A Time for Home: A Snowberry Creek Novel (5 page)

Ch
apter 6

M
ooch remained close by Nick’s side even though he paused several times as if unsure which human deserved his company more at the moment. Nick shot him a disgusted look.

“You’d have to be three kinds of crazy to hang out here with me instead of going with Callie. Besides, you’re supposed to be using all of your limited charm on her so she’ll offer you a permanent home here.”

Mooch evidently decided not to play favorites and took off for the front porch. He flopped down on the rug that served as a doormat, positioning himself where he could keep a wary eye on his surroundings.

“I’ll be right back,” Nick assured him and continued on toward the garage.

He shoved the mower back where he’d found it. Callie hadn’t been exaggerating when she’d said the garage was full of junk. Who had been the pack rat in the Lang family? It didn’t seem likely that it had been Spence. At first glance, it appeared that most of the stuff should’ve been hauled to the dump years ago. After poking around a bit, Nick pulled out a couple of small tables and wiped off the dust and cobwebs to get a better look at them. They could be salvaged with a little work. It wouldn’t take much.

Too bad he wouldn’t be around long enough to do the job. There was definitely plenty of room in the house for more furniture. He’d explored most of the house last night when he’d had trouble sleeping. Almost every room had empty spots where it looked as if furniture had gone missing.

Maybe Callie had already claimed a few favorite pieces for herself, but somehow that didn’t feel right to him. And really, it wasn’t any of his business. He stuck the tables back where he’d found them.

The best thing he could do for Callie was take her to dinner as promised, keeping things light and easy. Afterward, he should come back to the house, pack up, and be ready to leave at first light. That was exactly what he would do if he were on his own, but there was still Mooch to deal with. It would be damn hard to leave the dog behind, but it was the kindest thing Nick could do for him.

Somehow he’d have to find a way to broach the subject over dinner. The worst Callie could say was no, and then he’d head back home to Ohio to leave the dog with his parents, at least until Nick got his own life settled. They’d do it if he asked it of them, but it wouldn’t be a permanent solution. His dad was planning on retiring soon, and all his folks had talked about was how much traveling they wanted to do. He wouldn’t interfere with that if he could help it.

He slammed the garage door closed. “Damn it, Spence, I’m running out of options here, but don’t worry. I’ll make sure Mooch finds a good home.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d caught himself talking to Spence, and it wasn’t likely to be the last. Maybe it was another sign that he’d yet to accept what had happened back in Afghanistan, but he didn’t think so. He knew full well that he’d lost his friend; he had the gaping hole in his life to prove it.

Things just made more sense if he talked them out with a friend. Leif was only a phone call away, but he had his own problems without having to shoulder the weight of Nick’s, too. That left Spence.

“By the way, buddy, your lady is every bit as nice as you said she was. She misses you.”

They both did. Nick used the hem of his shirt to wipe his face clean of sweat. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m thinking I might have to stick around for a week or so if Callie will let me. It will give her a chance to get to know Mooch better, and she could sure use a hand fixing up this monster of a house you left her. Maybe I can help her get on track with what needs to be done. My dad is a contractor, you know, and I grew up working on one of his crews.”

He paused, wishing for an answer he knew full well wouldn’t come. Or maybe it had, considering he could hear the distant rumble of an engine heading his way. It had to be Callie bringing him her father’s riding mower. He’d use it to cut the grass and then maybe start clearing out the flower beds. Surely she’d understand that he couldn’t leave a job half-done.

Only time would tell. But for the moment, he’d get busy and earn his keep.

•   •   •

Nick mowed the entire yard twice, resetting the blade height the second time to get the grass down to the right height. It wasn’t perfect, but it definitely looked better than it had. When he had driven the mower back over to Callie’s house, he’d decided her yard could stand to be mowed, too.

Callie had stopped by a while ago to say she’d gotten an unexpected phone call and had to leave to meet with her attorney. She hadn’t looked happy about whatever it was but hadn’t offered any explanations. At least it meant Nick was able to get the mowing done while he had the place to himself. After putting the riding mower back in her dad’s shed, Nick walked back over to Spence’s place looking forward to a shower and a long nap. He wanted to be well rested for their outing later that evening.

Just as he stepped out of the woods, a patrol car pulled into Spence’s driveway. Interesting. What had happened to draw the attention of the local police?

