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The big white house with the pillars, the multipaned windows, immaculate flower gardens and stone walkway were something out of Cheyenne's dreams. Who didn't dream of a house like this one?
Cheyenne Jones had a lot of dreams. Not many of them had come true. And instead of getting easier, things were getting harder. Maybe God meant to keep her holding on to Him by keeping her on her knees praying to get through each day? She didn't have much else to hold on to.
The only thing Cheyenne had was the 1982 piece of junk car sitting in front of this house and the memory of a man she'd met one time six months ago: Reese Cooper.
Weeks ago she'd gotten notice that he'd been injured in the line of duty. Now she stood on the stone path leading up to the big house belonging to the Coopers of Dawson, Oklahoma.
She guessed this was what true desperation felt like, standing in front of this home with her final paycheck in her purse and not much else. She'd felt all sorts of pressure in the past seven months or so. The first wave had led her to the altar. The second had led her here. In between, there had been small waves that beat her back, the way the ocean beat against the sand, a relentless pounding.
The door of the house opened. A woman stepped out, smiling. She looked to be about sixty, with light colored hair, a warm smile, a welcoming look. Cheyenne wondered how long she'd wear that look. Once she knew the truth, would she still smile? Cheyenne didn't know much about this family, the Coopers of Cooper Creek Ranch, but she knew that they were close. She knew that they were loyal.
They were everything she'd never had.
"Can I help you?" The woman walked to the edge of the porch.
"I'm " Cheyenne breathed deep, past the tightness in her throat. The world swam a little, and she closed her eyes. When she opened them, the woman had moved down the steps and was walking toward her. "I'm here to see Reese Cooper."
"Oh." The woman stopped and held out a beautiful hand. "I'm his mother, Angie Cooper."
"I'm here to see "
"I think you've already said that." Angie's smile faded, and her gaze lowered.
Cheyenne put a protective hand on her belly, and she bit down on her lip. "I'm Cheyenne."
It didn't register. Of course he hadn't told them. Why would he? Mrs. Cooper stared at her with a blank look, which meant Cheyenne didn't rate very high on Reese Cooper's list of priorities. Hadn't her mother always called her a silly girl? Silly because she'd always loved fairy tales, the kind where the handsome prince rides in on a big horse and sweeps the woman off her feet. Or kisses her and wakes her from a long and deadly sleep.
In her mind, Reese had become that princemainly because he'd given her hope that she'd never had. He'd made her believe that kindness still existed in the world. Strangers did wonderful and unexpected things. She'd fooled herself into believing she wouldn't always be alone.
She'd actually written him letters while he'd been deployed. He'd written back. They'd shared thingsnot like strangers share but the way a couple shares.
Cheyenne looked up, pulled herself back to reality and out of her fantasy world. The late July sun beat down on her, and the cotton of her shirt stuck to her back.
"I don't think I know you. Did you go to school in Dawson?"
"No, I'm not from Oklahoma. I grew up in Kansas."
"I see. Did you meet my son in the military?"
Angie Cooper sighed. "Honey, you need to tell me what's going on and how I can help you."
"If I could just see Reese." Her eyes burned, and she didn't want to cry. She didn't want to lose control. She'd cried way too much lately, and she'd decided on the trip here that the time for tears had come and gone.
That's about the only plan she had: to stop crying. Once she checked on Reese, she'd make her next plan. She'd decide where to go and what to do.
"I'm afraid he isn't here right now." Mrs. Cooper looked her over a second timereally looked her over.
Cheyenne should go. That's what Mrs. Cooper meant to tell her. Cheyenne wanted to agree. But where would she go? She closed her eyes as another wave of nausea hit, and her head swam. A cool hand touched her arm.
"I'm fine. You're right. I should go."
"I didn't mean that you should leave. And as pale as you are, I'm sure you shouldn't drive right now." Angie Cooper slid an arm around Cheyenne's waist. "Let's go inside and have a glass of tea."
They walked through the front door, paused in the entryway and then proceeded into the living room. Cheyenne thought she should take off her shoes or change into something nicer than the loose jeans and T-shirt she'd put on that morning at a gas station. She flicked her gaze across the living room with the pine hardwood floors, the overstuffed furniture and walls decorated with landscape paintings and family portraits.
This was the home of fairy tales, where happy people lived happy lives, loved each other, took care of each other. She allowed Angie Cooper to lead her from the living room, through a long formal dining room into a big, open kitchen. She told herself to stop the pity party, because her childhood hadn't been all bad. There had been love. It was conditional love, but love nonetheless.
Angie pointed to a big table that flanked one end of the kitchen. Everything in the house was big, made for a big family with twelve children. She felt like Jack when he climbed the beanstalk and landed in the giant's kingdom.
"Sit and I'll get that glass of tea. Have you had lunch?"
Cheyenne shook her head. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked. Car doors slammed. Angie Cooper paused with two slices of bread on a plate and a slice of ham in her hand. She placed the ham on the bread and kept working. Cheyenne's stomach knotted and twisted.
"That's probably Reese. He's been with his grandmother." Angie Cooper brought the plate and a glass of tea.
"Is he okay?"
Angie's hand rested on Cheyenne's shoulder. "He will be."
The sandwich on her plate no longer appealed, even though her stomach had been growling for hours. From the front of the house, she heard the door close, a loud thump, an aggravated exclamation. Angie Cooper started to say something, but then she shook her head and walked away.
Cheyenne stood. "I shouldn't have come."
She'd waited too long. Reese Cooper walked through the door. An older woman in a pink suit stood next to him. The woman touched Reese's arm. He stood motionless in the doorway. His grandmother looked from Cheyenne to Reese, back to Cheyenne.
Cheyenne's vision blurred. She sat back down, thankful she didn't have food in her stomach as a wave of nausea assaulted her.
