Authors: Alexis Morgan
“Plenty of passion and a story line that will grab your attention from the get-go.”
—Romance Reviews Today
“Suspicions, lust, loyalty, and love create a heavy mix of emotions.”
“This book sucked me in, and I didn’t want to stop reading.”
—Queue My Review
“Morgan delivers a great read that sparks with humor, action, and . . . great storytelling.”
—Night Owl Reviews (5 stars, top pick)
“Will keep readers entranced.”
—Nocturne Romance Reads
Snowberry Creek Series
A Soldier’s Heart
(A Penguin Special)
Warriors of the Mist Series
My Lady Mage
Her Knight’s Quest
A Snowberry Creek Novel
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Signet Eclipse, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA)
Copyright © Patricia L. Pritchard, 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.
Books are never a solo act. It takes a team to nurture a story from that first germ of an idea through the whole long process required to bring it to full bloom. There are so many people to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for making
A Time for Home
the best it could be, far too many to list them all here. However, there are a few I do need to thank specifically:
To my wonderful husband. Thank you for your patience, support, and willingness to share me with the people who live in my head.
To Michelle Grajkowski, my fabulous agent. Here we are in our eleventh year working together, and you’re finally getting that soldier book you’ve always wanted me to write. Sorry it took me so long, and I hope it was worth the wait. As always, it means so much to me to have you in my corner.
To Kerry Donovan, my amazing and supportive editor. Thank you for all of your encouragement and for helping me polish the stories until they are shiny bright! I so appreciate your enthusiasm and hard work to bring Snowberry Creek to life.
To the entire team at NAL for everything you contribute to the process. I know there are a lot of you working behind the scenes to give me great cover art, cover copy, and everything else that goes into bringing the book out. Thank all of you so much!
And finally, a special thank-you to my friends for their support and encouragement. I hope you all know how much it means to me. Hugs to you all!
e’re almost there, boy. Then you can stretch your legs.”
Nick’s canine companion was too busy sniffing the wind to care. Mooch had kept his nose stuck out the window since the minute they’d gotten in the truck. He reached over to pat the dog on the back, still carrying on the one-sided conversation.
“I bet it smells a whole lot different from the streets of Afghanistan, doesn’t it?”
Mooch thumped his tail in agreement. In truth, everything here was a whole lot different. Nick scanned the road ahead. So much green that it hurt his eyes. He had to tip his head back to see to the tops of the firs and cedars that crowded close to the two-lane highway. They made him claustrophobic. Too many hiding spots for snipers. Only one way through them, leaving him no avenue of escape.
Nick flexed his hands on the steering wheel and reminded himself that he’d left all that behind weeks ago.
No one here wanted him dead. Not yet, anyway.
“Think she’ll forgive me?”
Nick hoped so, because he hadn’t been able to forgive himself. Something in his voice finally had Mooch looking at him, the dog’s dark eyes filled with sympathy. Of course, maybe Nick was only imagining that the mutt understood every word he said. There was no denying the dog had known his own share of suffering back in his homeland.
His shaggy white fur hid the jagged scar where a bullet had caught him in the shoulder. Mooch had taken one for the team when he barked to warn them about an asshole lying in ambush. The bastard had shot the dog to shut him up, but too late to do himself any good. In retaliation, the squad had made damn sure it was the last time he ever pulled a trigger. Nick’s buddy Spence had carried the wounded dog back to camp and conned one of the army vets into stitching him up. After a brief swearing-in ceremony, Mooch had become a full-fledged member of their unit.
In war, some heroes walked on four legs, not two.
Nick spotted a sign up ahead. He slowed to read it, hoping he was about to reach civilization. He’d left I-5 behind some time ago and hadn’t expected it to take this long to reach Snowberry Creek. He had mixed feelings about what would happen once he reached the small town, but the two of them had been on the move long enough. Some downtime would feel pretty good.
But instead of announcing the city limits, the sign marked the entrance of a small cemetery. Nick started to drive on past, but a sick feeling in his gut had him slowing down and then backing up.
He put the truck in park and dropped his forehead down onto the top of the steering wheel. In a town the size of Snowberry Creek, how many cemeteries could there be? He reached for the door handle and forced himself to get out of the truck. Sooner or later he was going to have to do this. Nick had never been a coward and wasn’t about to start now.
“Come on, Mooch. We’ve got a stop to make.”