Mooch wasn’t any happier about the uninvited guest than Nick was. The dog remained up on the porch, his head down, a low growl making his opinion of the situation all too clear. For the moment, the man remained inside the car talking on his cell phone, which gave Nick time to reach the porch steps. He sat down close enough to Mooch to be able to grab the dog’s collar if the mutt got it into his head that the cop was the enemy.

Pitching his voice low and calm, he tried to reassure his worried companion while they waited to see what was up. “It’s okay, boy. Let’s assume he’s one of the good guys.”

At least until he proved otherwise. Too bad Callie wasn’t there to run interference. Nick stayed where he was, preferring to let the officer approach him. While he waited, he opened the small cooler he’d left out on the porch and pulled out two soft drinks. He also had a six-pack of beer in there but figured the cop couldn’t have one while he was on duty.

The car door finally opened. Nick assessed his visitor, guessing him to be maybe ten years older than his own age of twenty-nine. He’d also bet the man had spent time in the military somewhere along the way. Something about the way he carried himself, or maybe it was that familiar hint of steel in those blue eyes. Nick popped the top on his drink, took a quick sip, and then pasted what he hoped was a friendly smile on his face.

“Good afternoon, Officer. I’m Nick Jenkins, a friend of Callie’s. What brings you out this way?”

Calling himself a friend of Callie’s wasn’t too much of a stretch, even allowing that they’d met only the day before. He was reasonably sure she’d back his play on the matter.

“I’m Gage Logan, the chief of police here in Snowberry Creek. I was driving by and saw the grass had been cut. I try to keep an eye on any vacant houses in the area to make sure we don’t get any squatters. We don’t get many homeless folks, but there are a few.”

Okay, that didn’t make any sense. “Do squatters usually mow the lawn?”

That crack obviously didn’t win Nick any points with his guest. The man studied Nick for several seconds, maybe hoping he would offer up more information on his own. When he didn’t, Chief Logan continued speaking.

“I wasn’t aware that Miss Redding had decided to rent out this place.”

“That’s because she didn’t. Rent it, that is.” As he spoke, Nick held out the second pop. “Here, you look like you could use one of these.”

When the lawman accepted the cold drink, Nick scooted over to make room if the police chief wanted to join him on the steps. “I served with Spence Lang in Afghanistan. I stopped by to pay my respects to Callie.”

His explanation evidently satisfied the police chief, because his stance became more relaxed. “I knew Spence’s family. His parents were good people.”

But Spence’s uncle hadn’t been, Nick added to himself. Spence hadn’t talked about the man much, but it was obvious there’d been no love lost between the two.

Logan took a long drink. He made solid eye contact with Nick when he spoke again. “I was really sorry to hear about Spence. I know his death hit Callie and her folks really hard. I think it came as even more of a shock to her to find out that he’d left everything to her.”

What could Nick say to that? “She meant a lot to Spence. They stayed close even if they didn’t get to spend much time together.”

Although Spence had hoped to change that when he came home from their deployment.

“How long do you expect to be staying here?” Logan softened the question with a hint of a smile. “I just want to know what to tell my men, so they’ll know why there are lights on in the house.”

“That will depend on Callie. I’m back in the States on leave and don’t have any particular plans. I thought I might stick around long enough to get the yard back in shape for her.”

Sensing Nick had relaxed his guard, Mooch lunged down the steps, getting out of reach before Nick could stop him. The cop stood his ground but allowed Mooch to check him out.

“Mooch, come back here. He doesn’t need to get covered in dog hair.”

“That’s okay.” Logan held out his hand for Mooch to sniff and then patted the dog on his head, grinning when he noticed he was wearing real dog tags.

“Is he an ex-military dog?”

“No, at least not officially.”

The combination of hot sun and bad memories had images of Afghanistan filling Nick’s mind, threatening to take control. He fought hard to keep from getting swept back to the night when Mooch had entered their lives. One of the army docs had told him that if he felt himself slipping back into the past, to concentrate on something physical, something solid. He tightened his grip on the can, focusing on the drops of water trickling down the cool metal. Gradually, his mind cleared.

Hoping he hadn’t been silent too long, he finished the story. “He was a stray that took a liking to Spence one night when we were out on patrol. Mooch saved our asses by warning us we were about to walk into an ambush. We made him an official member of the squad after that.”

Logan patted Mooch on the head again. “Well, it looks like Callie’s place is in good hands, so I’ll hit the road.”

