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She set a coiled leash on top of the bag. “She doesn’t wear the leash much. If you call her, she’ll come.”

“Mom?”

All heads turned toward the doorway. Her daughter, Julia, stood under the arch.

“Do you remember Major Barrett?”

Julia nodded. “I’m real sorry.” She sniffed. A tear leaked out of a swollen eye, and she heaved a long, shaky breath. She’d taken the Barretts’ deaths hard. In addition to babysitting Carson and Faith, Kate was Julia’s figure skating coach. Ellie went to her daughter and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Her sexy thoughts of the hot major faded, adding another layer to her sadness. If things were different, if he wasn’t an ambitious military officer constantly moving all over the world, if she wasn’t so bound by the betrayal of her past, if their current meeting wasn’t mired in grief, then maybe something could happen between them.

But that was way too many ifs, all impossible to change.

Grant shifted his weight toward the front door as if he couldn’t escape fast enough. “It’s late. I’d better go. Thank you again.”

He called the dog, who went willingly, always thrilled to meet a new human. Ellie escorted them outside to the front porch. AnnaBelle followed Grant across the grass and up onto the stoop of the house next door. Ellie shut the door and locked the deadbolt.

“Night.” Rubbing her biceps, Julia went upstairs.

Nan stood in the kitchen, one fist propped on a hip, brows pinched in deep thought. “That man’s going to need help.”

Ellie crossed her arms over her chest. “If Grant needs help, he’ll ask for it. Until he does, we are going to mind our own business.”

Nan ignored her, bustling around the kitchen. “Nice-looking man. Fit. Clean-cut. Always did love a man in uniform.”

“He wasn’t in uniform.”

“I have a good imagination.” Thank God Nan had been away last year. If she’d seen Grant without a shirt . . .

“Oh, no.” Ellie wagged a finger at her grandmother. “Don’t even start.”

“Start what?” Nan lifted an overly innocent shoulder. “I was simply making an observation.”

“Well, don’t,” Ellie said. “He’s on leave. He’s not staying.”

“Uh-huh.” Nan pulled a loaf pan from the cabinet.

“I don’t do casual.”

Nan snorted. “You don’t do anyone.”

“Nan!” Ellie protested.

Her grandmother held up a forefinger. “Look, you made a mistake when you were young. The only one still making you pay for it is you. I can count the number of dates you’ve had in the last few years on one of these veiny old hands. You need to let it go and move on with your life.”

“I’ve been involved with a man who wasn’t around. I’m not doing that again.” Ellie would rather renovate than date. “You’re exaggerating. I’ve dated more than that. It’s just been a while. I’ve been busy.”

“Not much more.” Nan pulled her recipe box from the back of the counter. She flipped through rows of handwritten, butter-splotched index cards.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m wide awake.” Nan took the flour out of the pantry. “I’m going to bake.”

“It’s after eleven.”

“When Carson comes home, he’ll want something familiar to eat.” How like her grandmother to turn her insomnia into a comforting meal for a sad child. “And men the size of Grant need sustenance.”

When Ellie had turned up on her grandmother’s doorstep pregnant at seventeen, with the baby’s father absconding for the West Coast and Ellie’s parents issuing a their-way-or-the-highway ultimatum, Nan had taken her in without a single reproach. What’s done is done, she’d said. Let’s focus on the future. The next day, they’d picked a theme for the nursery and started painting the spare room.

Nan paused, baking pan in hand, staring at their reflection in the dark glass of the kitchen window. “I can’t sleep. I keep thinking about Lee and Kate and those poor children.”

Her grandmother didn’t have to finish. Ellie couldn’t get their friends out of her mind either. Her throat filled and her eyes burned with unshed tears.

“Grant will get the kids back tomorrow.” She gave her grandmother a one-armed, sideways hug.

“Thank God.”

“Yes.”

They stood in silence for a minute, each thinking her private thoughts.

Nan’s were probably about Grant.

But Ellie was not setting herself up to be left again. She was just fine on her own. Lonely, but fine.

“I’m going to bed.” Ellie returned to the living room to make sure her tub of Spackle was tightly closed. In her bedroom, she looked out the window. Lights glowed in the windows next door. How would Grant fare with the children? Carson was an easygoing kid, but grief would make even him challenging. Then there was Faith. How would a military bachelor handle the hours upon hours of screaming? Kate used to say that the baby had the lungs of an Olympic athlete.

