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A Place Called Home Book 3

SARA Rising Star Award winner
VRW HOLT Award finalist

Rebecca Dahlgren comes to Far Hills Ranch hoping for answers to her unknown heritage.

But from the first moment, she finds foreman Luke Chandler hard to miss. The sexy cowboy with the sleepy eyes that aren’t interested in sleeping means just the sort of trouble her patrician grandmother has always warned about.

Luke has his own reasons for wanting to steer clear of anything like commitment. But the secrets behind Rebecca’s dark eyes keep luring him on … even if it means baring his own heart.

Excerpt:

Chapter One

“What the hell is this, Grif?”

Colonel John Griffin Junior looked up just in time to see the bear-like figure of Brigadier General William Pulaski slap a sheaf of papers on the desk of his Pentagon office.

“That appears to be my request to take my accumulated leave, starting as soon as possible, sir.”

“You’re damned right that’s what it is! What I want to know is why? Why in Sam Hill would an officer who’s pegged to join the White House liaison team next month request this leave?”

A rumbling bass would have fit Pulaski’s build. Instead nature had doled out a high, light voice. He made up for the lack of lower notes with volume. Plenty of volume.

“And not just a regular leave – an extended leave since we both know you’ve been storing up time like a squirrel expectin’ winter!”

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Grif could try to tell the general his reasons, but he hadn’t reached the rank of colonel by being suicidal.

“I have the time, sir,” he said without emotion. “I’d like to take it now.”

General Pulaski gave him a long look that Grif returned. The older man broke the stare, sighed, then dragged the visitor’s chair close, so the desk seemed as much his as Grif’s, and spoke in – for him – a softer voice.

“As long as I’ve known you, Grif, you’ve taken tough assignments, but smart tough assignments. Always advancing. No ties, no entanglements. Just like your father.”

Grif’s hold tightened on the pen he’d been using to sign letters. He said nothing.

“You have a promising future – hell, more than promising.” The general rubbed both hands across his bald skull. “But with this leave… What about after you’ve used up this time? White House liaison isn’t going to stay open waiting for you, you know.”

Grif met the dark eyes boring into him. “Then I’ll take the next tough assignment available.”

“If time to think this over might make you change your mind…”

“I’m not going to change my mind, sir.” Grif accepted that this might not be the right decision – certainly it wasn’t for his Army career, and it also might not be right for reasons that had nothing to do with the army – but he was sticking to it.

Pulaski glared. “Take your damned leave, then. I hope there’s plenty of wine, women and song every damned night, because you might as well have a good time before you put your career in the – ”

“Thank you, sir.”

The general abruptly rose and strode out, followed by a fading trail of profanities.

Grif wondered idly how many degrees hotter those profanities would have turned if the general had known that instead of wine, women and song, there would be an eight-year-old boy, a ten-year-old girl and one woman.

None of whom could ever be his.

“Lieutenant Shaw,” Grif called out the door Pulaski hadn’t bothered to close. “The general forgot some papers on my desk. Take them to him. And be sure they don’t go astray.”

* * * *

Ellyn Sinclair straightened the final pillowcase, took a clothespin out of her mouth, clipped it over fabric and line, then bent for the emptied basket. The Wyoming breeze would dry this laundry fast and for free. Up here behind Ridge House the breeze didn’t stir dust, which made the climb worthwhile. She scanned the sheets flapping peacefully.

Even if her dryer fund wasn’t needed to fix the car, she wouldn’t have used a dryer on such a perfect day, an oasis of warmth in Wyoming’s unpredictable April. Although it would be nice to have the option. Of course it would be nice to have a number of other things, too.

Ellyn raised her free hand and let the breeze float clean, crisp cloth against her palm. There was one worry she didn’t have – that she’d overcompensate for her children losing their father by spoiling them with material things. Although she would make it up to them. With the most secure, loving home she could fashion. Standing on her own two feet.

Sometimes in the gray hours before dawn, she would admit she hadn’t totally banished worries about such matters as Meg and Ben bearing permanent emotional scars. But more often she reminded herself of one particularly pithy lecture from Kendra, who as both neighbor and friend, had pointed out the danger of self-fulfilling prophecies, expounded on the resilience of the human spirit in general and of Ellyn’s children in particular, and wrapped up by extolling the effective double-whammy of love and common sense.

That prescription had certainly made these past six months much better than the previous six. Although… Had Ben been subdued? That question had popped into her mind after the kids went to bed last night and had intruded several times this morning at work, while laying out ads for The Far Hills Banner. She’d watch him more closely for that tonight.

