A Soldier Comes Home

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A Soldier Comes Home


A Soldier Comes Home Cindi Myers

   

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   Cindi Myers, having discovered at the age of eight that making up stories was more fun than doing homework or chores, worked harder at realising her dream of becoming a professional writer than she ever had at anything else. Fortunately, some dreams do come true, though she is still hoping technology catches up with her fantasies of a self-cleaning house. She lives with her husband and spoiled dogs in the mountains of Colorado.

   This book is dedicated to soldiers and their families.

CHAPTER ONE

   HOMECOMING OUGHT TO BE as sweet as candied cherries, so the bitter regret that filled Chrissie Evans caught her by surprise. She’d expected to be past those feelings by now, to be able to join in the general jubilation over the return of another group of soldiers to Colorado Springs. She forced a smile to her lips, and a cheerfulness into her voice when she faced Allison O’Reilly, the petite blond receptionist at the dentist’s office she managed.

   “What are you doing here?” she asked. “You should be home getting ready to welcome that soldier of yours.” Members of the Sixth Cavalry, who’d been stationed in Iraq for the past year, were coming home today.

   “I’ve been ready for days.” Allison grinned, the dimples on either side of her mouth deepening, her blue eyes shining. “The house is as clean as it can get. Once I’d put on my new dress and done my makeup, there was nothing to do but sit. I figured if I came in to work I could at least be with people until it was time to drive to the base.”

   “Then sit down and get to work.” Rita Red Horse, the dental hygienist, patted Allison’s shoulder. “You might as well take it easy while you can. That man of yours isn’t likely to let you sleep for at least a week.”

   Allison blushed, but sat. “I’m so nervous,” she said. “I can’t wait to see him. And then, part of me is nervous about that, too. A year is a long time. What if he’s different?”

   “He’ll be different,” Rita said. “Paul says you can’t go to war and not come back different.” Her husband was a sergeant with the 10th Special Forces, on his second tour in Iraq. “But he’s still your Daniel. The man you love who loves you.”

   “Yes,” Allison said, looking reassured. “He is. And he sounds the same in his e-mails, so that’s good.” She shuffled folders on the desk. “Oh God, I’m so nervous!”

   Smile fixed in place, Chrissie turned away and walked back into the procedure room. Only when she was alone did she allow the mask to slip, and give in to the sadness that dragged at her. She would have thought by now the grief would not be so sharp, the pain not so fresh. She’d had three years of homecomings to practice hiding her feelings, which made the intensity of her emotions now that much worse. When everyone around her was rejoicing, why was it so hard to pretend she wasn’t missing out?

   Trying to shake off the feelings, she began prepping for a crown Dr. Foley would install that afternoon. Keeping busy was the only way to get through this. Tomorrow would be a little better, and the day after, better still.

   The door opened and Rita stuck her head into the room. “You okay?” she asked.

   Chrissie nodded. “I’m okay.”

   “Memories are a bitch sometimes,” Rita said.

   Chrissie let out a shaky sigh and nodded. “Not memories, exactly. I mean, Matt never had a chance to come home.”

   Rita walked over and patted her shoulder. Paul had served with Chrissie’s husband, Matt, and the two women had shared a bond ever since those early days when the men had shipped out for their first tour of duty together. “You want to go out later?” Rita asked. “Maybe get drunk?”

   The invitation surprised a laugh from Chrissie. That had to be a good sign, that she could still laugh. “You don’t drink,” she said.

   Rita shrugged. “I can be the driver.”

   Chrissie shook her head. “Thanks, but I’m okay. Just a little…melancholy, I guess.”

   “If you change your mind, let me know. I promise not to take pictures and use them for blackmail or anything.”

   Chrissie laughed again, and waved Rita out of the room. All mirth left with her friend, buffeted by memories of the only homecoming Matt Evans had had. He’d arrived in a flag-draped coffin, accompanied by an honor guard of solemn young soldiers who had avoided meeting her eyes. Twenty-five and married only eleven months—only two of those before Matt had shipped out—Chrissie had worn a black dress that was too big for her to the funeral and mutely accepted the folded flag and the medal, a Purple Heart awarded posthumously. She had been too numb and scared to feel anything.

   The numbness had been a way of coping that she could appreciate now. She’d been a widow longer than she’d been a wife, Matt having been killed in the very early days of the war. Some had questioned her decision to stay in the Springs, a military town where she was surrounded by reminders of her loss. But Colorado Springs had been her home for long before she’d met and married Matt. Her parents were here. Her memories were here. The little house on Kirkham Street that she’d bought with Matt’s life insurance money was here. Her job and her friends were here.

   So she stayed, and she coped. She made friends with other servicemen’s wives, and a few people like Rita knew her story. But mostly she didn’t volunteer the fact that she was a widow. Doing so forced other women to acknowledge the same could happen to them, and that was too cruel.

   On days like today, when a unit returned home or shipped out, or worse, when another funeral was held, she stayed busy and focused on other things. She took long walks, watched movies and read books. She went out with friends. She didn’t read the papers or watch the news.

   She dated some, but never another soldier. It was her one firm rule. Why take a chance on falling for someone else who could be killed? Why go through that particular pain again?

   HOMECOMING OUGHT TO FILL a soldier with warmth—the warmth of firelight and candles. The warmth of a woman welcoming her man back into her arms.

   But all Captain Ray Hughes felt now was cold, as if his chest was filling up with ice. He stood in the Special Events Center at Fort Carson, Colorado, surrounded by men and women embracing, by groups of schoolkids waving signs, by other children squealing with delight and mothers sobbing quietly with joy. He was the calm, cold center around which they all swirled.

   Occasionally someone would break from their celebrating long enough to glance at him—a brief look of curiosity or pity. He looked away from them, toward the doorway, then snapped his eyes back when he realized he was looking for her, some small stubborn part of him hoping she’d show up, even though he had her letter in his pocket, telling him she wouldn’t be here. That she’d never be there for him again.

   He clamped his jaw shut, hard. There was a bad tooth on the left side. It didn’t usually bother him too much, but biting down hard sent a sharp pain through his head, enough to momentarily distract him from the deeper pain that sliced through his chest as the seconds ticked by.

   “Hey, Captain, do you need a ride somewhere?” Corporal Daniel O’Reilly stopped in front of him. His arm was around a young woman with blond curly hair and dimples on either side of her pink-lipsticked mouth. Dan had some of the same lipstick smeared on his cheek. His eyes had the glazed look of a man who had had too many beers, but Ray knew the corporal was drunk on the joy of finally being home after a year in Baghdad.

   “No, I’m fine,” Ray said automatically.

   “This is my wife, Allison. Allison, this is Captain Hughes.”

   “Pleased to meet you, Captain,” Allison said. The dimples deepened when she smiled at him.

   “Is someone coming to meet you?” Dan asked. He looked around the room. The other men and their wives and girlfriends and parents and children were starting to filter out of the place now.

   “I’ll get a taxi,” Ray said, answering—and not answering—the corporal’s question.

   “Let us take you wherever you need to go.” Dan’s wife put a gentle hand on his arm. Her eyes were blue, her lashes heavy with too much mascara that somehow made her look even younger, like a girl playing dress-up.

   To say no to her would have been too rude. Instead, he let his shoulders relax a little and nodded. “Okay. Thanks.”

   He collected his duffel and followed them out of the Events Center, into air so brittle with cold and dryness he half expected it to crackle with each indrawn breath. The sky looked cut from a single piece of deepest turquoise, not a cloud in sight. A blinding sun reflected off the snow heaped around them in drifts, still pristine white and soft on top.

   “The snow, can you believe it?” Dan grinned at him. “Back in the summer, I used to hallucinate about days like this.”

   “That’s April in the Rockies for you. We had a big storm yesterday,” his wife said. She fished the keys to their car, a navy-blue Subaru Outback, from her purse and handed them to him. “I was worried it would delay your flight.”

   “Nothing was gonna keep me from getting home on time, if I had to fly the plane myself,” he said.

   Ray looked away while they kissed again, then climbed into the backseat of the Subaru, moving aside a plastic grocery sack full of fabric to do so.

   “I’m sorry about that,” Allison said, leaning back to slide the bag over even farther. “They’re some clothes a coworker gave me.” She smiled at her husband. “The cutest things.”

   “Allison is the receptionist at a dentist’s office,” Dan said.

   He didn’t know what he was supposed to say to this, so he remained silent. Dan pulled out of the parking lot. “Where to, Captain?” he asked.

   Ray gave the address to the house he’d bought last year, in a neighborhood near the base.

   “I turn at the light here, right?” Dan asked.

   “The next light,” Allison said. “They put this new one in just a couple months ago.”

   They’d been warned about this kind of thing in debriefing—that things would be changed from how they remembered them. It wasn’t that different than if they’d been in jail. Normal life had gone on without them. Now they had to catch up.

