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The front door to Harmony House swung open before he had a chance to knock.
Fist raised, he stared at Nell, the part-time caregiver.
"Will Dessaro, you gave me start." Laughing good-naturedly, she stepped back to allow him entry. Short, ebony-skinned and possessing an endless supply of patience, Nell helped run the elder-care group home. "Guess I'm not the only one. You look as if you've seen a ghost."
Nothing could be truer. Will saw a ghost every time he visited.
"I'm not bothering you?" he asked, removing his cowboy hat.
"Nonsense. You're always welcome here. Mrs. Litey loves seeing you, and she's such a lamb after you leave. For a few hours. Or a day. Then.. " The unfinished sentence was followed by a shrug. "She's a pistol, that one."
Will had witnessed the octogenarian's normally cantankerous nature more than once when she hadn't realized he was in the room. Describing her as a pistol was being kind. Acute Alzheimer's did that to a person, he supposed.
Nell ushered him into the main room, where a couple sat together watching a loudly blaring TV, the frail-looking woman wheelchair bound. Babs and her gentleman friend, Arthur. He called on her almost dailyand stayed all day from what Will could gather.
Sounding the alarm several beats late, a white terrier mix jumped down from his favorite roost atop Mr. Lexington's lap. Obviously hard of hearing, Mr. Lexington dozed in one of three recliners. The dog trotted over for a sniff, his scraggly tail wagging.
Will bent and scratched him behind the ears. "Hey, buddy."
"Let me check on Mrs. Litey before I take you back," Nell said. "Just in case she's indisposed."
Will straightened and nodded at Babs and Arthur. He was always more comfortable with animals than people. Horses especially, but dogs and cats, too. His own shepherd mix waited patiently in his pickup parked out front.
"Afternoon to you, young fellow." Arthur released Babs's hand to operate the remote control. Lowering the TV's volume, he rose with telltale arthritic stiffness and greeted Will. "How's the world treating you?"
"Keeping busy? I hear business is picking up at the Gold Nugget."
Will didn't elaborate. He seldom talked much, preferring to listenwhich he did as Arthur reminisced about the guest ranch where Will was employed as livestock foreman, trail guide, farrier and all-around hand. Whatever his boss required of him.
The ranch, one of the more famous landmarks of Sweetheart, Nevada, was originally built in the 1960s and was used as a film location for the wildly popular TV Western The Forty-Niners. After the show ceased production, the ranch was opened to the public. Mrs. Litey had served as curator, tour guide and resident authority on local history all that time, until her Alzheimer's had advanced and the ranch had closed.
"Miranda's not here," Arthur said, "if you're hoping to find her."
He waggled his bushy gray brows and elbowed Will in the ribs. "I would be, if I were you. She's pretty easy on the eyes, even for eyes as old as mine."
Will generally avoided Miranda Staley, the owner and operator of Sweetheart's only senior-care facility. She made him nervous. People in general made Will nervous, but her especially. And it wasn't just all those curves packed into her petite body.
She lit up any room she entered, drawing the attention of everyone present. Will, on the other hand, preferred to go unnoticed, and usually did. Except at Harmony House, where the close quarters made escaping attention impossible.
He usually dropped by to visit Mrs. Litey in the early afternoon. Miranda ran her errands then, and he was less likely to cross paths with her, as had happened before. Often. As pretty as she was bubbly, she had an uncanny ability to tie his tongue in knots, which didn't fare well for someone who spoke only when necessary.
Thinking of her caused his heart to race and his lungs to work overtime.
Easy does it. Just breathe. In and out. That's right.
The mantra had no effect. Angling his body away from the room's other occupants, he removed his jacket and reached underneath the cuff on his left sleeve, snapping the rubber band around his wrist. Once. Twice. Three times. The sharp stinging helped him to focus. Focusing enabled him to relax.
There would be no panic attack today. At least not here.
"I said, Mrs. Litey's been having fits all morning. Did you hear me?"
Will blinked himself back to the present and turned to face Arthur and Babs. It was hard not to think of them as cute, even for someone as unsentimental as Will. When asked, he blamed his preference for keeping his distance on a six-year stint in the army. Easier that way. No one liked talking about death and guilt and emotional disabilities. Will sure didn't.
"You go in there and work whatever magic it is you do." Arthur chuckled. "Maybe then we can watch the rest of Babs's show without Mrs. Litey hollering and carrying on."
"I'll do my best, sir."
Nell returned, all smiles. "She's waiting for you. I'll bring some tea."
