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Captain Luke Brand was home for the holidays. Against his will. As far as he was concerned, First Recon was still in Afghanistan, so he should still be in Afghanistan. Bottom line. And it didn't matter that an insurgent had blown a bullet clean through his left leg. It didn't matter to him that he had almost lost the leg. Almost didn't count. His leg was still attached; he should return to active duty. But the Marines sure as hell didn't see it that way. They denied his request, patched him up and shipped his butt back to the States for medical leave. Like it or not, he was on his way home.
And he didn't like it. Not by a long shot.
The military had gotten him as far as Helena; now Billy Whiteside, an old high school buddy, was taking him the rest of the way to his family's Montana ranch. Bent Tree was less than an hour away. Luke wished it were two hours. Three would be even better. He wasn't in a hurry to tangle with his sister-in-law, Sophia; from his point of view, fighting the Taliban for control of Afghan towns seemed like a much easier task.
"He's found a good spot to hang out." Billy glanced over at the black kitten perched on Luke's left leg. Luke looked down at the scrawny kitten and grunted in response. The kitten had started the trip in a box situated between Billy and Luke. Once the kitten caught Luke's eye, he made a determined escape from the box, and a beeline for Luke's leg. Luke had always liked an underdog, and this kitten certainly qualified; found in a ball of toilet paper in a truck stop restroom, half starved, half frozen. He was lucky to be alive. He was a survivor. Luke liked that about him. So, when the kitten had gingerly sat down on the exact spot where his leg was wounded, Luke didn't have the heart to make him move. In fact, the warmth of the kitten's body and the vibrations of his purr seemed to ease the pain a bit.
"He's lucky he didn't end up in the Dumpster " Billy's naturally round face had gotten even rounder with weight and age; he still easily wore a giant grin that split his face. Billy reached over and banged on the dashboard of his Chevy to get the heater kicked on again. "Cindy swept him right up into the dustpan. Can you believe that? 'Course, she didn't know what was in that mess'a paper. How could she know, ya know? 'Course, Cindy can't keep him. What with four kids, two dogs, a couple of cats and that pig her youngest is raisin'! And, I don't know, man I think my ol' lady will put me out in the barn if I bring anything else home. But what else could I do? I couldn't just leave him there.. " Billy banged on the dash again. "And, it looks like he picked you Cats pick their owners, you know. Didn't you tell me that? No! It was your mom who told me that! Your mom told me that "
Luke didn't bother to reply. He knew what Billy was getting at. He was trying to pawn this scruffy orphan off on him. Not a chance! The little fur ball would just have to go back into the box when the ride was over. As for Billy, his old friend wouldn't expect him to say much, about the kitten or otherwise. That's why he'd hit Billy up for a ride in the first place. He was in no mood for small talk. And Billy would understand that without being told. All Luke wanted to do was to be quiet and think about Sophia. All he wanted to do was figure out what he was going to say to Sophia. So, while Billy kept up both sides of the conversation, Luke stared morosely at each passing mile marker and thought about what he was going to say to his brother's widow.
What in the hell am I going to say to you, Sophia? What the hell could he say?
By the time Luke caught a glimpse of Bent Tree over the horizon, he still hadn't thought up a good answer to that question. Maybe there wasn't one.
"This's good." Luke gestured for Billy to pull over at Bent Tree's entrance.
"Are you sure, man? I can take you all the way in." Billy had the good sense not to mention Luke's leg or the cane he had to use to get around.
"This is good." Luke repeated. The slow walk up the long drive would push back his arrival time. Anything to stall the inevitable was okay with him. He had no idea how Sophia was going to react to him. Was she going to hug him or hit him? It was a hard one to gauge. Luke gently picked up the kitten and put him back in the box. The kitten immediately started to cry, but Luke refused to look at him again. He grabbed his cane and pushed the door open. Once his feet were on the ground, he paused for a minute, balanced, and then pulled his sea bag out of the bed of the truck and hoisted it onto his shoulder.
