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Parker patted the sun-warmed dirt she'd scooped around the young plant, singing along with John Travolta as he bragged about making out under a dock. When Olivia Newton John started trilling her side of the story, the MP3 player cut off.
Darn, darn, darn, darn, darn. And how typical. The man gets to finish while the woman barely gets started.
Parker fished the device out of the bib pocket of her overalls and sat back on her boot heels. The screen had gone dark. She'd forgotten to charge the dumb thing. Again.
She tugged the earbuds free with a sigh and stuffed the whole mess into her pocket, ignoring the dirt she should have brushed from her gloves. Just as well. If Harris had walked up on her while she was singing, he'd have demanded hazardous duty pay.
Or not. She pressed her lips together. Harris Briggs knew better than anyone that she couldn't afford even regular wages.
A feisty spring breeze carrying the scent of damp earth and lilacs chased the thought away. She rose to her knees and pulled off her hat, enjoying the rush of air that cooled her sweat-soaked head. Hands on hips, she surveyed the progress she'd made since lunch. A stubby string of bright green plugs stretched away from her. A little compost, a little water, a lot of sun, and next June, Castle Creek Growers would have its first crop of strawberries.
Parker grunted and snatched up her water bottle. If only a child were that easy to raise.
She jumped. The bottle slipped from her grasp and hit the ground with a sloshing thud. Lukewarm water pooled beneath her right knee. An unfamiliar male voice clipped out an apology and she lifted a hand to shade her eyes. Standing at the edge of the strawberry bed was a tall, well-built man wearing a black beret, tinted sunglasses and a class-A U.S. Army uniform.
She blinked, then sat down hard. A swell of grief crowded her lungs and she struggled to catch her breath. Not Tim. Of course not Tim. It could never be Tim.
The soldier muttered something and dropped into a crouch in front of her. His sunglasses dangled between his fingers. She lifted her gaze to his face and winced at the grim remorse she saw there.
Don't be so pathetic, Parker Anne. "Forgive me," he said.
She stared into eyes the color of maple syrup, eyes that looked so much older than the rest of him, and slowly shook her head. Then realized he might take that as a refusal. "No need," she finally murmured. She pushed to her feet, waving away his offer of help. "I'm fine." She stepped back from his spotless uniform and slapped at the mud clinging to her knees. Head bent, she blinked like a madwoman.
"You sure you're okay? You went white there for a second."
"I just" She swallowed hard and straightened. "I thought you were someone else."
"Yes, ma'am." He removed his beret, revealing dark, close-cropped hair. "Your husband."
"You served with him?"
For a split second his features went rigid. "No, ma'am. I'm with the 1st Infantry Division out of Fort Knox. But I was deployed to Helmand province, same time as Sergeant First Class Dean." He hesitated, then extended a hand. "Corporal reid Macfarland."
She peeled off her right glove and took his hand. His grip was strong and confident, and despite the remoteness in his eyes he made her feel wistful.
And we 're back to pathetic. "Parker Dean," she said, and let go. "Kentucky's a long way from Pennsylvania. What brings you to Castle Creek?"
"I hoped we could talk." He picked up her hat. "Somewhere out of the sun?"
Apparently he'd noticed the whole red hair and freckles thing. And although she should know better, his concern defused her internal I'malone-with-a-strange-man alarm. While she debated whether to lead him to the house or to the potting shed that doubled as her office, he slipped on his shades, paused, then pulled them off again. She couldn't help noticing the slight shake in his hand.
The corporal outweighed her by a solid fifty pounds and out well, outheighted her by five or six inches. He was a soldier. He'd survived combat. In Afghanistan.
And he was nervous?
Not good. Sudden tremors rippled up and down Parker's legs. Her little family couldn't handle any more bad news.
"Tell me why you're here." Then go. Before he could answer, her stomach dropped. "The death gratuity." She'd invested that for Natalie. For college. No way she'd let them
"No, ma'am. I'm not here in any official capacity."
"But you're.. " She gestured, and he glanced down at his crisp class-A's.
"I wanted to show my respect."
"I see." Though she didn't. Not at all. She backed away again, fighting the urge to tug that uniform close, to wrap her arms around it and rest her cheek against the familiar green wool. She hadn't seen dress greens since the funeral.
"Might as well spit it out," she said, with a lift of her chin.