"Reese, you have company. Cheyenne is here." His mother moved toward him, her smile sweetly gentlea mother's smile.
Reese stood silently and was as tall and handsome as she remembered, though not as clean shaven, and his sandy brown hair was a little longer. That day in the restaurant she might have fallen a little in love with him. He'd been so kind, a cowboy in jeans and a button-up shirt, his boots the real thing. He'd been no urban cowboy. She'd seen plenty of those in Vegas. He'd been a gentleman, sitting with her in a booth as she poured out her life story. In the end, he'd rescued her.
Cheyenne waited, thinking he should at least say something. They weren't strangers. He'd become a friend through letters he'd writtena dozen letters. She had them all in her one suitcase. She'd come here to make sure he was okay. She'd also come here because she had nowhere else to go and Vegas hadn't been the place to call home.
"Cheyenne?" Reese finally spoke, but he stared straight ahead, not turning to look at her.
Cheyenne felt her fairy tale crumble. This is what happened in real life. People got hurt. Heroes came home injured. Damsels stayed in distress unless they rescued themselves.
Mrs. Cooper's hand held her arm, but Cheyenne pulled away. He had to hear her heart breaking as she walked toward him. It thundered in her ears. Her vision clouded with unshed tears. She reached him and touched his hand.
"Cheyenne Jones." She drew in a deep breath. "We met in Vegas."
A tiny hand held his. Reese felt her warmth. He inhaled her scent. He remembered her letters. But what was she doing here? He stared at blackness and waited for clarity. His secret was that he kept waiting for vision to return. He kept telling himself the doctors were wrong and he'd see again.
But for two months he'd lived in darkness. Since the day an explosion had rocked his world, killed men in his platoon and left him blind, he'd been praying it was a dream he'd wake up from.
The last thing he'd been thinking about was the woman standing in front of him. Since the accident, he hadn't really thought about that day in Vegas or the impulsive moment when he'd told a crying waitress that he'd marry her.
"I'm sorry." Her voice was as sweet as he remembered. That's what had struck him about hereven then. She'd been leaving her job as a waitress, dressed for her evening job as a dancer and he'd seen a vulnerable young woman needing a break. He'd seen innocence in her eyes.
He could still hear that innocence in her voice. He smiled because he was sure that some people might not agree with him about her innocence. They would have looked at her life, her job and thought the opposite. He didn't mean to be poetic, but he had looked into her eyes and seen her heart.
And now she was here. He shook his head because he couldn't do this. He couldn't have her here, in his life.
"What are you doing here?" He spoke quietly, but the words were loud and echoed in the darkness, sounding harsher than he'd intended.
"I wanted to check on you." Her voice wavered.
Next to him his grandmother mumbled that he had the manners of an ogre. She released his arm and told him he was on his own. He could handle that. He'd been coddled since the minute he'd walked through the front door a week ago. His grandmother had actually been the only one who didn't smother him. She'd told him to cowboy up and remember he still had a lifeunlike the men in his platoon.
She hadn't said those words; they were his. But she'd told him he owed it to those men to live his life to the fullest.
"This was a mistake." Cheyenne's voice slipped away from him. He heard a chair move and heard her footsteps again.
He reached for her, but she wasn't there. "Could we have some privacy?"
Cheyenne stepped close again, bringing her scent: lavender and vanilla. "They've already left the room."
He reached, needing a place to sit down. A hand touched his arm, guiding him to the table where he felt the back of a chair. He smiled. "Give me a minute. I didn't expect you."
"No, of course you didn't." She pulled her hand loose from his. A chair scraped, and he knew she'd sat down across from him. "I got a visit from the military, someone checking on my welfare after you were injured. I wasn't the person to notify in case of emergency, but they saw that you were married and they sent someone to tell me about the accident."
Reese brushed a hand through his hair trying to make sense of how all of this had happened and what he should do. His wife of six months was sitting in his mother's kitchen, needing him. And he couldn't be the person she relied on. He had no hope of ever seeing again. His left arm and his spine had been hit with shrapnel, and walking still took everything out of him. What was he supposed to do for her?
She moved again. He knew she did because her scent brushed past him. He'd only known her for three hours, and he recognized her scent. He didn't know if it had to do with enhanced senses from losing his eyesight or because he'd memorized that scent while he stood next to her in a little wedding chapel in Vegas.
"I should go. I shouldn't have come."
He couldn't agree more. This hadn't been the deal, her showing up here. In any other life, it might have been okay, but in this new life, everything had changed.
"Where will you go?"
She sobbed a little, and he reached, found her arm. That day in Vegas he'd thought she was the prettiest thing he'd ever seen. Tiny, with light blond hair that hung wavy to her shoulders and big blue eyes smudged with mascara and tears. He'd been about to be deployed, and she'd needed someone.
"I'll figure something out. I have family, you know."
She'd told him bits and pieces about the parents who had turned their backs on her. She didn't really have family. She didn't have anyone. He took a long breath that hurt deep in his back and wished he could do more for her. "Cheyenne, I'll give you money. You have to eat and find a place to stay."
"I can take care of myself. I've been taking care of myself for a long time. I used the money deposited in my account to go to cosmetology school. That's what I always wanted. You gave that to me."
"So where will you go?"
"I'm not sure yet."
"I'll need your address." It seemed like a pretty rotten time to bring this up. "For the paperwork."
"I'll get it to you once I land somewhere." She kissed his cheek, and he was sorry he hadn't shaved in days. "Goodbye, Reese."
"He's fine. It's a boy."
He smiled at that. "I'm glad."
She was already gone. He heard her walk through the house. He heard the front door close. And then he heard the light-soled steps of his mom walking back into the kitchen. He heard her hesitate at the door, but she didn't ask questions. He knew she had them.