   Ray’s jaw tightened again as they turned onto his street. Without even realizing it, he had scooted forward in the seat. He stared out the windshield, watching for the house. It was a brick ranch. A nice enough place when he’d bought it, but now it had the neglected look of an unoccupied building—the driveway unshoveled, blank windows staring out at them.

   Dan pulled the car to the curb. Before he’d cut the engine, Ray grabbed his duffel and slid out of the seat. “Thanks for the ride,” he said. “Have a good night.”

   Not waiting for an answer, not wanting to risk questions, he hustled up the walk, back straight, duffel slung over one shoulder. A man without a care in the world.

   Only when he heard the car pull away did he relax and let the bag drop to the ground. He found the key where they’d always kept it, in a depression he’d chipped from a loose brick over the door.

   His first surprise was that the lights came on when he flicked the switch by the door. At least the electricity was still on. His second surprise was what the lights illuminated.

   The room was bare except for a TV tray, a scarred coffee table and a recliner covered in tan corduroy. The carpet still showed the indentations where the leather sofa and entertainment center had sat. Ray stared at those small flattened squares of carpet fiber and swore under his breath. He shouldn’t have been surprised. She’d picked out the sofa herself—white leather. Impractical as hell. At least she’d left the chair.

   The loss of the television hurt, but he’d get another one.

   He walked through the rest of the house, making note of what was missing and what she hadn’t deemed worthy of taking. The air smelled of stale onions and cooking oil and pine cleanser. The kitchen looked all right. She’d left the coffeemaker, and the little table where they ate breakfast. The bigger table in the dining room was gone.

   The dresser was there, but she’d taken the bed. He was glad of that. He wouldn’t have to lie there now and wonder who else she’d shared that mattress with. Her clothes were gone from the closet and the dresser, though a single empty perfume bottle stood in the dust on top, as if she wanted to remind him of her. He lifted it to his nose and inhaled, and had an instant image of a laughing, dark-haired young woman looking over her shoulder at him.

   He set the bottle carefully back on the dresser and walked out of the room and down the hall to the last door.

   This room was unchanged. The Winnie the Pooh border she’d picked out still ringed the room. The single bed under the window filled most of the space. The rest was shared by a dresser and bookcase and plastic milk crates of toys. A fuzzy purple bear grinned at him from the bed. Looking at it made Ray’s chest hurt. He closed his eyes and tried to remember what his son, Thomas James Hughes, looked like, but he couldn’t.

   He’d know soon enough. She’d written that she’d left the boy with his parents in Omaha. He’d spoken to his mother only yesterday and she’d confirmed that T.J. was well, but “a handful. I love him dearly, but your father and I can’t wait for you to come and take him home with you,” his mother had said. “We are just not prepared at our age to raise a little one again. Besides, we’re supposed to leave on a cruise next week.”

   As if he was prepared. He hadn’t even seen the boy in over a year. Kids changed a lot at that age.

   Ray backed out of the room, then stood in the hallway, rubbing his jaw where his tooth throbbed. If he left tonight, he could be in Omaha by morning. He’d spend the night driving, instead of sitting in this house alone.

   He returned to the bedroom and retrieved a spare set of keys from their hiding place beneath his socks and headed for the attached garage. The familiar smells of motor oil and old tires greeted him as he stepped into the dimly lit sanctuary. He reached behind him to flip on the light and stared at…

   Nothing.

   His single curse was loud, echoing off the empty concrete. He closed his eyes, then opened them again, not believing what he was seeing.

   The bitch had taken his truck. The brand-new, cherryred Nissan Titan, purchased not eighteen months ago. He’d put the title in her name, thinking he was being smart, in case anything happened to him, and she’d promised to take care of it, to drive it once a week to keep the engine lubricated, even though she said she preferred her little Honda.

   She must have sold the Honda. Or maybe sold the truck.

   Feeling sick to his stomach and unable to look anymore, he went back into the house, slamming the door behind him.

   The refrigerator was empty, but he looked anyway, hoping for a beer. He needed a drink to dull the waves of anger and pain that kept on coming and wouldn’t stop. But he’d have to call a taxi and head into town to find a bar or a liquor store and he wasn’t up to that much interaction with other people yet.

   So he sat in the recliner, and stared at the spot where the TV had been. He cursed himself for being an idiot, and cursed the day he’d met the woman who had done this to him, and then cursed the woman herself. Tammy. The mother of his child. The thief who had stolen his truck. The wife who had left him.

   CHRISSIE ENDED UP going out after work with Rita—not to drink, but to dinner and a movie. They chose a comedy without a lot of plot, but enough laughs to take their minds off their troubles. She arrived home late and was surprised to see lights burning in the house next door.

   The house had been empty for over a month now, ever since Tammy Hughes had moved across town. Though Tammy had never come out and said so, Chrissie suspected her young neighbor had moved in with the skinny private who had been a frequent visitor to the little brick house in the months preceding Tammy’s departure.

   Chrissie collected her mail from the box at the end of the drive, then unlocked her front door and went inside, stopping to kick off her shoes in the entryway. Her cats, Rudy and Sapphire, greeted her with pitiful yowls, tails twitching.

   “Yes, I know, you’re so mistreated,” Chrissie said, bending to pet them, her mind still on the house next door. She hadn’t thought of Tammy in a while. After Tammy’s husband had shipped out to Iraq, Chrissie had tried to befriend the young woman, who had seemed so lost and alone. Despite the fact that she had a child—a little boy called T.J.—Tammy had seemed like a child herself. She thought nothing of wearing her pajamas and eating only cereal and ice cream for days at a time, letting T.J. do the same. When her Honda broke down, rather than have it fixed, she left it sitting at the curb and began driving the red truck her husband had left behind. When the city had finally towed the car—after leaving numerous citations, which Tammy ignored—she had been unconcerned. “I was tired of it anyway,” she’d said.

   Chrissie had gone out with Tammy a few times, giving in to the younger woman’s argument that they deserved to have a little fun. They had spent one memorable evening at a bar frequented by soldiers from nearby Fort Carson. While Chrissie politely fended off the overtures of earnest young men who reminded her of Matt, Tammy drank and danced and flirted and drank some more. Chrissie had ended up pouring her into a taxi and taking her home, and got stuck with the bill for both the taxi and the babysitter.

   Soon after that, the private showed up. Tammy would call Chrissie sometimes and ask her to babysit. “I have a class at the community college and my regular girl canceled,” she’d pleaded.

   Chrissie suspected the only thing Tammy was studying was the private, but she’d agreed to babysit, if only for the chance to spend an evening with T.J.

   The dark-haired toddler with the chocolate-brown eyes could melt Chrissie with a single gap-toothed smile. A happy child who loved to cuddle, T.J. had won Chrissie’s heart the first time they’d met, when he’d taken her hand and earnestly introduced her to a purple stuffed bear. “This is Mr. Pringles,” he’d said. “My daddy gave him to me.”

   Chrissie had never met T.J.’s father. Captain Hughes. Tammy never talked about him, except once, when Chrissie had tried to broach the subject of Tammy’s frequent nights out on the town. “I’m too lonely at the house all by myself,” she said, flipping her long brown hair over her shoulder, her mouth shaped into a pretty pout. “If my husband expects me to sit there all by myself until he comes home, he’s crazy.”

   You won’t know lonely until they tell you your husband is never coming home again, Chrissie thought, but she said nothing. After that, she stopped trying to give advice to Tammy. But she would babysit whenever she was asked, and spend hours rocking with T.J., reading to him and singing him songs. In those few hours, at least, she was able to fill the hole inside her where a husband and child belonged.

   She carried the mail into the kitchen, the cats following, weaving figure eights around her feet. She put the kettle on for a pot of tea, and opened a can of seafood delight for the kitties. From her kitchen window she could see the kitchen in Tammy’s house. The light was on, but the room was empty. Had Tammy split with her private and decided to come home?

   Or had Captain Hughes returned to his empty house?

   Her throat tightened at the thought. Had Tammy’s husband been part of the unit that had arrived home today? How must it have been for him, standing in the crowd of joyous families, with no one to welcome him home?

   The thought of that man—any man—sitting alone in that empty house after a year away brought tears to her eyes. She blinked them back and did the only thing she could think of to do. She took a bottle of wine from the rack on the counter, and assembled a plate of sandwich fixings from the refrigerator. Then she put on her coat and started next door.

   She made it as far as her front porch before she turned around and went back into the house, to comb her hair and touch up her makeup. Not because she wanted to impress him, but because a man who had been away fighting deserved to look at a woman who had gone to a little trouble for his sake.

   She hurried across the strip of snow-covered grass between the two houses, cold wind nipping at her ankles and tugging at her coat. She stepped carefully up the icy walk, juggling the wine bottle and the plate of food, and knocked on the front door.

   She waited, the cold burning her cheeks, then knocked again, harder this time. In a few seconds, she heard heavy footsteps and the sound of a lock being turned. Then the porch light came on, and the door opened.

