Read an Excerpt
H ome. She was home.
After twelve years and a lifetime of experiences gained in the army, ex-captain Brenda Kaye was coming home to the little town of Peaster, Texas, west of Fort Worth to face-what?
Sucking in a long, steadying breath, she turned her army-surplus jeep down the dirt road that led to her family's farmhouse. When she woke early this morning, she'd felt an urgency to go home. She knew better than to ignore that little voice, for it had saved her life more than once. She packed her clothes and a few personal items into her vehicle, notified her apartment manager she was going to Texas and started home. She didn't call. Instead, she wanted to surprise her brother and grandfather. She didn't know what her plans for the future were, she only knew she had to go home. Now.
When the familiar white farmhouse came into view, her stomach tightened. She'd faced some intimidating fellow soldiers and hostile Iraqi men and not backed down, but the sight of her home made her heart pound and her mouth go dry. The gravel road opened up into a large area with the white-clapboard house on the right and the barn on the left, fifty or so yards away. The house had a wraparound porch where the side kitchen door was the main door the family used.
She parked her jeep by an unknown truck but didn't see her brother's tan, two-tone F-150. Her grandfather's old, faded, green Ford pickup sat on the other side of the unknown truck. She sat for a moment and rubbed her right calf, easing the cramping there. She felt the raised scars through the khaki pant leg, a painful reminder of why she was ex-captain Kaye.
Taking a deep breath, she got out of the jeep and looked around. Home. It hadn't changed much, except for that beautiful horse trailer parked by the barn. She started up the porch steps when a voice called out, "Can I help you?" Kinda like he owned the place.
She stopped on the second riser, turned, ready to open fire, and faced a cowboy-an attractive cowboy, to be sure, but still a stranger. He stood outside the barn's double doors. His clothes-a worn chambray work shirt rolled up to his elbows, well-worn jeans, boots and work gloves- were standard garb for a working cowboy. A curl of wavy brown hair hung over his forehead as he studied her. A one-thousand-watt smile curved his mouth. "You're Joel's sister, Brenda."
Her stomach danced with awareness she hadn't felt since her divorce. She put the brakes on her schoolgirl reaction. Ex-army captains don't fall head over boot heels for a cowboy. "I'm used to going by Kaye. You'll get a response from me faster if you call me that. I was looking for Joel and my grandfather. Do you know where they are?"
He sobered. "They're at the hospital."
"What?" She fought the fear of being too late. "Why are they there?" She stepped down to the ground. Her legs felt wobbly.
The unknown man stripped off his glove and walked toward her. "Your grandfather was out in the north pasture tilling the field when the tractor's wheel slipped into a rut, flipped and pinned him underneath. Joel and I got him out, and Joel took Gramps to the hospital." He glanced up at the sun. "That was probably three hours ago."
"And they haven't called?"
"No, but your grandpa walked to your brother's truck."
Experience taught her most men thought it was their job to lie to you about any injury they suffered. The stranger continued walking toward her.
"I'm Caleb Jensen." He held out his hand. "Joel and I rodeoed together years ago when he was still on the circuit."
She shook his hand. The strong handshake spoke of a man who was sure of himself and didn't try to do a one-upmanship thing by crushing her hand. But with that subdued strength, she felt her stomach dance again. What was going on? When she looked up, she saw awareness in his eyes, and he was looking at her as if she were a woman, not an army captain.
Quickly masking her reaction, she withdrew her hand. Captain Kaye was back in control, not high school Brenda.
"What hospital did they go to?"
"John Peter Smith."
Fort Worth. Did she have it in her to drive the last leg into the city? Her legs ached and were beginning to cramp, but that urgency inside her made it impossible to stay here and wait. She headed toward her jeep to grab her phone for a quick call to her brother. Halfway there her weakened legs gave out. Before she ended up on her dignity, Caleb caught her and gently helped her stand.
Color heated her cheeks. Before her injury, there wouldn't have been a problem driving the six hundred miles from Albuquerque, then turning around and driving to Fort Worth. Now she lived in a different world. "That drive took more out of me than I thought."
