Authors: Marilyn Pappano
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To the military personnel who have served our country well in peace and in war, with honor and courage, and the families who stood by them. We owe you such a debt.
To the people who made these books possible: my incredible agent, Melissa Jeglinski, and my two wonderful editors, Selina McLemore and Michele Bidelspach. Your input and advice and tweaking have been a huge gift.
To Chance and Shadow, my fur babies, and their bubbas who have gone on to dog heaven: Olivia, Beau, Lucky, Jack, Jasper, Spencer, and Duc. These guys have been the basis for all the pets in my books (yep, even the cats) and have brought me more joy than I could have imagined. If you don't have a pet, adopt a dog (or even a cat) and gain unconditional love. You'll never regret it.
And as always, to my husband, Robert. It's a wonderful life.
The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.
Valor is stability, not of legs and arms, but of courage and the soul.
âMichel de Montaigne
is neck aching from hours behind the wheel, Elliot Ross gave in to just a bit of relief when lights became visible a few miles ahead. He'd been driving a long time, most of it through spring storms, wind buffeting the truck, rain falling so hard that the windshield wipers couldn't keep up. Every muscle in his body was knotted and sore. If he had the money, this would be a good night to check into a motel, to take a shower as long and as hot as he wanted, to sleep in a real bed with real privacy.
He didn't need to pull out his wallet to know that he didn't have the money. He wasn't broke, but his funds were reaching the level that always made him itch. With any luck, he'd be able to find work in Tallgrass, short-term if nothing else. He could build up his safety net, maybe run into some old friends, maybe even find a place to settle. Eight years in the Army had left him with buddies all over the world, and though he was alone by choice, he always appreciated meeting up again with friends.
Rustling from the passenger seat reminded him that he wasn't exactly alone. His companion, fifteen pounds of lazy, shedding tan hair, and giant puppy-dog eyes, uncurled and sat up, tail thumping against the console, then raised her gaze to him. He hadn't known her long enough to read all her cues, but he was pretty sure that look was universal in the canine world for
I need to take a leak
“Hang on, Mouse. According to Matilda, we'll be in Tallgrass in a couple minutes.” Elliot had given the name to the truck's GPS the first time he'd ever used it and found the previous owner had set it to a woman's voice with an Australian accent. He'd traveled to Perth while he was still on active duty, and all it took was one simple
in that accent to remind him of good times with Aussie girls soft enough, sweet enough, and sexy enough to almost make him think about renouncing his U.S. citizenship and spending the rest of his life becoming a sandgroper.
Mouse stared at him a moment before blinking and looking away. Elliot had found her in eastern Tennessee two days ago. A group of kids had been messing with her in a McDonald's parking lot, offering the starving pup a scrap of burger, then kicking her away before she could get it.
Worthless punk cowards. Elliot flexed his still-tender right hand. He'd made sure they understood they'd picked on the wrong dog before he'd loaded the scrawny pit into his truck and headed for the nearest vet.
Always a white knight
, his sister used to tease, but it wasn't anything so noble. He just didn't like seeing anyone mistreated, and luckily he was tough enough and strong enough to put a stop to it most times.
The lights grew brighter despite the heavy cloud cover, and within minutes he was passing the main gate to Fort Murphy. It seemed strange to drive past with no plans to turn into the entrance. He'd spent most of his adult life going to work on similar posts, places so familiar that they felt more like home than anywhere else.
Another mile or so, and a shopping center appeared on the right. With a glance at Mouse, he slowed, then turned into the lot. The only businesses open this late on a Friday night were a Mexican restaurant at the front and a pharmacy at the back. A strip of grass separated the pharmacy from the parking lot, only a few feet wide and maybe twenty feet long, but that was more than enough for Mouse to do her business.
He parked near the median and shut off the engine, then contemplated the rain for a moment. “I don't suppose I could just open the door and you'd jump out and do your thing, then come back?”
Mouse held his gaze with a steadiness he found unsettling. He'd known his share of animals that had been mistreated, but he'd never seen one less skittish than this one. She showed him no fear. She'd trembled and whimpered with the punks, and with the vet and his assistants, but she was steady as a rock with Elliot.
She trusts you, idiot
, his sister Emily's voice commented.
Females always trust you.
The truth of her statement made him grin.
