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Lucas couldn't sleep. What else was new? He thought maybe things would be different once he got home, but no.
He threw back the covers and slid into the leather flip-flops he'd picked up at the base PX, then headed out back to the garage and his 1965 Mustang. The classic car he'd saved up for with part-time jobsbought long before he was old enough to drive and mostly rebuilt before he'd left home at eighteenseemed to call out to him.
As the cool night wind pushed him along, he glanced next door, finding a light on in the upstairs bedroom. The same room he'd tossed pebbles at the night before he left for boot camp. Jocelyn hadn't opened the window then, so he'd never gotten to say goodbye. Damn, had that been ten years ago?
He flipped on the light at the garage side entrance, but nothing happened. Fumbling around in the dark he bumped into his car and reached above, swinging his hand back and forth until he found the dangling chain then yanked. A single bulb dimly lit the garage. Rolling back the thick plastic car-cover, he took a deep inhale. Grease and oil perked up his senses. This was home. The garage and the peace it had always offered. His classic car.
How could his father call him a slacker when he 'd never worked harder on anything in his life?
Glancing around the countertops, he found a rag and walked the perimeter of the Mustang, wiping away the dust on the chipped and flaking paint, the smoother areas covered in sprayed-on primer. He took his time, reacquainting himself with the sleek body and chrome.
He'd flown into LAX from North Carolina earlier that evening, greeted by his sister, Anne, and her boyfriend, Jack. They delivered him home to the Grady idea of a hero's welcomeMom's famous yellow cake with buttercream chocolate frosting. Still one of the best desserts he'd ever had.
Lucas looked at the beat-up Harley in the corner of the garage. Though in their mid-fifties, Mom and Dad still enjoyed their weekend rides. Well, they used to, anywaybefore the accident.
It had been a little shocking to find his father in a wheelchair, his right leg and opposite arm in casts. Still an imposing figure at six feet four inchesthough you couldn't tell in that wheelchairKieran Grady hadn't changed much. His sandy blond hair had been invaded by silver, mostly around the temples, and he looked craggier than Lucas remembered. Probably from all the years of coaching in the California sun catching up with him. His steel-blue stare, though, was unchanged, and he'd used those inquiring eyes to thoroughly check out Lucas tonight. Did Dad have a clue what Lucas had been through in the desert?
No one could, unless they'd witnessed it themselves.
Mom, other than going the bottle-brown route with her hair, had looked basically the same. She wore her signature casual jeans, though now they'd been traded in for designer jeans with shiny studs along the pockets and stitched flowers at the flared legs. Still preferring flashy patterned tops, her bright pink cast competed with the loud colors. Her welcoming smile and the tears welling in her eyes told him all he needed to knowshe was happy to have him home, no matter the circumstances.
As Lucas thought about that night, the tugging in his chest let him know it was good to see his parents again. Both of them.
While he tinkered with the car, Lucas geared up for the next couple of weeks being his father's medical attendant. It would be tough but a damn sight easier than performing medic duties in the desert.
He stood back and stared at his Mustang, then scanned the family garage, littered with boxes stored in the rafters. So many memories.
Was it good to be home?
"Hey," his sister Anne said from the door.
He controlled his surprise, trained his eyes on her and kept rubbing the car. "I can't believe Dad kept this around."
"I think he knew you'd come after him if he ever tried to sell it."
Man, the tension between him and his dad had made the welcome-home yellow cake with chocolate butter-cream frosting go down like cardboard. Would Dad ever forgive him for enlisting? It was Dad's dream to send him to college, just like Anne and Lark, but Lucas hadn't wanted to go to college. He wasn't one for hitting the books like his sisters. No, he preferred the basics: getting his hands dirty and fixing things. Come to think of it, being a medic in the field had a lot to do with fixing things, like gaping body injuries, burned skin and gunshot wounds. Books and papers, well, he didn't have the patience for that stuff.
When he'd tested out for medic over engineer on the military aptitude battery, he'd almost demanded a retest. That was Anne's dream, to be a doctorthough she'd become a nurseand these days baby sister Lark was the one back east in medical school.
"What are you doing up?" she asked.
"Too much excitement?"
His smile felt more like a grimace. "Yeah, maybe that's it."
