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Authors: Marilyn Pappano

a chance of a lifetime

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A Summer to Remember


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For all the combat medics and corpsmen who rush into danger to save not just their buddies but anyone who needs their help. You guys are the bravest, the toughest, the heroes responsible for giving a second chance at life to so many of our troops.


And as always, for my favorite “Devil Doc,” my husband, Robert. Your Marines and I are lucky to have you!

The soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

  —General Douglas MacArthur

It has been said, “time heals all wounds.” I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But they are never gone.

   —Rose Kennedy

Chapter 1

ou can't go home again,
someone had famously said.

Someone else had added,
But that's okay, because you can't ever really leave home in the first place.

Calvin Sweet was home. If he tried real hard, he could close his eyes and recall every building lining the blocks, the sound of the afternoon train, the smells coming from the restaurants. He could recognize the feel of the sun on his face, the breeze blowing across his skin, the very scent of the air he breathed. It smelled of prairie and woodland and livestock and sandstone and oil and history and home.

There were times he'd wanted to be here so badly that he'd grieved for it. Times he'd thought he would never see it again. Times he'd wanted never to see it—or anything else—again. Ironically enough, it was trying to ensure that he would never come back except in a box that had brought him home, alive and unwell.

He didn't close his eyes. Didn't need a moment to take it all in. Didn't want to see reminders of the streets where he'd grown up, where he'd laughed and played and lived and learned with an innocence that was difficult to remember. He just stared out the windows, letting nothing register but disquiet. Shame. Bone-deep weariness. It wasn't that he didn't want to be in Tallgrass. He didn't want to be anywhere.

“You have family in the area,” the driver said, glancing his way.

It was the first time the corporal had spoken in twenty miles. He'd tried to start a couple of conversations at the airport in Tulsa and in the first half of the trip, but Calvin hadn't had anything to say. He still didn't, but he dredged up a response. “Yeah. Right here in town.”

When the Army sent troops to the Warrior Transition Units, they tried to send them to the one closest to home so the family could be part of the soldier's recovery. Calvin's mama, his daddy, his grandma and aunties and uncles and cousins—they were all dedicated to being there for him. Whether he wanted them or not.

“How long you been away?”

“Eleven years.” Sometimes it seemed impossible that it could have been so long. He remembered being ten and fourteen and eighteen like it was just weeks ago. Riding his bike with J'Myel and Bennie. Going fishing. Dressing up in a white shirt and trousers every Sunday for church—black in winter, khaki in summer. Playing baseball and basketball. Going to the drive-in movie, graduating from elementary school to middle school to high school with J'Myel and Bennie. The Three Musketeers. The Three Stooges.

The best memories of his life. He'd never thought it possible that
All for one and one for all!
could become
two against one
, then
one and one
. J'Myel had turned against him. Had married Bennie. Had gotten his own damn self killed. He hadn't spoken to Calvin for three years before he died, and Bennie, forced to choose, had cut him off, too. He hadn't been invited to the wedding. Hadn't been welcome at the funeral.

With a grimace, he rubbed the ache in his forehead. Remembering hurt. If the docs could give him a magic pill that wiped his memory clean, he'd take it. All the good memories in his head weren't worth even one of the bad ones.

At the last stoplight on the way out of town, the corporal shifted into the left lane, then turned onto the road that led to the main gates of Fort Murphy. Sandstone arches stood on each side, as impressive now as they'd been when he was a little kid outside looking in. Just past the guard shack stood a statue of the post's namesake, Audie Murphy, the embodiment of two things Oklahomans valued greatly: cowboys and war heroes. Despite being scrawny black kids and not knowing a damn thing about horses, he and J'Myel had wanted to be Audie when they grew up.

At least they'd managed the war hero part, according to the awards they'd been given. They'd both earned a chestful of them on their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With a deep breath, he fixed his gaze outside the windows, forcing himself to concentrate on nothing that wasn't right there in front of him. They were passing a housing area now, the houses cookie cutter in size and floor plan, the lawns neatly mowed and yellowed now. October, and already Oklahoma had had two snows, with another predicted in the next few days. Most of the trees still bore their autumn leaves, though, in vivid reds and yellows and rusts and golds, and yellow and purple pansies bloomed in the beds marking the entrances to each neighborhood.

They passed signs for the gym, the commissary, the exchange, barracks and offices, and the Warrior Transition Unit. Their destination was the hospital, where he would be checked in and checked out to make sure nothing had changed since he'd left the hospital at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington that morning. He tried to figure out how he felt about leaving there, about coming here—psychiatrists were big on feelings—but the truth was, he didn't care one way or the other.

His career was pretty much over. No matter how good a soldier he'd been, the Army didn't have a lot of use for a captain who'd tried to kill himself. They'd diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, the most common injury suffered by military personnel in the war on terror, and they'd started him in counseling while arranging a transfer to Fort Murphy. Soon he would be separated from the Army, but they would make a stab at putting him back together before they let him go.

