He opened the trunk and pulled the tire iron from the spare tire well. He could break a window, but then he’d have to fix the window. Probably not his best option. His gaze strayed to the house next door, and he remembered Lee’s pretty brunette neighbor. They’d met a couple of times during his last visit. Even after ten months overseas, a man didn’t forget a woman like Ellie Ross.
“Can I help you?”
Reaching for his sidearm, Grant whirled at the feminine voice. His hand hit empty jacket.
A small, older woman stood in the driveway. Darkness obscured her features, but he had no trouble seeing the shotgun in her arms. He froze, the sight of the gun sending his adrenals back into overdrive. He flashed back to the ambush and a figure in digital desert camo pointing a weapon in his direction.
How did she sneak up behind him? Was he that distracted?
“Drop the tire iron,” she said. “And don’t move.”
“Don’t worry.” He let the tool fall into the trunk and raised his hands as she pointed the twelve-gauge at the dead center of his chest.
“Nan!” Ellie squinted into the darkness. Beyond her shotgun-wielding grandmother, the man standing in her neighbor’s driveway looked familiar. But her eyes hadn’t adjusted to the lack of light, and he was standing in the shadow of his open trunk. “You cannot point a gun at someone.”
“Well, he was skulking around the house in the dark. He looked like he was going to break in.” Nan tapped a white athletic shoe on the pavement. Frenzied barking emanated from their house. “A girl can’t be too careful. Lots of crime around here lately.”
“He parked in the driveway, Nan. That’s hardly criminal behavior.” Ellie gently liberated the gun from her grandmother and let the muzzle tip toward the ground. “That barking is going to wake Julia. Would you please go inside and make the dog stop?” Then Ellie would try to convince the man not to call the police—or a psychiatric ward—on her grandmother.
Nan gave her a pointed look, but she complied, walking toward their house.
The stranger closed the trunk and faced her, and she recognized Lee’s brother. “Grant?”
At six foot four, his broad shoulders and wide chest filled out his brown leather jacket.
Sadness crept up the back of her throat. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” He cleared his throat.
“I apologize for my grandmother,” she said. “She’s tired of reporters and photographers. Plus, there have been other people who actually were skulking around the place in the dark looking for a way to break in. We called the police a few times. They said once the media releases the victims’ names, it isn’t uncommon for criminals to target the house. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“I don’t have a key. I was hoping there was an unlocked window or door. No such luck.”
“I have one. Let’s go inside, and I’ll get it for you.”
“I was just thinking about knocking on your door.” He sounded grateful. “Don’t know why I didn’t do it right away.”
“I imagine you have a lot on your mind.” Now that the crisis had passed, she shivered hard. She hadn’t taken time to put on a jacket when she saw her grandmother—with her gun—stalking the man out front. But now Ellie’s Spackle-smeared T-shirt and jeans were no match for the night air.
They crossed the wide, snow-crusted front yards and stomped up her steps. The porch light shone across his face. He had the same blond hair and blue eyes as Lee, but the resemblance stopped there. Tall and thin, Lee had had a Gregory-Peck-as-Atticus-Finch way about him. He’d been unassuming and scholarly. Larger and more muscular, Grant was a dominant physical presence, one that she felt along every square inch of her exposed skin. Even if she hadn’t known he was a soldier, she would have guessed it from the hardness of his body, readiness in his stance, and wariness in his eye. Despite the grief etched on his face, she was transfixed for a moment. Ten months in the desert had sharpened his Scandinavian features and given him a harder look. Handsome before, his masculinity had amplified tenfold. His posture and body were leaner, edgier, poised to react.
He caught her staring. The slightest smile turned up the corner of his mouth, and a blush heated her face.
She turned away from the light and opened her front door. AnnaBelle pranced out onto the porch. Despite the fierce barks, the golden retriever was all feathery wags and whines for the newcomer.
“Nice dog.” He leaned down to stroke her head.
“She belongs to Carson,” she said.
Grant stopped midpet. Devastation crossed his face, sadness aging him years in the span of a moment. “I didn’t know they had a dog.”
