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Homecoming ought to be as sweet as candied cherries,
so the bitter regret that filled Chrissie Evans caught her by surprise. She'd expected to be past those feelings by now, to be able to join in the general jubilation over the return of another group of soldiers to Colorado Springs. She forced a smile to her lips, and a cheerfulness into her voice when she faced Allison O'Reilly, the petite blond receptionist at the dentist's office she managed.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. "You should be home getting ready to welcome that soldier of yours." Members of the Sixth Cavalry, who'd been stationed in Iraq for the past year, were coming home today.
"I've been ready for days." Allison grinned, the dimples on either side of her mouth deepening, her blue eyes shining. "The house is as clean as it can get. Once I'd put on my new dress and done my makeup, there was nothing to do but sit. I figured if I came in to work I could at least be with people until it was time to drive to the base."
"Then sit down and get to work." Rita Red Horse, the dental hygienist, patted Allison's shoulder. "You might as well take it easy while you can. That man of yours isn't likely to let you sleep for at least a week."
Allison blushed, but sat. "I'm so nervous," she said. "I can't wait to see him. And then, part of me is nervous about that, too. A year is a long time. What if he's different?"
"He'll be different," Rita said. "Paul says you can't go to war and not come back different." Her husband was a sergeant with the 10th Special Forces, on his second tour in Iraq. "But he's still your Daniel. The man you love who loves you."
"Yes," Allison said, looking reassured. "He is. And hesounds the same in his e-mails, so that's good." She shuffled folders on the desk. "Oh God, I'm so nervous!"
Smile fixed in place, Chrissie turned away and walked back into the procedure room. Only when she was alone did she allow the mask to slip, and give in to the sadness that dragged at her. She would have thought by now the grief would not be so sharp, the pain not so fresh. She'd had three years of homecomings to practice hiding her feelings, which made the intensity of her emotions now that much worse. When everyone around her was rejoicing, why was it so hard to pretend she wasn't missing out?
Trying to shake off the feelings, she began prepping for a crown Dr. Foley would install that afternoon. Keeping busy was the only way to get through this. Tomorrow would be a little better, and the day after, better still.
The door opened and Rita stuck her head into the room. "You okay?" she asked.
Chrissie nodded. "I'm okay."
"Memories are a bitch sometimes," Rita said. Chrissie let out a shaky sigh and nodded. "Not memories, exactly. I mean, Matt never had a chance to come home."
Rita walked over and patted her shoulder. Paul had served with Chrissie's husband, Matt, and the two women had shared a bond ever since those early days when the men had shipped out for their first tour of duty together. "You want to go out later?" Rita asked. "Maybe get drunk?"
The invitation surprised a laugh from Chrissie. That had to be a good sign, that she could still laugh. "You don't drink," she said.
Rita shrugged. "I can be the driver."
Chrissie shook her head. "Thanks, but I'm okay. Just a little melancholy, I guess."
"If you change your mind, let me know. I promise not to take pictures and use them for blackmail or anything."
Chrissie laughed again, and waved Rita out of the room. All mirth left with her friend, buffeted by memories of the only homecoming Matt Evans had had. He'd arrived in a flag-draped coffin, accompanied by an honor guard of solemn young soldiers who had avoided meeting her eyes. Twenty-five and married only eleven monthsonly two of those before Matt had shipped outChrissie had worn a black dress that was too big for her to the funeral and mutely accepted the folded flag and the medal, a Purple Heart awarded posthumously. She had been too numb and scared to feel anything.
The numbness had been a way of coping that she could appreciate now. She'd been a widow longer than she'd been a wife, Matt having been killed in the very early days of the war. Some had questioned her decision to stay in the Springs, a military town where she was surrounded by reminders of her loss. But Colorado Springs had been her home for long before she'd met and married Matt. Her parents were here. Her memories were here. The little house on Kirkham Street that she'd bought with Matt's life insurance money was here. Her job and her friends were here.