But when some things were broken, they stayed broken. Nothing could change that.

Within an hour, Calvin was settled in his room. He hated the way people had looked at his medical record, hated the way they'd looked at him.
He's a nut job, a weak one. Killed the enemy in the war but couldn't even manage to kill himself. What a loser.

More likely, those were his thoughts, not the staff's.

He sat on the bed, then slowly lay back. He could function on virtually no sleep—he'd done it too many times to count—but sometimes his body craved it. Not in the normal way, not eight or nine hours a night, but twenty-hour stretches of near unconsciousness. It was his brain's way of shutting down, he guessed, of keeping away things he couldn't deal with. He could go to sleep right now, but it wouldn't last long, because his parents were coming to see him, and Elizabeth Sweet wouldn't let a little thing like sleep deter her from hugging and kissing her only son.

Slowly he sat up again. His hands shook at the thought of facing his parents, and his gut tightened. Elizabeth and Justice hadn't raised a coward. They'd taught him to honor God, country, and family, to stand up for himself and others, to be strong and capable, and he'd failed. He'd tried to kill himself. He knew that sentence was repeating endlessly, disbelievingly, not just in his head but also in theirs.

He was ashamed of himself for such poor planning. He'd never once seen anyone at that public park in all the times he'd been there, and he certainly hadn't counted on some misguided punk to intervene. After “saving” Calvin's life, the kid, named Diez, had stolen his wallet and car and disappeared. Some people got the Good Samaritan. He got the thieving one.

Announcements sounded over the intercom, calling staff here or there, and footsteps moved quickly up and down the hall, checking patients. Calvin sat in the bed and listened, hearing everything and nothing, screening out all the extraneous noises until he heard the one he was listening for: the slow, heavy tread of his father's work-booted feet. Justice had a limp—arthritis in knees punished by years laying floor tile—and the resulting imbalance in his steps was as familiar to Calvin as his father's voice.

The steps stopped outside his door. Calvin's heart pounded in his chest, so he took a deep breath to slow it, to prepare himself, and imagined his parents doing the same. He slid to his feet as the door slowly swung open and his mom and dad just as slowly came inside. For a moment, they stared at him, and he stared back, until Elizabeth gave a cry and rushed across the room to wrap her arms around him.

She was shorter, rounder, and he had to duck his head to rest his cheek against her head, but he felt just as small and vulnerable as he ever had. There'd never been a thing in his life that Mom couldn't make better with a hug—until now—and that just about broke his heart.

It seemed forever before she lifted her head and released him enough to get a good look at him. Tears glistened in her eyes, and her smile wobbled as she cupped her hand to his jaw. “Oh, son, it's good to see you.” Her gaze met his, darted away, then came back with a feeble attempt at humor. “Or would you prefer that I call you sweet baby boy of mine?”

He managed to phony up a smile, or at least a loosening of his facial muscles, at the memory of her response when he'd complained about being called
in front of his friends. “Son is fine.” His voice was gravelly, his throat tight.

“You know, I can come up with something even worse.” But there was no promise behind her words, none of that smart mouth that she lived up to quite nicely most of the time. She was shooting for normal, but he and she could both see there was nothing normal about this situation. He hadn't known normal for so long that he was wearied by it.

Justice stepped forward. “Move on over a bit, Lizzie. Let a man give his only boy a welcome-home hug.” His voice was gravelly, too, but it always had been, rough-edged and perfect for booming out
s in church or controlling small boys with no more than a sharp-edged word.

Elizabeth stepped aside, and Justice took his turn. His hug was strong and enveloping and smelled of fabric softener and the musky aftershave he'd worn longer than Calvin had been alive. It was so familiar, one of those memories that never faded, and it reminded Calvin of the person he used to be, the one who could do anything, be anything, survive anything, and prosper.

The one who had disappointed the hell out of his mother, his father, and himself.

After his dad released him, they all stared at each other again. Calvin had never seen them looking so uncomfortable, shifting their weight, wanting to smile but not sure they should or could. The psychiatrist in Washington had tried to prepare him for this initial meeting, for the embarrassment and awkwardness and guilt. For no one knowing what to say or how to say it. For the need to be honest and open and accepting and forgiving.

Calvin had been too lost in his misery—and too angry at Diez—to pay attention.

Should he point out the elephant sitting in the middle of the room? Just set his parents down and blurt it out?
Sorry, Mom and Dad, I tried to kill myself, but it wasn't you, it was me, all my fault. Sorry for any distress I caused. Now that we've talked about it, we don't ever need to do it again. So…how's that high school football coach working out?

And as an aside:
Oh, yeah…I'm getting help and I haven't tried anything since. We're cool, right?