Will made his way down the familiar hallway to the residents' bedrooms. Mrs. Litey's was the second on the right.
She and Babs had private rooms, while Mr. Lexington and Himey shared what had once been the master suite. There had been a fifth resident, but his family had recently relocated him to a facility near Lake Tahoe, citing that Sweetheart was no longer a safe place.
They had their reasons. A lot of people had left when, this past summer, a forest fire had leaped a ravine, ran amok and nearly destroyed the town.
Will paused briefly at a closed door. Behind it were stairs leading to a converted attic suite: bedroom, bath and a sitting area. Miranda's quarters.
He'd never been up there, had only heard about it from Arthur and Babs.
The day of the fire and evacuation, Miranda had come running down those stairs, carting a suitcase. Face flushed with fear and exertion, she'd looked at him as if she didn't recognize him, which was probably the case. Will flew miles beneath her radar.
The same couldn't be said about her. He'd bumped into Miranda on his first day in town, in an aisle at the general store, and had kept her in his radar ever since.
Thoughts of Miranda started his heart racing again, and he repeated the mantra.
At the doorway to Mrs. Litey's room, he stopped and waited. Someone, Nell probably, had opened the drapes. Late November sunshine filled every corner. Though clean and tidy and now well lit, the room clearly belonged to an ill person. Rails on the bed, a walker beside the dresser, call button within easy reach and a lingering antiseptic smell were a few of the signs.
Mrs. Litey stood facing the window. Will thought she might be oblivious to the world, as sometimes happened. Suddenly she pivoted. At the sight of him, her wrinkled face erupted in a delighted grin.
"You're here." Feeble arms extended, her gait unsteady, she started toward him, ignoring the walker.
Will hurried to meet her halfway, afraid she might fall. She collapsed into his arms and cried with joy. He held her, stroking her bony back and murmuring soothing words.
It was the same every time he visited her.
"Joseph." She stared up at him, tears in her eyes, and cradled his cheek in her gnarled hand. "You're home. I've missed you so much."
"Ma'am! So polite. The army has certainly taught you manners."
"Yes, ma'am." He hesitated. "Mom."
"Oh, honey." She hugged him close, her thin frame no larger than that of a young girl. "How long is your leave?"
Will answered as he always did. "Three days."
"That's all? We'll spend every minute of it together. Are you hungry? I can make some sandwiches." She scanned the room, confusion clouding her features. The next instant she brightened and tugged on his Western-cut shirt. "They're not feeding you enough. Look how this uniform hangs on you. No worries. I'll fatten you up while you're home."
Nell slipped quietly into the room and set a tray on the bedside table. It held a pot of tea, two mugs and a plate of sugar cookies. After giving Will a wink, she disappeared.
"I ate earlier, Mom," Will said. "But I wouldn't mind some tea."
Another moment of confusion, then Mrs. Litey spotted the tray with the tea and cookies. "I have a fresh pot."
Will insisted on helping to pour. They sat in a pair of chairs by the window. Mrs. Litey chatted amiably, asking Will questions about his current tour. He answered as best he could. How her son, Joseph, might have answered had he not died thirty years ago in a training accident when the armored personnel carrier he was commanding flipped on a patch of black ice.
Will didn't know why Mrs. Litey took one look at him and decided he was her son. Perhaps through her haze, she'd sensed his military background. He really didn't care.
Sitting in the too-small chair, listening to her ramble, he let the present slide away.
It was then he saw the ghost. His late grandmother.
Closing his eyes, he was transported back in time to his grandmother's kitchen on her farm outside of Fort Scott, Kansas. The sugar cookies were fresh from the oven, not store-bought from a box. Mrs. Litey's voice became deeper, warmer, resembling his grandmother's. She was inquiring about school and baseball practice and what colleges he'd applied to.
In a world that had been chaos for far too long, Will was finally at peace, his demons temporarily silenced. Mrs. Litey's, too, he imagined. It was the reason he visited her and why he let her believe he was her son.
They were a pair, each of them escaping the memories of an unhappy past by taking solace in one another.
A noise from another part of the house traveled down the hall to Will. Then Arthur called hello to Miranda.
She was here!
Will cast about for an escape route, knowing there was none. He'd have to leave the same way he came in. Let her bubbly personality wash over him. Fend off her attempts to know him better. Remind him of the love he'd once had and lost because of his PTSD.
"Mom, I need to go." He pushed to his feet.