She walked on unsteady legs to her jeep, reached in and pulled out her cell.
"Your brother's not answering his phone. It's going to voice mail."
"Would you like for me to drive you there?"
She cringed, but the practical army side came to the forefront. "Thank you."
He nodded. "Let me get my keys from the house."
She watched him lope away, knowing her anxiety had been right on the mark. She needed to be here.
He quickly reappeared and jerked open his passengerside door. Slowly she approached, eyeing that step up to the cab of his truck. It looked twenty feet higher than her lower-sitting jeep. When she turned to him, he held out his hand. Obviously, he knew her dilemma and his solution solved the problem. She rested her hand on his forearm, noting the tingle was still there, but ignored it and used his arm as a lever to get in.
When he hopped in and started the engine, his presence seemed to dominate the cab of the truck.
Kaye tried to discreetly rub her aching right calf. "How did you know who I was?"
"I've seen your picture at the house. Joel also talks about his sister, the captain."
"Are you a hired hand at the ranch?" She wanted to avoid explaining why she was an ex-captain.
"No, I'm just a friend who occasionally helps out." That didn't make a lot of sense. She looked out the window at the familiar sights of home, but somehow the guy sitting beside her managed to make her more aware of him than the scenery. She closed her eyes for a moment, the long day catching up with her.
The words jerked Kaye awake. She glanced around, seeing the emergency entrance of the hospital. Caleb raced around his truck and opened her door. Well, so much for being 100 percent.
Ignoring her embarrassment, she took his hand and got out. Again, her legs didn't cooperate and she fell into him.
He steadied her.
He didn't make a fuss. "I'll go park the truck."
Watching him drive off, Kaye wished she had the cane that was stuffed in her jeep, but her brain had short-circuited there at the ranch. She took an unsteady step to the emergency room entrance, praying her legs held.
By the time she got to the door, Caleb was there beside her, offering his arm. The instant they walked through the doors the antiseptic smell enveloped her, bringing back memories of the months she spent in various hospitals. Her first instinct was to turn around and walk out.
She must've hesitated because Caleb looked at her. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," she forced out through gritted teeth and walked to the information desk. The grandmotherly lady looked up. "May I help you?"
"My grandfather was brought here. I want to know what his condition is."
"What is his name?"
Before Kaye could answer, she heard, "Sis?" She turned and saw her brother and grandfather. Gramps was in a wheelchair, an attendant pushing him.
Gramps's right arm was in a sling, and his face sported bruises around his right eye, along with a cut above his brow. His ear looked like one of the cows in the back pasture had been chewing on it or his old, mean bull had stomped him.
"Gramps, are you all right?" She made her way to his side. Fighting her welling emotion, she carefully brushed a kiss across his cheek. When she pulled back, she had to blink away the tears.
"I look worse for wear, but nothing broken," he muttered.
Not trusting her voice, she nodded.
"His shoulder was dislocated," her brother explained.
"They knocked me out before they put the shoulder back in place," Gramps grumbled. "Thought I was too old to stand up to the pain."
Joel fought a grin and managed not to smile.
"I dislocated my shoulder once, Grandpa Niall," Caleb offered. "They didn't knock me out, but the pain did. Be grateful they put you to sleep."
Kaye glanced at Caleb. Nice of him to ease her grandfather's pride. Joel glanced from Caleb to her. She saw the question in her brother's eyes.
"Let's get you home," Kaye said, ignoring her brother.
"I'll go get the truck." Joel raced out of the E.R. Caleb followed.
Gramps looked at her. "What are you doing here?"
"It's good to see you, too."
He waved away the comment. "You know what I mean. You haven't shown up unannounced since the day you graduated from high school and left for the army."
The rebuke hurt, but it was well deserved. "Gramps, I woke up early, and I knew inside I had to come home.
Grandma would've said The Spirit whispered to me." She knew her grandfather would understand her feeling. "About time."
