To Love and Heal (The Power of Love Series)

To Love and Heal

By
Tamra Rose

 

The Power of Love
Series
Book Two

 

 

 

 

 

ONE

 

Anna Knight
surveyed the exposed living room drywall that surrounded her like a panoramic
eyesore, wishing she could be as handy with a hammer as she was with a computer
mouse. 

The plan had
seemed simple enough when she purchased the rundown 1920s-era Victorian a month
ago in the small town of Greenville, Massachusetts.  She would hire a
house remodeler who would skillfully breeze through the renovations until the
final nail was in place from which to hang a Home Sweet Home plaque. But much
to her surprise – and growing discouragement – all the candidates so far had
woefully come up short.  First there was Mark who showed up for an
interview with enough booze on his breath to shrivel her house plants, followed
by Glenn who promised he could complete the project before starting his prison
sentence, and topped off by Josh who insisted on demonstrating his prowess with
a power saw, slicing open his thigh in the process.  Anna squeamishly
squeezed her eyes shut as she recalled the bloody slip of the saw, which
required an emergency room visit and stitches but thankfully left all limbs
intact.

But perhaps there
was still hope. Following her lead as she trailed through the kitchen and
 then out to the backyard, Ralph, the latest candidate, had yet to set off
alarms and the interview was winding down to a finish.

"So that
completes the house tour," Anna said as she tried to gauge Ralph's
interest in the job while his eyes scanned the yard.

"It's nice
back here," he commented with an approving nod. 

"Thanks – I
actually find it almost therapeutic when I'm out here, even when I'm cutting
the grass or taking care of the flower beds."

Ralph raised an
eyebrow.  "You cut your own grass?"

"Sure. 
I might not be great with a power drill, but I do know how to push a
mower."

He grinned. 
"So I take it that part of the job will be replacing some of the damaged
siding out here, since it will mean firing up some of those power tools you so
love."

"That's
right," Anna replied hesitantly.  "Are you okay with that?"

She was too close
to sealing the deal to see it fall apart now over the prospect of some outside
repairs.

"Sure – I
like being outdoors every chance I get."

"That's
great!  So I guess we've covered everything."

"Oh – and
just more thing," Ralph casually added. "I prefer to not wear clothes
when I'm working in the yard.  I'm a big believer of being one with
nature." He scanned the tree-lined perimeter encasing the house. 
"But it looks like you're pretty secluded here, so I don't think anyone
will see."

Anna forcibly
closed her gaping mouth.  "Well, um,
I
will be able to see
since I actually live here."

"Would you
really have an issue with that? I didn't peg you for the conservative
type."

Anna's eyes
reluctantly fell to the burgeoning stomach that strained against his belt,
followed by the poof of wiry brownish-gray hair that spilled out of the collar
of his tee-shirt, and no doubt also made itself at home on his back.

She did her best
to smile.  "You know … I'm all for live and let live, but this is
just a bit out of my league."

Ralph flashed a
toothy grin.  "The naked body is a beautiful thing."

It was getting
harder to maintain her smile.  "Yes, well … it
can
be."
She gingerly extended her hand.  "Thanks for coming by, and I'm sure
you'll find a situation that makes you feel … you know … more comfortable in
your own skin."

As he shook her
hand a little too long and vigorously, Anna's only thought was how fast she
could hightail it back into the house to slather her hands with antibacterial
gel. 

Twenty minutes
later she was scanning the rundown interior of her house, wondering once again
if she had made a huge mistake in buying a fixer-upper.  She wasn't
exactly a fixer – at least not when it came to hardcore home repair – and the
situation was becoming anything but an upper. A knock on the front door
interrupted her thoughts.  Not expecting company, she opened it
cautiously.  "Hello?"

Her eyes were more
than pleasantly surprised as they fell upon her unexpected visitor – all
wide-shouldered, well-muscled, six-foot-one of him. Pale gray eyes locked onto
her own, and even the red, slightly raised scar that ran several inches down
from his right eyebrow did little to deter from his rugged good looks.

"Hi, I'm
Caleb Brown.  We talked on the phone yesterday and I know I was supposed
to stop by later this afternoon, but I was in the area and figured I'd see if
anyone was around.  I hope that's okay."

After her earlier
exchange with Ralph, anything would be an improvement.  "Sure, come
on in."

He scanned the
living room interior, nodding despite bare sheetrock walls and a ceiling with
peeling paint.  "Definitely has potential."

"Glad you
think so.  It seems like with every day that I wake up to this mess, I
start to wonder what the heck I was thinking when I decided to buy this
place."

"You got a
good deal on it, right?"

"Let's just
say I got what I paid for."

"Then you'll
be fine." His pale gray eyes looked away from the ceiling and met
hers.  She smiled and felt slightly uncomfortable when she realized he
wasn't smiling back.  Still, despite his considerable physical stature –
and the fact that she really knew nothing about him – she didn't feel the least
bit unsafe in his presence.  It was more like he emanated a quiet
intensity, and she could almost feel the weight of his energy.

"So are you
from the area?" she asked.

"Originally."

She waited for
more specifics, but none was forthcoming. "And you said you've done this
kind of work before?"

He nodded. 
"My brother owns a high-end construction firm and I worked for him on my
summer breaks back when I was in college."

The reference to
college surprised Anna, if for no other reason than she wondered why he was
back to seeking this line of work.

As if reading her
quizzical expression, he added, "I've been away for a while since I joined
the Marines and was sent over to Afghanistan."

"Oh …"
Although Anna could now easily envision him as a soldier with his peak physical
condition and closely cropped hair, the revelation still came as a surprise.
Not to mention that an enrollment in college had somehow turned into a stint
with the Marines.