The dog hopped down out of the seat. Once on the ground, he gave himself a thorough shake from nose to tail before following Nick up the slope toward the rows of gravestones. Usually Mooch liked to explore new places on his own, but this time he walked alongside Nick, silently offering his support.
It didn’t take long to find what they were looking for. There were several granite markers with the last name of Lang. Nick hung a right and followed the row, finally reaching a longer-than-normal stone that held the name of a husband and wife, most likely Spence’s parents. Nick had to force himself to take those final few steps to stand in front of the last headstone.
He dropped to his knees on the green grass and wrapped his arms around his stomach. God, it hurt so fucking much to see Spence’s name etched there in block letters. His eyes burned with the need to cry, but the tears refused to come. Instead, the pain stayed locked tight inside his chest and in his head, a burden he’d been carrying since he’d held Spence’s bloody dog tags in his hand.
As the memories began playing out in Nick’s head, Mooch whined and snuggled closer. But even the familiar touch of the dog’s soft fur couldn’t keep Nick grounded in the present. His guilt and his fear sucked him right back to the last place he wanted to be. Just that quickly, he was in the streets of Afghanistan, riding next to Spence on yet another patrol. Instead of breathing the cool, damp air of Washington, Nick was sucking in hot, dry air and feeling the sun burning down from above as he got caught up in the past and lived through it all over again.
The heat in hell had nothing on Afghanistan in July. Maybe if he could’ve stripped down to a pair of cargo shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, it would’ve been bearable. But only a fool would go on patrol without all his protective gear, and Nick was no fool.
The back of his neck itched. It had nothing to do with the ever-present dust and grit that grated against his skin like sandpaper. No, there were eyes on them. Had been since they’d entered the city. A couple of well-placed shots had cut them off from the rest of the patrol. They were trying to circle around to catch up with the others.
Nick scanned the surrounding area, constantly sweeping the buildings ahead, looking for some sign of who was watching them. In that neighborhood, it could be anyone from a mother worried about her kids to someone with his finger on the trigger.
Leif stirred restlessly. “You feeling it, too?”
“Yeah. Spence, do you see anything?”
Before his friend could answer, a burst of gunfire rained down on them from the roof of a building half a block down on the right. A second shooter opened fire from a doorway on the opposite side of the street, catching them in the cross fire.
Nick returned short bursts of fire while Spence drove like the maniac he was, trying to get them the hell out of Dodge. Leif hopped on the radio, yelling to make himself heard over the racket. After calling in, he’d joined Nick in trying to pick off the shooters.
“Hold on! This ride’s about to get interesting.”
If more than two wheels were on the ground when Spence took the corner, Nick would happily eat MREs for the rest of his natural life. Not that he was complaining. His friend’s extreme driving style had saved their asses far too often. The M-ATV lurched hard as it straightened up coming out of the turn.
“Fuck yeah, that was fun!” Spence’s grin was a mile wide as he laughed and flung their ride around another corner.
The crazy bastard was actually enjoying this. Nick shook his head. He loved the guy like a brother, but damn. They made it another two blocks before the shooting began again, this time from behind them.
Leif yelled over the racket, “Ever get the feeling we’re being herded?”
Nick nodded. The thought had occurred to him, but what choice did they have but to keep going? The street was too narrow to hang a U-turn, and stopping sure as hell wasn’t an option. He continued to scan the area for more shooters and left the driving to Spence, who knew the streets in this area better than anyone. It was like the man had a built-in GPS system. He’d find a way out for them if anyone could.
The gunfire was sporadic now, with longer periods of silence between shots. The streets remained empty, as if the locals had been warned to crawl into the deepest hole they could find and stay there.
“Think we’re in the clear?” Leif asked, still studying the rooftops and doorways for new threats.
Before Nick could answer, the whole world exploded in fire and smoke. A sharp pain ripped up the length of his upper arm as their vehicle started rockin’ and rollin’. It went airborne and finally bounced to a stop lying on its side up against a building.
With considerable effort, Nick managed to climb out. He retrieved his weapon and shook his head to clear it. The blast had left his ears ringing and, thanks to the cloud of dust and smoke, damn near blind. Nick found Spence more by feel than by sight. He was lying facedown in the dirt with blood trickling from his ears and nose.
Nick checked for a pulse. Thready and weak. Son of a bitch, this was a major cluster fuck. He spotted Leif writhing in pain a few feet away. He crawled over to him.
“Are you hit?”
“My ankle. It’s busted up pretty bad.”
If the bastards who’d been shooting at them weren’t already closing in, they would be soon. Nick needed to get Leif and Spence somewhere safe—and fast.