Ellyn pivoted to start down from the height that gave Ridge House its name. But she paused at the sight below of an unfamiliar sedan in the turnaround area beside the house. Now and then strangers left the highway thinking the ranch entrance was a county road. But they usually stopped at Kendra and Daniel’s place, rarely getting this deep into Far Hills land before realizing their mistake.

She shaded her eyes, watching a man’s erect figure emerge from the car, straighten and turn. The dark-haired man looked up toward her. She could almost imagine …

Her heart lurched against her ribs, hard enough, it seemed, to leave a bruise. At least on the inside.

“Grif?” It came out a whisper. She swallowed and stared, letting her eyes be sure of what some other sense already knew, before calling, “Grif!”

He smiled and raised his hand.

She started straight down the hillside, not bothering with the deteriorating path, and letting the slope hurry her steps.

A scene from the library DVD of Gone With the Wind she and the kids watched recently sprang into her mind. The moment when Melanie spots a tattered, injured soldier returning from war – her soldier – and, half stumbling, runs to him. Laughing and crying, she runs to meet her man.

The straight-backed figure before Ellyn was definitely a soldier – even in jeans and deep green knit shirt instead of a uniform, that was obvious in the way he held himself as he climbed toward her. But she wasn’t Melanie, and Grif wasn’t her man.

Because you have never known how to make a man yours. Not even your husband.

Before the familiar voice in her head echoed to silence Ellyn leaned back, slowing her descent, although her heart still stumbled. Halfway down, she stopped as Grif closed the gap to arm’s length.

“Hello, Ellyn.”

“Grif. I can’t – this is unbelievable. What are you -? Marti and Kendra must be ecstatic. I just – ”

Words weren’t working. She reached out to hug him the way she had a thousand times in the years he’d been such an important part of their family, when she and Meg and Ben and Dale had been a family. Only at the last second did she remember that the laundry basket, empty except for a bag of clothespins, was still tucked on her hip. That must have been why their hug felt so awkward.

Or maybe what intruded on their friendly embrace was the separation of the past fifteen months after years of almost daily contact.

She stepped back. He gave her space, but his arms lingered around her. She gained a few more inches of height as she backed up the hill, and his arms dropped to his side.

“You look great, Ellyn.”

She didn’t look anywhere close to great. She wore a T-shirt that had shrunk, topped by one of Dale’s old flannel shirts, which was big enough for the tail to flap around thighs covered in leggings bearing proof of painting Meg’s room yellow. She had no makeup on and her hair was a curling mess, as usual. But she’d learned long ago not to dispute polite compliments – acknowledging them with a quick smile, then plowing ahead was her strategy.

“You, too. A bit of gray, I see. Very distinguished.” With teasing fingertips already touching the silver strands filtering into the thick, dark hair at his temple, she saw the lines around his eyes deepen, as if he’d tensed. She dropped her hand. “It’s longer than you used to let it get. Relaxing military discipline these days?”

“Missed a trim getting things squared away to leave.”

She nodded, as if any of this mattered.

In the past fifteen months, she’d wondered many times why Grif had disappeared from their lives, and she’d wondered when she would see him again. She had never let herself think about what the reunion would be like. If she had, it would not have been anything like this. Where was their old, easy camaraderie? Could a year’s absence kill a friendship that had survived decades?

She pushed out more words, hoping she would stumble across the right ones. “Grif, I can’t believe this. After all the times Marti’s asked you to come visit, you’re really here. What persuaded you to finally come back to Far Hills?”

“You.”

She blinked. Her mind repeated the single word, trying to grasp what he meant. Before she could form a response, he was continuing.

“You and the kids. I have some leave…” His voice, which nature had roughened with a slight raspiness, dropped to that register that said he was worried. His direct eyes searched her face. “I wish I could have been here for the funeral last year.”

He might be ready to jump into those deep and murky waters, but she wasn’t. She kept her answer as light as possible, considering the topic. “We understood, with you in the Middle East and all.”

He’d frequently been assigned to places where no one could reach him and that he couldn’t talk about when he returned.

“I didn’t get word of the accident until six hours before the funeral.”

Single-car accident, one fatality. That was the official description of Dale’s death. To Ellyn it remained a blur – from the moment Dale had driven away from the house that night, to the early-morning arrival of the state troopers at her door, and through the funeral – a surreal blur of alternating waves of pain and numbness.

