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He wasn't supposed to be here, Nick Colter thought, his eyes looking over the log house nestled in a copse of pine trees, smoke curling out of the stone chimney.
The utter peace of the place eased away memories of dust, pain, brokenness and war, but behind that came the guilt.
"Can I help you?"
A melodic voice broke the quiet of the winter morning and Nick spun around, his hand reaching for the rifle he no longer carried.
He caught himself and flexed his tightening fingers, forcing himself to relax as he watched the petite woman walking toward him through the pine trees dusted with snow. These were the friendly mountains of Cochrane, Alberta, not the mountains of Afghanistan.
He wasn't a soldier anymore and the woman with the curly blond hair pulled loosely back from a heart-shaped face, cheeks rosy from the cold, wasn't an enemy.
"Sorry to startle you," she said as she walked toward him, choosing her steps carefully on the snow-packed driveway. "I just saw the cab leave."
"Yeah, I just got here." Nick poked his thumb over his shoulder at the car that was spinning out of the driveway, struggling to gain traction on the snow. He dropped his duffel on the ground as he watched the young woman come closer to him. She wore a pale blue woolen jacket straining over a rounded belly and black pants tucked into leather boots. In spite of the cold, she wore nothing on her head and her bare hands clutched the handle of a large black briefcase.
Beth Carruthers. Jim's widow. Looking even more beautiful than she did in the pictures his soldier buddy had shown him.
And pregnant with the child his friend had talked about so often and now would never see.
Nick walked toward her, pulling off his hat as he did. She stopped a few feet away from him, her expression guarded and cautious, her violet eyes narrowed.
"Hello, Beth. I don't know if you remember me. I'm Nick Colter. I was stationed with Jim in Afghanistan. He always told me I should come visit his family, and when Jim's parents, Bob and Ellen, asked me to come well I said I would."
As he spoke, sorrow blanketed her features and she took a faltering step away. Her small action sent a myriad of emotions coursing through him.
Grief, anger, sadness, but lying beneath all that, a deep well of guilt at being the one standing here instead of her beloved husband, Jim. He, who had little to live for, had survived and Jim, who had so much to live for, had not.
This is wrong, he wanted to tell her. And I know it is. I shouldn't be here.
He shook his head and shifted his weight, wincing as the movement resurrected pain from an injury that had given him a one-way ticket back home.
Behind the pain came the thought that he needed to be back with his unit, doing the job he'd trained for and had done since he was eighteen.
But he had a medical discharge he couldn't work around, and a promise to keep.
Beth wrapped one arm around herself as if trying to hold in her sorrow, her eyes flitting away from him. "I remember you now." She spoke quietly, grief softening her voice. "I saw you at the funeral."
Nick wanted to say something to ease her pain, but any words he might have were too small for the moment. So he stood in front of her, hat in hand, letting his silence say what his mouth couldn't.
Sometimes words couldn't say it all.
"What what are you doing here?" she asked, still looking away from him.
He was here because as Jim lay dying in his arms, he pleaded with Nick to keep an eye on his wife, to watch over her and make sure she was okay. While Jim's life seeped out of him into the desert sand, his eyes held Nick's with an intensity that branded itself into Nick's very soul as he pleaded with Nick to take care of his family.
But when Nick looked into Beth's eyes, he wondered if this was the time to say all that.
"Mr. and Mrs. Carruthers asked me to come for a visit." He decided to go with the safest reason for now. The visit was true. Bob and Ellen Carruthers had extended the invitation at Jim's funeral when they had found out about Nick's medical discharge from the army.
"That's very considerate of you," she said.
He slipped his hat back on his head, unable to keep his eyes off her, remembering too well Jim's pictures of her.
In those pictures Beth's blond, curly hair flowed free, her wide violet eyes looked as if they held some secret and her mouth barely hinted at a smile.
Though her features now held the same ethereal quality, they also held sorrow.
"Jim talked about you a lot," he added, struggling with his own grief. "He really loved you."
She took a step away from him, shaking her head and lifting her hand as if pushing him away. "I can't talk about Jim."
