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The first thing Matt Bowden had unpacked was the coffee machine, from the same box as his toothbrush, phone charger, a change of clothes and his dog's bowls. A guy had his priorities. And this morning, after he'd let Aldo, a German shepherd-God-only-knew-what mix, out in the backyard, he was glad he had planned ahead.
He inhaled deeply as he came back into the kitchen of the ranch house he'd rented and reached for a mug. Mmm. Coffee. He'd never thought he'd move back to his childhood city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. But when his former army buddy Brice and his wife, Marley, had called him with the offer of a partnership in an adventure tour company, and he'd just been discharged from the army, it seemed like a great fit. As a guy who loved very physical sportskayaking, mountain biking, white-water raftingit was perfect. So here he was. For now. He'd never been big on putting down roots, which was why army life suited him so well.
There wasn't much left for him here, and maybe that was a good thing. His mother had moved to Texas after Matt had joined up, straight out of high school, so with the exception of the very occasional wedding, he hadn't been back to Michigan in nearly twenty years.
He'd come back now because he owned part of a business. Matt shook his head. He'd never thought he'd end up here. He'd figured he had another ten years in the army in him, but after this brutal last tour in Kabul that plan had abruptly changed.
Barking caught Matt's attention as he poured his first cup of coffee. He frowned and set the mug on the counter. Odd. It sounded like his dogexcept it was coming from the front of the house. Aldo was in the backyard. Matt wove his way through the unpacked boxes to the front door just in time to see his overfriendly dog leap at a red-haired woman across the street, planting his undoubtedly filthy paws on her chest.
With a curse, Matt wrenched open the door and raced outside in his socks. In March. Ignoring the cold and the slush, he ran down the driveway and across the street, yelling for Aldo. Crazy mutt was nothing but trouble, and way too friendly. Zeroing in on his dog, he didn't notice much about the woman, but he could almost feel the anger pouring off her. Not that he blamed her.
"Ma'am, I'm so sorry," he panted as he wrenched Aldo by the collar and got him to sit. "Somehow he got the back gate open. I must have not latched it properly." Matt lifted his gaze, then, to look at her. Past the muddy footprints on her shirtover a nice pair of breasts, he couldn't help but notice; he was a guy, after allto her face.
He stared at the red-haired woman in front of him. Her angry but beautiful features coalesced into a face he knew. Callie Marshall. Wow. His pulse gave a sharp kick and awareness stabbed him low in the gut.
And that was a completely inappropriate response to his childhood best friend's widow.
He recovered quickly. "Sorry, ma'am. Callie. He doesn't usually get away from me like that."
Aldo panted and sat on his foot, tongue lolling, eyes fixed on Callie.
She frowned at Matt and cocked her head. Her expression went from angry to puzzled to shocked, and she gave a little gasp as she stepped back. "Matt? Wait. YouI didn't knowyou're the new neighbor?"
An unfamiliar awkwardness swamped him. "Yeah. I am. We are. I was planning on looking you up. How have you been?" The question seemed insufficient, given all she'd been through in the past year and half.
His friend's widow. God. Living across the street from him.
She gave him a tight smile. "I've been better. But thanks for asking." She brushed futilely at the mud on her shirt and his eyes zeroed right back in on her breasts.
Hell. He swallowed and forced his gaze away. "I'm sorry about your shirt. I'm not sure what came over Aldo. He's not usually so uncontrollable."
Her frown returned as her gaze shifted to Aldo. "I don't know if you know this, Matt, but I have two little kids. Lots of people around here do. We can't have an uncontrollable dog running around, knocking people down. It's not safe, for them or for your dog."
"I understand." He did. But did she really think he'd let his dog run around and hurt people? "He was excited. New neighborhood." To put it mildly; Aldo had come all the way from Afghanistan. And after the hell-and-back deployment they'd been through, Matt hadn't brought his buddy all the way here to have something happen to him.
She eyed Aldo. "I'm sure he was. But I've got to change now so I won't be late for work." She frowned as she looked at Matt's feet. "Seems like you might need some new socks."
He glanced down at his half-frozen feet. "Yeah. I was in a hurry. Again, I'm sorry, Callie."
