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Join the navy. See the world.
"I don't think they meant the sandboxes I've been playing in." John Sloane had met and helped a lot of great people around the world. He'd been to several cool cities, nice ports and seen a lot of water. But he never wanted to see most of the places his unit had been deployed again- even in the news.
Back in Texas. Right back where he'd started wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind when he was eighteen. But right now he didn't care about choices or destinations. He just wanted information on his dad.
He'd returned from a training exercise and was told that his father had suffered a major stroke. When he couldn't reach the house or his dad, he'd called the police station with no luck. They'd refused to help.
From the message, he knew that his father was alive and at the ranch. He'd arranged extended leave and a ticket back to his hometown. Taking as much time off as he wanted wasn't a problem. He had a lot stored up. He wanted to be here as long as needed to get his father back on his feet. The only objective so far was to get home.
Two hours in triple-digit heat with the rental's AC whacked-out had added to his building frustration. He was sailing blind with no information, since his brother hadn't returned his calls and the home phone seemed to be out of order.
If John was being honest-no sense lying to himself- he hadn't been the most dependable brother. Or the most communicative. Since they'd learned to open their mouths, Brian had been the twin to tell the world what they needed. Brian had been the responsible one keeping him out of trouble, right up to his last words to him, "Leave and never look back."
That was exactly what he'd done.
John had followed through on his promise, joined the navy, left the ranch and had never come back.
In the navy, he wasn't Brian's twin or Johnny Junior or the baby. He'd quickly risen to chief petty officer and was the man you went to with a problem. He was the guy who got things done. Action, not words.
Then things changed. Promotions after online classes and a college degree. Instead of solving the problems, he followed orders. Now a lieutenant, he was the man responsible if someone got shot. A man who'd been doing too much thinking recently.
Texas? California? Navy? Private sector? Which road should just simple John choose? Too much thinking . Right now he would help his dad, work the horses and maybe-just maybe-reconnect with his brother. That was the mission.
Deciding his future could wait.
His hometown was just ahead, and suddenly he didn't feel so confident. Since that short good riddance right after graduation, he hadn't seen or spoken to Brian. John hadn't seen his father in almost three years. How would the town see him now? Who would he be after twelve years? The man he'd become, or the kid the town remembered?
Aubrey looked like a busy small town instead of the bus-stop intersection with one red light he'd left. Lots of changes, and yet the most familiar thing in the world to him. He knew what stool old man Searcy would be sitting on for his lunch at the café, and he knew who would be serving him his blue-plate special. His stomach growled, emphasizing his lack of lunch. Another ten minutes and he'd be home. Home.
The word felt good. He'd stay, help his dad around the ranch, work with his back instead of a weapon. He'd welcome every minute of mind-numbing grunt labor. And somehow he'd figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
He raised a finger off the steering wheel, acknowledging those driving past. A friendly custom in north Texas, like tipping your hat. Or at least it used to be. People stared at him and quickly looked away when he caught their eye. He drove through his little town, now full of fast-food restaurants and an outdoor mini shopping mall. He turned off the main road, took the familiar turns and passed the mailbox-faded with one of the letters missing from his father's name.
Parked on the side of the driveway was a cherry-red Camaro. A car he knew inside and out. The car had always hummed perfection. Mark Miller had won many drag races with that engine. When Mark had left for the army, John had tried to buy it from Mr. Miller many times. He slowed as the driver-obviously waiting on him-opened the door of the car he'd wanted throughout his teenage years. His tires crunched on the gravel as he pulled to a stop.
"Wow." The word slipped from his brain to his mouth.
"You still haven't gotten over this car?" the woman said, caressing the hood with long strokes.
Thankfully, she thought he was gawking at the muscle car. The vehicle was a nice backdrop to the curvy medium-height babe with long wavy dark brown hair and eyes hidden behind aviator shades. Dressed in old worn jeans that hugged her hips and a tank top that hugged everything else, he couldn't focus on the car if he wanted to.
And he really didn't want to. If he had air-conditioning, he would have cranked it to high. Instead, the sweat beaded on his forehead. He grabbed the button-up shirt he'd tossed on the seat next to him to wipe his face.
"Driving with the windows down? Braving the Texas heat, Johnny? You forget how hot it gets here in July?" the babe asked, crossing the road in worn boots. She slid her glasses to the top of her head, tucking her hair back in the process. Bright smiling eyes laughed at him.
