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But here Wolf stood, confronting generations of tradition, wrapped up neatly in what the historical marker deemed O'Brien House.
As he read the story of the O'Brien family history, guilt twisted painfully in his gut. It should be Clay preparing to climb up these steps. Not Wolf. Not like this, under these terrible circumstances.
And yet…he would walk inside that house. To fulfill the promise he'd made to Clay on that Iraqi roadside.
Determined to accomplish the difficult task before him, Wolf started forward, but a jolt of sorrow knifed through him. The feeling was so strong, so visceral he had to stop and swallow several times to get the emotion under control.
Breathing hard, he lowered his gaze to the grainy photograph he'd kept with him for the last six months. The sight of Clay's little sister grinning back at him made Wolf's heartbeat quicken with anxiety.
Dressed in a traditional graduation gown with the requisite mortarboard scrunched on top of her head, Hailey O'Brien looked far too young, and far too innocent to have set such a dangerous course for her life.
Whatever it took, Wolf would stop her. He owed that much to Clay. And the friendship they'd shared in Iraq.
Blinking the grit out of his eyes, he stuffed the photograph back in his pocket and studied Clay's childhood home a moment longer. He knew he was stalling, but he needed a chance to take it all in.
The three-story brick mansion filled an entire city block. Each floor boasted rows of tall, double-glass doorways leading onto cast-iron balconies. A fence in the same ornate design ran along the perimeter of the manicured lawn, encircling tall trees and large bushes that reached halfway to the second floor.
With his gaze tracking the adjacent streets, Wolf experienced a sense of claustrophobia. There were too many trees in this part of town and the houses were too close together. He'd lived too long in the desert not to feel pinned in now.
Shivering, he blew into his cupped palms. The temperature had dropped to a sharp, bitter cold that turned his breath to frost. Clay had prepared him for the heat, with his constant griping about the Savannah humidity. But he'd said nothing about this bone-rattling cold that made Wolf's leg ache more than usual.
A light mist swirled in the gray, depressing air. The perfect accompaniment for all the regrets he harbored in his heart. Duty was all he had left. Duty and this one goal, the fulfillment of his promise to a fallen friend.
"Might as well get this over with," he muttered.
Gritting his teeth, Wolf set out across the street. He hid the pain in his left leg behind an even gait and stone-cold determination.
After three sharp raps of the ornate knocker the door swung open. Wolf jerked in surprise. With her dark hair, big green eyes and curvy figure, Hailey O'Brien was not the teenager he'd prepared for in his mind. She was a woman—a throat-clogging, heart-stopping, beautiful woman.
He knew he was staring. How could he not? Clay's sister was nothing like the fuzzy graduation picture her brother had kept on the dash of their Humvee and Wolf now had in his pocket.
Wolf tried to speak. Even managed to open his mouth, but memories got in the way and he pressed his lips tightly together. His head filled with contrasting images of Clay kicking around a soccer ball with some local kids outside the forward operating base. Clay blinking up at him on the Iraqi roadside as he was bleeding out.
Clay issuing the request that had brought Wolf to this house today…
You gotta keep Hailey out of the Sandpit, Wolf-man. No mission work. Not here. Promise me you'll stop her.
Wolf hadn't hesitated in his response. I won't let you down.
The memory of his own words pushed Wolf into action. "Are you Hailey O'Brien?"
She nodded. Slowly. And it finally registered that she'd been standing there speechless, just like him.
Even now, she simply stared at him with her beautiful, unguarded, attentive eyes. Waiting. Watching.
"I…" Wolf cleared his throat. "I was a friend of your brother's."
Instant pain filled her gaze and the wall went up. Wolf hadn't expected that.
"You knew Clay?" she asked at last, her voice deeper and throatier than he'd expected.
"I did. He asked me to—" Wolf cut off his words midsentence, realizing he couldn't blurt out why he was here without some sort of buildup. "That is, I was with him when he died." Which wasn't what he'd meant to say, either.
She blinked. "You were?"
She blinked again. And then…
One lone tear slid down her cheek.
Great beginning, Wolf, you made the poor woman cry.
With concentrated effort, he softened his voice. "My name is Ty. Ty Wolfson."
"Wolf." Her shoulders snapped back. "Yes, of course. I should have…expected this."
"You know me?"
She nodded. "My brother mentioned you in his e-mails."