So she stayed, and she coped. She made friends with other servicemen's wives, and a few people like Rita knew her story. But mostly she didn't volunteer the fact that she was a widow. Doing so forced other women to acknowledge the same could happen to them, and that was too cruel.
On days like today, when a unit returned home or shipped out, or worse, when another funeral was held, she stayed busy and focused on other things. She took long walks, watched movies and read books. She went out with friends. She didn't read the papers or watch the news.
She dated some, but never another soldier. It was her one firm rule. Why take a chance on falling for someone else who could be killed? Why go through that particular pain again?
HOMECOMING OUGHT TO FILL a soldier with warmththe
warmth of firelight and candles. The warmth of a woman welcoming her man back into her arms.
But all Captain Ray Hughes felt now was cold, as if his chest was filling up with ice. He stood in the Special Events Center at Fort Carson, Colorado, surrounded by men and women embracing, by groups of schoolkids waving signs, by other children squealing with delight and mothers sobbing quietly with joy. He was the calm, cold center around which they all swirled.
Occasionally someone would break from their celebrating long enough to glance at hima brief look of curiosity or pity. He looked away from them, toward the doorway, then snapped his eyes back when he realized he was looking for her, some small stubborn part of him hoping she'd show up, even though he had her letter in his pocket, telling him she wouldn't be here. That she'd never be there for him again.
He clamped his jaw shut, hard. There was a bad tooth on the left side. It didn't usually bother him too much, but biting down hard sent a sharp pain through his head, enough to momentarily distract him from the deeper pain that sliced through his chest as the seconds ticked by.
"Hey, Captain, do you need a ride somewhere?" Corporal Daniel O'Reilly stopped in front of him. His arm was around a young woman with blond curly hair and dimples on either side of her pink-lipsticked mouth. Dan had some of the same lipstick smeared on his cheek. His eyes had the glazed look of a man who had had too many beers, but Ray knew the corporal was drunk on the joy of finally being home after a year in Baghdad.
"No, I'm fine," Ray said automatically.
"This is my wife, Allison. Allison, this is Captain Hughes."
"Pleased to meet you, Captain," Allison said. The dimples deepened when she smiled at him.
"Is someone coming to meet you?" Dan asked. He looked around the room. The other men and their wives and girlfriends and parents and children were starting to filter out of the place now.
"I'll get a taxi," Ray said, answeringand not answer-ingthe corporal's question.
"Let us take you wherever you need to go." Dan's wife put a gentle hand on his arm. Her eyes were blue, her lashes heavy with too much mascara that somehow made her look even younger, like a girl playing dress-up.
To say no to her would have been too rude. Instead, he let his shoulders relax a little and nodded. "Okay. Thanks."
He collected his duffel and followed them out of the Events Center, into air so brittle with cold and dryness he half expected it to crackle with each indrawn breath. The sky looked cut from a single piece of deepest turquoise, not a cloud in sight. A blinding sun reflected off the snow heaped around them in drifts, still pristine white and soft on top.
"The snow, can you believe it?" Dan grinned at him.
"Back in the summer, I used to hallucinate about days like this."
"That's April in the Rockies for you. We had a big storm yesterday," his wife said. She fished the keys to their car, a navy-blue Subaru Outback, from her purse and handed them to him. "I was worried it would delay your flight."
"Nothing was gonna keep me from getting home on time, if I had to fly the plane myself," he said.
Ray looked away while they kissed again, then climbed into the backseat of the Subaru, moving aside a plastic grocery sack full of fabric to do so.
"I'm sorry about that," Allison said, leaning back to slide the bag over even farther. "They're some clothes a coworker gave me." She smiled at her husband. "The cutest things."
"Allison is the receptionist at a dentist's office," Dan said.
He didn't know what he was supposed to say to this, so he remained silent. Dan pulled out of the parking lot. "Where to, Captain?" he asked.
Ray gave the address to the house he'd bought last year, in a neighborhood near the base.
"I turn at the light here, right?" Dan asked.