He looked around one last time. “A word of warning. Spence’s uncle wasn’t at all happy about him leaving this place to Callie instead of him and his son. He made some noise about contesting the will, but I think he was just rattling cages to see what happened. No one has seen him around lately. It would be nice if that means he’s given up and moved on.”

“But you’re not sure.” Nick stood up to face the police chief head-on. “Do you think he poses any kind of threat to Callie?”

Logan set his empty can on the porch railing and took his hat off to run his fingers through his hair. “I’d like to say no, but I can’t for sure. When Vince is sober, you can reason with him, but he has a well-deserved reputation of being a mean drunk.”

He put his hat back on. “But as I said, no one has seen him in several weeks. Vince disappeared right after the attorney told him the will was airtight. I’m not sure how he’ll react if he finds out she’s fixing the place up.”

“Thanks for the heads-up, Chief. I’ll talk to Callie about it when she gets back.”

He’d also get his sidearm out of the locked toolbox in his truck and keep it close at hand as long as he was staying at the house. He trailed after the chief, who was heading back to his patrol car.

Chief Logan waved one last time before he pulled out onto the road. The man had given Nick a lot to think about, none of it good.

“Come on inside, Mooch. I’m going to grab a shower and then take a nap. You might want to catch some shut-eye, too. It’s going to take all of our energy tonight to convince Ms. Callie Redding that she needs a guard dog around to keep her safe.”

And he wasn’t just talking about Mooch.

C
hapter 7

N
ick’s reaction to the rustic restaurant she’d chosen had been an odd mix of good humor and relief. He was the one who suggested they eat outside on the deck, which offered a view of Mount Rainier in the distance. He stared out at the mountain with a small smile softening the harsh lines of his face.

Glancing at her out of the corner of his eye, he said, “Tell me you don’t get so used to being surrounded by such beauty that you don’t even notice it anymore.”

Callie shook her head. “I haven’t lived here in years, so it all feels fresh and new to me. But even when I did, I always loved the mountains. Rainier would pose a huge threat to the entire area if it ever acts up like Mount St. Helens did back in 1980, but it’s still beautiful.”

For the first time since she’d met Nick—was it just yesterday?—he seemed relaxed. She wondered what had happened to put him at ease.

As if sensing her curiosity, he slowly turned to face her directly. “Let me know if the breeze makes it too chilly for you, but I love being outside when the air is this cool. It was hotter than hell when I left Afghanistan, and where my parents live wasn’t much cooler, with the added joy of high humidity.”

She could have been freezing to death at that moment, and she wouldn’t have complained. Not if something so simple chased some of the shadows from Nick’s eyes.

Callie was familiar with the menu, so she barely glanced at it. “I’m glad you like this place. It’s always been one of my favorites. I love their grilled salmon, and the crab cakes are to die for. They also brew a mean amber ale.”

When their waiter returned, Nick looked up from studying the selections. “That does sound good. Want to start off with a couple of the ales and the crab cakes for an appetizer?”

Callie nodded. “Sure, and for dinner I’ll have a Caesar salad along with the grilled salmon.”

Nick closed his menu and handed it back. “I’ll have the same.”

The waiter smiled. “Good choices. The crab cakes shouldn’t take long.”

When they were alone again, Nick went back to staring at the mountain. Normally, the silence that settled between them wouldn’t have bothered Callie. However, something about the way Nick was keeping his eyes averted convinced her that it wasn’t that he had nothing to say. No, he was just reluctant to share whatever it was that he wanted to tell her.

The suspense was killing her. If he didn’t speak up soon, she’d have to find some way to nudge him along. When she was about to do just that, he started talking.

“I have a couple of things to tell you, Callie, and they’re sort of intertwined.”

She wished he would look at her, but then again maybe not, considering the expression on his face right then. Even in profile, it was easy to see the growing tension in the clench of his jaw and the way his eyebrows rode down low over his dark eyes. What was he seeing in his mind that had him looking so grim?

“Spence was the one who insisted on adopting Mooch after the dog saved us. It was touch-and-go that first night even after the vet treated Mooch. Although the bullet didn’t hit anything vital, the wound bled a lot, especially for a dog his size. Added to that, Mooch was half-starved and filthy, so it was anybody’s guess what kind of germs were embedded in the wound.”

He lapsed into silence again, his expression bleak as he relived that night. This time she did try to nudge him along.

