“Me and AnnaBelle are catching frogs in the creek.” Carson’s blond hair was too long, sun-streaked, and speckled with mud. More mud coated his bare feet and legs, and he’d left a grimy trail on the hardwood.
“Sounds like fun.” Mac meant it.
“It is.” The little boy pushed away, grabbed Mac’s hand, and tugged. “Wanna come?”
Mac would much rather play in the mud than talk about their father’s funeral. He glanced at Grant.
A smile spread across his brother’s face. “Go ahead. I’ll let you know when Hannah gets here.”
Carson sprinted for the back door, leaving more smears across the hardwood and a few flecks on the walls.
“Me.” Faith pushed away from Grant’s chest and reached for Mac.
“I don’t know.” Grant frowned. “She’s liable to eat the frogs.”
She turned sad baby blues on Mac, betrayal and hurt quivering her upper lip and misting her eyes. “Wanna go.”
“She’s going to win an Oscar someday.” Mac hesitated. The enthusiasm from the kids was overwhelming, and the ache in his gut was nowhere near his injury.
Grant rubbed her back. “The kids miss you.”
And Mac couldn’t say no. He took the toddler. “A little extra protein won’t hurt her.”
Ellie stopped them on the way out the back door, offering Mac a pair of tiny white sandals.
He laughed. “We both know she won’t keep them on, so why ruin them?”
“Watch her feet, then. Rocks and sticks can be sharp. And she will put anything—and I mean anything—into her mouth,” Ellie said. “Maybe I should come with you. A toddler can drown in two inches of water.”
Faith blinked innocent, pleading, blue eyes at Mac.
“We won’t be out too long, and I promise not to take my eyes off her for a second.”
How hard could this be?
Twenty minutes later, all three of them were soaked, creek slime coated Faith from her wispy blonde hair to the soles of her tiny feet, and Mac was in awe of his brother and Ellie. How did they manage these kids all day, every day? Twenty minutes of keeping rocks and bugs out of Faith’s mouth had been exhausting. He grabbed his boots from the bank and herded the kids out of the shallow water. They trooped back to the house, content and filthy.
“Sorry.” Mac turned on the hose. “We really don’t have any other options. We are disgusting.”
“Yay.” Faith raced through the spray.
“You have mud on your eyebrow, Uncle Mac.” Carson broad jumped into a puddle on the grass.
Mac sprayed his calves and feet and rolled down the cuffs of his cargo pants. Hosing down the kids was like trying to hit metal ducks in a carnival game. He shut off the faucet. “I guess that’s as clean as you’re going to get.”
Laughter erupted from the back porch. Carrying two beach towels, Grant met them at the bottom of the steps. He tossed one to Carson and spread the other wide between his arms. Faith raced into it, giggling. Grant’s face lit up.
“How much mud did she eat?” Grant cocooned Faith in a towel and scooped her into his arms. Tossing her over his shoulder, he turned toward the house. High-pitched, happy baby squeals pierced the evening.
Mac rubbed Carson down to make sure he didn’t drip in the house. “Not enough to ruin her dinner.”
Carson gave his legs an ineffectual swipe with the towel. “Uncle Mac says there are poisonous frogs in South America. They’re only this big.” He held his forefinger and thumb close together. “And they have enough poison in them to kill ten men.” His eyes widened.
Grant whistled. “Those are deadly frogs.”
“I know.” Carson nodded. “Hunters put the poison on darts and shoot them through a blowgun.” He mimicked the act by blowing through his closed fist. “But we don’t have that kind of frog here.” He gave the wet grass a disappointed kick.
“What a shame.” Grant jostled Faith until she exploded into another fit of giggles.
Carson raised three fingers. “But we do have three kinds of venomous snakes,” he said with enthusiasm, as if that made up for the lack of toxic frogs. “We found a snake skin. Do you think it might be from a venomous one, Uncle Mac?”
“Sorry, buddy. Looked like the skin from a milk snake to me.” Mac was impressed. The boy had memorized Mac’s answers to his rapid-fire questions. “I’ll show you a picture of one inside so you can keep an eye out for it.”
Grant chuckled. “They really do miss you, Mac. You’re the only adult who actually enjoys playing in the mud.”
