Authors: Alexis Morgan
Nick had something to say first. Standing at attention felt odd when he wasn’t in uniform, but the moment called for a bit of formality. He cleared his throat and swallowed hard.
“Spence, I miss you so damn much. Wherever you are, I hope they have fast cars and faster women.”
Then he saluted his friend and walked away.
llie Redding cut through the woods back to her parents’ house, where she was staying these days. They had made a suspiciously quick decision to spend the summer in California, saying they wanted more time in the sun. She figured it was an excuse to let her live rent-free in return for watching their house. Their kindness would give her the time she needed to adjust to the change in her circumstances.
Her contract job upgrading computer security for a company down in Oregon had ended weeks ago. She’d sent out a ream of résumés and was waiting to hear back on a couple of promising leads. Temporarily at loose ends, she’d come home for what was supposed to have been a short visit.
Two days after her arrival, word had hit town about Spence’s death. The announcement had been closely followed by the second shock: that he’d left everything to her, including his family home.
Weeks later, she was still reeling from the news.
Why hadn’t she realized something was wrong when he hadn’t answered her e-mails? Granted, sometimes Spence was out on patrol and didn’t have access to the Internet, but she still should’ve known.
He’d been her best friend, for God’s sake. Had been since they were little kids. For years, they had rarely even been in the same hemisphere, but he’d remained a major part of her life. His death had left a gaping hole in her world, not to mention her heart.
The gray, drizzly day fit her mood perfectly. She’d spent the morning going through Spence’s house, working on an inventory of its contents. She’d yet to start packing up his personal possessions; that job was more than she could face. It was too soon to remove any sign that Spence had lived next door—that he’d lived at all, which was the main reason she was still staying at her parents’ place.
Instead, she’d focused on what could be done to preserve the house itself. Sitting vacant for most of the past nine years while its owner bounced around the world had taken a toll on the old Victorian. However, Callie was sure the house’s bones were solid. All the old girl would need was a few cosmetic touches and maybe new plumbing.
Earlier in the week, Callie had been struck with an epiphany. If she were to make the right changes in the house, it would make a great bed-and-breakfast. Recently, there had been several other new businesses opening in Snowberry Creek, all aimed at attracting more tourists to spend time in the town. There was a new bookstore, two coffee shops, and even a small day spa.
Granted, it would take a lot of work to fix the place up. For one thing, there were only hints left of the beautiful garden that Spence’s mother had tended with such loving care. Some of the furniture would work; for the rest, she’d have to hunt for the right pieces in antiques stores and at estate sales. It was all a bit overwhelming, but the longer she poked and prodded the idea, the more it felt right.
To honor Spence’s memory, she’d bring life back to his home.
Her mind whirled with possibilities as she rounded the side of her parents’ house, only to stop short of her goal. Who was that on the porch? The stranger stood leaning forward with his hands cupped on the window beside the front door, shading his eyes to see better as he stared into the house. She couldn’t see his face, but he didn’t look familiar.
She hesitated, taking the few seconds while he was still unaware of her presence to study her unexpected visitor. He was dressed in civilian clothes, but she was willing to bet he was military. All doubt was removed when he straightened up. That short blond hair and shoulders-back stance were unmistakable.
A medium-sized white dog with brown spots moved into sight. It stared at her and whined to draw his owner’s attention to her. As soon as the man looked in her direction, she recognized him. His name was Nick Jenkins, one of the close-knit bunch who had served with Spence.
He started down the porch steps, the dog trailing after him. “Callie Redding? Sorry to drop in without calling ahead, but I’m—”
She smiled and started forward, finishing his introduction for him: “Nick Jenkins, Spence’s friend.”
His smile faded as he shook her hand. “Yes, I was.”
When the dog whined again, Nick reached down to pat him on the head. “And this is Mooch. He served with Spence, too.”
Callie knelt down and held her hand out for the dog to sniff. When he took a tentative step forward to bump her hand, she gave him a good scratch under his chin. “Hey there, boy. Aren’t you a handsome fellow?”
She glanced back up at Nick. “I should’ve recognized both of you immediately. We met when Spence and I were Skyping, not to mention he sent me tons of pictures from Afghanistan. I’m making a scrapbook to give him when he—”
A razor-sharp pain cut right through Callie’s heart as she stopped midsentence. It wasn’t the first time the realization Spence wouldn’t be coming home had blindsided her. She pushed herself back up to her feet.
“God, it just hits me hard sometimes.” She hated the quiver in her voice. “I still have trouble believing he won’t be coming home.”
“It sucks, doesn’t it?”
As he spoke, Nick stared past her toward the trees. Callie bet he wasn’t even seeing them at all and could only imagine what dark thoughts had him looking so grim. Had he been there when Spence had died? She didn’t ask and didn’t want to know.
The rain started up again, giving her the impetus to get all three of them moving again. “Look, why don’t we get in out of the rain? I was about to eat lunch. It’ll just be sandwiches, but you and Mooch are welcome to join me.”
When he didn’t immediately answer, she touched his arm. “Nick? Let’s go inside.”
This time he blinked and shook his head. His expression looked a bit ragged, but at least he was seeing her now. “Sorry, Callie. Guess I got lost there for a minute.”
“Not a problem.”
The rain was coming down harder now. “Let’s go in the house before we get drenched.”
She started up the steps, waiting until she reached the porch to make sure her two guests were following her. Satisfied that they would join her shortly, she unlocked the door and stepped inside. After kicking off her shoes, she headed for the kitchen.
“Make yourself comfortable in the living room while I get everything ready.”
Right now she needed a few minutes alone to collect herself. Damn, why did this have to be so hard? She’d always wanted to meet Spence’s friends in person, not just online. He’d talked about them so much that she felt as if she already knew them. But that was before. Meeting Nick with Spence gone felt odd, although not exactly wrong. Regardless, she owed it to Spence to make his friend feel welcome.
