to make her wonder if he’d been injured in the same attack that had taken Spence’s life. There was no way she’d ask Nick about it. If he brought it up, she’d listen, but she had no burning desire to learn the details of that awful day.
Perhaps it was cowardly of her, but she preferred to remember her friend as she’d last seen him. She didn’t want the image of what had really happened to Spence burned into her memory for all time. It was bad enough to know he’d died on the other side of the world. With some effort, she dragged her mind back to the moment at hand. She paused to listen. Was that the lawn mower running? It sure sounded like it.
She took her purse inside the house and grabbed a couple of bottles of cold water from the fridge before heading next door to investigate. The noise grew louder the closer she got to Spence’s place. Sure enough, she spotted Nick muscling the old lawn mower through the knee-high grass in the front yard.
Whoa, mama! If he’d looked good that morning in running shorts and a T-shirt, it was nothing to how the man looked without his shirt on, his tanned skin gleaming in the afternoon sun. Rather than trying to outshout the mower, she’d wait in the shade of the trees until he turned back in her direction before trying to catch his attention.
Mooch, on the other hand, was already heading straight for her at a dead run. She knelt down and braced herself for some serious doggy love. It had been years since she’d had a pet in her life because she moved around too often for it to be practical. Even so, it would take a harder heart than her own to resist a sweetie like Mooch.
After all, the dog was a real-life war hero. Spence had told her all about how the dog had warned his unit about a shooter lying in wait for them. No one knew why a stray would single them out to help, but he had. Not only that, but Mooch had gotten shot in the process. His thick fur covered the resulting scar, but she could still feel it.
“Hi, Mooch. Why don’t we go over and sit on the steps while your owner slaves away in the sun?”
Almost as if he’d understood her, the dog immediately bolted for the shade offered by the porch, circling back a few seconds later to make sure Callie knew to follow him. She laughed at his antics. “Go ahead. I’ll be along in a second.”
Before she’d gone two steps, there was a loud clunking noise from the mower. A second later, the engine died with a loud bang and a huge puff of oily smoke. She watched in horror as Nick screamed, “Fuck no! Incoming! Everybody down!” as he dove for the ground. Mooch charged out into the yard to stand guard over Nick as he lay there covering his head with his arms. The dog’s ruff was up as he growled at the poor lawn mower.
Oh, God, the two of them were reacting to the small explosion just as they would have back in Afghanistan. Sensing neither of them would much appreciate having an audience, Callie quickly retreated back down the path toward her parents’ house, not sure what to do next. Maybe the smart thing would be to return home and pretend none of this had happened at all.
But was Nick all right? The only way to find out was to check on him. She couldn’t very well leave him lying there alone and maybe hurt. Slowly, she inched down the path, listening for any sign that he was back up on his feet. Her patience was rewarded a few seconds later when Nick cut loose with a long string of colorful curse words. Feeling only marginally better about the situation, she counted off a few more seconds, intending to stroll back into the yard as if she’d just then arrived.
“You can come back, Callie. I’m done making a fool of myself. For now, anyway.”
So much for her crafty plan. The dark thread of temper in Nick’s voice made her even more reluctant to face him right now. She took a quick breath and walked forward, aiming for a calm she certainly wasn’t feeling.
There’d been two occasions when Spence had clearly overreacted to a loud sound when he’d been home on leave. The loss of control had both embarrassed and infuriated him. Each time it had happened, he’d stormed off all wild-eyed and angry. He’d stayed gone for hours, until he regained control, leaving Callie alone and worrying about him. She’d hated the whole situation for him, but each time she’d been at a loss as to what she could do to help her friend get past the effects of spending months in combat mode.
When she stepped out of the trees, Nick was standing next to the lawn mower. He avoided looking in her direction until she was within a few feet of him. His attitude wasn’t exactly welcoming as he brushed bits of cut grass off his sweaty skin. His expression softened slightly when she held up the bottled water.
“Thought maybe you could use one of these.”
At least he accepted the cold drink. Poor Mooch parked himself between the two humans, giving them each worried looks. Nick took a long swig and then dumped some in his hand to splash on his face and neck. Then he poured more in his hand and bent down to offer it to his pal. Mooch dutifully lapped up the cool water and then accepted a second serving.