Unless—his gut tightened—he did try again. He didn't want to, swore he didn't, but the fear haunted him: that the docs would help, the meds would help, he'd find a reason to live, and then something in his screwed-up brain would put a gun in his hand again.

 His throat worked hard on a swallow, his jaw muscles clenched, and his stomach was tossing about like a leaf in a storm, but he managed to force air into his lungs, to force words out of his mouth. “So…it was cold outside when I got here.”

“Dropped to about thirty-eight degrees.” There was relief in Justice's voice for a conversation he could embrace. “Wind chill's down in the twenties. The weather guys are saying an early winter and a hard one.”

“What's Gran say?”

Elizabeth's smile was shaky. “She says every winter's hard when you're seventy-six and have the arthritis in your joints.”

“She wanted to come with us, but…” Justice finished with a wave of his hands. “You know Emmeline.”

That Calvin did. Emmeline would have cried. Would have knelt on the cold tile and said a prayer of homecoming. Would have demanded he bend so she could give him a proper hug, and then she would have grabbed his ear in her tightest grip and asked him what in tarnation he'd been thinking. She would have reminded him of all the switchings she'd given him and would have promised to snatch his hair right out of his scalp if he ever even thought about such a wasteful thing again.

He loved her. He wanted to see her. But gratitude washed over him that it didn't have to be tonight.

“Your auntie Sarah was asking after you,” Elizabeth said. “She and her boys are coming up from Oklahoma City for Thanksgiving. Hannah and her family's coming from Norman, and Auntie Mae said all three of her kids would be here, plus her nine grandbabies. They're all just so anxious to see you.”

Calvin hoped he was keeping his face pleasantly blank, but a glimpse of his reflection in the window proved otherwise. He looked like his eyes might just pop out of his head. He'd known he would see family—more than he wanted and more quickly than he wanted—but Thanksgiving was only a month away. Way too soon for a family reunion.

His mother went on, still naming names, adding the special potluck dishes various relatives were known for, throwing in a few tidbits about marriages and divorces and new babies, talking faster and cheerier until Justice laid his hand over hers just as her voice ran out of steam. “I don't think he needs to hear about all that right now. You know, it took me a long time to build up the courage—” His gaze flashed to Calvin's, then away. “To get used to your family. All those people, all that noise. Calvin's been away awhile. He might need some time to adjust to being back before you spring that three-ring circus on him.”

Elizabeth's face darkened with discomfort. “Of course. I mean, it's a month off. And it'll be at Auntie Mae's house so there will be plenty of places to get away for a while. Whatever you want, son, that's what we'll do.”

They chatted a few more minutes, then took their leave, hugging Calvin again, telling him they missed him and loved him, Justice thanking God he was home. Her hand on the door frame, Elizabeth turned back. “I don't suppose…church tomorrow, family dinner after…It would just be you and me and your daddy and Gran…”

Calvin swallowed hard, looking away from the hopefulness on her face. “I, uh, don't think I can leave here yet. Being a weekend, they're a little slow getting things settled.”

Disappointment shadowed her caramel eyes, but she hid it with a smile. “Of course. Maybe next time.”

Calvin listened to the door close behind them, to his father's heavy tread walking away, and his mother's earlier words echoed inside his head.
Whatever you want, son, that's what we'll do.

The problem was, what did a man do when he didn't want anything at all? How did he survive? Was there any conceivable destination that made the journey worthwhile? Or was he going to suffer until the day he finally died?

*  *  *

Lifting as many reusable shopping bags from the trunk as her two hands could carry, Benita Ford hurried along the path to the back door of the house she shared with her grandmother. Lights shone through the windows, and the central heat and air system hunkered against the house on the back side was rumbling, meaning it would be warm and cozy inside. Why in the world had she worn a dress, tights, and her new black boots to go shopping today? She'd lost contact with her toes a long time ago, and every time the prairie wind had blown, it seemed the cold had headed straight up her skirt for a
of the sort she didn't need. Jeans, wool socks, leather running shoes, a T-shirt or sweater, and the gorgeous wool coat that reached almost to her ankles—
were shopping clothes.

At least I know my ice cream didn't melt on the way home.” Mama Maudene Pickering was waiting in the kitchen, ready to unpack the bags while Bennie went after the rest. The old lady wore black sweatpants that puddled over her shearling-lined house shoes, along with an orange, black, and purple Halloween sweater that was scarier than anything else Bennie had seen throughout the day.

“I don't remember ice cream being on the shopping list,” Bennie teased.

Mama shook a finger at her. “You don't want to give an old woman palpitations. But if you do, be sure to ask for the good-looking firemen when you call 911.”

“And you do the same for me if I ever need it.” Ducking her head, Bennie rushed out into the cold again. She had another six or eight bags, along with four cases of bottled water that she had to haul in or risk finding her trunk covered in icicles the next day.