She set out plates and silverware. By the time she’d gathered the sandwich makings and made a tossed salad, her pulse had slowed to somewhere close to normal.
She peeked into the living room. “Nick, if you’d like to wash up, we can—”
Oh, my. Just that quickly, he’d dozed off in her father’s chair with Mooch curled up at his feet. Should she wake him up? No, if the man was that tired, better to let him sleep.
She whispered, “Mooch.”
The dog looked up at the mention of his name. She patted her leg and said, “Come on, boy. Let’s let Nick rest while you and I have lunch. He can eat whenever he wakes up.”
Mooch stared at his sleeping friend for several seconds before finally following her into the kitchen. She led him straight to where she’d left him some food and water. He looked at the bowls and then back up at her, as if asking permission.
“Go ahead and eat, Mooch. My mom’s dog won’t mind me giving you some of his food. I’ll sit over here and keep you company.”
While the dog gulped down the canned dog food, Callie sat down at the table and made herself a sandwich. The soft sound of snoring wafting in from the other room made her smile. The poor man must have been exhausted to fall asleep in a stranger’s house.
As she ate, she made notes about Spence’s house, starting with a list of questions about what starting her own business would entail. The biggest one was at the bottom:
Do I even want to do this?
Yes. Maybe. Probably.
Not that it mattered. Spence’s house was now hers, and it needed work done regardless of whether she set up business in it, lived in it, or sold it. She crossed out that last part. No way she’d sell Spence’s house. That would be the final step in erasing him from her life completely.
Mooch had finished wolfing down his food and was sniffing his way around the kitchen. When he reached the back door, he whined and gave her a hopeful look.
“Sure thing, fella. Let me get my jacket on.”
She was glad to see that the dog wore a collar. He waited patiently while she hunted up a leash. The two of them stepped out in the misting rain and took a leisurely walk around the yard. Mooch stopped at every bush and tree in the place, but Callie didn’t mind. It gave her time to think as they made the complete circle back to the door.
Once they were inside, Mooch allowed her to rub him down with an old towel that her mom kept by the door for just that purpose. After she had him dried off, they checked on Nick. Still asleep. Mooch immediately curled up at his master’s feet and closed his eyes.
All right, so she had two tired males camping out in the living room. Maybe it should worry her to have a man she barely knew making himself at home, but she couldn’t find it in her to boot him out. Spence had trusted Nick with his life; that was good enough for her.
She poured herself a cup of coffee and settled back in at the table with the phone book to make a list of people she needed to call. Once she had more information about what all was involved in starting a business, she’d have a better idea where to start. Happy with her plan, she put on her headphones, turned on her MP3 player, and got to work.
• • •
“What the hell?”
Nick jerked awake, confused and thickheaded. He looked around the room trying to remember where he was and how he’d gotten there. Meanwhile, Mooch stood up and stretched. He rubbed against Nick’s legs on his way out of the room.
Clearly the dog felt at home. Nick replayed the morning’s events in his head. He’d driven down from Seattle, stopping at the cemetery on his way to Callie Redding’s house. Callie. He remembered talking to her briefly out in front of her house.
Then something she’d said had sent his mind on an instant trip back to Afghanistan. Damn, he hated when that happened. That was twice in one day. Had she noticed? Maybe not, considering she’d invited him and Mooch inside, saying something about lunch.
How long had he been asleep? He checked his watch. Hell, he’d been down and out for at least two hours. He believed it considering how stiff his neck was from sleeping in the chair. He stood up and stretched just like Mooch had.
Where was Callie? He cocked his head to listen but didn’t detect anyone moving around in the house. The only thing he heard was the sound of Mooch slurping water in the next room. At least that was a place to start.
He found her sitting at the kitchen table wearing headphones and tapping her foot in time to music. He stared at her from a short distance away, comparing the reality to the pictures Spence had shared with him. If anything, the photos hadn’t done her justice. He liked the way her shoulder-length hair framed her delicate face in soft caramel-colored waves. Nick longed to find out whether it was as soft as it looked, but before he could do something stupid, Mooch walked over to the door to the backyard and wagged his tail in a slow sweep. Before letting him out, Nick thought he’d better check to see if that was all right.
“Callie? I can’t believe I fell asleep like that.”
When she didn’t respond, he reached out to touch her shoulder. “Callie?”
She shrieked and jumped about a foot straight up, knocking over her coffee cup in the process. Luckily for them both, it was empty. He managed to catch the cup before it hit the floor.
“Nick! Don’t sneak up on a person like that!”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He held out the cup as a peace offering. “In my defense, I did say your name twice before I touched your shoulder.”
Then he pointed at her MP3 player. “I don’t think you could hear me.”
Her shoulders slumped in what looked like relief. “I was busy making notes. Did you have a good nap?”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I’m still adjusting to the time zone change.”
It was as good an excuse as any. The truth was most nights he slept only in fits and starts. He couldn’t remember the last time he managed to sleep more than three hours at a stretch.
“That’s understandable.” She set her notepad aside and stood up. “Mooch and I ate without you, but I fixed you a plate. Have a seat and I’ll get it for you. Do you want iced tea, pop, or a beer?”
“The tea sounds good.” As he pulled out a chair to sit down, Mooch scratched at the door. “Oops, sorry, buddy, I forgot.”
She was bent over pulling things out of the fridge. Nick couldn’t help admiring the fit of her jeans, but he forced himself to look away. “Callie, is it all right if I turn Mooch loose in your backyard?”
“Sure. I took him out a while ago on a leash because I wasn’t sure if he’d run off. I didn’t want to risk him getting lost in an unfamiliar town.”