Tugging his jean jacket collar a little closer, he slid out of the truck, jogged to the other side, opened the door, and hooked Mouse's leash on before lifting her to the ground. She didn't dart off the ten feet to the grass like he'd hoped but instead hunkered underneath the truck, still giving him that long, steady look. “Come on, Mouse, I'm getting soaked here.”
She didn't move.
“Come on, you're a pit bull. Big, fierce dog.” He growled softly at her. “You can't tell me you'd rather hold it than piss in the rain.”
With water dripping from his hair and trickling down his neck, Elliot gave the leash a tug. When she didn't move, he sighed and reached under the passenger seat. The umbrella he brought out had been in the truck when he bought it. He hadn't used one inâ¦well, everâhe was a tough guy, right?âbut he'd never bothered to throw it away, figuring someday he might find himself with a pretty female who cared about things like staying dry. Mouse was a good-looking dog, or would be once she'd put on some weight, but she wasn't exactly the kind of female he'd had in mind.
He popped the umbrella, tilting it at an angle that would provide protection for the pup, and Mouse instantly came out from under the truck, walking alongside him to the grass.
“Grown man holding an umbrella for a prissy little dog so she doesn't get wet,” he grumbled as the dampness spread over him from the outside in. His jeans were sticking to his legs, and even inside work boots, his feet were getting wet and cold. His hair was soaked, his jacket sodden, and his shirtâ
“I think I'd worry more about talking to myself than pampering the baby.”
The voice came from behind him, soft and amused, its accent muddled, and very definitely female. Abashed at being caught off guard, he turned to face a slight woman an inch or two shorter than him. A neon green slicker covered her clothes, showing bare legs and feet shoved into disreputable sneakers, and its hood kept most of her face in shadow. Not the smile, though. Her smile was wide and happy and made a guy want to smile backâat least, a guy who wasn't turning red to the tips of his ears.
“She, uh, doesn't like the rain.” He gestured toward the dog, who'd turned her back to them before squatting carefully over the wet grass. “I've never done this before. Held an umbrella for a dog, I mean. Hell, I've never held an umbrella for a person, either, except for the time I tried to hit my sister with one, if that counts.” Jeez, he was rambling. He hadn't rambled with a pretty girl in his life. His mama called him a natural-born charmer, but his best hope for charm now was his smile.
“Did you succeed?” At his blank look, she pointed to the umbrella. “You said you tried to hit your sister. Did you succeed?”
“No, she outran me. Emily was six feet tall by seventh grade, and I hadn't hit my growth spurt yet.” He grinned at the obvious fact that his growth spurt had never come. He reached five feet nine only by standing on his toes, but he'd compensated for lack of height by building strength.
At his feet, Mouse barked, the first sound he'd heard from her that wasn't pain-filled. When he looked down at her, she stared back, her way, he guessed, of saying she'd had enough of the rain.
The woman apparently thought the same thing. “She probably needs her feet dried. I assume you carry a towel for that purpose?” Adjusting the slicker hood, she took a few steps away, then turned back. “I think it's sweet, you holding the umbrella for her.”
He grinned again. “That's me. Sweeter than honey.”
Once again she smiled, and anticipation crackled around them, like lightning about to strike. He even took a quick look at the sky to make sure they weren't about to get fried, then reconnected gazes with her. If he didn't say something, she was going to make another move to go, and he'd be left standing in the rain, watching her drive away, full of things to say, just too late. He hated being too late.
“Could Mouse and I interest you in a drink?”
She stood there a long time, as still and steady as Mouse, probably considering the wisdom of going to a bar with a total stranger. She could be married, for all he knewâcould be a nun, for all he knewâbut he wouldn't recall the invitation if he could. She was pretty and nice and seemed to like his dog, and her voice could make a man weak, and her smileâ¦
“Sorry. I don't drink,” she said at last. “But how about a burger? There's a Sonic just down the street, so Mouse wouldn't have to stay alone in the truck.”
A drive-in on a rainy night, cool air drifting through the windows, fog steaming the glass, privacy without risk. “Burgers sound great. You want to leave your car here?”
She hesitated again before beeping the door locks of the only car parked nearby. “You can follow me.”
He watched until she'd reached the car before giving Mouse a tug and heading back to his truck. After lifting the dog inside and tossing the umbrella into the rear floorboard, he climbed in and started the engine.
“Yes, ma'am,” he murmured. “We'll be happy to follow you, won't we, Mouse?”