By the time she made her last dash, she was finally warm, sweating inside her clothes. She took off the cardigan that was a cute match to the dress, tossed it on the back of a chair, and began helping her grandmother.

“See anyone interesting at the grocery store?”

“Just people hoping to get home before they froze.”

“You young kids. In my day, we didn't have all the nice clothes and gloves and central heat and a grocery store just down the street.”

“No, you had a sandy warm beach just down the street.” Mama had grown up on the barrier islands of South Carolina, soaking in lazy breezes and running barefoot in the sand and living—at least, to hear her tell it—an idyllic life. Bennie knew it hadn't been all sunshine and roses, especially after her marriage ended. Still, it had been sweet.

“It got cold there, too, missy. I remember one time it snowed twice in one month. Almost covered the ground both times.” Mama burst into laughter. “I have to admit, if I'd known more about Oklahoma weather, I might have kept on traveling a little farther west. But when I got here, the sun was shining, the air was crisp and clean, and the leaves were the most wonderful shades of yellow, orange, and red. I knew this was where I wanted to be.” Her brow furrowed in thought. “That was in October, too.”

“And this is its evil twin, Octobrrr.” Bennie emptied the last of the canvas bags, rolled each one, and stuck them inside the largest bag to return to her car in the morning. “But warm weather will be back again soon.”

“Most likely. I've worn shorts in January and a sweater in June.” Mama shuffled to the refrigerator, arms filled with milk and yogurt. On her way to the small pantry, Bennie opened the door for her. Grocery shopping was a regular Saturday activity for her, and October was always her overstocking time. She'd been forced to trudge to the grocery store once years ago when snow and ice had kept their neighborhood impassable for days. She had learned her lesson. If the streets froze now, they had enough food to feed themselves and the neighbors. If the pipes froze, there was plenty of bottled water, and if the power went off, they had a huge supply of candles and batteries for flashlights, and firewood stretched the length of the house two ricks deep.

Bennie was prepared for anything.

“—reheat the leftover pot roast,” Mama was saying when Bennie stepped back into the kitchen. “Chop everything up, mix it all up with gravy, and serve it with some thick slices of fresh white bread. Hm-
, that sounds good.”

“It certainly does.” Bennie put away the last of the groceries, then gave her grandmother a hug. “You know, your good cooking is the reason you and I are both on the round side.”

Mama snorted. “I've been a size twelve my whole grown-up life. I should know, since I'm the one cutting the size tags out of my old clothes and sewing them into my new, bigger ones.” Her hearty laugh emphasized the roundness of her face, filled with lines and haloed by gray hair and as beautiful as a face could be.

Gratitude surged in Bennie, tightening her chest. Her mother might have run off before Bennie saw her fifth birthday, and her father might have died before her tenth. She might have lost her husband, J'Myel, in the war, but she'd always had her grandmother. Mama's love was boundless and forgiving and warmed a girl's heart.

“Did you get all your shopping done?” Mama asked as she pulled the leftovers from the refrigerator, then gathered a knife, a cutting board, and a large cast-iron pot. Bennie had once given her a much lighter stainless pot, and Mama had proclaimed it just what she needed before putting it away and continuing to use her cast-iron, even when picking up a full pan required a grunt of effort.

“I bought a few things,” Bennie replied as she wiped down the oilcloth that covered the kitchen table, then began setting it for dinner.

“I finished my Christmas shopping in July.”


“If you'd use the Internet, you could've finished yours already, too.”

Bennie rolled her eyes, careful not to let Mama see. When the neighbor kid had shown her grandmother how to get online, Bennie had thought it would be a passing curiosity. Then the first purchase had arrived and proven her wrong. Since then, the UPS and FedEx drivers had become Mama's newest BFFs.

“Aw, you know me. I like to do my shopping in person. I want to touch stuff, see it, smell it.”

Mama made a dismissive gesture with the knife. “I touch it, see it, and smell it when it gets here, and if I don't like it, I send it right back for something else.”

Bennie wasn't an avid shopper, not like her friend Jessy, but she enjoyed the experience, especially when the Christmas decorations were up but the holiday was still far enough off that people weren't yet frantic. It reminded her of her childhood, of trips to Tulsa for the parade, of driving around the neighborhoods looking at extravagant lighting displays and visiting Santa Claus at Utica Square.

It reminded her of different times—not better, just innocent. She hadn't known about death and loss then. Yes, her mother had abandoned her, but her father and Mama had filled that void. Back when Christmas was still magical, she hadn't known her father would die. She'd never dreamed that her two best friends in the entire world would grow so far apart. She'd certainly never guessed that she would marry one of them, then lose him before their second anniversary, or that the other wouldn't even call her to say he was sorry.

Moisture seeped into her eyes. She could handle thinking about J'Myel or Calvin one at a time, but having them both on her mind saddened her. Them losing their bond still seemed impossible, as unlikely as Bennie deciding she no longer loved Mama. It just couldn't happen.