“They haven’t had her long. Lee picked her up at the animal shelter over the summer. AnnaBelle and Carson are best friends.” She stepped into the house and toed off her boots. Turning, she patted her thigh. “Come on, AnnaBelle.
“Are the children coming home?” Ellie asked, tears filling her eyes. “Social services wouldn’t let me keep them, and my application as an emergency foster spent the weekend in bureaucratic limbo. Background checks take time, they said.” The dog circled her legs, tripping her. Catching her balance, she nudged the overly affectionate retriever out of the way. “They let me have the dog.”
“The kids will be home early tomorrow.” He wiped his feet on the mat. “They wouldn’t call for them tonight. Policy.”
“Yes. I learned all about social services policy over the weekend.” Ellie swallowed her bitterness.
The dog and man followed her into the house. As she moved through the hall, she broke open the shotgun action, plucked out the shells, and locked the rifle in a gun case in the hall closet. “You’re still in Afghanistan?”
“Yes. I’m on emergency leave.”
She led him past her gutted living room.
“How’s the remodel going?” he asked, gesturing through the archway, where supplies and tools occupied the space that should have held a dining room table.
“Slowly.” She walked into the kitchen. The cabinets shone with a painful shade of Day-Glo yellow, and the peeling wallpaper featured sunflowers the size of a human head. The faded vinyl tiles underfoot used to be black. The overall effect was nauseating. “I can’t wait to do this room. It feels like you’re being attacked by bumblebees. The kitchen will be gutted next. Walls have to come down. It’s going to get ugly.”
“When we talked last, you were working on the master bath.”
He remembered. Warmth filled Ellie. They’d met a few, memorable times. Kate had been obvious in her attempts to push them together. She’d invited Ellie to more barbecues during Grant’s two-week visit last May than in the whole summer that followed.
Ellie gestured toward the table. “Do you want to sit down? Can I get you some coffee?”
“No,” Grant said. The confines of the small room amplified his size. The man was solid. He must spend considerable time training in the Middle East. He had muscles on top of muscles. Not that she was staring. Much. “I’d just like to get settled for the night. It’s been a long trip.”
“I’ll bet. Let me find that key.” She opened the drawer and rummaged through bottle openers, pens, and other assorted junk. “I know it’s here. I just used it the other day.”
Slippers scuffed in the hall, and Nan walked in, her insatiable curiosity drawing her to their guest like a bee buzzing around a can of Orange Crush. She sized up Grant in the bright kitchen light in one head-to-toe visual sweep. Under her fluffy helmet of dyed brown hair, Nan’s gaze changed from suspicious to interested in one blink.
Ellie gestured. “Nan, this is Major Grant Barrett. Lee’s brother. You were in Florida last spring when he visited.”
Nan’s gaze softened. She walked closer and took both his hands, her eyes shining with tears. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Major. Your brother was a nice man.”
His mouth tightened, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “Thank you. Please call me Grant.”
“Grant needs the house key.” Ellie spied it on a wall hook. AnnaBelle followed her to the key rack and back. “Is there anything else we can do for you?”
“Not tonight,” he said, taking the key from her hand. “I might have some questions for you tomorrow, especially when the kids come home. Thank you for taking the dog and for watching the house.”
“It was the least I could do.” Ellie went to the pantry and hoisted a fifty-pound bag of dog food up onto her hip.
Grant rushed over. “Let me get that.” He tucked it under one arm as if it didn’t weigh more than a bag of flour. She kept her eyes off the bulges under his sweater. Mostly. This was hardly the appropriate time to appreciate the major’s attributes. But she knew they were all sorts of fine. An image popped into her head of Grant playing outside with Carson last May. Carson had turned the hose on his uncle. The vision of Grant stripping off his wet T-shirt, ringing it out, and chasing his giggling nephew across the yard had been imprinted in Ellie’s brain for the last ten months. And replayed itself a thousand times like a video on YouTube, usually at very inappropriate and inopportune times. Like now.
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