*Â Â *Â Â *
“What are you doing?” Fia Thomas asked aloud as she peered through the rain on her way through the lot to Main Street. “You should be home in your pajamas. You shouldn't be out in the rain. You certainly shouldn't be driving in the rain, and having a hamburger with a strangerâ¦You don't even know his name! That's so far off the top of the scale of shouldn'ts that it doesn't even register.”
Shoving her hood back with one hand, she checked her appearance in the rearview mirror and grimaced. “No makeup, you didn't even comb your hair, andâ¦Oh, my God, when did you start talking to yourself like this?!”
A paper bag crinkled in her slicker pocket, the pills she'd picked up at the pharmacy. It was one of the multiple medications her doctor had her on to treat the symptoms of the illness they hadn't yet identified. She could have waited for it until tomorrow morning. She could have called any one of her best friends, and they would have picked it up and brought it to her. Wind and flood wouldn't keep them away when she needed them. That knowledge warmed her heart almost unbearably.
But she'd had a good day. No vision problems, no muscle spasms, no stumbling or headaches or nausea. For the first time in a long time, she was feeling like herself, and she'd grabbed the first excuse to come to mind for rushing out into the rain and driving a car for the first time in months. She'd relished the feel of sitting behind the wheel, hands clasping it firmly, the radio tuned to the loudest and most favorite of her country stations. She'd felt strong. Empowered. Independent.
After more than a year of fearing she would never be any of those things again.
The white pickup followed her through a green light and into the center turn lane, then into Sonic's driveway. Overhangs protected the cars on both sides from the downpour, and bright lights made it feel like midday.
With a glance in the rearview mirror, she drove to the last spot on the row and shut off the engine. The wipers stopped in mid-swipe with a squeaky-smudgy sound, replaced almost immediately by the powerful engine parking beside her. She pulled the pills from her pocket and tossed them on the passenger seat, combed her fingers through her hair again, patted her other pocket to make sure her tiny purse was there, then reached for the door. Her hand stilled on the handle.
Was she really going to do this? Get in a stranger's truck, eat a hamburger, make small talk, maybe even flirt with him? All because he was sweet to his dog and had a great smile and gorgeous eyes and radiated
nice, sexy guy
with every breath he took, and because she'd had a good day and those times came so rarely that it seemed wrong not to celebrate? And maybe partly because she hadn't sat with a man, sharing a meal or a drink or a laugh, since Scott, and twenty-four was way too young to be so alone?
Her fingers tightened as the defiant voice in her head answered,
Yeah, we're gonna do this. Scott's dead. He's not coming back, little girl, and he'd never want you to live alone like this.
The words hurt her heart, a tug so powerful that nausea stirred deep in her gut, but she pushed it back. Scott
dead, and she hated that fact with all her soul, but she couldn't change it. And he
be pissed if she'd given up without him. Warrior girl, he'd called her, the strongest, the toughest, the baddest-ass woman he knew. The one who could do any damn thing, could survive any damn thing. Hell, yeah, she was gonna do this.
With a deep breath, she opened the car door and slid out. The rubber soles of her sneakers made a sound similar to the wipers as she pivoted through the narrow space to the pickup's passenger door. Mouse's owner leaned across the truck and opened the door a few inches while Mouse sat halfway between the front and the rear seats, still and sniffing the air. Was it Fia's unfamiliar scent that had caught her attention or the burgers-grease-fries aroma that announced,
Good food found here
Obvious answer. The dog's nose was twitching, and drool was starting to form at the corners of her mouth.
But it was Fia who held the man's interest. A shiver ran deep inside her. Oh, man, it had been so long since she'd felt the tingle brought on by a man's interestâso long since she'd let herself feel it, since she'd wanted to feel it. The sad truth was, she didn't have much to offer a man besides worry and frustration and a whole lot of hassle. But for one night she could pretend that the medical issues didn't exist, that she was a perfectly normal, healthy woman who'd been asked out by a perfectly gorgeous man.
She climbed in the truck, settled in the worn seat, and closed the door before looking his way.
was an understatement. He was incredible. His hair was dark brown, falling over his eyes and past his shoulders, sleek and shiny. His features were sharply defined: blue eyes with ridiculously long lashes, strong nose, stubborn jaw, and a mouth that sensuously softened the angles. He wasn't tall, as he'd pointed out, but he was compact, with broad shoulders, rock-hard muscles, strength tempered by gentleness. There was an air about him of peace, decency, Zen, but also a sense of limits. He was a man who couldn't be pushed too far.