   Her first impression of him was of strength and height—muscles straining the shoulders of his dress uniform, his head bent to look at her. He had dark hair cut close at the sides, and dark eyes that fixed on her. “Yes?” he asked, his voice gruff.

   She cleared her throat, trying to find her voice. “I—I saw the light and…and wanted to welcome you home.” The words sounded stilted to her ears. Would he think she was merely nosy?

   He continued to stare at her, looking her up and down as if she were an escaped lunatic. Or a ghost. She could feel his gaze on her, burning her.

   She held up the bottle of wine. “I thought you might like something to eat, or drink.”

   He stepped back and opened the door wider. “Come in.”

   She hesitated, then decided she’d look even more foolish standing on the porch in the cold. She stepped over the threshold and he shut the door behind her. “Let me take those,” he said, relieving her of her burdens.

   “I’m Christine Evans,” she said. “I live next door.” She followed him into the kitchen and watched as he found two glasses and a corkscrew.

   “Ray Hughes,” he said.

   “It’s good to meet you.” She’d seen a picture of him once before, one Tammy had carried in her wallet. The picture had not done him justice. It hadn’t given a true idea of the way he filled a room with his presence.

   He handed her a glass of wine. “Why don’t you take off your coat,” he said.

   “It’s a little chilly in here.” The house was like ice.

   “Sorry. I hadn’t noticed.” He walked into the other room. She followed and saw him turn up the thermostat. The heat kicked on, with the burnt-dust smell of a furnace that hadn’t been used in weeks.

   There was no furniture in the room except a coffee table and a recliner. Chrissie stared at the chair, frowning. Tammy must have taken the other furniture when she left. Why? Hadn’t she realized how cruel she was being?

   But no, Tammy was not one to think of the impact of her actions.

   Ray sipped the wine and studied her. “How long have you lived next door?” he asked.

   “Three years,” she said. Since six months after Matt had died.

   “Then you must have known my wife.”

   “Yes, I knew Tammy.” She sipped the wine and avoided looking at him. Yet she couldn’t keep her gaze averted long. There was something so compelling about his face, something that drew her to study the firm line of his jaw and the jut of his nose.

   At the mention of Tammy’s name, his face took on a closed-off look. “Did you say your name was Christine? So people call you Chrissie?”

   “Some people.” She hugged one arm across her chest. Tammy had called her that.

   “You were Tammy’s friend,” he said.

   She nodded. She had tried to be Tammy’s friend, but her brand of friendship was not what the young woman had wanted.

   He drained the wineglass, then rolled the stem back and forth in his fingers. “She wrote me about you.”

   “She did?” The words—and the chill in his voice—startled her. “What did she say?”

   “She said the two of you went out together. That you were single and a lot of fun.” His voice was clipped, louder than it had been.

   “We went out a couple of times.” Despite the heater, the air in the house was colder than ever. Chrissie forced herself to stand still, to not act afraid.

   Ray glared at her, a white line of muscle standing out along his jaw. “Instead of staying home with our son the way she should have, she was out running around with you. You probably introduced her to the guy she ran off with.”

   “No. I had nothing to do with that.” She shook her head.

   He hurled the glass against the wall. It shattered. She jumped, her heart racing, and set her own glass on the counter. Her hands were shaking so badly, she had to clench them into fists to keep them still.

   “Get out,” he said. “I don’t need you screwing up my life any more than you already have.”

   She opened her mouth to argue, to explain she had nothing to do with Tammy’s defection. But one look in his eyes told her he was in no mood to listen. She pulled her coat more tightly around her and walked past him to the door.

   Once outside, she broke into a run. Only when she was safely in her own house, the door locked and bolted behind her, did she realize tears were streaming down her cheeks.

   She walked to the sink and filled a glass with water, then took a long drink, waiting for her pounding heart to slow. She tried to tell herself Ray’s outburst didn’t mean anything. Of course he was upset; he needed someone to blame and she was handy.

   But his words still stung. She’d wanted this man, more than any she’d met in a long time, to like her. She’d felt the pull of attraction to him the moment he opened the door and stood, towering over her yet still vulnerable. The feeling had scared her, but she’d been determined not to run from it. Not this time. After three years, she was ready to move past the hurt. To allow herself to fall in love again. The idea was as thrilling as it was frightening.

   And for a few minutes there, she’d held out hope that Ray Hughes would be the one. The man who would help her move past the fear and hurt into something wonderful.

   A man who hated her now, before he even knew her. On the scale of things, most would say it was a minor loss, but it hurt all the same. She looked out the kitchen window, toward his now darkened house. Was he sitting there in the dark, brooding? Did he regret anything he’d said?

   Was there any way for the two of them to reach across the misconceptions and try again?

CHAPTER TWO

   RAY TOOK A LONG SWIG of coffee and stared out the windshield of the rental car, fighting the fatigue that dragged at him. He was still on Baghdad time, where it was 2:00 a.m. At 4:00 p.m. in Lincoln, southwest of Omaha, the sun sat low in a gunmetal sky. He had the heater in the car turned up full blast but he could still feel the cold radiating through the windshield glass.

   He’d rented the car this morning at the Colorado Springs airport and set out for Omaha. While he’d waited for his turn at the counter, he’d thumbed through the phone book and found a furniture store and asked them to deliver a sofa, a television and a king-size bed.

   “Don’t you want to come down and pick something out?” the woman on the phone had asked, incredulous.

   “No. I want a brown leather sofa, a big-screen TV, and I don’t care what the bed looks like as long as the mattress is good and not too soft.” He’d given them his credit card information, told them where to find the house key, and they’d promised to deliver everything that afternoon.

   Later, he’d find a car lot and buy a new truck. The fact that before shipping out he had paid off the one Tammy had stolen galled him. He’d been looking forward to having no vehicle payments.

   That didn’t matter now. What mattered was that he was going to get his son, and he’d bring him home to a house that didn’t look like thieves had swept through it.

   He gripped the steering wheel at the top and slid his hands down to rest at nine and three o’clock. Going to his parents’ place always tied his stomach in knots, but never more than now. Would T.J. remember him? Would he cry for his mother?

   Ray didn’t want to think about Tammy, but every time he’d closed his eyes last night, she’d been there. He’d slept—or tried to sleep—in the recliner, a blanket he’d found in the closet thrown over him. But memories of his marriage played in his head like movie trailers highlighting all the best and worst scenes.

   They’d met at a bar. Did single people meet anywhere else these days? The bars around Fort Carson were packed every night with men and women eyeing each other across the pool tables and dance floor.

   She had been bent over a pool table when he’d walked in with a group of friends. Her dark brown hair fell like a silk shawl over her shoulders, past her waist. She’d worn a short skirt that showed off her legs, and black leather boots that ended just above her ankles. She’d glanced back and caught him staring and smiled at him, and he’d felt as if she’d landed a hook in his heart and tugged.

   She’d hooked him all right. And reeled him in. He’d gone willingly, and when he’d gotten the Dear John letter he’d felt the hook rip right out. The news had hit him as hard as an enemy bullet.

   She’d said she was lonely. She was tired of waiting. She was young and deserved to be out having fun. Only later had he heard from a buddy still stationed in the Springs that she’d moved in with another man.

   Another soldier.

   She wouldn’t have done it by herself. She’d have been fine if she’d stayed home.

   At first he’d been happy she’d made a new friend. Her e-mails had been full of talk of Chrissie. Me and Chrissie went out last night to a club near the base. Me and Chrissie had a girls’night out. Me and Chrissie had a lot of fun.

   But Chrissie was single and Tammy was not. Seeing her friend flirt and go out with guys probably made Tammy want those things, too. She wouldn’t have left him otherwise.

   He leaned forward and snapped off the heater, warmed by a renewed surge of anger. Chrissie had fooled him at first, too. Last night, when he’d opened the door and seen her standing there, a bottle of wine in one hand, a plate of food in the other, a cloud of red curls framing her face, he’d thought for a moment he was hallucinating.

   That she had reached out to him that way had touched him so much he could hardly speak. Watching her, feeling the wine slide down his throat and warm his stomach, he’d allowed himself a small flare of hope. Maybe his life wasn’t completely in the toilet.

   And then he’d realized who he was talking to and that little flame was doused.

   He shifted in his seat and forced his mind away from last night, to the future. He was going to see his son again. He didn’t know anything about raising a kid, but he’d figure it out. They’d do all right together. Just the two of them.

   AS SOON AS the office mail was delivered and parceled out, Rita retreated to the shelf in the corner she used for charting and opened the envelope addressed to her in familiar handwriting. Paul sent his letters to her here so she’d get them earlier in the day. He started that after she told him how antsy she got when she was expecting to hear from him—how she couldn’t concentrate on her work, wondering if there was a letter waiting at home for her.

   He’d told her his friends gave him a hard time about the letters. Why didn’t he just e-mail like everyone else? But he said he thought better with a piece of paper in front of him and a pen in his hand. Even as a boy, he’d kept a journal, and his grandmother had predicted he would be a great writer. For now, his letters home were his best work.