But it had.

And she'd been oh, so sorry ever since.

Forcing the thoughts and the loss away, she poured two glasses of iced tea, heavily sweetened the way Mama had taught her to like it, then went to her room to slip out of her boots and into a disreputable pair of loafers. Her toes wiggled in relief, her arches reveling in comfort, after a whole day in the heels. She would put herself through a lot to look good in public, but at home, comfort reigned.

By the time she returned to the kitchen, sleet was spitting against the windows, not much, the sort that said Mother Nature hadn't decided whether she was just playing with them or intended to give them a storm. Every tropic-loving cell in her body hoped for the former while every realistic one prepared to accept the worst.

Mama had filled two steaming bowls with roasted beef, potatoes, carrots, and celery and placed a loaf of warm bread between them on the table. They joined hands and said grace, a short prayer that had survived at least four generations in the Pickering family, then dug into their food. It tasted even better than it had sounded.

They chatted about nothing: the weather, the gifts she'd bought for her friend Ilena's baby boy, John, the presents they would ship to family back in South Carolina, the Halloween decorations that were spookifying the house before coming down next week. The room was so cozy, the food so comforting, that Bennie was slowly being lulled into lazy, hazy contentment. Then Mama pushed her empty bowl away, folded her arms on the tabletop, and leaned toward Bennie. “I talked to Emmeline Sweet just before you got back.”

So much for contentment. All it took was one mention of Calvin's family and, poof, the turmoil returned. She tried to hide it, to act casually as she picked up her own empty bowl and carried it, along with Mama's, to the sink. “How is Miss Emmeline?”

Mama didn't answer but went straight to the point. “Her grandson's back in town.”

*  *  *

Joe Cadore stood in front of the refrigerator, bent at the waist, searching for something worth eating for dinner, and had no more luck than the last two times he'd looked. There was yogurt, protein drinks, eggs, fruit, milk, and cheese—all perfectly fine in their place, but their place was not on a dreary, freezing Saturday night. This was a time for comfort foods like his mom's homemade macaroni and cheese, or Dad's chili and jalapeño corn bread, or Grandma's pasta Bolognese.

This was a time for his neighbor Lucy's home cooking.

He looked out the window over the kitchen sink and watched the ice where it glistened on tree branches and fence wires. Lucy could have plans that didn't include a self-invited guest. She could even be on a date. Everyone had grown so used to her single status that when she'd started dating the doctor jerk from Tulsa last summer, none of them was as shocked as she was, not even Joe. Thank God, the doc had hooked up with Avi Grant and moved out of state with her last month.

Just because the doc was gone, though, didn't mean there weren't plenty of other guys out there waiting for their shot at Lucy. She'd be the type to meet cute—someone changing a flat for her, helping her out of a tough spot, or reaching for the same loaf of bread she did—and

Joe's feet had grown cold on the wood floor, and the reflection looking back at him in the window wore a scowl. Grabbing a protein drink and an orange, he returned to the living room, sliding over the back of the couch, landing on the cushions just as his phone rang. What his nieces called his grouchy face disappeared the instant he checked Caller ID, a grin taking its place. “Hey, Luce.”

“Have you had dinner yet?”

He set the fruit and drink on the coffee table. “Nope. I looked in the refrigerator three times, and there was nothing to eat in there.”

“You know, there are times when protein drinks and fruit just don't make the grade.”

“Yeah, I know.”

She laughed, and he thought it was one of the best sounds in the world. She hadn't laughed a lot in the beginning, still mourning her husband, trying to figure out how her perfect life had come to such a screeching halt. But eventually the laughs had returned, and the smiles and the grins, and they'd grown a topflight friendship. She was the easiest woman to be with that he'd ever known—the sweetest, funniest, most giving. The time spent with her was the highlight of his life. Well, along with the time spent on the football field. And with his family. But, yeah, Luce definitely ranked in the top three.

Her voice interrupted his thoughts. “…beef and cabbage stew and a loaf of peasant bread still warm from the oven, if you want to join me.”

He definitely wanted. But he kept his tone casual. “And all I have to do is…What? Persuade Norton to go out in the sleet and do his business?”

“You think I would bribe you with food to take care of our dog?” she asked sweetly. “Besides, you're from Alaska. This weather is supposed to be like a mild fall evening to you.”

He snorted as he pulled on the socks and shoes he'd left on the floor earlier. “Ice is cold no matter where you're from, Luce. Do you need anything?”

“I'm from San Diego, land of warm sandy beaches. I always stock up for times like these, so all I need is you and your appetite. See you in five.”

He hung up, put the drink and orange back in the fridge, then headed for the back door, where his heavy coats hung on a rack. After a minute, he pivoted and went to his room, throwing his T-shirt toward the hamper in one corner, pulling a clean shirt from a hanger, and tugging it on. He sprayed on cologne, then combed his hair.