"Thanks, brother. 'ppreciate it." Luke reached across the seat, over the crying kitten, and shook Billy's hand.
"No problem, man. Anything I can do to help," Billy said, and Luke knew he meant it. "And don't be a stranger while you're here. Drop by. Meet the wife and kids."
Luke leaned on his cane for support. "I'll see what I can do. Things are." His voice trailed off for a moment as he searched for the right word. "Complicated."
For the first time, Billy's grin faded. He looked down at the steering wheel. "You know, we were all real sorry to hear about Danny. I mean We all knew it could happen. Lots of folks are headin' over to Iraq and not comin' back. But you never expect it to happen to someone you know ." Billy shook his head slowly. "I just didn't expect it to happen to Danny."
"I know. Me, neither." He had seen a lot of death in the past six years, but to lose his brother, his twin, was unbearable. If he was back in action, he could bury the pain and forget it for a while. But here? In Montana, with his grieving family and Daniel's grieving widow? The pain was going to be front and center, in his face, all the time. With a definitive nod, Luke ended the conversation. "Give my best to your family."
"Will do, Luke. Will do. To yours, too." Billy shifted into gear. "And if I don't see you, Merry Christmas, man."
"Merry Christmas." The kitten wouldn't stop crying. Luke shut the door.
Billy saluted and started to pull away. Without thinking about it, and without knowing why he did it, Luke reached out and banged the side of the truck with his cane.
Billy's brakes squeaked; the truck stopped. Luke yanked open the door.
"Dammit, Billy. Give me the damn kitten!"
Sophia Lee Brand was beginning to think that she had made a huge mistake. At first she had thought it was a great idea to stay behind while her in-laws went elsewhere for Thanksgiving. She had thought, foolishly, that the peace and quiet would do her a world of good. Not to mention that a three-hour car ride while she was eight months pregnant seemed like a slow form of torture. She had to pee all the time. So, she had stayed behind. Insisted upon it, in fact. And now she was bored senseless! One week of solitude was more than enough for a Boston girl stuck in the west, thank you kindly. Week two was going to be excruciating! Thank God for her to-do lists!
Sophia leaned over the kitchen counter and perused her latest list. It wasn't even close to supper time and she had already checked off most of the items.
"I really need a longer list!" She stood upright, stretched backward a bit to ease the pressure from the small of her back. She rubbed her hands over her rounded stomach in a circular motion, looked down at her growing abdomen and laughed. "I'm one big belly."
"All right, Danny boy," she said to the baby nestled in her stomach. "There's no time like the present." She moved over to the fridge and started the next project on her list: make a giant salad. She dragged every raw vegetable out of the fridge that she could find, rummaged through drawers and moved bottles and jars out of the way. Once she had located every last veggie, she carefully and methodically sharpened a knife. She took her time. It was only a little after 3:00 p.m. and she had absolutely no idea what she would do with herself until bedtime.
"Let's have a little 'get in the mood' music, shall we?" Sophia read the titles on the CDs stacked at the end of the long counter. "No. No. Really, no. Seriously, no! And ah yes. Mr. Van Morrison." She slid the CD into the player and turned up the volume.
She waited for the first notes to play before she turned up the volume even louder. "I can play it as loud as I want to. Who's gonna complain way out here in the boonies?" She patted her stomach. "Are you going to complain, my baby? No, you're not, because you're gonna love Mr. Morrison just like your daddy did."
On the way back to the veggies, she grabbed a large salad bowl and then got busy chopping and dicing. The music helped get a rhythm going, and before she knew it she was moving on to the pile of carrots. While she worked, she thought of Daniel.
She paused her chopping for a minute, closed her eyes and conjured his face. In her mind's eye, she could easily see his strong, squared jaw, the bright, sky-blue eyes and his trademark smile.
"Hmm. So handsome." This was said with a sigh as she continued with her chopping.