Leaning down, she whispered, "I'm a little unsteady on my feet after that long drive, so I might need to hold on to your wheelchair."
Glancing up again, his gaze softened.
Both trucks pulled up. Caleb helped her back into his truck while Joel and the attendant got Gramps settled into the front seat of Joel's truck.
"I'll follow behind you," Caleb called out. Getting into his truck, he looked at her. "Seat belt."
"Are you usually so bossy?" Kaye wasn't used to taking orders from civilians.
"No, just safety conscious."
The way he said it made her realize there was more to the situation than just buckling a seat belt. She wondered what.
Caleb glanced over at Kaye. He wasn't surprised exhaustion had overwhelmed her on the drive into Fort Worth. It would've been easier if she'd waited at the ranch, but she'd made it clear she wanted to see her grandfather. Faced with her determination, he couldn't let her drive that last leg herself.
He knew who she was and what had happened to her. When he spent time at the ranch, he stayed in her room. Over the past few years he felt he'd come to know the teenage Brenda. He wasn't sure about this mature woman. Through the countless times he'd stayed there, she'd crept into his consciousness. Seeing her this afternoon in person had knocked him for a loop.
The sparks of attraction he felt dumbfounded him. He was at the ranch to sort out the mess his life had become.
His reaction was the last thing he expected. At least that was what he told himself.
"I'm glad Gramps only had his shoulder dislocated. When I saw him under that tractor, I had all sorts of visions. Once he started yelling at me, I could breathe again. It surely was a sweet sound."
"Thanks for helping him."
"Anyone would've done that."
"No, they wouldn't."
The force of her words made him realize her comment came from experience.
She studied him before asking, "You said you were a friend of my brother's from his rodeo days."
"That's where we met."
"That was a while ago, wasn't it?"
"Ouch, I'm not that old," he teased.
"I've been gone that long."
"Can't be that long ago, since you're still a young woman."
She threw him a look that said she didn't buy his line. "Remember, I've dealt with a lot of males in the army who tried to snow me."
"I call 'em as I see 'em."
Her gaze jerked back to his. She searched his face as if looking for the truth, then turned to stare out her window.
He wanted to ask more questions, but from her closed posture, he knew she wouldn't welcome any. Instead, he turned on the radio to fill the silence on the balance of the ride back to the ranch.
An hour later, he pulled his truck next to Joel's by the back door. Joel helped Gramps from his truck. By the time Kaye unhooked her belt, Caleb had opened the passenger door. She didn't hesitate this time but stepped down to the ground. Her legs were steadier.
They followed Gramps up the porch steps and into the kitchen. Sweat beaded on his forehead. "I think I'll lie down for a while."
Joel walked Gramps to the master bedroom, which was Joel's parents' old room. Kaye settled at the kitchen table, her face fixed on the disappearing figures.
Caleb joined her. "Your grandfather is quite something. Nothing seems to stop him."
"He's amazing, for sure."
Joel appeared and joined them.
Resting her elbows on the table, Kaye asked, "How is Gramps, really?"
Joel wiped his hand over his face. "The doctors and nurses in the E.R. were amazed that only his arm was dislocated. I told them he was a tough old coot." Joel rested his hand over hers. "I'm glad you're here, Sis, but what prompted you to come home now? Don't get me wrong, you're welcome, but-"
"What is this? First Gramps, then you. I'm beginning to feel unwelcome."
Joel wrapped his arm around his sister and hugged her. "It's a surprise, but a happy one." He fell silent. The truth wasn't pretty. "Obviously, you've met Caleb."
"He introduced himself. He knew me, but I-"
"She wondered who I was," Caleb explained, "and where you and your grandfather were. She wasn't too thrilled finding a stranger here who knew her name. For a minute there, I thought she might take me down."
Joel's lips twisted into a smile. "I don't know how much Caleb said about himself, but we were friends when I was on the circuit. He comes here occasionally and visits."
"So that fancy horse trailer I saw outside isn't yours, but Caleb's?"
Kaye turned to Caleb. "So what's your specialty in rodeo?"