“Even if I’d been able to leave,” Grif continued, “I couldn’t have made it back in time.”

“You wrote all that.” In a letter that said all the right things except when he would come to see them, delivered in an envelope absent a return address. “I know – we all know you would have been here for Dale if you could have.”

“Are you okay – the three of you?”

“We’re fine.” Now.

“Marti wrote that you’ve decided to stay on here for good.”

He surveyed the unimposing two-story frame house with no visible neighbors, so different from the Sinclairs’ brick Cape Cod in a neat Washington suburb teeming with kids and bicycles and carpools. That’s where Grif had been practically part of the family. Before…

She forced herself to finish the thought. Before the problems between her and Dale. Before Grif disappeared from their lives. Before Dale moved them all back here to Wyoming. Before Dale died.

“I considered returning to Washington, but uprooting the kids again in such a short time didn’t seem fair.”

There’d been a third option. “Under the circumstances,” her mother had said, she and Ellyn’s stepfather, although retired to Arizona, would “take you and the children into our home, until we can get you back on your feet. So you can meet a man who can take care of you and your children.” Even as low as Ellyn had been then, she’d had the strength to know refuse that option. She’d had a lifetime of her mother’s ways. She wasn’t about to accept that future for her children.

“Meg and Ben love it here. They’d settled in,” she continued. “They had friends, and so did I. We needed friends.”

Only a flicker of his eyes gave away how he took that, but it was enough.

“Oh, Grif, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean – ”

She broke off because maybe she had meant to reproach him. That would be quite unlike the old Ellyn, but not out of the question for the new Ellyn forming from the ashes of her old life.

Grif shook his head, then said, “I’m sorry.” She didn’t know if he meant for his disappearing act or about Dale’s death.

She could keep apologizing. She could ask what he was sorry for. Those were things the old Ellyn would do. She could demand to know why he’d disappeared. Or why he’d shown up now. She could throw him off her property…except she was renting it, and come to think of it, he was part-owner of Far Hills Ranch, so she couldn’t very well throw him off his property.

Especially when she didn’t want him to go.

Suddenly aware they were staring at each other – and chances were good his shrewd eyes saw more than she meant to reveal – she turned and shifted the basket.

“Would you like to come inside for a glass of lemonade?” She started toward the house and, after a moment’s hesitation, he followed. “I know it’s cool yet, spring comes slow here in Wyoming, not like Washington, but – ”

Her offhand manner might have been more successful if he hadn’t come alongside her and gripped the laundry basket, forcing her to stop and turn to him.

“I’ll carry that, Ellyn.”

She didn’t let go. “No need. I can manage fine.”

His mouth tightened, as he gave it a firm pull.

She released the basket, and resumed her route.

From behind her left shoulder, he said, “I know my showing up like this has to be a shock, since I haven’t been in touch and – ”

“You’ve been in touch. Cards every holiday. Presents for the kids at birthdays and Christmas.” And in those first months their tearful questions about why Grif didn’t come. “I would have thanked you – if I’d known where to write. I’m glad to be able to thank you now.”

He stopped to face her. She kept going.

“Ellyn, you have reason to be angry – ”

“Angry? I’m not angry,” she said as she opened the back door. She wasn’t sure exactly what she was, but it wasn’t angry. At least not much of it. Maybe she’d simply grown smarter, not so trusting. That was definitely a part of the new Ellyn. “How long has it been since you’ve been here at Far Hills, Grif?”

“Ellyn – ”

“It must be years and years.” She reached for the basket, and he handed it over. She opened the closet doors hiding the aged washer valiantly chugging through another load and the useless dryer.

“I would have said you hadn’t been back since you were best man for Dale at our wedding, but of course that was in Washington, so that wouldn’t count. So when was it? I remember the last summer you spent here was when you were fourteen, and Dale was thirteen, so that must be, what, twenty-three years ago?”

She was babbling. She knew it. He knew it. But she didn’t want to talk about any of the things he’d been taking aim at.

She transferred three rolled towels from the top of the dryer to the bottom of the basket.

Raising her head, she found him looking at her, his expression giving away nothing. When his lips parted she had no idea if he would pursue his topic or go along with hers.

“Last time I was back here was for Amy’s funeral, ten years ago. The time before that was when I came through right after I finished at West Point. I had just turned twenty-one, so you must have been eighteen or nineteen.”

Memories as clear and sharp as broken glass showered over her. She couldn’t escape the slicing shards.

