Read an Excerpt
Well? Are you going to tell him or not?"
Annie Delmar chose to ignore the question from her roommate, Crystal Mally. Instead she continued folding the freshly laundered clothes in the white plastic hamper on the foot of her twin bed. The smell of hot cotton vied with the dryer sheet's mountain-floral scent.
Hoping to change the subject, Annie asked, "Are you going out with Jake again tonight?"
"Jake and I broke up," Crystal said with an indifferent shrug as she continued to buff her bright red fingernail.
"I'm sorry to hear that."
Annie carried a stack of knit tops to the chest of drawers in the corner. She didn't want to talk about her current problem. It was too soon. It still didn't seem real. Why had God done this to her?
No, it isn't right to blame God. I did this to myself.
Crystal said, "Jake's a loser, like all the guys I date, and don't change the subject. Are you going to tell the guy?"
"I haven't decided." With a weary sigh, Annie closed the top drawer of the blue painted dresser and stood for a moment with her hands on the chipped and scratched surface.
Crystal plopped down on Annie's bed and leaned back against the headboard. Her short bleached-blond hair framed a face that was pale and too thin. The lacy black top she wore was too tight and, as usual, she had splashed on too much of her cheap perfume. "I don't think he needs to know. Besides, I thought you said he was being transferred overseas in a few months."
"That's what he told me."
"So if you don't tell him soon, how are you going to find him later?"
The door to the room swung inward as their housemother came in with a second hamper of laundry. "That's a goodquestion, Crystal. I'd like to hear your answer, Annie."
Moving back to her bed, Annie began folding her jeans. "If he moves away and I don't know where he went, then I can't tell him anything, can I?"
She glanced at the woman who had taken her in when she had been at the lowest point of her life. Marge Lilly stood with the laundry basket balanced against her hip. On the far side of fifty and slightly plump, Marge managed to look both motherly and formidable at the same time. Her eyes seemed to see right through Annie, but she didn't say anything. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Annie felt compelled to answer the unspoken censure.
"My lack of action would be an excuse to pretend the decision is out of my hands."
"Is that true?"
"No," she admitted with quiet resignation.
"So why not make a decision?" Marge asked gently.
Annie pressed a hand to her stomach to calm her queasiness. "Because I'm afraid I'll make the wrong one."
"And?" Marge prompted.
"And it's easier to do nothing."
"Doing nothing is a choice, Annie."
"But not a good one. I need to make good choices." Annie had tried to add conviction to her voice, but she'd failed miserably.
"You are in charge of your life, Annie. Just remember, God is always with you, and your friends are here to help."
Annie nodded, but she still felt very much alone and frightened of what the future held.
"Shane, the captain wants to see you on the double."
Corporal Shane Ross tapped the last nail into Jasper's shoe before he dropped the horse's leg, then straightened and looked over the animal's back at his friend and fellow soldier, Private Avery Barnes. "Did he say why?"
"No, but he had that tone in his voice that he usually reserves for me."
Shane grinned. Mentally running over his duties list, he couldn't think of anything he had done wrong or missed. "I wonder what's up."
"It might have something to do with the pretty woman who came in looking for you. If she's your sister, can I ask her out?"
"If I had a sister, I wouldn't let you within fifty miles of her."
"That's not nice."
"But it's the truth." Shane patted the horse's rump and moved to put his tools on the bench at the rear of the farrier shed. He pulled off the heavy leather apron he used to protect his clothing and hung it on a peg. Lifting his coat from the next hook, he slipped it on.
The fire in the forge popped and hissed, adding a smoky aroma to the cold air inside the small stone building. The calendar might say it was the middle of April, but the chilly, damp wind outside made it feel more like winter than spring.
Avery stepped up to stroke Jasper's forehead. "Now that your stint in this unit is almost over, will you be glad to get back to fixing helicopters instead of saddles and horseshoes?"
"I'll admit I'm looking forward to spending a year in Germany, but I'll miss the horses."
"No. You, I won't miss." He would miss Avery and all the men in the unit, but he was more comfortable trading friendly jibes than revealing his true sentiments.
Avery fell into step beside Shane as the two of them left the farrier building. They paused at the edge of the road as three green-and-tan camouflage jeeps sped past. TheArmy base at Fort Riley, Kansas, bustled with constant activity. When the way was clear, they crossed the street.
The Commanding General's Mounted Color Guard had its main office just south of the large, historic stone-and-timber stable that housed the unit's horses and gear. At the door Avery smiled and said, "Your visitor is a real hottie. If you aren't interested, could you get her phone number for me?"
Shane gave his buddy a friendly shove toward the stable. "Make sure the wagon wheels get greased today. Our first exhibition is a week from Saturday, and you know the captain wants everything in tip-top shape."
Avery sketched a salute and sauntered away. Inside the tiny office building Shane pulled off his cap and tucked it under his arm, then knocked on the captain's door. When he heard Captain Watson bid him enter, he opened it and stepped inside.