Wolf didn't know what to do with that information, so he redirected the conversation. "Is this a bad time?" He shifted his gaze, only just noticing the purse strapped around her shoulder and the coat slung over her arm. "You look ready to go out."
"Oh. I… No." She drew her bottom lip between her teeth. "I mean, I am heading out, but it can wait."
Okay, good. He had her attention again. Now, if he could get his tongue to work properly he might be able to finish what he'd come here to do. Then he could return to his temporary housing on post and give in to his exhaustion. The forty-eight-hour journey out of Iraq was catching up with him.
"What I have to say won't take long," he promised. Not if he could help it.
"Oh. Oh. I'm so sorry. I'm being rude, making you stand out there in the cold." She gave him a quick, tense smile. "Please. Come in. I don't know what I was thinking."
Wolf heard the genuine remorse in her words, saw the guilt in her eyes and felt bad for upsetting her. "No worries. I didn't give you any warning I was coming. I'm sure this is a shock."
Her smile turned a little watery, but she stepped aside to make room for him to pass.
Frowning at the fancy rug just inside the doorway, Wolf stomped off the week-old Iraqi desert still clinging to his boots and moved forward. The smell of furniture polish and old money had him hesitating. But only for a moment.
Shoulders back, he followed Hailey down a portrait-filled hallway. He tried to look anywhere but at Clay's sister. Easier said than done, especially considering the confines of the tiny corridor. Each step she took was dignified and regal, the perfect blend of confidence and class that came from a life spent in country clubs and expensive schools.
Wolf shouldn't be watching her so closely. It reeked of betrayal to his friend.
Forcing back a spurt of guilt, he focused his gaze on the wall of pictures. They were hung in a haphazard pattern that made an odd sort of sense. Some of the photographs were in large frames, some small. Some were yellowed with age, others much newer. But all had the common theme of family, stability and normalcy, things Wolf had never experienced in his thirty years of life.
His guard instantly went up.
Good thing, too, because in the next moment Hailey led him into a large room with fancy tables, ornate chairs and more photographs. Lots and lots of photographs.
He could handle the obvious wealth reflected in the expensive furnishings. But this, this shadowy sense of homecoming, left Wolf wanting things he couldn't form into coherent thoughts.
There was something about this room that put him on edge. The comfort that radiated out of every corner was a visible reminder of everything Wolf had missed out on as a child.
Great. Nothing like being the big stinkin' fish out of water in an already tense situation.
Hailey set her purse and coat on a chair, then turned back to face him. "Please, have a seat, uh… Lieutenant?"
"Captain," he corrected automatically, looking for a suitable place to sit. "It's Captain now."
Unable to settle, Wolf avoided the fragile-looking furniture and strode through the room with clipped, restless strides.
Now that he was here, facing Clay's sister at last, he didn't know how to begin.
At the beginning? The end? Somewhere in between?
Hands clasped in front of her, Hailey eyed the soldier pacing through the original parlor of O'Brien House, all
the while trying to keep hold of her composure. Unfortunately, Captain Wolfson's nervousness was wearing off on her. Clearly he had something important to say, but he wasn't having much success in getting the words past his lips.
So she waited.
He couldn't stand still for more than a few seconds at a time. His fingers tapped out a chaotic rhythm on his thigh. Her toes caught the uneasy cadence, until she realized what she was doing and stopped. Clay had been jumpy like this the first time he'd returned home from Iraq.
Clay. Oh, Clay.
Her heart lurched at the mere thought of her brother. Tears stung the backs of her eyes. How she missed him. She'd been so proud of his role in the Army, awed by his dedication, and inspired by his descriptions of the strides the military was making in Iraq. But then God had taken him home. And Hailey had been forced to examine her own life. She hadn't liked what she'd discovered about herself.
But that was in the past. She was a different woman now, with more conviction. Where Clay had set out to bring peace to the Middle East, she would do what was necessary to bring hope.
Lord, help me to honor my brother's sacrifice with my mission work. Let him not have died in vain.
Feeling stronger, resolved, she focused once more on Captain Wolfson. He looked at home in his Army camouflage and tan combat boots. What Clay used to call his BDUs.
As she waited for the captain to speak, Hailey silently congratulated herself on maintaining her composure.
When she'd opened the door to him earlier she'd almost lost it.