A final whine and shudder signaled the end of the washer’s cycle, breaking the spell.

“Eighteen,” she said shortly, flipping the lid open and devoting all her attention to pulling out the wet tangle of dark clothes.

“This house was a wreck then,” he said. He looked around. “It looks great now. Lots of room for kids.”

“Marti started fixing up the old houses on the property a few years back.” He probably knew that, since he was Marti Susland’s nephew as well as owning a share in the ranch Marti had run for thirty-odd years. But even the new Ellyn was not above stating the obvious to keep this conversation in safe waters. “She rents a few to people she likes – and you know how generous Marti is, so I can’t beat the rent. Another reason to stay here.”

“Dale didn’t have insurance?”

For an instant, his directness nearly triggered her into answering as openly as she would have a year ago.

“Some,” she said instead. Before he could dig more, she drew a red herring across his path by adding, “‘Course, even with the low rent some folks would be reluctant to live out here, what with the ranch being cursed.”

He frowned. “What do you mean, cursed?”

“What does a curse ever mean? Bad things happen, so – ”

“You and the kids? Has something – ”

“No, nothing.” Soothing his worry was too old a habit to shed easily. “We’re not Suslands. And it’s the Susland Legend. Remember Marti telling us about it as kids?”

“That nonsense hasn’t died out?”

“Your family’s had more than its share of tragedies, and to some folks that proves the curse is real.”

“I don’t remember you taking the legend seriously.”

“That was before Marti did research and found out Annalee believed it.” Not sure herself how seriously she took the legend, she looked up as she put a final handful of wet socks into the basket. “Annalee was Charles Susland’s second wife. Remember?”

“Charles founded Far Hills Ranch in the 1800s,” he said as if answering a quiz.

“Founded it and got it cursed for cruelty to the Indian wife and children he deserted to take a rich, white wife – Annalee.”

He was watching her with an intensity that prompted her to concentrate on putting in the next load, while she kept the conversation on the Susland Legend. “After what happened with Kendra – ”

“Kendra? My cousin, Kendra Jenner?”

“Kendra Delligatti now.”

Of course he already knew Kendra and Daniel had married in January. Ellyn had told herself she wasn’t surprised – or disappointed – when Grif declined his invitation to the wedding, blaming the press of his work at the Pentagon.

“What has Kendra got to do with that legend?” he demanded in his old Grif-the-protector voice.

“Daniel tracked down Kendra and their son Matthew, and they’re a family, so people say that’s made amends for Charles Susland turning his back on his children,” said Ellyn. “Next, someone has to make amends for Charles turning his back on the Indians who’d befriended him. The third part – ”

“But Kendra’s okay?”

Oh, yes, Grif-the-protector was back in full force. As the oldest of the kids who had gathered each summer at Far Hills Ranch, he’d always taken on the burden of being the designated adult. As a quiet, skinny girl with a mop of wild hair who communicated better with horses than people, she’d benefited from his protection more than once.

“Better than okay. She’s happy.” She lifted the refilled basket. “I’m going to hang these clothes and I’ll be right back. Help yourself to lemonade – in the fridge – and there are cookies in the glass jar on the counter.” Another thought occurred to her. “But I suppose you have other people to visit. I’m sure you’ve been to the main house, but if you haven’t – ”

“No.”

” – seen Kendra yet… No?” she repeated as his answer sank in. “You haven’t been to the main ranch to see Marti?”

“Not yet.”

“You are living on the edge. If she finds out you didn’t go straight to the home ranch…” She shook her head, the consequences too dire to spell out.

His grin flickered. “I wanted to see you first.”

Why? The question roared in her head, but there was no risk that she’d voice it.

“Well, now you have, but I got a late start on the laundry and I need to get these things hung up so they’ll dry, and it’s not much fun for you to wait around. So, go see Marti. And I’ll finish the laundry.”

He moved ahead to open the back door for her. “I’ll carry the basket.”

“There’s no need for that. And Marti…” He followed her out and took the basket, this time using enough strength on his first attempt to overcome her resistance. “Grif – ”

“Go on up.” He titled his head in the direction of the path to the ridge. The railroad ties that had formed rough steps had rotted, but the path was passable, at least on good days like this. “Unless you want to stay here and I’ll hang these myself.”

She’d already started up the path, recognizing Grif’s never-to-be-budged tone. But at the incongruous image, she chuckled and tossed over her shoulder, “How would it look to have a major in the United States Army hanging up laundry?”