   She unfolded the two sheets of paper and smoothed them out. Paul had beautiful handwriting. His third-grade teacher was also his aunt, Wilma Blue Legs, and she had made the children practice their cursive letters in an old copperplate style no one cared much about anymore.

   Rita knew because she’d been in Wilma’s class, a year behind Paul. Even then she had admired the slim boy who sometimes made faces at her in the lunch room.

   We have a new medic here who is from Boston. A real city boy. He found out I was Indian and he was like a little kid following me around, asking all these questions. You know the ones, all about what was life like on the reservation and all that. I told him life on the rez wasn’t that different from life in Baghdad, except that here it’s a lot hotter and they don’t have as many tourists.

   She smiled. That was Paul. He always tried to put something amusing or lighthearted in his letters. He never talked about the dangerous stuff, except in offhand ways.

   You might have seen something on the news about a bombing near the base. It was a bad scene but we are all okay.

   By we he meant his unit. His buddies. The Special Forces group who lived and worked together. His tribe he called them sometimes. He’d moved into Special Forces after Chrissie’s husband, Matt, was killed. Paul said losing one of his buddies made him want to do something to have a bigger impact on the war. He’d thought Special Forces was the answer. She was proud of him and scared for him all at the same time, but mostly tried to keep the fear to herself, though she knew he sensed it.

   I was sitting outside the barracks, watching the sunset just now. The sunsets can be pretty spectacular here. I think it’s all the dust in the air that reflects all the colors. I wish you could have seen it. It reminded me of when we used to sit behind by Mom and Dad’s house and watch the sun go down. I’m looking forward to doing that again with you soon. You know I love you. You’re what keeps me going.

   She folded the letter and held it to her chest, imagining she was holding him instead.

   Chrissie passed and saw her smiling. “A letter from Paul?” she asked.

   Rita laughed. “How did you know?”

   “Insurance explanations of benefits don’t make you smile that way.”

   Rita shook her head and tucked the letter into the pocket of her smock.

   “How’s he doing?” Chrissie asked.

   “He sounds good. Of course, he wouldn’t tell me anything else. He doesn’t want me to worry. It’s the whole stoic-warrior thing.” She waved her hand. Truth be told, a sensitive, new age guy who bared all his emotions would have freaked her out. She’d been raised by people who had suffered hardship for generations. Lakota didn’t emote—they endured.

   She checked her watch; she didn’t have another cleaning for twenty minutes. Her supplies were in order, so she had time to visit. She followed Chrissie up front, where she was pulling double duty as receptionist in Allison’s absence. The little blonde had the rest of the week off to welcome her husband home.

   “That was fun last night,” Rita said. The movie had been silly, but silly was exactly what she needed. Seeing Allison so excited about Dan’s return had brought home how many months it would be before she could expect to see Paul again.

   “Yeah, it was.” Chrissie glanced at her, a pensive look in her eyes. “Something strange happened after I got home, though.”

   “Oh? What was that?” Rita pulled up a chair and sat.

   Chrissie leaned forward and slid shut the frosted glass partition that separated the reception desk from the waiting room. “You remember Tammy Hughes?” she asked. “The neighbor girl I used to babysit for sometimes?”

   “The one who was cheating on her husband.” Rita frowned. As far as she was concerned, there was a special place in hell for a woman who’d run around on a man while he was halfway around the world fighting in a war.

   “Yeah.” Chrissie sighed. “Her husband came home last night.”

   “He came home from Iraq?” Rita clarified.

   Chrissie nodded. “I saw the light on next door and all I could think of was him sitting over there by himself. To be gone so long and then to come home to…to no one.”

   Rita nodded. The idea lay heavy in her stomach like a wad of uncooked dough. Paul’s first homecoming, there’d been a couple of guys in his unit who didn’t have anyone waiting for them at the welcome ceremony. They’d kept it together and acted all happy anyway, but everyone else tried not to look at them too hard. It hurt too much to think about that kind of loneliness.

   “So what did you do?” Rita asked. Chrissie would have done something. The woman had the softest heart.

   Chrissie fiddled with the appointment book, turning up one corner of the pages. “I couldn’t stand thinking about him just sitting there, so I took over some food and a bottle of wine. I thought someone should welcome him home.”

   “Uh-huh. So what’s the strange part?”

   Chrissie’s eyes clouded and she blinked rapidly. “It was awful. The house was cold—he hadn’t even turned up the heat yet. I guess he’d been too shocked or upset to care.” She swallowed and continued. “Tammy had really cleaned the place out. The only thing left in the living room was a recliner and a coffee table. The dining room was empty. No telling what else she took. It was just…sad.”

   “I guess he was pretty broken up, then.”

   “I guess…mostly he was angry. When he figured out I was the Chrissie Tammy had written to him about, he went a little crazy. He told me it was my fault for taking her out and introducing her to single men.”

   “He blamed you?”

   “I guess…he had to blame someone. I was there.” She shrugged.

   “What did you do?”

   “I left. I ran home and locked my door.”

   Rita leaned forward and put a hand on Chrissie’s arm. “You don’t think he’d try to hurt you, do you? Some of these guys come home and they’re…well, they’re a little crazy. They do crazy things.” Not a month went by when the news didn’t carry a story of a local man who’d hurt his wife or shot himself or someone else. Coming home intensified every emotion, good and bad, and some men, and women, too, didn’t handle it well.

   Chrissie shook her head. “No. I’m sure he wouldn’t.”

   “You know to call someone if you have any doubts. Promise me.”

   “I promise.” She turned back to her desk and checked the schedule. “Your two o’clock is late.”

   “Mrs. Mendoza. She’s got two toddlers. Hard to get anywhere on time, I imagine. Meanwhile, you’ve got time to tell me about Tammy’s ex. Or soon-to-be ex. What’s Mr. Hughes like?”

   “Captain Hughes. He’s…good-looking.”

   Rita didn’t miss the way the corners of Chrissie’s mouth tried to turn up in a smile. “How good-looking?” she asked.

   Chrissie gave up and let the smile burst forth. “Really good-looking. Tall, dark and handsome. I predict he won’t be living alone for long.”

   “You ought to have an advantage, living right next door.”

   The smile vanished. “I told you, he hates me. He blames me for Tammy leaving him.”

   “That was just hurt talking. He’ll come to his senses sooner or later. He was married to the woman. He had to know what she was like.”

   Chrissie looked doubtful. “I don’t know about that. He was really furious. Besides, I’m not crazy about getting involved with another soldier.”

   “Woman, you are living in a town full of single men—ninety-nine percent of them soldiers. You are never going to find someone if you don’t give one of them a chance.”

   “It doesn’t matter. I don’t think Ray Hughes is going to give me a chance.”

   A tapping on the window interrupted them.

   “Sorry I’m late,” Mrs. Mendoza said when Chrissie slid open the window. “Michael was fussy and took forever to get dressed.” She looked back at the two little boys with her. The youngest, Michael, was about three. He rubbed his eyes and stuck out his lower lip. The older boy, Anthony, grinned at them. Both boys’cheeks were red from the cold.

   “Hello, boys.” Chrissie leaned over and smiled at them.

   “Hello,” Anthony said. Michael sniffed and said nothing.

   “I’m ready for you to come on back, Mrs. Mendoza,” Rita said. She picked up the woman’s chart and held open the door leading to the procedure rooms.

   “All right.” Mrs. Mendoza turned to her sons. “You boys behave yourselves while I’m gone.”

   Chrissie motioned to them. “Why don’t you two come back here and play with me while your mom’s getting her teeth cleaned.”

   When Rita and Mrs. Mendoza walked past the little office area, Chrissie had Michael on her lap and was showing him how to punch holes in colored paper with her hole punch, while Anthony stapled papers together.

   Rita shook her head. If anyone was meant to be a mother, it was Chrissie. She hoped Captain Hughes would get over his temper tantrum and take a second look at the woman next door. After the rotten way Tammy had treated him, he’d be in heaven with a woman like Chrissie to care for him.

   As for Chrissie, she definitely needed someone to care for. Soldier or not, Rita couldn’t keep from hoping Ray fit the bill.

   RAY PARKED THE CAR in the drive of his parents’ townhome and started up the walk. The townhome was in one of those upscale developments that catered to older adults with money. His mom and dad had sold their house and moved here three years ago. His dad liked not having a yard to maintain and his mother enjoyed all the social activities. A year ago his dad had sold his hardware store and officially retired, at age fifty-five. Now he and Mom spent their time golfing, traveling and playing poker with friends.

   At least, that’s how they’d spent their time until last month, when Tammy had brought T.J. to them. From what Ray could tell from brief phone conversations and e-mails with his mom, T.J. had been seriously cramping their style.

   He rang the doorbell and waited, fidgeting. After months in fatigues and uniforms, his blue jeans and sweatshirt felt both familiar and odd. The clothes were comfortable, but they weren’t what his body had grown used to.