"Alicia?" He recognized her voice, but none of the curves she currently sported.
"Welcome home." She leaned on the open window, giving him a great view straight between her breasts. A much better view than he'd ever seen in high school.
"How did you know I'd be here?"
"I was already at the house. Wanda thought she saw Brian in a new car and sent a text asking if he'd come into some cash." She shrugged her bare, tanned shoulders. "I knew Brian was in the barn. So I assumed and waited." She stepped back, pulling the door open. "Get out here so I can give you a proper welcome home. It's been a while."
Alicia Miller, now Adams. Or had she gone back to Miller after her husband had died? Either way, he barely recognized his high school sweetheart. She'd definitely filled out in all the right places. He popped the seat-belt release and stood, towering over her in a white undershirt that probably smelled as bad as the horse stalls. She wrapped her arms around his middle and squeezed. He hugged her back.
They separated, and the pearly-white smile he expected was gone. He missed her hand swinging upward, until it connected with his cheek. Connected hard. He rubbed it, not ashamed to let her know the slap had stung. Caught off guard by a girl. Or maybe he deserved it. Time enough to contemplate later.
A fitting welcome home.
"Before you ask, that was for your dad. J.W. will never say or do anything to make you feel ashamed, but you deserve that and more for just leaving. It broke his heart."
The little fireball choked on the last word. But she was right. And he was grown enough now to admit he'd made a mistake by not calling more often. "You've seen him? Is he okay?"
"He gets stronger every day. I'm his nurse and help him with physical therapy. That's what I do, at-home nursing."
"Just for the record, that's the one and only time you'll slap me and get away with it." He leaned against the rear door, crossing his arms to keep them in check. He didn't know if he wanted to drive away or reach out and pull her back to fill the emptiness he suddenly experienced.
"Are you okay? I didn't mean to hurt you. I'm not even sure why I did that. I never do that. And now I'm just babbling."
"Really?" Had it been too long to tease her? She'd been a junior in college the last time he'd heard anything. Their lives had changed when he hadn't chosen that route. Really changed when Brian had taken the blame for the accident. They hadn't spoken since his twin had accused him of being irresponsible and leaving a campfire burning.
After boot camp, his dad said Brian had decided not to attend college. Brian's taking public blame for the fire meant John could achieve his dream of entering the navy. It wouldn't have happened otherwise, and he owed his brother his entire career.
Join the navy. See the world.
It had been his dream, and his brother had pushed him toward it, sacrificing everything to let him keep it. That was the problem. The closest people to him had believed the accusation.
"I should be.. " She gestured toward her car. "Your father's waiting."
"You said Brian was in the barn?"
"He was earlier." Alicia stuck her hands into her front pockets, creating a shrug whether she wanted one or not. "Sorry I slapped you, Johnny."
"I'm sorry you needed to." He rubbed his cheek again, scraping the three days of growth.
Alicia took a step toward him, awkwardly pulled him down for what he thought was another hug. He didn't reach for her. Instead, supersoft fingers caressed him from the bottom of his ears down both lines of his jaws. The sting disappeared faster than a radar blip.
Before he could react, she'd kissed his lips, lingering just a second too long for it to be just a friendly welcome home. Then she waved and returned to her car.
"See you around."
The dust from the road stuck to his arms and face as he stood there like an idiot while she drove away.
The Double Bar had been around for over a hundred years, supplying its fair share of cutting horses and rodeo stock. Oak trees had towered over the winding gravel driveway, since just after the Civil War. They'd formed a canopy and should have been a sight for his weary eyes. It was normally one of the coolest places on the ranch. The trees stretching above his head looked gnarly. Had anyone trimmed them since he'd left? He had to slow to avoid the potholes. The pasture looked more like West Texas desert than grazing potential for a herd.
"What the hell's happened?"
Granddad's old Dodge truck was loaded with feed and supplies. No doubt his work would start this afternoon, no waiting around. The ranch never let you take a vacation. John parked the rental, dropped the tailgate of the truck and slapped a bag.
Wham. Slammed to the ground, he spit dirt from his mouth. A punch to his kidney caused him to tighten his gut and pull his arms tight against his sides. The attacker shuffled off and away. John scrambled to his knees and popped up to both feet.
"You've got a lot of nerve showing up now!"