"Of course. I'm sorry. I'm sure this is a difficult time for you."
She turned her head aside, hiding her sorrow. "Enjoy your visit with my in-laws," she said. She moved past him and walked to a small car, got in and started it up.
Nick watched her sitting stock-still in the car, her hands gripping the steering wheel as she stared straight ahead, plumes of exhaust swirling around the car.
He wasn't surprised at her reaction. She was still grieving. He was still grieving. It had been only eight weeks since his friend breathed his beloved wife's name with his last breath.
Nick clenched his hands and tamped down the sorrow. He wouldn't be any good to Beth or to Jim's parents if he couldn't control his own grief.
For a moment he cursed Jim again. Had Nick done what he always didwent his own way, did his own thing, kept himself from making friends as he usually didhe wouldn't have had to deal with this sorrow.
But when Jim burst into their army tent with his big grin and boisterous personality, he also burst through the walls Nick had carefully built around his heart.
Now Jim was gone and Nick was alone again.
Nick slung his duffel over his shoulder, then limped over the packed trail toward the log house.
Toward Jim's parents and their sorrow.
"And then Jim said to me, I get enough exercise just changing my mind." Nick leaned back in his chair, his arms folded over his chest, his lips curved in a melancholy smile at the memory. "I tried not to laugh, but I still made him do his twenty push-ups."
Dinner ended over twenty minutes ago, but neither Bob nor Ellen Carruthers were in any rush to leave the table. Beth saw them eagerly taking in every story that Nick, Jim's army buddy, had to tell them, drinking in any mention of their beloved son. Throughout dinner their entire attention had been riveted on Nick.
Not that she blamed them. Nick's bearing, his dark hair, piercing blue eyes and strong features created a presence, an air of command that made a person take notice.
She could see why Jim had attached himself to this man. Nick had about him an air of danger, something Jim had always been drawn to. He also seemed to have a quiet strength.
Something she could be drawn to.
She shook the thought off and turned her attention back to the pie she'd been pushing around her plate for the past ten minutes.
"Oh, that sounds just like him." Bob slapped his hand on the table, rattling the plates and forks. "Can't you just hear him saying that, Beth?"
Beth gave her father-in-law a careful smile, avoiding Nick's direct gaze. "I certainly can."
"Jim sure loved his practical jokes," Ellen said quietly. "I'm not surprised that even in that place he found a way to laugh."
Beth's heart softened as she saw the sorrow course across Ellen's features. Once again guilt reared its ugly head, mocking her. She wished she could grieve Jim's death as deeply as her in-laws did. But she couldn't.
The Jim she knew was not the Jim her in-laws often talked about and grieved for. Nor was it the Jim that Nick spoke so glowingly of.
The Jim she knew had come home a couple of times smelling of some other woman's perfume. After pressing him, he had spilled out words of remorse over his infidelity. It was a mistake, he had said. It would never happen again.
And she had believed him. Twice.
The Jim she knew had come back to his parents' ranch full of promises that being around his parents would remind him of who he was supposed to be.
They even went to church the few times Jim was on leave.
Because of the vows she had made, she let herself believe his promises of a fresh start. She wanted her marriage to work. Her pregnancy was a result of her naivete.
But she also found out that "never again" had meant "only a few weeks." Jim's words, like her father's, meant nothing.
"He often talked about his family." Nick's deep voice broke into her bitter memories and his gaze landed on her. "He especially talked about you, Beth, and the baby. He looked forward to coming home and seeing you again."
Beth realized this was said for her benefit, and coming on the heels of her own thoughts, the comment was like a knife to her heart.
"He missed you a lot, Beth."
Beth shot Nick a puzzled glance. Once again a slender wisp of hope wafted through her mind. The same hope that had accepted Jim's apologies after his infidelities. The same hope that had taken him back both times.
The refrain of an old song spun through her mind. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Except there was no line for "fool me thrice."
She had been such a silly fool.