   His mother opened the door and stood on tiptoe to hug him. “Welcome home, Ray. How are you doing?” She was a petite woman with short, frosted hair and smooth, unlined skin. Ray suspected she’d had a little surgical help fighting off the wrinkles, but he wouldn’t have dared ask.

   “I’m okay,” he said. He looked past her, searching for his son.

   “T.J.’s in the den with your father,” his mother said.

   Ray followed her into the house. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked. “A soda or a beer?”

   He shook his head. “I just want to see T.J.”

   “All right, dear.” She led the way through the formal living room, down the stairs to the den in the finished basement. Ray heard the television and when he stepped into the room found his father on the sofa, a little boy next to him. They were watching a game show.

   Charlie Hughes glanced over his shoulder when they entered, frowning. “Hello, Ray,” he said, his voice even. The polite voice of a man who refused to make a fuss with his enemy in public.

   Maybe enemy was too harsh a term, Ray thought as he walked over to stand behind the sofa. His dad didn’t hate him or even wish him ill. But he had never approved of Ray’s decision to join the military, and was a vocal opponent of the war. Ray had met other war protesters who nevertheless welcomed soldiers and did whatever they could to support them. But when his dad looked at Ray, he seemed to only see the government and the military his uniform represented, and not the man inside the clothes.

   Ray looked at the little boy, who was staring up at him, one hand in his mouth. “Hey, T.J.,” he said. “Remember me?” It hurt to breathe while he waited for an answer.

   “T.J., it’s your father.” His mother rushed forward, not giving the boy time to answer on his own. “He’s come to take you home with him.”

   “Daddy?” The toddler looked doubtful.

   Ray came around and dropped to one knee in front of the sofa. “Hey, buddy,” he said softly. “How’s it going?”

   T.J. took his hand out of his mouth. His brown eyes looked huge in his little face. His mother’s eyes, Ray thought. He wanted to pick the boy up and hug him close, but told himself to take things slow. The child had had a lot of upheaval in his life lately.

   He looked up at his mother instead. “Thanks for looking after him,” he said. “It helped, knowing he was here with you.”

   His mother pressed her lips into a tight line. “I don’t know what that woman was thinking,” she said.

   Obviously, Ray had been clueless about what was going on in his wife’s mind. He’d been hurt and stunned when she’d announced she was leaving him, but when he’d learned she’d left behind their son, too, he’d realized he hadn’t known her that well at all. What kind of mother walked out on her child?

   “You know we never liked her,” his mother said. “If only you had waited—”

   He gave her a warning look, then glanced at T.J. and shook his head. He wasn’t going to discuss this in front of the boy.

   “Come into the kitchen and I’ll fix you something to eat,” she said. Without waiting for an answer, she turned and headed back upstairs.

   Ray followed. He was suddenly hungry, not having eaten all day. He also knew he needed to talk to his mother, though it was a conversation he wasn’t looking forward to.

   He sat at the breakfast bar and watched while she prepared a meat-loaf sandwich. “How’s he doing?” he asked after a moment.

   “T.J.? He’s upset, of course. He misses his mother, doesn’t understand what’s happened. Frankly, I don’t either.” She gave him a pointed look, one that said she expected an answer. An explanation.

   “Her letter said she couldn’t live this way anymore. That she wanted a divorce.”

   She spread mustard on a thick slice of rye bread. “She’d met someone else?”

   He nodded. “I found out that part later. Another soldier.” A civilian would have been bad enough, but a fellow soldier? She didn’t think that guy wouldn’t get sent off to Iraq or Afghanistan or East Podunk and she’d be alone again? Or was loneliness merely a cover for the real reason—that she didn’t love Ray anymore?

   His mother set the sandwich in front of him. “Frankly, I don’t see how you’re going to raise that boy by yourself. A child needs his mother.”

   “Obviously his mother didn’t need him.” He picked up the sandwich with both hands. The rich aroma of meat loaf and mustard made his stomach growl. When was the last time he’d had something this good? A year, at least. Maybe more. “He and I will do fine together,” he said. “Men raise children all the time.” He took a bite of the sandwich and closed his eyes, as much to savor the flavor as to avoid the doubt in her eyes.

   “You are not the nurturing type,” she said.

   He opened his eyes and glared at her. When he’d finished chewing and swallowed, he said, “I don’t hear you volunteering to help.”

   “And you won’t hear it either,” she said. “Your father and I raised you and now we’re enjoying our freedom.”

   Freedom. A word people threw around a lot. He’d been fighting for freedom. Tammy had wanted her freedom. “I certainly wouldn’t want to interfere with that,” he said.

   Her expression softened. “I’m happy to offer advice by telephone, and you’re welcome to visit anytime. But your son is your responsibility.”

   “I never said he wasn’t.”

   He ate the rest of his sandwich in silence, while she cleaned the counters and put on a pot of coffee. “You’ll need to find day care for him while you’re on duty at the base,” she said after a while.

   “I’ll find out who Tammy used. And there are plenty of day-care centers in the Springs, and soldiers’wives who take care of children.”

   “What will you do if you have another tour of duty?”

   He’d been home less than twenty-four hours, he wanted to protest. Couldn’t he get used to that idea before contemplating another tour? “I’ll figure out something,” he said.

   She took his empty plate from him. “We leave for our cruise day after tomorrow.”

   “I’m going back to the Springs in the morning.” He slid off the stool. “Thanks for the sandwich.” That was the trouble coming to visit his folks. This place wasn’t his home; he always felt like an intruder here. Visits were marked by a studied politeness, and everyone involved felt better as soon as he left.

   He returned to the den. The television had been switched to a news show. T.J., thumb back in his mouth, looked around when Ray entered. Ray smiled, but the boy stared back solemnly.

   Charles’s gaze remained firmly on the TV. A young blonde was describing an explosion in Tikrit that had killed four U.S. servicemen and two Iraqis. Ray’s stomach tightened as a picture of the crumpled remains of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle flashed on the screen.

   “It’s a crime,” his father said. “We have no business being over there.”

   It was an old argument, one Ray would not be drawn into. Instead, he looked at T.J. again. The boy offered a shy smile. Ray held out his hand. “Could you maybe come over here by me?” he asked.

   T.J. hesitated, considering the idea, then, thumb still firmly in his mouth, slid off the sofa and walked over to Ray. Ray patted his lap and the boy climbed up and settled against his chest, as if he did this all the time.

   Ray pretended to focus on the television, but all his attention was on the boy in his lap. He smelled like peanut butter and baby shampoo. The stuff Tammy used when she used to bathe him. He weighed more than Ray had expected, a good solid weight against his thighs.

   Tentatively, he slipped one arm around the boy, across his chest. T.J. didn’t seem to mind and, in fact, settled more firmly against him.

   Ray’s eyes stung and his throat ached. He stared at the television, at the blurred image of a weather map, and tried to swallow past the tightness in his throat and chest. He was bone tired, nerves rubbed raw, anger at Tammy and life in general a slow simmer in his gut, another kind of annoyance at his parents a dull throbbing in his head. He had no idea what further tortures the future had in store for him, but if his record so far proved anything, he couldn’t expect much good ahead.

   But all of that was overtaken by this sense of grief and happiness and…love that swamped him now. He tightened his grip on T.J. and bent his head to plant a soft kiss on the boy’s silky brown hair. “It’s going to be all right, son,” he whispered. He would make it all right. If not for himself, then most certainly for his boy.

CHAPTER THREE

   THE DRIVE FROM Omaha to Colorado Springs went well, with T.J. sleeping most of the way. From time to time, Ray glanced in the rearview mirror at the boy. T.J.’s head lolled against his car seat, and from time to time he made soft dream noises. His son. The thought of being responsible for this little life both swelled Ray’s heart with pride and made his stomach tighten with fear. He could assess a dangerous situation in a war zone and direct and care for a group of soldiers in his command, but what did he know about looking after a three-year-old?

   His hands tightened on the steering wheel and he forced his attention to the road. He could learn this job the way he’d learn any other. He’d use the rest of his leave to get T.J. settled, find day care and buy a new truck. And sometime soon he’d find a lawyer and talk to him about the divorce. It wasn’t something he looked forward to, but it had to be done.

   He pulled into the driveway of the house on Kirkham Street in the late afternoon. The snow from the storm had started to melt, bare patches of brown lawn showing through the white in places, rivulets of water running across the blacktop. With luck, they were done with snow for the year and spring could make an appearance. He leaned into the backseat and unfastened T.J.’s seat belt. “Time to wake up,” he said. “We’re home.”

   T.J. rubbed his eyes and stared sleepily up at Ray, then extended his arms in a silent plea to be lifted and carried. Ray picked him up and carried him into the house. Balancing the boy on one hip, he unlocked the front door and stepped inside.