Nick avoided looking at Callie when he spoke. “Thanks, Callie. That tasted good. It’s a lot hotter out here than I realized.”
When he straightened up, he gave the lawn mower a nudge with the toe of his shoe. “Sorry, but I think I killed your mower.”
Keeping her focus on the machine and not the man, she tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry about it, Nick. In fact, as old as that thing is, I’m surprised you could even get it started at all. I know it hasn’t been used in years. My father always cut Spence’s grass with his own riding mower.”
Looking disgusted, Nick glanced around at the yard. He’d cut only a couple of swaths, which just emphasized how overgrown the whole yard was. “Sorry, but it actually looks worse than when I started.”
She forced a smile. “I’m not sure that’s possible.”
Callie wanted to ask if he was all right but knew any questions on the subject wouldn’t be welcome. “No one has lived here for years, not even Spence. The whole place needs a lot of work.”
Callie tried to see Spence’s home through his friend’s eyes rather than the filter of her own memories. Yeah, it did look pretty run-down. The paint was peeling, the gutters sagged, and the lawn looked more like a pasture than the front yard of a beautiful old home. Maybe that was all Nick saw, whereas she’d been looking past all of that to the possibilities.
“When I think about everything that it will take to restore the place, it gets a bit overwhelming. I’d planned on finding someone to get the yard back under control first, thinking maybe some high school kid needing a summer job would be interested. Once the worst of it gets cleared out, I should be able to maintain the yard myself.”
Nick picked up the T-shirt he’d tossed on a nearby bush and put it on. “Do you think your dad would mind if I borrowed his lawn mower?”
Callie didn’t know what to say. While she appreciated the offer, she didn’t want him to feel obligated. Not to mention that she’d assumed he and Mooch would be back on the road tomorrow.
“He wouldn’t mind, Nick, but surely you can think of something you’d enjoy doing more on a sunny afternoon than mowing my grass.”
His eyes flared wide before he quickly looked away. She backed up a step, something about the intensity of his expression leaving her unsettled. What was he thinking about that had him staring off into the distance with his hands curled into white-knuckled fists? Nothing good, she’d bet.
“I scared you screaming like that, didn’t I?”
There wasn’t any use in lying to him. “A little.”
When he finally looked at her again, his dark eyes were stone cold. “Do you want me to pack up now and leave? Just say the word and I’m gone.”
She didn’t hesitate. “No, Nick, I don’t want that at all. To be honest, I was more afraid
you, if that makes sense.”
To support her statement, she took a step closer to him. “Spence had a couple of similar episodes on his last visit home when something startled him. At least you stuck around to talk to me. He just took off. Afterward, I tried telling him I’d rather he not hide from me, but I’m not sure he believed me.”
“He probably felt like a fool for jumping at shadows.” Nick flexed his hands several times and then rolled his shoulders. “After living on full alert for months on end, it’s hard to shut it all off overnight. Most of the time I think I’m handling everything okay, but then I get blindsided by something as stupid as a lawn mower engine backfiring. It makes it hard to be around other people sometimes.”
Confessing even that much was obviously difficult for him. Nick swallowed hard before continuing. “Maybe later I’ll see what I can do to resurrect this mower. It shouldn’t take much to tune it up and sharpen the blade. Even so, grass this high is too much for a regular mower. If you’re sure it’s okay, I’ll use your dad’s riding mower to finish the job.”
She handed him the second bottle of water. “Why don’t I go get it while you drink some more of this? Can I bring you anything else?”
He was already dragging the mower back toward the garage. “No, I’m fine. I made a trip to the store this morning to stock up on a few things.”
Callie was about to start back to her parents’ house but paused to ask one more question. “One reason I came over was to ask what kind of food you were in the mood for tonight.”
Nick stopped midstep but kept his back to her. “Are you sure you still want to go?”
He stood frozen as if bracing himself for a negative response. Did he really think she’d blow him off now? “Yes, I’m sure, if for no other reason than I’m sick of my own cooking.”
Her smile felt more genuine this time. “So what sounds good? Seafood, Italian, steaks, barbecue?”
Nick started moving again. “Anything as long as the restaurant is casual. I’m not sure I even own a tie anymore.”
She laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind. See you in a few minutes.”