"The next light," Allison said. "They put this new one in just a couple months ago."
They'd been warned about this kind of thing in debrief-ingthat things would be changed from how they remembered them. It wasn't that different than if they'd been in jail. Normal life had gone on without them. Now they had to catch up.
Ray's jaw tightened again as they turned onto his street. Without even realizing it, he had scooted forward in the seat. He stared out the windshield, watching for the house. It was a brick ranch.A nice enough place when he'd bought it, but now it had the neglected look of an unoccupied buildingthe driveway unshoveled, blank windows staring out at them.
Dan pulled the car to the curb. Before he'd cut the engine, Ray grabbed his duffel and slid out of the seat. "Thanks for the ride," he said. "Have a good night."
Not waiting for an answer, not wanting to risk questions, he hustled up the walk, back straight, duffel slung over one shoulder. A man without a care in the world.
Only when he heard the car pull away did he relax and let the bag drop to the ground. He found the key where they'd always kept it, in a depression he'd chipped from a loose brick over the door.
His first surprise was that the lights came on when he flicked the switch by the door. At least the electricity was still on. His second surprise was what the lights illuminated.
The room was bare except for a TV tray, a scarred coffee table and a recliner covered in tan corduroy. The carpet still showed the indentations where the leather sofa and entertainment center had sat. Ray stared at those small flattened squares of carpet fiber and swore under his breath. He shouldn't have been surprised. She'd picked out the sofa herselfwhite leather. Impractical as hell. At least she'd left the chair.
The loss of the television hurt, but he'd get another one.
He walked through the rest of the house, making note of what was missing and what she hadn't deemed worthy of taking. The air smelled of stale onions and cooking oil and pine cleanser. The kitchen looked all right. She'd left the coffeemaker, and the little table where they ate breakfast. The bigger table in the dining room was gone.
The dresser was there, but she'd taken the bed. He was glad of that. He wouldn't have to lie there now and wonder who else she'd shared that mattress with. Her clothes were gone from the closet and the dresser, though a single empty perfume bottle stood in the dust on top, as if she wanted to remind him of her. He lifted it to his nose and inhaled, and had an instant image of a laughing, dark-haired young woman looking over her shoulder at him.
He set the bottle carefully back on the dresser and walked out of the room and down the hall to the last door.
This room was unchanged. The Winnie the Pooh border she'd picked out still ringed the room. The single bed under the window filled most of the space. The rest was shared by a dresser and bookcase and plastic milk crates of toys. A fuzzy purple bear grinned at him from the bed. Looking at it made Ray's chest hurt. He closed his eyes and tried to remember what his son, Thomas James Hughes, looked like, but he couldn't.
He'd know soon enough. She'd written that she'd left the boy with his parents in Omaha. He'd spoken to his mother only yesterday and she'd confirmed that T.J. was well, but "a handful. I love him dearly, but your father and I can't wait for you to come and take him home with you," his mother had said. "We are just not prepared at our age to raise a little one again. Besides, we're supposed to leave on a cruise next week."
As if he was prepared. He hadn't even seen the boy in over a year. Kids changed a lot at that age.
Ray backed out of the room, then stood in the hallway, rubbing his jaw where his tooth throbbed. If he left tonight, he could be in Omaha by morning. He'd spend the night driving, instead of sitting in this house alone.
He returned to the bedroom and retrieved a spare set of keys from their hiding place beneath his socks and headed for the attached garage. The familiar smells of motor oil and old tires greeted him as he stepped into the dimly lit sanctuary. He reached behind him to flip on the light and stared at
His single curse was loud, echoing off the empty concrete. He closed his eyes, then opened them again, not believing what he was seeing.
The bitch had taken his truck. The brand-new, cherry-red Nissan Titan, purchased not eighteen months ago. He'd put the title in her name, thinking he was being smart, in case anything happened to him, and she'd promised to take care of it, to drive it once a week to keep the engine lubricated, even though she said she preferred her little Honda.