During that terrible, heart-stopping declaration that he'd been with Clay when he'd died the tears had pressed against her lids. Only one had escaped. She'd held the rest back. That's what mattered. As her mother had always said, an O'Brien woman kept her poise under all circumstances.
Oh, but it hurt to look at this man pacing through her home like a caged panther. With his dark hair, ice-blue eyes and direct gaze, Captain Wolfson was far too much like her brother.
Except…he was nothing like Clay. Hard. Yes, that was the word that came to mind as she gazed up at him. No. Not hard. Sorrowful. Wounded. A man with regrets.
She could stand the suspense no longer. "You said you have something important to tell me?"
He jerked at her voice and then his hand shot out, as though he was reaching for something. His weapon? Clay had reacted the same way whenever a loud noise surprised him.
"I'm sorry, Captain." She spoke softer this time. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"It's okay." He closed his hand into a tight fist. "I'm just a little low on sleep."
Possibly. But she doubted that was the cause of his jumpiness. She rose slowly, careful not to make any sudden movements. "You have something to tell me about Clay?"
"Yes. But sit back down." He gestured to the chair she'd just abandoned. "Please."
"If you'll join me."
He looked at several pieces of furniture, narrowing his eyes as he went.
Understanding dawned. "Clay didn't like this room, either." She allowed herself a short laugh. "He said it was too girly."
Wolf smiled at that. It was a quick, almost indiscernible lift of his lips, but a smile all the same. Unfortunately, the gesture made him seem somehow…sadder.
Shoulders set, he lowered himself to the love seat facing her. She could practically hear his thoughts colliding into one another as he leaned forward and captured her gaze with his. "You should know that Clay died honorably."
It was her turn to smile, grateful for those simple, straightforward words affirming what she already knew. "I'm glad to hear it."
"You're not surprised."
"Clay was an honorable man."
"That he was."
An uncomfortable silence fell over them.
Hailey swallowed. "Was that what you came to tell me?"
"No." He broke eye contact, but not before she saw the agony in his gaze.
This conversation was hard on him, that much was clear. Well, it was equally difficult for her. She still missed her brother. Desperately. He'd been the last of her living relatives. After six full months, she often found herself waking in the middle of the night with tears running down her cheeks.
But as bad as she felt over her loss, this man had watched Clay die.
Without thinking too hard about what she was doing, Hailey moved to a spot next to him on the love seat and took one of his hands in hers. When he didn't pull away, she squeezed gently. Her meeting at the church was no longer important. Giving this man comfort mattered more. Maybe, in the process, she would find a moment of peace, as well.
For several seconds, Captain Wolfson sat deathly still next to her, staring at their joined hands with his brows scrunched together. Confusion? Frustration? She couldn't read his emotions anymore.
And then a dreadful thought occurred to her. "Did something happen to Clay that the military hasn't told me? Something…classified?"
"No." He sucked in a harsh breath. "No. His death was senseless, but not unusual. Our Humvee hit a roadside bomb. Clay lived a few minutes longer than the other three soldiers with us."
The other three? Counting Clay and Captain Wolfson that made five men in the truck. "Are you saying you were the only one who made it out alive?"
"Yes." The word came out softer than a whisper. And so sorrowful.
Hailey clasped his hand a little harder. "I'm sorry."
He squeezed back, then lifted his gaze to meet hers. She gasped at what she saw in his eyes. Pain. Grief. And something else. Guilt, maybe? Was he suffering from survivor's guilt? She'd heard about the terrible emotion, but had never truly understood it.
Lord, how do I help this man?
She wasn't trained for something like this. It was more than she could handle.
Just as despair nearly overtook her, Wolf's face cleared of all expression and he tugged his hand free. "Clay made one final request before he died."
Posted June 23, 2010
Intense, realistic, and romantic, Homecoming Hero is a page turner from start to finish. In this unique story, Renee Ryan has combined today's headlines with a marvelous message about faith, service, and forgiveness. The author's skill shows in her attention to detail and humor, but especially in her ability to write believably about a very alpha male dealing with a faith crisis and a young woman struggling with her calling. The hero and heroine, a soldier returning from Iraq and a young woman who wants to become a missionary in the Middle East, deal with one of the best written "obstacles to love" I have read. Homecoming Hero is one for the keeper shelf.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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