   He had halfway expected to feel the same sense of loss and loneliness that had buffeted him when he’d returned to this house the other night. But now, in the daylight with the comforting warmth and weight of his son in his arms, he felt only relief at finally being in a place he could relax, regroup and figure out the next step in his life.

   “You awake enough to get down now, buddy?” he asked T.J.

   “Yeah.”

   Once on the floor, T.J. looked around. “This isn’t our couch,” he said, rubbing his hand across the brown leather.

   “It’s a new one,” Ray said. Better than the white one Tammy had picked out. “It’s our couch now.”

   T.J. climbed up on the sofa and settled back against the cushions. “The TV’s new, too,” he said.

   Ray admired the new television, a forty-inch LCD flat panel. Sweet. “You want to watch TV?” he asked, reaching for the remote.

   T.J. shrugged. “I guess.”

   Ray punched the remote and flipped through the channels until he found a cartoon. “This okay?” he asked.

   T.J. nodded, gaze fixed on the screen.

   “Okay, you stay here while I unload the car.” There wasn’t much, just T.J.’s clothes, a bag of toys and his own overnight bag.

   As he unpacked the trunk, he glanced over at the house next door. It was a neat brick ranch, much like his own, with green shutters and trim. Empty planters flanked the front steps and wind chimes hung from the eaves at the end of the porch.

   “That’s where Chrissie lives.”

   The small voice startled him. He looked down and found T.J. standing beside him. “I thought I told you to stay inside,” Ray said.

   “I wanted to see what you were doing.”

   “Okay, well let’s go in now. Can you carry this for me?” He offered the boy his overnight bag.

   T.J. nodded and grabbed hold of the bag with both hands. Ray grinned and they started up the walk.

   “That’s where Chrissie lives,” T.J. repeated, and stopped to point toward the house next door.

   Ray’s grin vanished. “How do you know Chrissie?” he asked.

   “Sometimes I stay with her when Mama goes out.”

   According to Tammy’s e-mails, Chrissie had been her partner in crime on her nights on the town. Of course, after she met her soldier boy, she’d have wanted the freedom to see him alone. Chrissie had obviously done her part to help out.

   Once inside, T.J. wandered through the house while Ray put their things away. He’d left the heat on and now it was too hot inside, so he opened a couple of windows. Maybe later he’d get one of those programmable thermostats and install it. The new bed had been delivered and set up; later he’d put the sheets on. He was still fighting jet lag and looked forward to a good night’s sleep.

   When he returned to the living room, T.J. was on the couch again, the cartoon now a nature program showing chimpanzees climbing a tree. “Where’s Mama?” T.J. asked, looking at Ray.

   Ray had spent long stretches of the drive home trying to come up with an answer to this question. He sat on the sofa beside the boy and muted the television. “Your mama went away,” he said, trying not to sound as grim as the words made him feel.

   T.J.’s forehead wrinkled in a frown. “When is she coming back?”

   Ray patted T.J.’s leg. “She’s not coming back.” At least, she’d expressed no intention to do so. Better for them both if she didn’t. They didn’t need her disrupting their lives any further. “I—I know that makes you sad,” he added. “I know you miss her. I miss her, too.” Maybe not what she’d become, but what she’d been—or the ideal of what she’d been. The loving wife, waiting to welcome him home. The loving mother, taking care of their son.

   “I want M-Mama!” T.J.’s face crumpled and he began to sniffle, then sob.

   Ray gathered his son into his lap and patted his back. “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.” The words were as much for himself as for the boy.

   T.J.’s sobs turned to wails, his whole body shaking, the decibel level rising. Ray rose with the boy still in his arms, and began to pace. “It’s okay,” he said. “Stop that. You’re going to make yourself sick.”

   The wails went on and on. He’d never heard a more pitiful sound in his life. All the grief and fear and sadness he had ever known was condensed into those cries. As he paced and patted and murmured words of comfort that T.J. did not seem to hear, Ray felt whatever optimism he’d mustered on the drive from Omaha slipping away. He wanted to open his mouth and join right in.

   CHRISSIE HEARD THE CRYING from her house—a child’s pitiful wails. They went on and on and on. What was happening over there? T.J. was going to make himself sick carrying on like that. Why wasn’t his father doing something to comfort him?

   She paced and spoke out loud to Rudy and Sapphire, who sat at either end of the sofa and watched her, whiskers twitching, tails flicking. “I know he doesn’t like me,” she said. “If I go over there, he’ll say I’m butting into something that’s none of my business.”

   She snatched up the remote and turned on the television, then turned the volume up, drowning out the sounds of crying. But though she could no longer hear T.J., she knew he was hurting, and felt a corresponding pain in the pit of her stomach.

   She debated leaving the house. She could go to the bookstore or the mall, do something to distract herself. But all she could think of was that sweet little boy, crying his heart out.

   She couldn’t stand it anymore. “I have to go over there,” she told the cats, who blinked in what might have been agreement.

   She grabbed her coat and marched next door, sidestepping patches of mud formed by melting snow. She punched the doorbell hard and tried to prepare herself for Ray’s anger.

   When he opened the door, she didn’t give him time to argue or turn her away. “I could hear T.J. crying all the way over at my place,” she said. “You’ve got to let me help.”

   He glanced over his shoulder and she followed his gaze. T.J. sat in the middle of a brown leather sofa, his mouth wide open, harsh sobs shaking his shoulders. “What can you do?” Ray asked, raising his voice to be heard above his son’s keening.

   “He knows me.” As if to confirm this, T.J. opened his eyes and saw her.

   “Chrissie!” he wailed, reaching his arms toward her.

   She pushed past Ray and scooped the boy into her arms. “It’s all right, honey,” she soothed. “Chrissie’s here. Tell me what’s the matter.”

   “I want my mama!” he sobbed.

   “I know you do, hon. But she’s not here right now. But your daddy is here. And I’m here.” His eyes were red and snot dripped from his nose. She looked around for a tissue but seeing none, carried him into the bathroom and tore off a strip of toilet paper and held it to his nose. “Blow,” she commanded.

   He obliged, then let her wash his face with a cool rag. “Doesn’t that feel better?” she cooed.

   Ray stood in the doorway, watching them. “I could have done that,” he said.

   Then why didn’t you? she wanted to say, but didn’t. The man wasn’t used to dealing with small children. “You’ll learn,” she said.

   She smiled at T.J. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “How about some supper?”

   He nodded, his face still solemn and sad.

   “I was going to order pizza,” Ray said.

   Of course he was. “Pizza is fine, but a time like this calls for comfort food.” She set T.J. down long enough to remove her coat, then carried him to the kitchen, where she began searching through cabinets.

   “What are you doing?” Ray asked.

   “I’m going to make this boy some macaroni and cheese.” She pulled out a familiar blue box and turned to him. “Do you want some?”

   He stared at her with the same lost expression as his son, but his gaze was devoid of all childlike innocence. His eyes held a wariness. And beyond that was grief and exhaustion and another sharper emotion—a hard masculinity that touched the most feminine part of her, and sent a warm flush over her cheeks.

   Then he blinked, breaking the spell. “Better make two boxes,” he said. “I’m hungry.”

   She set T.J. on the floor. He had quieted, though he still sniffed from time to time. “Come on, big boy, you can help,” she said. “Ray, would you drag a chair over here by the stove for T.J. to stand on?”

   “Are you sure that’s safe?” he asked.

   “I’ll be right here,” she said, smiling at T.J. Then, in a softer voice, she said to Ray, “The trick is to keep him distracted. I can’t guarantee no more meltdowns, but maybe this way you can shorten the duration.”

   He nodded and moved the chair. “Thanks.”

   She filled a pot with water and set it on to boil, then opened the first box of macaroni and gave T.J. the cheese packet to hold on to. “When I’m ready, you can help me put that in,” she said.

   He nodded, and clutched the foil packet to his chest.

   “I see you have some new furniture,” she said, adding salt to the water in the pot.

   “Yeah, well, I didn’t want him to come home to an empty house,” Ray said.

   “That was smart.”

   He leaned against the counter, close enough that one step back would have brought them into contact. “So you can admit I’m not a moron as a parent?”

   “I never said you were.” She stared at the pot, willing the water to boil, every part of her aware of his eyes on her. What did he see when he looked at her? Did he still think of her as his enemy? Or as the lonely woman she was? She cleared her throat. “This is a difficult situation,” she said.

   “Yes.” He let out a breath, almost a sigh. “For everyone.”

   For her, too, she thought as she poured the dry macaroni into the boiling water. A person watching her might think she’d never been alone with an attractive man before. She didn’t know where to look, how to act.

   She settled for focusing on the little boy beside her. He stared at the macaroni spinning around in the pot. “It looks like it’s swimming,” he said.

   “Yes, but it wouldn’t be any fun for you to swim in boiling water,” she said. She gave the noodles a stir. “What should we have with our macaroni?” she asked. She turned to the cabinets once more. “We have green beans. Or tomato soup.”

   “Soup,” father and son answered in unison.