"How long
were you there?" she asked, careful to keep her questions as nonintrusive
as possible.

"Three tours
of duty – five years total."

Anna found herself
uncharacteristically at a loss for words.  She had read her share of news
articles on the horrors that soldiers witnessed on a daily basis in Afghanistan
and Iraq, and the high price that many paid – not just physically, but mentally
and emotionally as well. Still, Caleb seemed calm and collected, if not a bit
guarded. 

"How long
have you been back?" she finally asked.

"About a
month.  I gave up my apartment when I was sent over for the third
tour.  No point in paying rent just so the cockroaches could have the
place to themselves."

Anna grinned,
relieved to the flicker of a smile finally cross his face.

"I've been
staying with my brother since I got back, but I need to get to work and get
busy again.  Anymore time on his couch and I would be growing into the
cushion."

Anna
laughed.  "Well, between the mess up here and finishing the basement
into a work studio, there's plenty to keep you busy, that's for sure.  So
as I mentioned on the phone, in addition to weekly pay, the job includes free
rent in the guesthouse out back.  And don't worry – it's a recent addition
to the property, so it's actually in much better shape than the house."

"I'm sure it
will be fine."

"Well, I
guess the only thing left is to officially offer you the job if you're still
interested."

"I can start
today."  His eager reply was tempered by a calm and even voice.

Anna smiled. 
"I'll take that as a 'yes'.  Great – how about you take the day to
get yourself settled into your new digs, and you can start tomorrow."

"Sounds like
a plan."

"Oh – I
should have mentioned this before, but I just started my own web design
business, so I'll be working from home at least part of the time.  I've
been working out of my room upstairs until the studio is in place – you can
just come and go as you need during the day and you won't even know I'm
here."

He studied her
quietly for several moments, then nodded.  "Sure."

Once again, she
found herself wondering what he was
really
thinking, but she was at a
loss to read past his silent intensity.  She only could be sure of thing –
that the cliché of a "handsome stranger" was suddenly very real … and
it was a stranger that she would be seeing quite a bit of in the weeks that
lied ahead.

 

Caleb thanked Anna
for showing him to the guesthouse, then waited for her to close the door on her
way out before dropping his duffel bags to the ground.  He viewed his new
surroundings with silent approval, if not appreciation, for the freshly painted
walls, tidy furnishings and country-ish décor that clearly indicated a woman's
touch without going too far into frou-frou land.  An attractive woman was
the last thing on his mind when he showed up hoping to land this job, and yet
there she was as she greeted him in the doorway with a slightly cautious but
still warm smile.  Even now, her light musk perfume still reverberated in
his senses as his thoughts wandered to her lively hazel eyes and the thick,
wavy chestnut hair that swept across her shoulders.  He took a deep breath
and shook his head as if doing so could dismantle five years of the death and
destruction that had been constantly in his midst.  It couldn't.  The
disturbing images had taken up residence in his head and refused to leave, no
matter how hard he struggled to show them the door.  But it was apparently
a revolving door, since they always came back and he had come to realize that
the worst thing he could do was to sit around idly so that these thoughts could
haunt him even more.

He had so much to
look forward to now that he was safely back – at least that's what his family
and friends had been desperately trying to drum into his head.  They had
recognized the significant change in his personality that was especially
noticeable when he returned from his second deployment.  Gone was the easygoing
prankster who could find humor in just about any situation.  That had died
somewhere back on the Afghanistan desert, somewhere between the surreal horror
of watching his comrades violently perish before his eyes – and several in his
arms – to the Afghan children who viewed him through lifeless stares, their
innocence yet another casualty of the war.  Everyone kept telling him how
he needed to focus on the fact that he was still alive … that he had been to
hell and back and somehow managed to not only survive, but to do so with his
body still fully intact.  He knew they meant well, but they didn't
understand – they
couldn't
understand – the thoughts that tortured him
day and night.  Yes, he was alive … but if dying meant that he could have
saved one more fellow soldier and friend, then he would have gladly traded
places.  Instead, someone had put
his
safety first in the heat of
battle and paid the ultimate price.

Caleb plunked down
in a white wicker chair, its frame loudly cracking under the weight of his
solidly rugged body.  Its purpose was probably more for decoration than
practical furniture, but it was the closest place to plant himself at the
moment, and he simply needed to sit down.  To say that his world had
changed 360 degrees since Afghanistan was an understatement.  Looking
back, he felt as though he had glided through life prior to the war, sailing
through the days on automatic pilot as everything came and went with
ease.  Sure, he had his share of crappy moments and disappointments just
like everyone else, but they came and went without leaving a permanent mark on
the simple actions that comprised the course of a day.  But now, even the
slightest task seemed an effort that was weighed down in blackness. 
Grabbing a morning cup of coffee at the local convenience store?  It used
to be an almost comforting ritual that kept him connected to routine, an
expectation that the coffee would be hot and cost a couple of bucks and the
caffeine would give him a bit of a much-needed morning jolt.  And now? 
The coffee – the ritual – had no ongoing connection to anything.  That was
the best way he could describe it to himself.  He had experienced the
entire concept of "life" being altered in an instance on an almost
daily basis, and now nothing felt concrete or real anymore.  Even getting
that damn cup of coffee triggered a knot in his stomach, yet he pushed himself
to the convenience store each morning in the hope that one day a feeling of
normalcy would suddenly return.  Sometimes he felt he wasn't even in his
own body as he handed over money to the cashier, almost as if he was watching a
movie of himself as a detached observer. 

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