Sophia had a theory, and it had actually helped her cope. She figured that if she thought about Daniel all of the time, she would burn into her brain the little details that made him so incredibly special. She never wanted to run out of things to tell her son about his father. And, of course, she never wanted to forget the little details of Daniel that had always been just for her, like the natural sweet almond scent of his skin and the sensation of his fingers on her neck as he brushed her hair over her shoulder. And his voice. The sound of Daniel's voice always sent a shiver up her spine. Especially the husky way he would say her name when he reached for her in the morning .
Sophia was in midchop of a very hardheaded carrot when the sound of her name startled her. She simultaneously spun her head around and pressed the knife down hard. The knife missed the carrot and cut the tip of her finger.
"Ow! Shoot!" Sophia jerked her hand away from the cutting board, but otherwise ignored the wounded finger. Instead, she stared at Luke. He was standing in the kitchen doorway wearing his dress blues and a long gray overcoat; feet planted apart, shoulders squared, sky-blue eyes slightly narrowed. He stood before her proudly in his uniform. Strong. Unyielding. Totally masculine. He looked so much like Daniel that her heart started to thud in her chest, the muscles in her legs gave way, and she had to force herself not to cross the room, throw herself into his arms and squeeze the breath right out of him.
That's not Daniel! That's Luke. Stay put! You and Luke don't hug.
"You're bleeding," Luke said.
"Your finger." Luke didn't move from his spot. "It's bleeding."
Sophia looked at her finger. Luke was right. It was indeed bleeding. Quite a bit, actually. The blood had trickled down the length of her pointer finger and was pooling into the palm of her hand; some had gotten smeared on her mother-in-law's counter. Under normal circumstances, she would have quickly fixed the finger, cleaned the counter and gotten back to work. But these weren't normal circumstances, and it appeared that she had temporarily lost control over her body. She couldn't seem to move.
But Luke could. In two long strides he was by her side. She saw him wince whenever he put pressure on his left leg. It was strange to see Luke hurt. He had always seemed so invincible to her. Luke flipped on the cold water and guided her finger beneath the stream. She was still pondering on the warm brand his fingers had left on her skin while he moved down the counter to search a nearby drawer.
"Right corner cabinet, top shelf, all the way in the back." Sophia pointed with her good pointer finger.
"Band-aids?" Luke gave her a quizzical look.
"Your mother's been rearranging since the day we got the news about your leg."
Once Sophia said that, it made perfect sense. Barbara Brand didn't cry when she was upset. She rearranged stuff. Luke located a step stool. "Okay, where are they again?"
"All the way to the right." Sophia waved her hand for him to move farther down. "Top shelf. Behind the olives."
Luke stabbed the off button on the CD player before he forced himself up the steps. He ignored the pain in his leg and concentrated on working his way through the maze his mother had set up between himself and the Band-aids. Luke grabbed the box, threw them onto the counter and got down off the step stool.
Luke put the box of Band-aids on the counter next to Sophia. "Not exactly the most convenient place to put first aid stuff."
That made Sophia laugh. "No. It's not. But none of us were about to argue with your mom. Not your dad, not me. Certainly not Tyler, he's so easygoing."
One side of Luke's upper lip curled into something that vaguely resembled a smile. "I don't blame you." He knew better than to argue with his mother, too. Most people did. He unwrapped a Band-aid. "Here. Give me your finger."
Something clicked on in her brain and she went from foggy to full throttle. She didn't want him to touch her again. The heat from his body, the smell of his skin, made her feel light-headed. He was too much like Daniel. She didn't know how to react to him, and that ticked her off!
She held her finger away from him. "I can do it myself."
Luke gave her a look that she was certain was meant to intimidate her into cooperating. "Sophia. Don't be a pain."
She narrowed her eyes. "I'm not being a pain."
"That would be a first," Luke said under his breath. Then, more loudly, "Just give me your finger."
"Just give me the stupid Band-aid." She held out her hand. His voice, so much like Daniel's voice, sent a shiver right up her spine.