   She laughed. “Not much for vegetables, are you?”

   “I don’t like green beans,” T.J. said.

   “Me neither.” Ray ruffled his son’s hair. The boy grinned at him, tears now forgotten.

   They ate macaroni and cheese and tomato soup, with water to drink, since there was no milk. “I guess tomorrow I need to go to the grocery store,” Ray said.

   She opened her mouth to offer suggestions of what he should buy, then quickly shut it. Ray Hughes didn’t strike her as the helpless type. He was probably perfectly capable of buying food for himself and his son.

   T.J. cleaned his plate, then sat back. “Can I go watch cartoons now?” he asked.

   “All right,” Ray said. “For a little while.”

   When they were alone, Chrissie started to clear the table. Ray put out a hand to stop her. “I’ll get the dishes later. You’ve done enough.”

   His hand on her bare arm was warm and firm. He kept it there longer than was really necessary, but she didn’t protest. How long had it been since a man other than her father had touched her at all?

   “I’d better go,” she said after a moment and turned away.

   “T.J. said you babysat him sometimes,” he said.

   She nodded. “Yes.”

   “When Tammy went out.”

   She risked looking at him then. His expression was guarded, mouth a hard line, eyes revealing little. “Yes. She told me she was taking classes at the community college, but I suspected that wasn’t true.” She raised her chin, daring him to disbelieve her. “No matter what you think, I didn’t approve of what she was doing. I tried to talk to her about it, but she wouldn’t listen.”

   He looked away, his posture still rigid, but he didn’t protest her explanation. “She said you were single,” he said after a long pause.

   “Yes. I…My husband was killed in an assault on Fallujah. In the early days of the war.”

   All the stiffness went out of him. “I’m sorry.”

   “Thank you.”

   There was an awkward silence. She wasn’t sure why she’d told him something she rarely revealed to anyone. Maybe because she wanted him to think better of her, to realize she wasn’t some wild, partying jezebel who had led his wife astray.

   “I really should be going.” She was scared to take things too quickly—to hope for too much. If anything was going to happen between them, he’d have to make the first move. She slipped past him, into the living room. She reached for her coat, but he took it, and held it while she fit her arms into it.

   “What time should I put him to bed?” he asked.

   She glanced toward T.J. She could just see his profile in the light from the television screen. “He’ll be tired tonight,” she said. “Make it early. By eight. Give him a bath first. And read him a story.”

   He nodded solemnly, a man receiving instructions for an important mission. “I can handle that. And thanks.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I was ready to pull my hair out when you walked in.”

   “It will get easier,” she said.

   “I hope so.”

   She hurried away, almost running across the lawn to her own house. Safely inside, she leaned against the door and took a deep breath, trying to conquer the shakiness she felt. “Oh, boy,” she said out loud. She wasn’t sure what had happened back there, why a man who had professed to not even like her had her so shook up. He was masculine and strong, physically handsome, and his obvious desire to be a good father to T.J. touched her. He was also a soldier on active duty who could be sent back to fighting at any time, a man separated from his wife with a child to care for. A man who could so easily make her forget common sense and caution. He was everything a woman could want—and everything she absolutely didn’t need.

   “COME ON, sport, time for a bath.” Ray picked up the remote and clicked off the television.

   T.J. looked up at him. “Are you going to take a bath?”

   The question stopped him. “Uh, I usually take a shower.”

   “You could take a bath with me.”

   After the long drive from Omaha, a hot bath might feel good at that. He shrugged. “Sure, why not?” Father-son bonding and all that.

   In the bathroom, he helped T.J. undress and started the water running, then began removing his own clothes.

   “Mama puts in bubbles.” T.J. picked up a bottle of Mr. Bubble from the bathtub ledge.

   “Bubbles?” Wasn’t that kind of, well, feminine?

   “Please?” T.J. gave him a winning look.

   Wanting to avoid another meltdown tonight, Ray nodded. “Okay. Pour ’em in.”

   T.J. dumped a generous glug of bubble solution into the water and Ray finished undressing.

   He lifted T.J. into the water, then lowered himself in, at the tap end. “Can you wash yourself, or do you want me to do it?” he asked.

   “I can do it.” T.J. picked up the bar of soap.

   “That’s my big boy.” Ray handed him a washcloth, then leaned back as far as he could and closed his eyes. The hot water felt good. Even the bubbles were nice, fragrant and soft.

   “Why were you away so long?”

   T.J.’s question brought Ray upright again. “What did your mother tell you?” he asked.

   “She said you went away to fight.”

   He nodded. “I’m a soldier. My job is to fight our enemies.” He tried to reduce the concept to something a three-year-old could understand. “The bad guys.”

   “Are you going to leave again?”

   He could hear the fear behind the question. This was probably the kind of situation where the wrong answer put the kid in therapy for years as an adult. He shifted position, sloshing water over the side of the tub. “I don’t want to,” he said. “But I might have to.” He wouldn’t lie to the boy, though lying would certainly make things easier. He bent forward, looking T.J. in the eye. “My job is to go where I’m told to go.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He felt so small and slight. “But I just got home. If I have to leave, it won’t be for a long time. And maybe I won’t have to go at all. I hope not. Now turn your head and let me make sure your ears are clean.”

   T.J. ducked his head and allowed Ray to inspect his ears. The bubbles were beginning to dissipate, leaving the water cloudy. T.J. giggled. “You have a wee wee, too,” he said.

   Ray looked and saw the boy was pointing to his penis. He grinned. “Yeah. And it’s called a penis.” Might as well give the kid the proper words for things.

   “Pea-ness.” T.J. tried out the word. He looked up at Ray. “Mama doesn’t have one.”

   “No. Women are made different.” He had a sudden image of Chrissie standing in the kitchen, the soft curve of her breast brushing his arm as she reached for the salt.

   She’d thrown him for a loop when she’d said she was a widow. A soldier’s widow. She’d said she didn’t approve of what Tammy had done. Did he believe her?

   She’d been so soothing and competent. Down-home. Making mac and cheese from a box seem like a gourmet meal. Her presence had calmed T.J., but it had calmed Ray, too. And made him aware of how long it had been since he’d been alone with a woman.

   “Yours is getting bigger,” T.J. said, his eyes wide.

   Oops. “Time for bed.” Ray stood and lifted T.J. onto the bath mat, then climbed out after him. He wrapped a towel around his waist, then dropped another over T.J.’s head.

   “Hey!” Giggling, the boy swatted at the towel.

   Ray knelt and they mock-wrestled, laughing. When T.J. was all dry, Ray turned him toward the bedroom. “Let’s get some pajamas on you. What story do you want me to read?”

   T.J. spread his arms wide. “I love you this much!”

   Ray stared down at his son, swallowing past the sudden lump in his throat. “I love you, too, son,” he said, his voice rough.

   T.J. giggled again. “It’s a book. I Love You This Much. It has rabbits in it.”

   “Oh. Yeah. A book.” He pulled the towel at his waist tighter. “Yeah, I’ll read it to you.” And mean the words in a way he never had before.

   WHEN SHE WAS A GIRL, Rita would have laughed if anyone had told her she’d enjoy cleaning people’s teeth for a living. But she did enjoy her job. Her patients were usually nice, her boss was pleasant and her coworkers were friends. Now that Allison had returned to work after a week off, things had settled into the normal routine. Rita looked forward to showing up for work each morning, plus the job helped fill the hours while she waited for Paul’s return.

   “Good to have you back, Allison,” Rita said as she collected the file for her first patient of the day.

   “It’s good to be back,” Allison said. “Not that I didn’t love being home with Dan, but it’s nice to get into a normal routine, you know?”

   Rita nodded. Normal was something they all wished for.

   “We’ve got a full schedule today,” Chrissie said, leaning over Allison to check the appointment book. “Let’s try not to get behind.”

   “Tell that to the dentist,” Rita said. “I’m always on time.” She nudged Chrissie with her elbow. “So what’s new with you and your hunky neighbor?”

   Allison swiveled her chair to face them, eyes wide. “You have a hunky neighbor?” she asked. “What did I miss while I was away?”

   “Nothing,” Chrissie said. “My neighbor is in the same company as Dan so he just came home. That’s all.”

   “Oh my gosh.” Allison put a hand to her mouth. “Do you mean Captain Hughes?”

   Chrissie nodded. “You know him?”

   “Sort of. Dan and I gave him a ride home from the reunion ceremony. I thought his house looked familiar, but I was so excited about having Dan home I didn’t pay that much attention.”

   “Chrissie had dinner with him,” Rita said.

   “I made mac and cheese for him and his little boy.” She glanced at Allison. “His wife walked out and the little boy was crying and I helped calm him down. I haven’t heard anything from him since.”

   “I figured something had happened, for him not to have anyone to meet him at the reunion ceremony,” Allison said. “Maybe you should go over and see how he’s doing. You could say you were worried about his kid.”

   “No!” Chrissie protested. “Besides, technically he’s still married. And I’m not interested anyway.”