Back in the kitchen, he slid into a down jacket, a black knit cap bearing the OSU Cowboys logo, gloves, and a scarf before ducking out the back door. The ice on his patio crunched beneath his feet, taking on a different pitch when he reached the grass separating his house from Lucy's, then another crunch across her patio. Welcoming light shone through the fixture over her door, scattered and prismed by layers of glass.

Norton's bark was just as welcoming, a loud
accompanied by frantic scratching. An instant later, Lucy opened the door and Joe gratefully stepped inside.

Her house was laid out just like his, but his never felt like hers. Incredible smells filled the air, there were homey touches everywhere, and he swore the house had a personality all its own. But maybe that was because Lucy had so much personality that it spilled over, filling the space around her.

“Hey, Luce.” He crouched to rub behind the dog's ears, earning a grunt and a few thumps of tail against cabinet. “You need to go out, buddy?”

Usually, anytime was the right time for Norton to sniff the backyard and renew his own scents, but tonight the dog backed away from him and the doorway, not stopping until his butt hit the opposite wall. There he slid down, chin on his paws, and kept a cautious watch on both Joe and Lucy.

“You know his last encounter with ice wasn't much fun,” Lucy said as she dished up two bowls of stew.

“Not for him, though as I recall, you got a good laugh from it.” It had been last winter, and Norton had gone bounding out the door, unaware of the two inches of sleet covering everything. When he'd hit it, his feet had slid out from under him and he'd sailed halfway across the yard before an oak tree stopped him. He'd struggled to his feet, peed, and inched his way back to the house, body intact, dignity totally disintegrated.

Joe stripped off his outdoor clothes, tossing them on the kitchen table, then filled two glasses from a pitcher of water with lemon slices floating in it. He carried them to the coffee table, went back for napkins and silverware and a basket filled with thick slices of sweet, yeasty bread. The crust was golden and buttery, dotted with flakes of sea salt and rubbed with roasted garlic. It was in the running for one of his favorite foods ever.

They sat on the floor between the couch and the coffee table, shoulders bumping as they settled. In all the hundreds of meals he'd eaten here, not once had they ever used the kitchen or dining table. On the couch, on the floor, outside on a pretty day…they always chose best-buds comfort over propriety. It was just one of the things he liked about Lucy.

One of about seventeen million and counting.

Chapter 2

ucy lay on her side on the sofa, her stomach full, the heavenly tastes of butter, salt, and garlic lingering on her tongue. If she put one more bite in her mouth, she would get that achy, shame-inducing discomfort that she'd become so familiar with in the last seven years, but her brain still followed the rules it had learned when she was a child: After dinner, you offered a guest dessert. “You want dessert?”

Joe lay on the love seat, head resting on his bent arm, legs hanging off the other end. He'd kicked off his size fourteen shoes at some point, and his left big toe poked through a hole in its white cotton sock. She'd suggested to him once that he throw away all his athletic socks that had worn toes or heels, and he'd looked genuinely puzzled because
the sock still works fine
. “What've you got?”

Mike's reasoning had gone along those lines, which was why she'd tossed out so many ragged jeans and shirts when she'd finally found the courage to clean out his closet.

Feeling the squeeze of her heart that always accompanied thought of Mike, she smiled. “Cupcakes in every flavor you can imagine, coffee cake, or sweet little tarts. Apple, cherry, lemon, or chocolate.” She was already getting to her feet because Joe always liked dessert and had the muscle-to-fat ratio that allowed him to eat it without worrying where the calories went.

She didn't worry, either. She knew every excess calorie in her body went to her butt and boobage.

Instead of heading toward the kitchen, she went down the hall to the guest bedroom, opening the door carefully so Norton couldn't push his way inside. The furniture that had filled the room, hand-me-downs from both her and Mike's grandparents, had been moved into storage in her friend Marti's garage. Now five-foot-long tables ran the length of the room, with narrow aisles for squeezing through, and every table was filled with luscious, beautiful pastries, secured in clear plastic containers to keep them fresh.

Sugar and butter and flavoring—vanilla, almond, hazelnut—perfumed the air with a sweet, heavy aroma. Six months ago, if she had baked this many desserts, she would have eaten enough of them to make herself sick. Now all it took was a whiff of the scents to give her stomach a queasy tumble.

“Jeez, Luce, you should take pictures,” Joe said over her shoulder.

“For what?”

“Your website. If you're going to start a business, you're going to need a website.”

“They are pretty, aren't they?” she said with satisfaction even as his words—
a business
—sent flutters through her, both the anticipatory kind and the scared-out-of-her-wits kind. What did she know about starting or running a business? More than she had four weeks ago, she admitted. In the past month, she'd read endlessly, talked to small business owners and small business advisors. At the last three Tuesday night dinners with her best-friend margarita girls, they'd discussed nothing else. Therese's stepdaughter Abby had even come up with a name that Lucy loved: Prairie Harts. Abby had sketched a logo, too, a spring prairie scene with wildflowers, each of their blossoms heart-shaped.