The worst part of his post-traumatic stress disorder was dealing with insomnia. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept more than a couple hours. When he did manage to fall asleep, he'd wake with a start, heart pounding up his throat, every muscle tensed, prepared to fight for his life. Or his sleep would be restless with fits and jerks like he was still fighting the war. He'd wake up more exhausted than when he'd gone to bed.
What he'd give for one good night's sleep .
Because he was exhausted most of the time, he snapped at people, which wouldn't go over well with his dad. Only his buddies in the field understood. How would he adjust to being back to civilian life, where no one else did?
"Can I bring you anything from the kitchen?" Of the three siblings, Anne looked the most like their mother, and she'd barely changed since the last time he'd seen herChristmas three years ago. Her light brown hair was different, cut just above her shoulders now instead of halfway down her back. She'd borne the brunt of caring for Mom and Dad the past few weeks, and it showed in dark inverted arcs under her eyes. Or maybe it was just the dingy garage lighting. She probably thought he looked like hell, too.
Something else was going on with her, but he didn't have a clue. He'd picked up on that "something" between her and Jack on the drive home from the airport tonight, but he couldn't get a handle on what it might be.
"I'm fine, Anne, thanks." Hell, she'd always been able to read his moods, and his go-away-and-leave-mealone approach wouldn't keep her off his scent for long. She'd probably noticed him flinch when he dove into the backseat of the car at the airport at the same time a car backfired. "What are you doing up?" he said.
"I saw the light and just wanted to check and make sure everything was okay."
"Hope I didn't wake you."
"Nah, I was awake, anyway. I'm going back inside now," she said.
"I'm okay, Anne." He glanced to make sure she wasn't worried about him. He couldn't read her sleepy-looking brown eyes. "See you in the morning."
She hesitated, looking more alert and glancing a bit longer than necessary, probably using her uncanny, sister fib-o-meter to size him up, then she nodded. "Night."
To her, when they were growing up, he'd always been the goofball kid brother. He'd given her plenty of reasons for that, with all his shenanigans and poorly thought-out schemes. How many times had he gotten caught and in trouble for his less-than-bright ideas? Anne had often come to his aid and stuck up for him. He fought a smile, glimpsing a portion of his face in the car's cracked rearview mirror.
She'd tried, though. She'd tricked him into signing up for the track team by telling him it would get him out of those dreaded physical fitness tests. And he quit smoking after she showed him horrifying pictures of cancerous lungs from her high school anatomy class.
Lucas could have been a huge screwup if it weren't for Anne. When she used to call him out for being a jerk, it'd felt like a stab through the heart, but she always managed to get through to him. She didn't buy his bad-boy act for a second, even if everyone else did. And that was fine by him. Truth was, he liked it better when he made her and Mom laugh, not worry. He rubbed his chest thinking how long Mom had been worrying about him. Ten years, counting basic training. The last thing Mom needed to know was he'd cut his PTSD treatment short to come home and take care of her and Dad.
Once Anne was gone, he switched on the old radio in the corner and listened to static oldies through the tinny speaker. When he'd finished wiping down the car, he sat inside and cleaned the tattered leather upholstery and faded dashboard, fingered the steering wheel and imagined driving with the top down, feeling the winds of Whispering Oaks rushing through his hair. Now that he had some hair. What was that word, or more importantly, that feeling, he'd forgotten? Carefree.
He let out a breath. The last time he'd felt carefree was around the time his biggest charge was pulling little Jocelyn Howard's braids and having her chase him around the yard. But once he'd hit puberty, that was child's play.
With the late hour, the static was coarse on the radio. He got out of the car to turn it off and to try for a couple hours of sleep. On his way inside, he noticed the light was out in Jocelyn's bedroom. He thought about looking for some pebbles to toss at her window, just to bug her, but he was only wearing his army-issue brown boxers. What kind of impression would that make? Besides, if this time she opened the window, he wouldn't have a clue what to say.
Mere hours later, a loud knock on the door woke Lucas. "I'll be right there," he said, husky-voiced. He hopped to attention, threw on some shorts and a crew-neck T-shirt and fumbled for the knob. The last thing he needed was for Dad to see the tattoos on his shoulders. Pushing open the door, he saw Anne through bleary eyes.
"We need your help," she said.
"That's what I'm here for." He strode across the hall to his parents' room, pretending to be awake, as Anne's cell phone rang.