"Nothing you can say could be worse than what I heard thirteen months ago. Friendly fire, they told me" She swallowed, and jerked her shoulders up and down. "I doubt you can top that, Corporal Macfarland."
She grimaced and wiped a wrist across her forehead. "No. I'm sorry. You have nothing to apologize for."
"Actually, I do." His jaw flexed. "Your husband was killed by a missile fired"
"From a U.S. drone. A Hellfire, they said." Did she really have to hear this again? "What's that got to do with you?"
"everything." He straightened shoulders already level enough to make any carpenter proud. "I'm the one who sent the drone."
Wide-eyed silence. Then the distant bark of a dog and a rushing noise as a mass of starlings flew overhead, the sound like rows and rows of clothes-pinned sheets flapping in the wind.
The woman he'd made a widow stared back at him, face rigid, lips parted. Red chased the pallor from her cheeks and her hands clenched at her sides. She seemed to shrink right in front of him, every muscle tightening, clenching, compacting her into a monument to rage.
"You s-sent it? On purpose?" Her voice started out no stronger than a thread and ended up a hallelujah chorus of bitter fury. "Are you saying my husband was collateral damage?"
"No. No." Jesus. He'd screwed it up already. "I'm saying it was my mistake."
"Are youyouwhy would you even think you could come here andmy God" She stumbled back a step and threw out an arm. Her glove sailed away and landed in a distant patch of clover. She pointed toward the gravel driveway, where he'd parked his Jeep, her entire body trembling. "You need to leave. Now."
He wanted to. God knew he wanted to. But he'd be damned if he'd add "coward" to all the other labels he was lugging around.
He'd come to make whatever amends he could. Do something, anything, to ease the loss he'd caused. His counselor had advised against it.
His counselor didn't have nightmares.
"Hear me out. Please." He pulled in a slow breath. "I need to apologize"
"Apologize?" She made a horrible, strangled sound he figured was meant to be a laugh. She drew a wrist across her face again, but this time it wasn't sweat she was wiping away. He cleared his throat.
"I'm not asking for forgiveness."
"Good. That's good. Because you won't get it. Your 'mistake' cost my husband his life. His life." Her voice broke and she jammed the heels of her hands to her eyes. He doubted she noticed she was still wearing one glove. She dropped her arms and glared. "How dare you. To come here like this without. What were you thinking?"
"Ma'am, I can only say"
"No. No. Don't say anything." She was shaking her head at him, eyes shimmering with unutterable grief. "I don't know what you want from me, but you've already taken enough."
He winced. "I only wanted to"
"No. You don't get to want anything." She choked on a sob. "I can't. .I can't do this."
He watched her stalk away, her path not entirely straight. She headed for the nearest of a trio of plastic-wrapped Quon-set huts that looked like they'd survived a hurricanebarely. Reid's insides ached, as if he'd taken a knee to the gut. But she hadn't said anything he hadn't already said to himself.
"Parker!" She ignored the shout that came from somewhere behind them and disappeared into the greenhouse. Ten seconds later a sixty-something man in baggy overallsmust be some kind of uniformstrode around to face Reid, brawny hands on hips, no hair above his neck save for the steel-colored eyebrows that shaded a narrowed gaze.
"What's goin' on? Who're you?"
Reid sized up the other man. Rough, no-nonsense, shoulders like a lumberjack. Carried himself as if anything in his way had better get the hell out of it. Ten to one a former Marine.
Huh. Could be he'd go back to Kentucky sporting a cracked rib or two.
Things were looking up.
"Corporal Reid Macfarland." He hooked his shades in his breast pocket and offered his hand. "I came to see what I could do."
"Harris Briggs." He gestured with his head at the greenhouse where Parker Dean had sought refuge. "You in her husband's unit?"
"No, sir. I'm the one who killed him."
Briggs sucked air and his eyes stretched wide. "I'll be damned," he muttered. He looked down at the ground, scratched his chin, looked back up. "You mean to kill him?"
"They call that an accident."
"They call that fratricide."
Briggs eyed Reid's stripes. What was left of them. "Got away scot-free, did you?" When Reid didn't answer he pulled a pack of gum from his bib pocket and held it out. Seriously? He'd just admitted to manslaughter and the old guy offers him a stick of gum? Reid's muscles were clamped so tight he couldn't even shake his head. Briggs shrugged and tucked the pack away, unopened.