"Just keep him under control. Nice to see you again, Matt." She turned and walked away, and he dragged his unrepentant pet back across the street and into the yard. While Matt wasn't sure if the dog had opened the gate or if it had come open on its own, he would replace the latch anyway. He shook the gate and noted how it wiggled. As soon as the hardware store opened, he'd pick something up. Callie was right. He couldn't have Aldo slipping out and jumping on people. Or getting hit by a car.
But Callie He whistled and Aldo came loping back over, to follow him into the house. Matt had meant it when he'd said he planned on looking her up. Checking on her. He hadn't been able to be at the funeral. He'd been in the sandbox at the time. Jason's being gone still gave him a bad jolt whenever he thought of it, which was often.
But Matt hadn't planned on seeing her quite this soon. Or having her in his line of sight every day. She hadn't seemed any more thrilled to see him. Maybe the last thing she wanted was a reminder of her husband in her line of sight every day. If Matt had known she lived there, would he have rented a different house?
That didn't matter now.
He saw a dark blue minivan back out of the garage across the street. Aldo whined and shoved at Matt's hand with his nose. "What got into you? You should have left her alone, boy," he said as he rubbed Aldo's ears and watched her drive away. They'd done some training since he'd picked Aldo up from the rescue group that had gotten him home from Afghanistan, but the mutt had a long way to go. He tended to forget his mannerssuch as they were. But it'd been a long time since he'd jumped on someone like that. It was one of the first things Matt had worked on with him when they were still overseas.
As if they were on a loop, his thoughts returned to Callie. How was she doing? It was hard to tell from their unfortunate encounter, but from what he could see, the house was well cared for, so hopefully that meant she wasn't struggling. He'd thought of her occasionally over the past few months, and often of his old friend. He'd caught a glimpse of the kids yesterday morning when they'd been walked to a neighbor's. He'd thought nothing of it because he hadn't known whose kids they were.
Now he did, and things had shifted somehow.
* * *
Callie was still fuming when she left the house for the salon. It wasn't a Monday but it sure felt like one. The boys dragging their feet. The change of clothes when the bowl of cereal ended up in Liam's lap. The forgotten blankiethat was her fault, since in the cereal melee she'd forgotten to grab it from Liam's bed. Which was why she'd run back home to get it after taking the kids to Colleen's, only to have her shirt nearly ruined when she was jumped on by a huge dog with filthy paws.
Not to mention the shock of her life when Jason's old friend Matt Bowden had come racing out of the house across the street, yelling for the mutt. That had been what nearly knocked her over, not the dog. Which was apparently his.
She took a deep, shaky breath. Jason's friend. Matt was a link, however tenuous, to her husband. To her past. She wasn't quite sure how she felt about that. Oh, she ran into people all the time who'd known Jason, who'd been in her life before and after his death. But with one exception, none of them were people Jason had considered his best friend. Who'd known him his entire life.
Still. Callie hadn't really known Matthe'd been sort of remote, but to be fair, they'd never really had a chance to get to know each other.
She'd accepted him on faith, because he'd been Jason's friend. Since Matt had been in the military, it wasn't like there were backyard barbecues and time to get to know him. He'd been deployed when Jason, a firefighter, had died in the line of duty, and Matt hadn't been able to attend the funeral. He'd sent condolences, but that whole time was such a blur. Details kind of got lost in the haze of grief and disbelief that had shrouded everything for months.
She'd eventually emerged from that haze for the sake of her kids, but the shock of seeing Matt now threw her off balance. It would have been nice to be prepared, to know that he was moving in so close to her. But he'd seemed just as surprised to see her. To her knowledge, while he'd been in the States on leave, he hadn't been back to Grand Rapids at all. As far as not knowing who'd moved in, she and the kids had spent the weekend with Jason's parents, celebrating her father-in-law's birthday.
She had a little twinge of conscience. She'd been borderline rude to Matt. Yes, the dog had jumped on her. Yes, she was apparently having a bad day and it wasn't even nine in the morning yet. But that wasn't any reason to snap at him, when he'd been so clearly apologetic about the whole thing.
She pulled her van into her usual spot behind Time For You Salon and hurried in. Lori was behind the desk. "I'm sorry, Lori," she said, even though she'd called to let her know she was running behind.
"No problem," her friend and boss said. "You know that. What happened?"
Callie hung up her coatsomehow it had missed getting dirtyand filled her in on the morning. She downplayed Matt, but Lori must have picked up on some odd vibe.