Poor Kate.

Ellie might have known Lee longer, and he was the one who’d talked her into buying this house as her next project, but she’d formed a friendship with Kate since becoming their neighbor. They had a lot in common. Both of them were estranged from their parents. Kate knew what it was like not to be able to call her mom on holidays. Now Faith and Carson wouldn’t have a mother to call either.

Breath hitching, Ellie went into the master bath, the first room she’d remodeled when she bought the property. Creamy porcelain tiles replaced the 1950s pink-and-black motif. She turned on the rain shower, stripped, and stepped in. The water was still cold. She slid down onto the tile and let the tears come, picturing Carson crying in the backseat of the social worker’s car, the baby wailing, the dog whining and pulling against her collar. Ellie could still feel the bite of night air on her tear-dampened face, as cold and real as the shower water running over her skin now.

How long was Grant’s leave and what was he going to do with the children when he returned to the military? Even more important, what would the children do without him? Lee had two additional siblings, but where were they? Kate hadn’t seen her parents in ten years, and from the stories she’d told, the kids were better off without them. Ellie’s chest ached with grief for those orphans.

The water warmed, smoothing her goose bumps. Ellie climbed to her feet and washed her face. Lee and Kate’s children weren’t Ellie’s responsibility. Neither was the dog she missed already. The woman from social services had made that clear. Like Ellie had told Nan, she intended to mind her own business unless Grant asked her for help. He had his own family. He didn’t need nosy neighbors butting into an already difficult situation. But with the hot major and two children she cared about living just next door, keeping her distance wasn’t going to be easy.

Grant unlocked the front door of his brother’s house. He whistled for the dog, who was sniffing a circle on the snow-covered lawn. “Here, girl.”

Three females and their tears were more than he could handle. Their collective sympathy threatened to challenge his tenuous hold on control. But Ellie Ross’s long dark hair, scattering of freckles, and big brown eyes could tempt a man to accept some comfort.

He jerked his attention away from the pretty neighbor. In less than a month he’d be back in Afghanistan. Ellie, with her baseball-and-apple-pie wholesomeness, wasn’t a casual fling type of girl.

Grant was too focused on his military career to squeeze a relationship into his life. Making general required 100 percent dedication. He’d seen too many of his comrades miss their families, and he’d shipped too many parents home in flag-draped coffins. In his own youth, he’d witnessed firsthand the sacrifices made by an army family. Grant only dated female army officers who weren’t interested in the whole domestic deal. But somehow Ellie had already encroached on his imagination on more than a few cold, lonely desert nights.

AnnaBelle sniffed a shrub in the flower bed that fronted the porch, then trotted through the open door. In the entryway, Grant tossed the keys on the hall table and sat in the adjacent chair to remove his wet boots. More than a hundred years old, the Victorian had a classic center stairway design, with an abundance of small rooms and narrow halls. Everything was dark, from the scarred pine floors to the heavy case molding around the windows and doors. The house wasn’t appealing. Why had Lee wanted it so badly? He’d talked of renovations, knocking down walls and adding windows to bring some light into the gloomy house, but it didn’t appear as if any improvements had been made since Grant had visited last year except for boarding up the nonfunctioning dumbwaiter in the butler’s pantry. Grant smiled, remembering Lee’s rare childish excitement when they’d first moved into the house. He’d wanted to fix the old pulley and lever system. But Kate had been terrified Carson would fall down the hole. As usual, the practical Kate had won.

The dog followed him into the kitchen. Grant filled a bowl of water and set it on the floor. A bay window behind the table looked out onto the snowy woods behind the house. Last spring, Lee and Kate had hosted numerous barbecues, all not-so-subtly designed to bring Grant and Ellie together, in that backyard. He could picture her now, standing on the grass, her sundress showing off smooth shoulders and a length of bare, tan leg, a wide smile tempting him to get to know her better. Much better. It had taken all of Grant’s determination to keep his distance. Just a few weeks away from deployment hadn’t been the best time to start a relationship. As if he had ever had time for a personal life.

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