“Spence told me a lot about what happened on that particular patrol and afterward. He also said that you finally ordered him to get some sleep while you stood watch over Mooch. You have to know that meant a lot to Spence.”

Nick shrugged it off. “I owed both him and the dog that much, but back to the story. Once we knew the dog would actually make it, Spence started worrying about what would happen to him when our deployment ended. He called in every favor he could to make the arrangements to ship Mooch back to the States. He wanted to give that idiot fur ball a chance to live a long and lazy life, hopefully here in Snowberry Creek.”

Nick finally turned to face her. “When Spence was killed, Leif and I couldn’t stand for that dream to die along with him.”

Oh, no, she could guess where he was headed with this. It had never occurred to her that along with Spence’s house she might inherit his dog, too. What could she say?

“If you’re asking me to adopt Mooch, Nick, I can’t say yes, not without thinking about it long and hard. I hadn’t told you this, but I’m thinking about turning Spence’s house into a bed-and-breakfast. It’s too soon to know if that’s going to work out. If it doesn’t, I’ll be looking for another contract job, which could be anywhere for any length of time. I often live out of suitcases for weeks at a time.”

Their crab cakes and drinks arrived, giving her a few seconds’ respite before having to say more. In fact, having Nick dump this on her lap with no warning made her angry, especially because to say no to providing a home for Mooch came with a huge load of guilt.

“For certain, I can’t give you a firm answer tonight or even tomorrow, Nick. Not when I don’t know where I’ll be living in a month’s time.”

“I’m not really asking you for a commitment one way or another.” He was back to staring at the mountain. “I certainly understand what it’s like to live in between homes. I’m in the same boat, at least until I decide whether to extend my enlistment. It doesn’t help that Leif is trying to come back from an injury that could cost him his career in the army.”

He offered her a tired smile. “That one patrol has had a profound effect on all of our lives, I guess.”

There wasn’t much she could say to that, so she concentrated on enjoying the crab cakes. Unfortunately, they didn’t last very long as a diversion.

“You said you wanted to talk to me about a couple of things. What’s the other one?”

Nick set down his fork and pushed his plate away. “I was wondering if you’d mind if I stuck around long enough to do the yard work for you.”

Now, that she definitely hadn’t been expecting. “Really?”

There was a bit of a twinkle in his eyes now. “Yeah, really. I don’t have to be anywhere in particular for a while, and I’d like to help.”

After poking and prodding the idea, she found she wouldn’t mind getting to know Nick better. Smiling so he’d know she was teasing, she said, “So, tell me—do you have any experience as a professional weed puller?”

He responded in kind. “Yes, ma’am, I do, and I can even furnish you with references.”

“Seriously?”

Nick laughed. “The truth is my dad’s a general contractor who specializes in remodels. I grew up working on his crews summers and during breaks in college. I’ve mostly done carpentry, but I’ve done a little bit of everything. That includes a fair amount of landscaping, like the kind you need done—clearing out everything that’s become overgrown so you can plant new stuff.”

It would be so nice to start crossing a few things off her growing to-do list. “If you’re sure, then I’d love to have your help. I can even pay you for your efforts if you don’t mind working for minimum wage.”

She was afraid he’d refuse that outright, but he surprised her with a counteroffer. “Keep me in groceries and beer, and we’ll call it even.”

“It’s a deal.”

The knowledge that Nick would be sticking around for a while pleased her far more than it should have. She figured he was offering only because of some misguided idea that he owed it to Spence to help her out.

And maybe one of the reasons she wanted Nick to stay was that she needed that connection to Spence, too. Their dinners arrived, so they turned their attention to the fresh salmon and the beautiful sunset.

•   •   •

Nick dropped Callie off in her parents’ driveway. He didn’t trust himself to walk her to the door without wanting to do more than simply say good night. At least she didn’t seem to find it odd that he stayed in the truck watching as she walked up to the porch and let herself in. She waved one last time before turning off the porch light and closing the door.

He drove the short distance back to Spence’s house feeling more relaxed than he had been in a long time. Once inside, he grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat out on the porch while Mooch patrolled the yard. But after doing a quick circuit, Mooch made a beeline for the path that led toward Callie’s yard.

Nick charged down the steps after him. “Damn it, dog, come back here.”

No response. The stubborn beast obviously thought that Callie’s place was also part of his territory. Most likely the dog would come back on his own, but then again, maybe not. Muttering a few choice words about Mooch’s questionable ancestry, Nick stomped across the yard and took off through the woods after him.