“What are these for?”

“The singles and seniors Sunday school classes, plus a reception the colonel's having Monday.”

“Paid or donation?”

“Free to the church. The colonel insisted on paying.” Her boss wouldn't even accept the discount she'd offered. The reception was official Army business, and if they paid full price to anyone else for catering the sweets, he said, they would pay full price to her. “It's my first real event.”

Grinning, Joe bumped her shoulder. “It's official then. Prairie Harts is in business.”

She grinned, too, even as a tiny shiver rippled through her. She pretended she didn't know where it came from, but of course she did. It was from margarita girl Jessy, who'd innocently suggested last month that Joe deliver a hug and a kiss to Lucy, and from the morning of Mike's birthday when she hadn't been able to drag herself out of bed, so Joe had joined her there, offering sweet words of encouragement and a sweeter touch. Holding hands. So simple. So innocent. And exactly what she'd needed.

And since then…She stole a glance at him from the corner of her eye. Tall, lean, solid, his hair blond, his skin golden, and his eyes the prettiest blue. He was twenty-eight going on sixteen, irreverent, immature, and totally lacking in seriousness except when it came to his beloved football. The high school kids he coached revered him, the students he taught respected him, and women lusted after him. Every one of the margarita girls admired him, even the ones who hated sports.

Lucy had loved him from the moment they'd met. He was her best guy friend. But lately…

Remembering Ben Noble, the gorgeous surgeon she'd crushed on over the summer, she sighed. When had she started falling for guys so far out of her league?

But she'd gotten Ben, the woman inside her whispered. He just hadn't turned out to be what she needed. There had been plenty of affection and love, just no spark. She
a spark. Heavens, she wanted a whole wildfire.

Joe picked up a mini caramel-frosted cupcake and popped it in his mouth, closing his eyes for a moment. “Damn, Luce, that's good.”

“Thank you. And thanks to you and your team for being my taste testers.”

“What happens if the weather cancels church or the reception?”

“I will put on my coat and boots and personally deliver them to every parishioner. As for the reception, neither rain nor sleet…”

Plastic crackled as he removed a glazed tart from one of the containers. “That's the post office.”

“Well, it applies to the Army, too. Hospital staff has to be there, no matter what, to take care of the patients. I may have to walk all the way with the food on my back, but I'll get it there.”

Behind her, Norton whined before trotting down the hall to the living room. Lucy watched him disappear around the corner, tail curled in the air, then turned back to Joe. “I believe the baby is calling your name.”

He popped the rest of the tart into his mouth, took a second for good measure, and squeezed past her. “I'm coming, buddy.”

She breathed in the scents of fabric softener, shampoo, and man—eau de Joe—and smiled as she flipped off the light. Lord, she missed man smells: shaving cream, cologne, sweat, funky running shoes, and even the engine oil that had migrated under Mike's fingernails. Her house always smelled great, but these days it was distinctly feminine. She wanted the male fragrances back, both good and bad.

Just one of many things she wanted back.

When she returned to the living room, Joe and Norton were there. The man was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, swinging Norton's leash to tempt him to follow, but the dog was hunkered at the front door, frantically sniffing the bottom of it, his head down, his butt wiggling in the air, and agitated whines coming from his mouth. “What's up with him?” she asked. Norton rarely went out the front door, and he never got this anxious to potty. He was well known, in fact, for peeing in the middle of the kitchen floor whenever he felt like it.

“I don't know.” Joe came closer, waving the leash. “C'mon, buddy, let's go out.”

Norton didn't even spare him a glance. With a shrug, Joe went to the door, grabbed the dog's collar with one hand, flipped on the porch light, and opened the door. Norton's feet scrabbled on the wood floor as he lunged toward the small stoop, putting so much power into it that Lucy would have been tumbling down the steps about now, but Joe managed to restrain him.

“Damn, Lucy, get a towel, will you?”

She hurried down the hall to the bathroom and grabbed a large towel. When she got back to the living room, the door still stood open, but Joe had hooked the leash onto Norton's collar and pulled him to the couch. He traded the leash for the towel, and she braced her feet against the dog's straining while Joe stepped outside.

Norton's whimpers rose to a howl in the seconds Joe was out of sight. He stopped mid-
when Joe came back inside, holding the towel bunched in his hands. Sleet dotted his hair and shoulders, but he was grinning as he opened the towel to reveal the tiniest, scrawniest, wettest creature she'd ever seen, encrusted in ice and shivering violently. As she stared, the kitten lifted its little orange head, opened its little pink mouth, and pitifully meowed.