"So soon?" Mrs. Litey's voice trailed off as fragments of clarity returned.
Will kissed her cheek. She didn't respond. Sad as her distance made him feel, it was easier to handle than when she clung to him, begging him to stay.
"See you soon," he whispered and patted her shoulder. Then he started for the dooronly to come up short.
Miranda stood not five feet in front of him, a hand pressed lightly to her heart, an aren't-you-sweet smile on her face. The panic he'd staved off earlier returned, and for one paralyzing moment he feared his coping techniques would fail him.
Miranda grinned broadly. Will Dessaro was absolutely adorable when flusteredand he was flustered a lot around her.
To be honest, she enjoyed her share of admiring glances from men. Had even plied her charms on occasion to elicit them. The bold, sometimes shameless, looks flattered her. But they were nothing compared to the thrill that Will's undisguised longing gave her.
How had she coexisted in the same town with him for all these years and not noticed him?
Then came the day of the fire, and the order to evacuate within two hours. He'd shown up on her doorstepstrong, silent, capableand provided the help she'd needed to rally and load her five frightened and uncooperative residents into the van.
She couldn't have done it without him. And he'd been visiting Mrs. Litey regularly ever since.
Thank the Lord her house had been spared. The same couldn't be said for several hundred other homes and buildings in Sweetheart, including many on her own street. Her beautiful and quaint hometown had been brought to its knees in a matter of hours and still hadn't recovered five months later.
"I hate to impose " Miranda glanced over her shoulder, making sure Will had accompanied her into the kitchen. It was empty, her part-time helper Nell attending to the residents and their afternoon medications. "There's a leak in the pipe under the sink. The repairman can't fit me in his schedule till Monday, and the leak's worsening by the hour." She paused. "You're good with tools, aren't you?"
"Good enough." He blushed.
Sweet heaven, he was a cutie.
Wavy brown hair that insisted on falling rakishly over one brow. Dark eyes. Cleft in his chin. Breathtakingly tall. He towered above her five-foot-three frame.
If only he'd respond to one of the many dozen hints she'd dropped and ask her on a date.
"Do you mind taking a peek for me?" She gestured toward the open cabinet doors beneath the sink. "I'd really appreciate it."
"Sure." His gaze went to the toolbox on the floor. "You have an old towel or pillow I can use?"
That had to be the longest sentence he'd ever uttered in her presence.
"Be right back." She returned shortly with an old beach towel folded in a large square.
By then Will had set his cowboy hat on the table and had rolled up his sleeves to his elbows.
Nice arms, she noted. Tanned, lightly dusted with hair and corded with muscles.
Handing him the towel, she indicated the rubber band on his left wrist. "What's that?"
"I do the same thing." He stared at her.
"Find rubber bands and put them on my wrist. Never know when you'll need one."
"Yeah." He was back to monotone answers.
Miranda didn't mind. Words weren't the only way to communicate. She flashed him another brilliant smile.
His blush deepened.
Excellent. Message sent and received.
Will dug through the toolbox and selected a wrench. Laying the towel down in front of the cabinet she'd cleared out in preparation, he sat on it and then rolled onto his back, adjusting his long body until he was half in, half out of the cabinet.
"Water turned off?"
"Did that when I first got home." Miranda knelt on the floor beside him and, for the first time, got a good look at the large silver belt buckle he wore. U.S. Army. Not a rodeo event.
That answered some questions. She'd often wondered how he was able to effectively play the part of Mrs. Litey's late son. Where, then, had he learned to be such a first-rate cowboy?
"How long were you in for?" she asked.
He stilled. "Pardon?"
"The army. How long?"
"Where did you serve?" she persisted.
"The Middle East?"
"Some. Also stateside."
He was certainly a challenge. Luckily Miranda didn't give up easily.
Minutes of silence passed, then a low grunt, a loud thud and a softly spoken curse word.
"Everything all right?" Miranda leaned her head down to peer under the sink.
"The fitting's frozen."
"I have some pipe-joint compound." She reached for the jar in the toolbox.
"Don't need it." His arms strained, she swore to the point of breaking, only to relax. "Done."
"Really? The leak's fixed?" The pipes were as old as the house, and she'd expected the repair to take considerably longer. He really was strong.
"Keep the appointment with the plumber. What I did is only temporary." Will pushed out from beneath the sink and sat up. Because of her proximity to him, they were nearly face-to-face.
Miranda couldn't be more pleased, and tilted her head appealingly. "Thank you. Don't know what I would have done without your help."