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Saturday Morning, Early December, Tribute, Texas
Amy Galloway parked her eight-year-old car at the curb on the tree-lined street and got out. Her stomach was dancing in her gut as if a volley of rocket-propelled grenades was being lobbed over her head. The house, a ranch-style in pale-gray brick, was as beautiful and welcoming as she'd known it would be. There was no reason to be nervous.
From inside the house came what sounded like a female wail of distress. Maybe she had come at a bad time. Maybe she should wait—no. She was here, and she had a purpose. She owed Brenda more than she could ever pay.
That wail came from the house again. Someone definitely seemed more than a little upset.
Inside the house, someone was more than a little upset.
"Daddy, Cindy keeps untying my ribbon," Jasmine whined at the top of her lungs.
Riley Sinclair gave his jaw one final swipe with the razor, then rinsed off the blade before grabbing his shirt and slipping it on. "Cindy," he called on his way to the hall. "Did you untie Jasmine's ribbon?"
"Yes." For a four-year-old, she sounded amazingly self-assured.
Riley stopped in the doorway to the girls' bedroom. "Why?"
Cindy crossed her arms and tilted her head. Her eyes were narrowed, her expression serious. "Because it was ugly."
"It was not," Pammy yelled. "I tied it myself."
"Mommy would have tied it better," Cindy said. She'd gone from serious to snotty in a blink.
Riley wanted to close his eyes, turn around and go back to bed. Maybe if they started this day over, it would go better. This was the girls' third row in the past half hour.
Since starting over wasn't an option, he wanted to yell, Stop it! But he couldn't. Especially not after they'd brought their mother into the fray. He said a quick, oft-repeated prayer for patience.
"Well, Mommy's not here," Pammy shot back, just as snotty.
"Pammy," he warned tersely. "Watch your tone."
"Well, it's true." As the oldest, nine-year-old Pammy, felt their mother's loss the most. "I can't help it if I can't tie a bow like Mommy, or make French toast like her, or anything else." Tears filled her eyes.
Six-year-old Jasmine saw the wet streaks on her big sister's cheeks and started crying.
Cindy, the youngest, followed suit and wailed. Riley's throat tightened. His vision blurred. He wanted to join them and wail out his misery. He missed Brenda, too. And he knew exactly how Pammy felt. He wasn't as good a cook or housekeeper, or knee-bandager, or hair-comber, or storyteller, or doll-dresser or any of those other things Brenda used to do with the girls before the National Guard activated her and sent her to Iraq.
She hadn't wanted to die any more than he'd wanted her to get herself killed. But Riley understood that other tone in Pammy's voice, too. It was hard sometimes not to feel anger at losing the glue that had always held your life together. For Pammy, Brenda had been her glue since she'd been born. For Riley, since he'd fallen for Brenda in first grade.
But he didn't have time to remember those good days. Not now. "Come here, babies." He pulled all three of the girls into his arms and held them.
When they finished crying, he dried their tears. Pammy retied Jasmine's hair ribbon into a bow, one that Cindy finally approved of. Peace on earth.
Peace that was interrupted about thirty seconds later when the doorbell rang.
"I'll get it!" Pammy asserted her authority as oldest child.
Jasmine forgot her earlier tears and raced after Pammy. "I'll get it!"
"No, let me, it's my turn." His youngest and smallest daughter nearly bowled him over as she shoved him aside on her way to the front door.
"What's the rule?" he called out sharply. They might live in small-town Texas, but that didn't mean they shouldn't exercise basic precautions.
"But, Dad, it's Saturday," Jasmine cried.
He caught up with them in the foyer just as Jasmine put her hand on the doorknob. "What's the rule?"
The doorbell rang again. "Be right there," he called out. Then, to the girls, "What's the rule?"
"Never open the door unless you know it's a friend."
"That's right. And does it say anything about Saturday?"
Cindy pouted, Jasmine hung her head. Pammy said, "No, sir. I looked. It's a lady. She looks kinda familiar, I think."
"All right." He opened the door. The woman standing there was about five-six and wore a blue plaid flannel shirt, tail out, over faded blue jeans with new sneakers on her feet. Her skin was tanned, with a bridge of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Her hair was pulled back tightly into a knot at the base of her skull. It looked brown, but from his angle it was hard to tell. Her eyes were the green of new leaves. The apprehension he read in them puzzled him. "Hello," he said.
Amy stared at the man before her, at the three little girls vying for position around him in the doorway. This was a picture come to life right before her eyes.Any one of a dozen pictures, in fact, carried by her best friend and fellow sergeant Brenda Sinclair in Iraq and shown off to anyone and everyone who would look. Brenda had been so in love with this man, so adoring of their daughters.
"What can I do for you?" the man asked. Amy pulled her mind from the past and focused on the here and now. "Mr. Sinclair?" she asked. Stupid to ask. She knew it was him. But she was unaccountably nervous, with an entire platoon marching in step just behind her breastbone.
"That's me." He cocked his head and peered at her more closely. "Do I know you?"
"I told you she looked familiar," the oldest daughter said.
"We've never met," Amy told him.
"Daddy?" The smallest girl sidled up next to him and tugged on his arm.
"Just a minute, sweetie."
The little girl looked up at her daddy, then atAmy. Amy smiled. "Hello."
The child snuggled closer to her father and smiled at Amy as she spoke to him. "She looks like Sergeant Amy on the fridge."
Startled, Amy stared at the child. "By golly, Cindy, she does, doesn't she?" the man said. "You are, aren't you?" he asked her.
Amy frowned. "The fridge? Wha...? I don't...?"
"My wife sent a photo home from Iraq of her and her friend. It's you." He sounded...awed.
Amy had the strongest urge to glance over her shoulder to see who he was talking to.
Realizing that she'd left him standing there, she suddenly smiled and offered him a hand. "I'm sorry. Yes, I'm Amy Galloway. You're Riley, and these must be your daughters."
The child's eyes widened. "You know who we are?"
"Of course I do. Your mother told me all about you."
"She did?" the smallest one asked.
"In Iraq?" the middle one asked.
"Before she died," the oldest one stated flatly.
"That's right," Amy told them.
"She was a sergeant, too," the oldest said.
"That's right." Amy ached with the need to pull these sweet babies into her arms and hold them, keep them safe, love them.
But they didn't need her, she reminded herself. They had their father for all of that. "I wonder," she said to him, "if I might have a few minutes of your time, Mr. Sinclair?"
"Of course," he answered easily. "Girls, clear a path and let the sergeant in."
Amy shook her head. "Call me Amy. I'm a civilian now."
"No kidding?" His smile widened. "Is it congratulations or condolences?"
While most people assumed she should be ecstatic to be out of the army, this man understood that she might feel otherwise. She appreciated that. "A little of both," she said honestly.
She followed him past the living room on the right, the formal dining room on the left, and into what Brenda had called the great room. Kitchen at one end, television, sofas, a wingback chair and a pair of recliners, along with bookshelves and a full entertainment center at the other.
Amy breathed a sigh of relief. Brenda had been such a perfectionist and had talked about how she worked so hard to keep everything in her home neat and tidy and clean, or as much so as possible with three children and a husband. Amy had halfway expected the place to have that look-butdon't touch appearance to it, like a room right out of a magazine or something. But this was a room a person could be comfortable in. Several pairs of rubber boots littered the floor by the sliding glass door to the patio and yard, and rolls of paper— house plans, she assumed, since Riley was a contractor—stood in an umbrella stand next to the largest recliner. Someone was bringing his work home with him these days.