“Colonel,” he murmured absently.

“Colonel? You’ve made full colonel? That’s quite a jump in a short time.” She looked back at him, but could read nothing in his face.

“I suppose.”

At the top, she turned and faced him. “That must have been some assignment you got – the one you left Washington for so suddenly right when…” She took a breath and finished in a different direction. “Before we moved back here.”

“It was.” His quiet answer both filled in the gap she’d left and cut off the subject like a concrete wall at the end of a one-way alley. “Where do you want this?”

She gave up thoughts of trying to break through that concrete, and nodded to a stretch of unfilled clothesline. “Thanks, Grif. Now, why don’t you go see Marti and – ”

He ignored her, pulling out a pair of racing stripe pajama bottoms and shaking them out. “Ben’s?”

“Yes, but – ”

“He must have grown a foot.”

His tone – a crust of sadness overlaying awe – clogged her throat. She nodded, and swallowed. “Meg, too.”

He jammed a clothespin over the waist of the pajamas and the line. He looked over at the items she’d hung earlier, then at his handiwork, and frowned. “That’s not secure.”

“It works better if you pin each cuff to the line – the material catches more breeze that way and dries faster. But, really, Grif, this isn’t necessary.”

As she took out another of Dale’s old shirts that she wore around the house, she used her peripheral vision to watch Grif remove the clothespin, turn the pajamas upside down and pin one cuff. He recognized the new problem immediately. She caught the inside of her cheeks between her teeth.

Trying to keep the unpinned pajama leg from flapping around, he stretched toward the basket for a second clothespin. He should have looked awkward, ludicrous, uncoordinated. Instead, the twisting, reaching motion pulled the knit of his shirt taut across long, ropy muscles in his back, and molded the fabric of his pants around the powerful curve of his thigh and the even rounder curve of his –

No longer tempted to grin, Ellyn jerked her gaze and thoughts from where they didn’t belong, grabbed a clothespin and moved in to help him.

He released the loose pajama leg to her hold, then reached over her shoulder to help keep it in place. With his other hand still on the first pin and with the pajamas in front of her, she was surrounded. She drove the pin home with more power than finesse, and quickly ducked under his extended arm.

“That’s how you do it,” she said once she’d gained some distance. “But, as I said, this isn’t the kind of duty you’re used to, Colonel Griffin.”

“Even a colonel can learn.”

As they both bent over the basket, she to retrieve the shirt she’d dropped there when she grabbed the clothespin, and he to pull out one of Meg’s sweatshirts, she glanced at him, found his eyes on her and looked away.

“You never learned to do laundry? I thought the army made men self-reliant.”

“I’ve washed clothes now and then, but nobody ever taught me the finer points. Mom did the laundry when I was a kid. When she got sick…” His next words were matter-of-fact. “My father could never be bothered with household stuff, so we sent everything out. My self-reliance comes in the form of finding the best laundry in the shortest amount of time in a new place. One good thing I learned from my father.”

A year and a half ago, and anytime in the eight years before that, she would have said that John Griffin Junior was her best friend. Now it struck her that in all the years she’d known him, stretching back to spending most childhood summers on this very ranch with him and the others, she’d heard him mention his mother maybe a dozen times, and his father half that. So exactly how well did she know him?

Certainly not well enough to have avoided being blindsided by his absence these past fifteen months.

She didn’t know how long she’d been mulling that while automatically hanging clothes before Grif’s voice cut into her thoughts. “Why aren’t you using the dryer.”

“Use a dryer on such a beautiful day? That would be a homemaker’s sin,” she said airily.

“I don’t remember you caring much about homemaking sins.”

He must have caught her reflexive wince, because he reached a hand toward her that she evaded by stretching up to secure the corner of one of Ben’s shirts.

“I didn’t mean anything critical, Ellyn. I just remember you not worrying about such things, so – ”

“Of course not. You’re right,” she said lightly. “I was never that kind of woman. A mouse to start, a bit of a tomboy later, then a haphazard housekeeper, and, as a wife – ”

Grif’s hand on her arm drew her around. “You’re talking nonsense – you know that, don’t you, Ellyn?”

“Just quoting Rose Neal Brindford.” And Dale, but Grif didn’t need to know that.

“Don’t. Your mother’s a – ”

She watched him bite back the word she could almost hear on his tongue. He turned away, and his big hand settled on the inside seam of the jeans hanging upside down. Even as kids, he’d always hated the way her mother criticized her. Hated it even worse if she criticized herself with her mother’s words. But that was a hard habit to escape.