“I miss them, too. More than I realized.” Longing filled Mac. He was sick of solitude, something he never thought would happen to him.
“Do you have to leave again?” Grant asked.
“I don’t know. I have some decisions to make.”
“You know I’m around if you need to talk. I’ve been where you are.” Grant opened the door and ushered them into the kitchen.
Ellie plucked a limp weed from Faith’s head. “I’m impressed. You got her filthier than she’s ever been, and that’s saying a lot.”
“It was my pleasure.” Mac grinned, carrying his boots into the house.
“Dinner’s in a half hour. Hannah called. She’ll be here in a few minutes,” Ellie said. She and her teenage daughter took charge of bath time, while her grandmother set the table.
Ellie walk away, smiling at Grant over the baby’s shoulder. Though in her midthirties, she looked younger, with her freckles and makeup-free face.
Grant’s eyes brightened. “I never thought I’d have this kind of life.”
“You are one lucky SOB,” Mac said. His brother had found a beautiful woman, inside and out. She’d taken on a soldier with post-traumatic stress and two grieving children, and she still had time to worry about Mac’s sorry ass.
Grant led the way to his office. Mac stepped over the threshold and froze. The Colonel’s dress uniform hung on the back of the closet door. Pressed and stiff, it looked as if it could stand up on its own.
Mac shuffled closer, stopping a few feet away. He wanted to reach out and touch the shiny medals and ribbons pinned to the chest. But just like when he was a boy, he didn’t want to mar it with his touch. “I’d forgotten how big the Colonel was when he was younger. I don’t remember ever seeing him stand up.”
“You were pretty young when he was injured, and he shrunk over the years.” Grant stopped next to him. “I have something for you.” He opened the closet and took a box from the top shelf. Opening it, he handed a black bundle of neoprene to Mac.
“The Colonel’s KA-BAR.” Grief constricted Mac’s throat. He slid the knife from the sheath. The Colonel had carried it when he’d been a Ranger.
“You gave it to me after Lee died. I noticed you had a knife at your place. I thought you should have this one back. I don’t have a need for it, and you still do.”
“Thanks.” He rolled up his pant leg and strapped the sheath to his calf.
The door opened, and Hannah came in. Her eyes widened with shock as she stared at Mac’s face. “You shaved. All. The. Way. To. Skin.” She patted his cheek. “I had no idea my baby brother was so handsome.” She wrapped an arm around him and focused on the hanging uniform. “How can it be that intimidating? He’s not even in it.”
“Because it’s part of him.” Grant said. “It represents what he wanted to be. Where he wanted to be. And what he was in his heart.”
“The last two and a half decades must have been a nightmare for him.” Hannah’s grip tightened around Mac’s bicep.
“Trapped in a body that could no longer serve or obey his commands.” Mac’s voice turned rough. “All he ever wanted was to be a general.”
Grant put a hand on Mac’s free shoulder, the grip heavy and firm. “He had choices. He had four kids who wanted nothing more than to please him, and it wasn’t enough. We weren’t enough for him.”
“We tried.” Hannah sniffed and wiped a hand under her eyes. “God knows we tried.”
Grant would never treat Carson and Faith the way the Colonel had treated his children. Grant would go to his grave cherishing those kids, and they weren’t even his.
“Some people aren’t cut out for family life,” Mac said. “The Colonel was one of them. He didn’t do it to be mean. I think he honestly thought he was doing us a favor by toughening us up.”
“He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression,” Grant said. “But he was old school. Military men of his era didn’t address mental health issues. They soldiered on.”
Their father’s depression had been so deep and dark that it had sucked up all the light in their home.
“I’m glad he’s finally at peace,” Hannah lowered her arm and crossed to the desk to pluck a tissue from its box. She wiped her eyes, crumpled the tissue, and tossed it into the trashcan. “What do we need to do? I assume he clearly spelled out his burial wishes.”
“You know it.” Grant smiled. He moved behind his desk and picked up a yellow envelope marked “Do not open until death” in their father’s shaky scrawl. “I thought he wanted to be buried in the National Cemetery, but he updated his will after Mom died. He wanted to be with her.”
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