   “Liar,” Rita said as she opened the door for her patient, George Freeman.

   She was finishing up the X-rays of Mr. Freeman’s teeth when Chrissie poked her head around the partition. “There’s a telephone call for you.”

   “Tell them I’ll call them back.”

   “No, you need to come to the phone now.”

   Something in Chrissie’s voice made Rita go still. Her heart pounded and she struggled to breathe, and her vision went fuzzy at the edges. Oh, dear God, no!

   “Paul’s all right,” Chrissie said. She grabbed Rita’s arm. “He’s okay. He’s the one on the phone.”

   She nodded and allowed Chrissie to lead her to the office. She picked up the phone and punched the line button. “Hello?”

   “Rita, it’s me, Paul.”

   As if she wouldn’t recognize his voice. He never called except for rare special occasions and holidays. And then she could almost feel his excitement through the phone lines. Now he sounded different. Distant. “What is it?” she asked. “Is everything okay?”

   “No.” He coughed. “Jeremy’s gone. He was killed in a firefight near Kirkut.”

   “Jeremy?” Rita blinked. “Your brother?” Jeremy was in the Marines. The brothers were always giving each other a hard time about which branch of the service was the best. “That’s horrible.”

   “Yeah.” He coughed again. “They’re giving me leave for his funeral. Will you meet me up there?”

   Up there was the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where they had both grown up. “Of course I will.”

   “I should be there in a couple of days. I’ll e-mail when I know more. I gotta go now.”

   “Paul, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I love you.”

   “I love you, too. See you soon.”

   She set the phone in the cradle and stared at the desktop, not really seeing. She thought of Jeremy the last time she’d seen him, at a dinner at his parents’ house right before he shipped out. Paul had been home, too, and thirtyfive of the young men’s relatives had crowded into their parents’ trailer home. The men had teased him about his short hair and the women had urged him to “Eat, eat.” No one wanted to see him leave, but everyone was proud of him following in the footsteps of his ancestors, who had fought in every conflict since World War I.

   There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” she said automatically.

   Chrissie and Allison came into the room. “Is everything all right?” Chrissie asked.

   Rita nodded, then shook her head. “Paul’s brother—Jeremy—he’s dead. Killed in a firefight near Kirkut.” The name was familiar from news reports, but she had no idea where that really was. It was just another foreign-sounding name in a list of foreign-sounding names in the papers and on television.

   Chrissie hugged her and Allison squeezed her hand.

   “I’ll need time off to go to the funeral,” Rita said, beginning to come out of the shock a little. “They gave Paul leave to come home for it.”

   “Of course,” Chrissie said. “Let us know if there’s anything else we can do.”

   “Thanks, but it will all be taken care of. There are groups on the reservation that will organize the funeral. It’s a big ceremony. It goes on for days.” She was thinking out loud now, hardly aware of their presence.

   “Does Paul have other brothers and sisters?” Allison asked.

   “No. Only Jeremy.” She bit her lip, thinking of his mother, Donna. Jeremy was her baby. The spoiled one. She would be beside herself with grief. “I—I’d better go finish Mr. Freeman’s teeth,” she said.

   Chrissie stopped her. “No. We’ll explain what happened and ask him to reschedule. He’ll understand.” She patted Rita’s shoulder. “You go home. Do what you need to do to get ready.”

   “I’ll pray for you and your family,” Allison said.

   Rita nodded. More of the numbness was receding, replaced by the knowledge that in a few days she’d see Paul. She felt almost guilty but not for long. She would see Paul. She would touch him, hold him, kiss him, make love to him. Yes, they would grieve. But they would also comfort each other. In the midst of such sadness was that joy.

CHAPTER FOUR

   CHRISSIE’S FAMILY HOME was a two-story cedar-sided house in the shade of tall pines on the east side of Colorado Springs. Overgrown lilacs, heavy with the promise of purple blooms, crowded the driveway along one side, and patches of dirt showed through on the lawn, remnants of years of tag and touch football games played by Chrissie, her two brothers and their friends.

   Chrissie couldn’t help smiling as she pulled into the driveway. While she loved her little house on Kirkham Street, this was home, every part of it as familiar to her as a favorite pair of jeans. There was the big oak where her father had hung a tire swing when she was six. There was the space under the porch where she’d fashioned a secret play house. Lilacs from these very bushes had decorated the tables at her bridal shower, and that side window marked the bedroom where she’d spent the first six months after Matt’s death. Though she’d been glad to move out on her own once more, it was comforting to know this sanctuary was here if she needed it.

   Her mother opened the door before Chrissie was even halfway up the walk. “It’s good to see you, baby,” she said, enveloping her daughter in a soft hug. “Come on inside. Supper’s almost ready.”

   “Hey, beautiful!” Her father greeted her from his recliner, which over the years had conformed perfectly to his bulky frame. A baseball game played on the television across from him.

   “Hey, handsome.” Chrissie completed this customary exchange, bending to hug him.

   “How are you doing?” her father asked. “How’s the car?”

   “The car is fine. I had the oil changed last week.” This, too, was a familiar exchange. Her father seemed to feel that if her car was in good shape, it was an indicator that the rest of her life was going well also.

   “The house in good shape?” he asked.

   “The house is fine.”

   He looked disappointed at this answer. “You let me know if you need me to fix anything or handle any little problems. Don’t go wasting your money on repairmen.”

   “Thanks, Dad. I won’t.” She smiled and patted his hand. Her father was not one to gush sentiment. He preferred to show his love wielding a hammer or screwdriver.

   She sat on the sofa and in companionable silence they watched the game. Chrissie closed her eyes and inhaled deeply the combination of scents she thought of as unique to her childhood home—pot roast, vanilla and the Shalimar perfume her mother always wore.

   “Everything’s ready,” her mother called from the kitchen. “Chrissie, put some ice in glasses and we’ll eat.”

   Over pot roast, mashed potatoes and broccoli, Chrissie learned about the latest goings-on at the hospital where her mother was a nurse, the retirement party for one of her father’s coworkers and his most recent attempts to defeat the squirrels who constantly raided his bird feeders. “I think I’ve licked them this time,” he said, ladling gravy over a mound of potatoes. “I’ve got the feeders out on wires, rigged with a pulley system. Even the Flying Wallendas couldn’t get to these feeders.”

   Considering how many squirrels Chrissie had seen dancing along power lines, she had her doubts about the effectiveness of this effort. But she sometimes suspected her father enjoyed his battles with the squirrels too much to ever want to completely vanquish them.

   “How are things at work?” her mother asked.

   “Busy.” Chrissie speared a broccoli floret with her fork. “We’re a little shorthanded this week. Our dental hygienist is in South Dakota at a funeral. Her husband’s brother was killed in Iraq.”

   “Oh, how awful.” Her mother laid down her fork and covered her mouth with one hand, a stricken look on her face.

   “Yes, it is,” Chrissie agreed. She had cycled through all the familiar emotions in the days since Rita had left town: despair, anger, grief. She ached for her friend and at the same time recalled her own loss all over again. She hated that she couldn’t even sympathize with a friend without being dragged back into an emotional quagmire she had hoped to escape by now. But maybe that was impossible as long as the war continued. The families of soldiers shared the experience of war in a way civilians really couldn’t; through that connection, every family’s loss became Chrissie’s own. She was trying to figure out how to live with that reality.

   They were all silent for a time, focusing on their food. Chrissie tried to distract herself from sad thoughts by looking around the dining room, at all the familiar things here that grounded her to her life P.M.—pre Matt. An old upright piano sat across from her. She had spent hours pounding away at scales on that piano, dutifully practicing, but never really playing well. After three years, her parents had given in to her pleas to discontinue lessons, but they’d kept the piano.

   On top of the piano was a row of framed photographs, including a shot of her and Matt on their wedding day—Chrissie in a white lace gown, Matt in his dress uniform. Her throat tightened at the sight of them both, looking so very young. At twenty-four, she’d thought she knew a lot about life.

   Looking back, her romance with Matt had had an unreal quality. They’d met, then fallen in love quickly, their every moment together laced with the urgency of knowing that at any time he might be called upon to leave, to fight in the impending war. Chrissie had shared Matt’s excitement at the prospect; he’d looked forward to testing all his training in combat and had assured her that, with all of the technological advances in warfare, the chances of him being hurt were slim.

   She’d held on to that belief as a shield against the fear that always lurked on the edge of her consciousness. That giddy optimism had allowed her to say yes when he proposed, to ignore her natural aversion to risk. And when they’d said their vows in front of family and friends at the base chapel, she’d looked forward to the years ahead, certain of their bright future in a way that only a person who has never known tragedy can be.

   “I’ve been wondering if I should take that picture down.”

   Her mother’s words interrupted Chrissie’s thoughts. She tore her gaze from the photograph and found her mother studying her, worry lines creasing her forehead. “Why would you want to do that?” Chrissie asked.

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