Nick looked at her with expectancy, but she could only muster a tight smile and Nick, thankfully, turned his attention back to Ellen and Bob.
"He loved you all so much," Nick continued. "I'm really thankful I had a chance to meet you."
"And I'm thankful you took the time to come down here and stay with us," Bob replied. "It means a lot to hear stories about Jim. It's all we've got left." Bob's voice broke a little, and Beth felt a surge of sorrow for her father-in-law.
It didn't matter that Jim had never been the husband to her they thought. He was their only son.
"Oh, my goodness, where's my manners? Nick, would you like some more pie? Or coffee?" Ellen hastily brushed away her tears and got up from the table.
Nick held up his hands as if surrendering. "I couldn't eat another bite. Jim told me your pie was the best I would ever eat, and now I know he wasn't lying."
Beth choked down another bite of that same pie, then took a drink of tepid tea to help get it down. She'd struggled all through the meal to eat enough to keep her in-laws from commenting on her appetite. But each mouthful had been an ordeal.
Her emotions toward her husband were a tangle of pain, anger and confusion, which she struggled to deal with in front of her in-laws. Each time she was with them it grew more exhausting to find a balance between her sorrow over Jim's death and her relief.
Jim's parents didn't need to see the relief.
Though Beth lived only a few hundred feet away from her in-laws, she tried to maintain a boundary and often kept to herself.
But today they'd insisted she come to see Nick's friend. So she'd reluctantly accepted the invitation, then sat through dinner listening to Nick's stories and keeping her feelings in check.
She finished her pie, picked up her plate and stacked Bob's plate on top.
But Nick reached across the table and put his hand on hers.
"I'll help with the dishes."
She could feel calluses on his warm palm. The hands of a soldier.
She jerked her hand back, the plates she held clattering onto the table.
He frowned, obviously puzzled at her reaction. "I'm sorry. I hate to see a pregnant woman working."
"You don't need to look," she said with a touch of asperity she immediately regretted.
She blamed her shortness on the headache she'd been fighting ever since she came back from Shellie's craft store after her doctor's appointment. She'd been working up enough courage all week to talk to her boss about carrying her handmade cards in the store, but when she got to work, Shellie had already left to go to a craft show. So she'd chatted with Isla, the other part-time employee, tidied up the paper racks, reorganized the stamps and set up a new display in the window.
Then, when her few hours of work were over, she'd made the trip back to the ranch, her briefcase still brimming with homemade cards and her nervousness translating into a headache.
"Now I'm sorry," Beth replied, giving him a quick smile. "I'm just tired."
His crooked grin seemed at odds with his rough and rugged demeanor, but obviously she was forgiven. "I think you're allowed to be," he said with a touch of consideration.
Beth held his gaze a moment, surprised at his tone. Not what she'd expect from a friend of Jim.
"You both just sit down. We'll do the dishes later," Ellen said. "Beth, why don't you tell us what the doctor told you this afternoon? We don't get to see much of you, so it's nice to catch up."
"Everything is progressing the way it should," Beth reported, repressing another surge of guilt at her mother-in-law's muted reprimand. "But he wants to see me in a couple of days again, though I don't know why."
"I'm sure he just wants to keep his eye on you, given what you've had to deal with." Ellen gave her a gentle smile.
"But you're feeling okay?" Bob asked, a touch of concern in his voice.
"I saw your light on at twelve o'clock last night," Ellen said. "Were you having a hard time sleeping, my dear?"
"I usually do," was all Beth said.
They didn't need to know she stayed up until two o'clock taking apart the cards she had already made, rethinking designs and colors all to impress an absent boss. Like Jim, Bob and Ellen didn't understand how she could spend so much time on her "little hobby," as Jim had called it, so she didn't talk about it in front of them.
Bob leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed over his worn plaid shirt. "So things are okay for you, Beth?"
"Just fine." An awkward silence followed her brief comment and Beth looked down at her clenched hands resting on her stomach. She felt Nick watching her and wished she could leave.
During the entire meal he'd been giving her sympathetic smiles. Poor dead Jim's pregnant widow.