"Tell me somethin', Corporal. What happened over there?"
"No offense, Mr. Briggs, but you're not the one I came to see."
"Fair enough." He moved past Reid and plucked Parker Dean's water bottle from the strawberry patch, used it to motion toward the greenhouse. "Wouldn't listen to you, huh?"
"Can't say I blame her, sir." Reid nodded once. "I'll be on my way."
"Why is everyone in such a blasted hurry?"
Reid blinked. "With all due respect, shouldn't you be chasing me off the property?"
"Ain't my property." Briggs caught his eye and shrugged. "Been over a year. Talkin' it out might help her move on."
Move on. Right. As hard as it had been for Reid, he couldn't even imagine what the widow had been through. Not to mention her kid.
"You overseas all this time?"
"I came when I could."
"So what now? You headin' back home?"
"I wanted to apologize. It's the least I can do."
"What's the most?"
"You said apologizin's the least you can do. What's the most?"
Reid shifted. Talking to Briggs was like having a conversation with his own conscience.
"I'm on thirty days' leave. I didn't know what I'd find here, but I'd planned to offer to help. Any way I could. Always supposing" he eyed the greenhouse "Mrs. Dean was willing to have me around." Which, clearly, she was not.
Probably figured he'd go after her kid next.
His neck muscles locked. Suck it up, soldier. He'd never expected this to be easy. Had counted on the exact opposite, as a matter of fact.
"Good idea, offerin' to help." With a sweep of his muscled arm, Briggs indicated the farmhouse, the garden plots, the greenhouses. "We could use it."
Reid studied the house. Two stories of weathered wood standing in a copse of trees bordered by acres of flatland.
A tired-looking Toyota hunkered in the yard, flanked by an oak tree sporting a tire swing and an unruly hedge showing off sunshine-yellow blooms. A pink bicycle with a purple bear duct taped to the handlebars lay on its side in the grass.
In comparison to everything his five-year-old Jeep looked brand spanking new.
Beside him Briggs stroked his chin. "Sure does need a paint job."
"Like a desert needs water."
"That mean you're stayin'?"
"That's up to Mrs. Dean." He pulled a folded piece of paper from his breast pocket. "My cell number. Unless Mrs. Dean calls and tells me not to come, I'll be back in the morning."
"Where will you be till then?"
Reid put on his beret. "I'll find a motel."
"We only got one. Joe's not officially open, but I guess he'll put you up." Reid nodded his thanks and Briggs hooked his thumbs in the straps of his overalls. "This mean you won't be coming back if she says she doesn't want you?"
"That's right." Hadn't Reid done enough to this family?
"You, uh, never met Tim Dean, did you?"
"Neither did I. But I can tell you he'd believe his wife and daughter deserve better than a personal check."
Reid stiffened. Briggs had read his mind. But what choice did he have? Financial help made perfect sense, considering Reid had caused the death of the family's breadwinner. A death that had left a widow and a child to fend for themselves.
He tamped down a surge of regret he'd let play out later. Much later, when it was just him and a bottle of beer.
Reid didn't have many expenses, and he sure as hell didn't spend much of his pay while deployed. He'd already talked to his bank about a loan. Whether or not she let him pitch in with physical labor, he'd planned to give Mrs. Dean enough money to keep her family solvent. He'd hoped to have a frank discussion with her about that. Given her reaction, it seemed a check in the mail was the best bet.
Yeah, it was guilt money. Didn't matter. Still had to be paid.
He frowned at Briggs. "I'd like to help, but I have to respect Mrs. Dean's wishes."
"Never mind her. I'll talk her around. Woman's too stubborn for her own good. I know what you're thinkin'she can hire help. Easier said than done here in Castle Creek. And even if we do find someone, she can't afford to pay what they'd be asking. You gonna walk away from a war widow in dire straits?"
Reid's mouth flattened. "If she wants me to."
Briggs waved a hand. "Now, don't go gettin' your dress over your head." He scratched the back of his neck. "I'll see what I can do. You prepared to work if she takes you up on your offer?"
That was the idea. He'd put her in this position. It was up to him to get her out. And he had a month to do it. Assuming Briggs could talk her into letting him back on the property.
Reid squinted. "Long as you don't expect me to wear overalls."
"You can wear a tutu for all I care. Might even draw some customers."
Reid grunted. Tutu, hell. He should have packed his tactical gear.