“Look, Luce, Norton found you a new baby,” Joe said, as if the thing she wanted most in life was another animal. “Good boy, Norton, good boy.”

*  *  *

Calvin dressed early Sunday morning and left his room to find a decent cup of coffee. What he got from the RN at the nursing station was a heavy mug, filled half with hot coffee, half hot milk, and smelling like his mom's cinnamon cookies.
My specialty,
the nurse had said with a wink before tucking the Thermos back into a cabinet. Warming his fingers on the hot pottery, he returned to his room, breathing deeply of the aroma, and took a seat in the chair next to the large window. The coffee smelled so good that it seemed a shame to drink it, but once the steam dissipated to occasional wisps, he took a sip. Damn, it was as good as it smelled.

“Good morning.” A medic let himself into the room, carrying a tray. “Normally, our ambulatory patients eat in the dining hall down on the second floor, but you're getting a special delivery. You want to move to the warmer side of the room for breakfast? Granted, I'm just guessing that this side is warmer based on the fact that at least there's no ice formed on the walls over here.”

Calvin glanced at the window behind him, traces of frost etched on the inside of the glass. When he was a kid, in the few minutes before his mom rousted him from the bed on winter mornings, he'd drawn all kinds of scenes on his windows, using his fingernail to scrape off the frost. “No, thanks. I'll be okay here.”

The medic set the tray on the bed table, wheeled it over, and adjusted it to the proper height. He lifted the lid. “Looks like you got the I'd-rather-have-MREs special. Lucky you.” He scanned the tray, then met Calvin's gaze. “Can you think of anything I forgot besides the flavor?”

Calvin shook his head.

“Okay, then, I'll be back in a while to pick up your tray. Enjoy your breakfast.”

Calvin took another sip of coffee while inventorying the tray. There were scrambled eggs, their color so pale that they must be egg substitute. The toast could have used another minute or two in the toaster, and the jelly was strawberry instead of his favorite, grape. A piece of gray sausage, probably substitute meat, and half an orange rounded the plate, while circling the plate was a single-serving box of cereal, a carton of low-fat milk, a four-ounce carton of grape juice—he'd rather have orange—and a cup of cold coffee. No sugar, no cream, and the little package of salt was fake.

If he were a few miles away at his parents' house, his mom would be fixing sourdough pancakes, eggs over easy, fried potatoes, homemade sausage, biscuits, and thick cream gravy. But she would expect something in exchange for that breakfast: some hint, some reminder of the son who used to be. She would want conversation—deep and painful or lighthearted and fake—and he wasn't yet up to either.

Picking up a plastic fork, he poked at the eggs, cutting them into chunks that held their shape. Not sure whether the movement of his mouth was a rueful smile or a grimace, he laid the fork down and picked up the cinnamon coffee again. He knew for sure it was a smile when he tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and savored every drop of it.

The air pressure changed as the door opened. He'd already learned that there was no such thing as privacy in a hospital, but he kept his eyes shut as footsteps approached, until the bed creaked.

“Coffee may be the drink of the gods, but it doesn't count as breakfast.” It was Valentina, the nurse responsible for the cinnamon brew. She leaned against the foot of the bed, hands pushed into the pockets of the jacket that covered her scrub top.

“I'm not hungry.”

“Hm. I've never had that problem in my life. But you have to eat something. If you don't, the dietitians find out, and they come and rag on me, and then I have to pull rank on you.”

“Which is hard since I outrank you.” Barely. She was a lieutenant, one paygrade below his own rank.

She smiled as she straightened. “You're on my turf now, Captain. Those bars don't mean a thing here.”

 A few years ago he would have made some joking remark—would have checked to see if there was a wedding band on her left hand and then flirted with her whether there was or wasn't. This morning, he couldn't quite remember what that was like, joking and flirting with a pretty woman. There was a part of him, though, that damn wanted to.

“I understand that home is somewhere near here.” She gestured toward the tray, and he automatically picked up the fork.

“The northwest part of Tallgrass. Neighborhood called the Flats.” He lifted a chunk of egg to his mouth. He still wasn't hungry, and it was as tasteless as he'd expected, but if he ever wanted to escape the close scrutiny brought on by his suicide attempt, Chaplain Reed back in Washington had told him, he had to try. He could never quit trying.

It sounded like a life sentence.

But better than a death sentence.

“The Flats?” the nurse echoed. “I've only been here at Fort Murphy a few months, but from what I've seen, the entire county is pretty much flat.”

“Aw, don't say that. The elevation of West Main Street is a good fifty feet higher than East Main.” That was kind of joking, wasn't it? She did laugh. “There's plenty of hills outside of town. They just come on so gradually that you don't really notice them.” Along with a lot of trees, wide-open spaces, and gullies cut deep by heavy rain and hard winds. Minus the trees, it didn't sound so different from the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Where'd you come from?”