At least the moon was bright enough to make a flashlight unnecessary. The woods were cool and still, but at night the bushes and trees took on strange shapes. Dangerous shapes. Ones that might mean snipers and insurgents could be lurking in the deepest shadows. Nick stuttered to a stop next to a tall Douglas fir, leaning against the rough surface of the trunk, unable to move forward. His pride wouldn’t let him retreat.

He was being absurd, and his conscious mind knew it. He’d left that kind of danger behind when the transport plane had gone wheels up, leaving Afghanistan in Nick’s rearview mirror. He tried convincing his subconscious of that truth, but it wasn’t always willing to listen.

It took everything he had to step forward without either breaking into a panicky run or bolting back to Spence’s house to get his sidearm. But a gun in the hands of a man who couldn’t always control his own reactions to the slightest stimulus was never a good idea. He forced his feet to move.

Counting his steps helped, giving himself something to concentrate on besides his racing pulse and how hard it was to breathe. “One, two, three . . .”

It didn’t take long before he could see the end of the path where it opened out into Callie’s yard. He intended to call Mooch to heel and march right back to where they belonged. But as he drew closer, he knew that wasn’t going to happen. Mooch hadn’t been patrolling; he’d been hunting for his new best pal. What’s more, he’d found her.

Callie’s voice carried across the yard. “Yeah, Mooch, I missed you, too, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be over here.”

Time to join the discussion. “That’s right. He’s not.”

Nick made his way over to where Callie stood on her back porch. Mooch was too busy worshipping at her feet to even acknowledge Nick’s presence.

“Dog, get down here. You shouldn’t be bothering Callie.” Not that Nick blamed the mutt for preferring her company to his.

No response.

Nick tried again, this time injecting the same authority into his voice that he’d used on raw recruits who weren’t performing up to expectations. “Now, Mooch, or the next time I let you out it will be on your leash.”

The dog hated the L-word and finally realized he was in big-time trouble. He came slinking down the steps to crouch at Nick’s feet. It was hard not to laugh, but the dog had to learn how things were done in his new world.

“Sorry that he dragged you out of the house, Callie.”

She walked down the steps. “It’s okay, Nick. I was headed out here anyway. I like to sit out here in the dark on my mom’s swing by the koi pond and enjoy the night air.”

Tilting her head to the side, she wrinkled her nose as she studied Nick. “Want to join me? Or would that only send Mooch the wrong message?”

Yeah, it probably would, but right now Nick didn’t care. Hell, he and the dog both ought to do Callie a favor and leave, but right now Nick just didn’t have it in him to refuse her invitation. All he had waiting for him back at Spence’s place was a six-pack of beer, a book he wasn’t all that interested in, and a big lonely bed.

He slammed the door shut on that line of thought. It was time to go.

But when he opened his mouth to say good night, that wasn’t what came out. “If you’re not tired of my . . . I mean our company.”

“Not at all.”

Then, to his surprise, Callie took his hand and tugged him along behind her. She led the way to the old-fashioned yard swing near the small pond with a burbling fountain in the middle. Mooch, evidently deciding he’d been forgiven, was already exploring the far end of the yard and slowly making his way back toward his two human companions.

The swing proved to be long enough for Nick and Callie to sit down with plenty of room between them. He dutifully settled on the far end of the seat, but somehow Callie ended up sitting right next to him, thigh to thigh, with her hand still tangled up with his.

Holy crap, Spence would have kicked Nick’s ass from one end of Afghanistan to the other for even thinking about touching Callie. Even though Leif was still on crutches, no doubt he would be only too glad to stand in for their fallen comrade. But since neither of them was there to provide a buffer between him and Callie, Nick was on his own.

And right now, under the moonlight with a warm woman sitting by his side, this was simply the best moment he’d enjoyed in far longer than Nick could remember. Come morning, he promised to hate himself for taking advantage of Callie’s good nature, but right now he was going stay right where he was.

Other books

Forever by Jacquelyn Frank
The Oil Jar and Other Stories by Luigi Pirandello
The Last Big Job by Nick Oldham
Day's End by Colleen Vanderlinden
Gay Phoenix by Michael Innes
Bait & Switch by Darlene Gardner
Time of the Assassins by Alistair MacLean
Hidden in the Heart by Catherine West