"Hmm, a new neighbor. Single?"
Callie actually froze while reaching for a towel. She forced herself to move. "I have no idea, actually. He's an old friend of Jason's. I hadn't seen him for years, until today." That was the truth. Last she knew, Matt had been engaged. That had been several years ago, which most likely meant there was a wife by now. Matt had said "we" moved in. But Jason had never mentioned anything about a wedding. Callie would have thought he would have been in it, or at least sent a gift to the happy couple. Funny how she'd forgotten all about that until now.
"An old friend of Jason's. Well, well. We'll hope he's single," Lori said cheerfully, and Callie managed to recover enough to send her a mock glare. "Is he hot?"
Well, yeah, actually. She was astounded she'd actually noticed that, in all the commotion and her anger. But she easily recalled his broad shoulders, big hands, sweatpants stretched over muscular thighs, and ice-blue eyes. His eyes had always been striking. His hands on the dog had been firm but gentle. His brown hair was military short.
"I'll take that as a yes," Lori said, her voice smug, and Callie felt her face turn bright red. Damn her pale redhead's skin.
"I don't really know," she managed to reply. She'd gone for so long without really seeing another man that the whole idea of being attracted to onea man who knew her husband, a man who wasn't her husbandcaught her completely off guard and unsettled her. "The whole thing was kind of quick and I was really sort of focused on the dog and the mud."
"Understandable," Lori said. She sent Callie a sly look. "Maybe next time you see him you can check."
Callie laughed. "Or you can come over and check him out yourself."
Lori sent her an assessing look that made her uncomfortable. "Maybe I will."
The first of the day's clients came through the door then and Callie didn't get a chance to warn her friend off matchmaking. She'd decided it was better all around to raise her kids on her own, and besides, she didn't think she'd find anyone who could take Jason's place in her life. She couldn't imagine looking. It just seemed wrong. And if she ever was open to the possibility, it'd be with a guy who wasn't big on risk taking. She'd had enough of that for a lifetime. It for sure wouldn't be with a guy who'd been a friend of her husband's.
Who'd been a part of her wedding.
No, she wasn't taking any chances with her heart or her kids'.
Callie got through her day with no further mention of Matt, but he wasn't far from her thoughts. It made her irritable, but she tried to keep a lid on it. Her clients and now her kids didn't deserve to have her snappish. She pulled into her driveway and checked carefully for a big dog before she got out of the van. She'd been serious when she'd said she couldn't risk a badly behaved dog around her kids. He'd seemed friendly enough, just not well trained. Add it to the list of things she wasn't willing to chance.
Nothing jumped at her, so she hurried over to collect the boys from Colleen, her neighbor who ran an in-home day care.
"Hi, Callie," Colleen greeted her. "They're all ready for you. I noticed you met our new neighbor this morning."
"Ah. Yeah. Or his dog, rather," she said, plucking the kids' backpacks from their hooks.
Colleen made a little humming noise in her throat. "Mmm. If I wasn't married "
Callie laughed. "But you are," she teased. She paused a second. "His name's Matt Bowden. He was a friend of Jason's."
The teasing look fell from Colleen's face. "Oh, Callie. I'm sorry."
She shook her head. "It's okay, really. I didn't know him that well. He's army. Or he was. I don't know if he's in anymore." She paused another second. Would he have moved into a house so far from an army base if he was still in? It didn't seem likely. "He and Jason were childhood friends." The words gave her a little pang. Did Jason's parents know he'd moved back? They hadn't said anything to her, and it seemed they'd have mentioned something about it. Since he and Jason had been such good friends.
"Are you going to be okay with that? With him?"
She gave Colleen a little smile. "I doubt I'll see him that much. But either way, it will be fine."
As long as he kept that dog of his under control. Otherwise, she had no intention of interacting with him beyond basic pleasantries and neighborliness. She could handle that. The kids didn't need to know him as their dad's friend.
Both boys burst into the foyer and greeted her with hugs, and the discussion of Matt was dropped.
In fact, she didn't think of himmuchduring the predinner chaos at her own house. The promise of spring was in the air, enough so that she left the front door open, even though the glass was still up over the screen door. So when she looked out into the living room and saw her two little brown-haired boys clustered in front of the door, she frowned and went to see what they were looking at.