"Brian? What the " He wiped the dirt from his face just in time to block a punch. His hands automatically formed fists. He resisted throwing his right at the last minute, but his shoulder momentum took him a step closer to his brother. "Cut it out or find yourself on the ground."
"Yeah, who's going to put me there? Oh, right, the son who's been gone twelve years. Think you can take me with all your fancy military training?"
John couldn't start his return home by teaching Brian a lesson. He relaxed his body enough to appear nonthreatening, but didn't lose eye contact. Brian would always give his punches away by dropping his gaze to the ground before he swung. Better to avoid being hit than make things worse by hitting back.
"Come on, man, I just got here," he said. Home for fifteen minutes and already he'd been slapped and eaten a face full of dirt. His lower back didn't feel all that great, either.
"That's the point. Dad's stroke was over a week ago."
"No excuses. I was on a mission and got here as soon as I could. How is he?"
"Busy saving strangers and can't be bothered at home." Brian grabbed a fifty-pound bag of feed, throwing it to his shoulder like a bulky pillow, then stomped toward the shed. "Go see for yourself. Alicia usually leaves him in front of the television."
Guess it wasn't the right time to remind his brother he'd called a couple of dozen times in the past two days. John rubbed his side, then his jaw, and dusted some of the dirt from his body. What a welcome.
"Dad?" He pushed the screen door open with the hesitation of entering the unknown. He didn't know what to expect. Light on his feet, soundlessly moving through the kitchen and sitting room, he was afraid of what he'd find in front of the loud television.
A severe stroke ten days ago when he'd been working horses. That's all John knew. He'd left messages on his dad's cell, but no one had called back. His dad kept him up-to-date. Sad, but he didn't know his brother's number.
Bad communication skills were nothing new before he'd left for the navy. More bad habits had formed when he'd been in training and not allowed to call. Then long missions with no communication. Different time zones. Easy after that to avoid calling home by just being too busy- or pretending to be. His father had accepted the excuses. His brother had told him never to look back and meant it.
He was a different man. They both were. They had time to fix what was wrong. Later.
Right now it was about his dad-who was asleep in a wheelchair in a room that no longer resembled his mother's favorite in the house. Full of a hospital bed, pulleys, a portable toilet and other medical stuff, everything familiar had been removed. There was a flat-screen TV hanging on the wall.
He heard the water running in the kitchen behind him and jerked around, surprised Brian had entered without making a sound.
"Dad, wake up." Brian shoved a shoulder into John as he passed. His angry twin turned a gentle hand to touch their dad's shoulder and not startle him awake. "John's home."
He understood the pain. His brother had a right to be upset, from the serious look of things. He'd been here taking care of the ranch and their dad. Alone.
The last time they'd been face-to-face, they were skinny kids eating their dad out of a ton of groceries. Identical twins who could have passed for each other-and had fooled more than a teacher or two. Not to mention the girls. There were differences now. The most obvious was their hair. His was the navy regulation, high and tight over his ears. Brian's was longish, touching his collar.
John knew the tense jaw-clenching muscle all too well. Strange seeing what it looked like to others. Their bodies were toned from different types of exercises-his PT and Brian's ranch work. Weird that they still looked so much alike.
"I got here as soon as I could. I had no idea," John apologized. He would not complain about the lack of information provided by his brother. It would just upset his dad.
"That's an understatement," Brian mumbled.
His dad shook his head. Upset. Brian patted his shoulder. "I know, Dad. I told you I'd explain things when he got here."
He kept his mouth shut, stunned at the fright he saw in his father's eyes. The stroke had left him paralyzed. He couldn't talk. Brian lifted a straw to the left side of his dad's mouth and patiently waited, that angry gleam still in his eyes when he connected with John.
"Dad had a stroke and was lucky to survive. Recovery's going to take a while, but he's doing great." He put the mug on the table. "Looks like Alicia wore you out as usual, old man. Time for a nap, right?"
Brian moved swiftly. John moved in to help but was waved off. In two shakes, J. W. Sloane was back in bed. Brian maneuvered him quickly and with the same calm ease he handled troubled animals.
"I got this. Go get cleaned up and I'll get him settled. I'm sure you have things to explain."
Things hadn't changed; his brother issued orders for him to follow. And just like every day of his life, he followed orders well. Stowing his gear back in a room that hadn't changed except for the layers of dust, he wondered if the day would ever come where he'd be deciding his own fate.