He got down in Leif’s face. “Give it to me straight up. Can you walk?”
After one look at the twisted mess that had been Leif’s left ankle, Nick didn’t wait for an answer. Neither of his friends could make it back to safety on their own, but which one should he help first? Spence was completely defenseless, while Leif might be able to protect himself for a while.
On the other hand, at the rate Leif was losing blood, he could bleed out before Nick could get back to him; already his coloring was piss-poor. Nick crawled back to the wreck that had been their vehicle and pulled out the first-aid kit. He bandaged Leif’s damaged ankle as best he could, but he’d seen enough wounds to know Leif was going to need surgery, and damn quick. His decision made, Nick crawled back to his unconscious buddy.
“Spence, I’m going for help. I’ll be back for you ASAP.”
Then he muscled Leif up off the ground and half carried, half dragged the poor bastard as fast as they could make it. The rest of their unit would be pouring into the area, looking for them. A minute later, he spotted them two blocks down and waved his rifle over his head to get their attention.
Their medic hit the ground running. “What do we have?”
“His ankle looks bad, but we’ve got to go back for Spence. I was afraid to move him.”
They carried Leif the rest of the way back to one of the vehicles. Nick patted his friend on the shoulder. “They’ll get you to the medics. Save a couple of the prettier nurses for Spence.”
Leif managed a small smile. “Like hell. Tell him he’s on his own.”
“Get yourself patched up. We’ll be along soon.” He stepped back and checked his rifle for ammunition. “Let’s move out.”
The medic stopped him. “You’re bleeding, too. We’ll get Spence. You go with the corporal.”
No, not happening. He’d return for Spence even if he had to crawl. “I’m all right. Besides, I promised I’d come back for him. Wouldn’t want to piss him off. The man’s got a temper.”
The medic didn’t much like it, but he nodded. “Lead the way.”
Nick’s ears were finally starting to function normally again, and he could hear gunfire in the distance. Son of a bitch! He picked up the pace, doing his best to watch for hostiles as he led the charge back to where he’d left Spence. When they were a block short of their destination, the deafening thunder of another explosion sent all of them diving for cover.
Before the echoes had died away, Nick was up and running, screaming Spence’s name. He was dimly aware of the rest of his squad joining him in the mad race to save their friend. Nick’s heart pounded loud enough to drown out the agonizing truth that he was too late. The building next to where he’d left Spence was nothing but a smoking pile of rubble.
He coasted to a stop at the corner. The horror of what had happened and what he’d done washed over him in waves. “Spence, where the hell are you? Come on, you dumb son of a bitch, this is no time for hide-and-seek.”
Please, God, let him have regained consciousness and crawled to safety.
But he hadn’t; Nick knew it in his gut just as he knew it was his fault. There was nothing left of their vehicle now except scrap metal. A huge hole had been ripped in the street right where Spence had been lying, and the building had caved in on itself, leaving the street strewn with rubble. While several of the men stood watch, Nick joined the rest digging in the dirt with their bare fingers, heaving aside rocks and jagged fragments of metal, looking and praying for some sign of Spence.
Finally, the medic froze. He looked across at Nick and slowly lifted his hand. A set of bloody dog tags dangled from his fingers.
“Aw, damn, Spence.”
Tears streamed down Nick’s cheeks as he reached for the broken chain. He clamped his fingers around the small pieces of bloody metal and held on to the last piece of his friend with an iron grip.
The medic motioned to the rest of the men. When they had formed up, he took Nick by the arm and tugged him back down the street.
“Come on, Sarge, let’s go get your arm looked at. We’ll get you all fixed up.”
Nick let himself be led away, but only because the longer they lingered in the area, the more likely someone else would get hurt—or worse. But they all knew there was no fixing this. Not today. Not ever.
A sharp pain dragged Nick back to the grassy slope of the graveyard. Mooch whined and licked the small mark where he’d just nipped Nick’s arm. The poor dog looked worried. How long had Nick been gone this time? Long enough to be damp from the rain that had started falling since he’d knelt in the grass. The dog shoved his head under Nick’s hand, demanding a thorough scratching, which felt as good to him as it did to the dog.
“Sorry, Mooch. We’ll get going here in a minute.”
He pushed himself back up to his feet and dusted off his pants, focusing hard on the moment. It was too easy to get caught up in spinning his wheels in the past. He needed to keep moving forward, if for no other reason than he had to make sure Mooch reached his final destination.