Captain Jeffery Watson was seated behind his large gray desk. The walls of the room were painted the same drab Army-issue color. An assortment of photographs and commendations in plain gold frames added the only touch of color. A faint frown marred the captain's brow above his keen, dark eyes, and Shane wondered again what he had done wrong.
A woman sat in front of the captain's desk, but she had her back to Shane. He couldn't tell if she was pretty or not, but there was something familiar about her. "Have a seat, Corporal Ross. I understand you know Miss Delmar." He indicated with a wave of his hand the woman sitting quietly before him.
The name didn't mean anything to Shane. She had her back to him, but he could see her dark hair was drawn into a tight braid that reached the center of her back. She was wearing a light gray jacket over a pair of faded jeans. Her shoulders were slightly hunched and she kept her head down.
Shane took a seat in the chair beside her. Glancing over, he saw her hands were clenched together so tightly in her lap that her knuckles stood out white. He leaned forward to get a glimpse of her bowed face. Recognition hit him like a mule kick to the stomach.
She was the woman from the nightclub. He had spent weeks trying to find her, without success. His satisfaction at seeing her again was quickly tempered with curiosity.
Captain Watson cleared his throat. "I'll be in the stable. You are free to use my office for as long as you need, Miss Delmar. Corporal Ross will let me know when you are finished with this conversation."
"Thank you, Captain." Her soft voice held a definite edge of nervousness.
Captain Watson nodded, then left the room, closing the door behind him.
Shane unbuttoned his jacket. The room seemed hot and stuffy after the coolness of the farrier's shed. He took a moment to study the profile of the woman he had searched for fruitlessly. Now, after almost three months, she was here. Why?
Whatever she wanted, she seemed to be having trouble finding the courage to speak. He decided to get the ball rolling. "Delmar is it? I might have had an easier time finding you if I had known your last name."
Her head snapped up and she met his gaze. "Did you look for me?"
Her eyes were the same deep, luminous brown that he remembered. The same unhappiness he had seen before continued to lurk in their depths. He had the ridiculous urge to reach out and stroke her cheek.
"I went back to that club every night for two weeks hoping to find you again."
She unclenched her hands, folded her arms across her chest and leaned back in the chair. "Two whole weeks. Wow! I'm flattered."
Frowning at her sarcasm, he said, "You left first, remember?"
Her attitude of defiance faded. "I remember. Look, I made a mistake. A big, huge, gigantic mistake."
"You don't get to take all the blame. Nobody held a gun to my head."
"All right, we made a huge mistake." Shane wasn't proud of his behavior that night. "Just so you know, I'm not in the habit of picking up women in bars and taking them to motel rooms."
A tiny smile curved her lips. "Corporal, I could tell. And just so you know, I used to pick up guys in bars all the time for the price of a drink and I've seen the inside of a cheap motel more than once."
Annie Delmar watched the soldier's eyes widen as the meaning of her words sank in. To his credit, he didn't make any smart remarks. She had heard plenty of them in her time, but she never got used to the hurt.
This was so much harder than she had imagined. She wanted to sink through the floor. Maybe she should just leave. That would be the easiest thing to do.
She needed a drink.
No, I don't. I want a sober life. I deserve a sober life. God, ifYou are listening, lend meYour strength. Help me do the right thing for once.
Drawing a deep breath, she launched into the speech she had worked on for the past week. There was a lot this man needed to understand. "I can tell by your expression that you get my drift. I used to live a very destructive lifestyle, but I'm in recovery now. I had been clean and sober for almost a year when I had a setback. That is no excuse. I made a choice to drink and to spend the night with you when I knew it was wrong."
"What kind of setback?"
His concern wasn't something that she'd expected. "You mean, what caused me to fall off the wagon? It doesn't really matter, does it?"
"It must have."
"Okay, maybe it did, but I've been sober since I left you at that motel. That's what's important. I'm getting the help I need and I'm getting my life back on track."
There was a joke if she'd ever uttered one. Her life was closer to being derailed than on track, but she didn't want this man to think she couldn't handle herself. She would handle this and she would do it the right way, with God's help and the help of others like herself in AA. Still, she found it hard to meet his frank gaze.
"That's good," he said at last. "I hope it wasn't something that I said or did."
She relaxed for the first time in days. "No. You and your buddies came along afterward. You were all so happy about something. You were all laughing."
He had a nice laugh. She remembered that about him even if other parts of that evening were fuzzy.
He pulled his hat out from beneath his arm. She watched him fold and unfold the red ball cap that matched the T-shirt he wore under his army jacket. She had no clue what he was thinking.
"Our unit had just returned from riding in the inaugural parade in Washington, D.C., and our sergeant had just gotten engaged. She'd be mad if she knew we went out drinking to celebrate. I don't mean to sound like a prude, but I don't normally drink."
"I could tell that, too."
It had been his cheerful smile and his happy laughter that had drawn Annie to him that night. She had craved being a part of that happiness as much as she had craved the liquor.
She cleared her mind of the memory. "Look, I need to make it plain that I don't want anything from you. I want you to know that. I don't want anything from you. Do you get that?