"Go ahead," he said. "Answer it. I'll take care of this." He continued into the bedroom as she back-stepped down the hallway, already talking.
"Well, good morning, bright eyes!" his father said, obviously trying to get a rise out of him. How many times growing up had Lucas heard that phrase when he hadn't looked alert enough at the breakfast table?
"Hey, Dad. So how do we do this?" he said, scratching his chest, determined not to knee-jerk a snotty response to his father's jab.
Kieran sat at the edge of the bed, hair ruffled, eyes grumpy, sheets twisted and knotted around him.
Lucas let a slow smile tug at one corner of his mouth.
"You know, you're not looking so bright-eyed yourself, Dad."
"It's been hell, Lucas. These damn casts are driving me nuts. I'm counting the days until they'll take them off."
Nearby, Bart, his parents' replacement for the kids, warily eyed Lucas. Lucas approached, ignoring the Rhodesian ridgeback's low growl. "Good boy," he said. Though big and imposing-looking, the dog's real personality was betrayed by a wagging long brown tail.
Soon, the huge dog licked Lucas's arm as if they'd been friends forever.
Only sheer will could have gotten Dad to sit up on his own because Mom, who stood close by with a yellow robe over her shoulders and that bright pink cast, couldn't possibly have helped him with her one good hand. The man was too damn big. Good thing Dad had a will of steel.
"What did you always say to me, 'This too shall pass,' or something?" Lucas said, wanting to ease his dad's frazzled mood.
Kieran grimaced. "Using my own words against methat's cold, son." He flashed a brief grin at Lucasmore of a touche than an affirmation. Truce. For now.
"Let me explain how we do this," his mom, Beverly, said, stepping around the bed to her husband's side.
He'd done thousands of patient transfers in his nine years of active duty. But Lucas bit his tongue and let her explain their routine for getting Dad into the wheelchair.
Forty-five minutes later he'd helped his father wash and get dressed and had rolled him into the kitchen for breakfast. After years of helping his share of proud-but-wounded soldiers in the field, Lucas understood how humiliating it was for a grown man to need someone else to help him bathe. So he'd offered his dad all due respect, looking away when necessary, and the man had appreciated it.
He could tell because Dad had let his guard down a little. They carried on a civilized conversation as if new acquaintances. Same stuff he'd covered with Anne on the drive from the airport. Weather, food, old friends. Though the conversation with his dad had felt stilted, anything was better than snarky attacks.
At least his dad hadn't mentioned his appearance. Lucas had caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom with Dad and had to laugh at how bad he looked. He'd at least managed to throw some water on his face and run damp fingers through his hair. He'd thought about shaving when he'd shaved his father but decided to wait until later when he showered. And Dad would have nothing to do with the soul patch he'd tried to talk him into, opting for a clean shave. He noted that Dad's hairline seemed to be getting higher and higher.
In the kitchen, after gulping down the orange juice Anne had set on the counter for him, Lucas headed out front for the newspaper. The neighborhood hadn't changed a bita meandering street lined with pine and ash trees, mostly single-story ranch houses except for the Howards' next door and a few others. The beige of the Grady home was accented with red brick, which set it apart from the otherwise similar homes along the street. Bushes or rustic wood fences divided most property lines.
He glanced up and down the block as he searched for the paper on yet another sunny day in Southern California. God, he'd missed that. The paper had been thrown between the family car in the driveway and the long row of box bushes bordering the Howards' yard. As he bent to reach for it, he heard footfalls running down the sidewalk. He popped his head over the car bumper in time to see Jocelyn jog by. He hadn't seen her in almost ten years, yet he instantly recognized her.
She wore black thigh-length form-fitting running shorts and a sports bra. More athletic than voluptuous, she could get away with it. And did she ever. Her long torso, thin legs and arms looked fit, covered in a light bronze California tan. Her fawn-colored hair, held high in a ponytail over the back of her visor, shone in the sun.
Flooded with good memories and hit by an impulse, he shot out from behind the car after her. Her long po-nytail wagged back and forth with each stride, begging to be yanked. Nearly catching up with her, he reached out for her hair and tugged.
"Hey there," he said.
She gasped and spun around, recoiled with muscles tensed, eyes large and dark with surpriseor possibly fear. Idiot, you scared her! Maybe he should have thought through his bright idea a bit more.
Just as suddenly, she beamed with recognition.