“Ellyn.” She couldn’t take her eyes off his hand. In a motion she was certain was unconscious, his hand slid slowly along the inside seam of the jeans – her jeans. “There are some things we should talk about. Get clear.”

The caressing touch of his hand dropped lower along that seam – nearly to the point where the left leg met the right, to the point where – Oh, lord. She spun around, looking for something else, anything else to absorb her attention.

Marti and Kendra were right. She’d been alone too long. Living out here without any male companionship. Letting her libido get so desperate it rioted at the sight of a strong hand sliding down the seam of her jeans, toward – No!

“About why I’m here,” Grif was saying, “and…other things.”

This was not the time for her to try to talk to him about anything, not while images of a hand on a pair of jeans strobed through her brain and bloodstream. She needed something to keep him occupied while she got her mind on a different track…an entirely different track.

“Ellyn? Are you listening?”

She let out an audible whoosh of relief as she spotted exactly the distraction she needed.

Saved by the school bus.

“The kids just got off the bus down at the highway.” She nodded toward two distant figures starting along the ranch road. “I’m going down to wait for them inside.”

And to get away from the unexpected dangers of hanging laundry.

Grif had turned to see for himself, and now he remained looking that way as he spoke. “Maybe you should tell Meg and Ben about my being here before they see me. It could be a shock.”

“A shock?” Her own unsettled feelings sharpened her voice and words. “In the past year and half, we’ve become shock experts, and believe me, this doesn’t count, Grif. Don’t make a bigger deal of this than it is.”

And if he didn’t realize after that little speech that she’d changed, he never would. But somehow she didn’t want to see his judgment of this new Ellyn right now. She started back to the house without looking at him.

* * * *

If the army had Ellyn Sinclair, it wouldn’t need drill sergeants to cut recruits down to size.

Don’t make a bigger deal of this than it is.

That put him in perspective, didn’t it? Grif grimaced as he followed Ellyn’s straight back down the eroded steps.

Well, what had he expected? That she – they – would fall on him like a savior? Just because pulling out of their lives had been like pulling himself off life support didn’t mean it had affected them the same way.

When the four Sinclairs left Washington fifteen months ago, he’d known they’d have support in Far Hills, led by his aunt, Marti Susland. Even when he’d heard about Dale’s death, he’d been certain Ellyn and the kids would be looked after. Still, he’d planned eventually to come to Far Hills to assure himself they were okay, maybe try to pick up some of the threads that had once tied them…when the time was right, when he was sure he was ready.

The time had never been quite right, and he hadn’t been ready.

Then phrases from Marti started to nag at him. Subtle at first, but not for long. Increasingly more pointed phrases about tough times for Ellyn and the kids – tough times emotionally and practically. She’d eventually written it flat out in an email: They needed help.

So it no longer mattered if he was ready.

When he’d seen Ellyn up on the ridge, before she’d noticed him, she’d looked like the sweet eighteen-year-old girl whose image he’d never quite gotten out of his mind, even as he’d become friends with the woman she’d become. Wind whipped her hair into a curly froth, the sun glinting on lighter strands woven among the rich brown. That big shirt alternately molded around her to hint at what lay below and swung free to show the T-shirt that did a lot more than hint. Seeing her like that, he’d found himself praying that Marti was wrong. That he could check on Ellyn and the kids, find out everything was fine, then get himself back to Washington and away from…temptation.

But Marti Susland wasn’t wrong.

As a reconnaissance mission, this was no challenge. The unused dryer, the washing machine so loud it could drown out a tank, the path that needed rebuilding, the evasiveness about insurance, the uncertainty tempering Ellyn’s warm smile, the shadows under her soft brown eyes and, worse, the shadows in them.

He’d been the one responsible for turning those shadows into flashes of pain. Stupid. Why had he brought up his visit to Far Hills after his graduation from West Point? They’d never talked about that incident. Instead they’d gotten past all that a long time ago by ignoring it. Why had he stirred it up now?

To remind himself of the decision he’d made then – the right decision. Or maybe to remind her. It cooled had the warmth in her face from when she’d first seen him. He needed that, because he couldn’t hold up against that warmth.

He had to remember why he’d come.

To help three people who needed his help.

And nothing was going to stop him. Not the U.S. Army. Not the pair of kids he was getting ready to face. Not Ellyn Neal Sinclair. Not even himself.

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