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The gathering dark clouds had mirrored Stephanie Upton's mood since she'd returned home to Freemont, Georgia, two days earlier. Grateful as she was to get the job as the Army Wounded Warrior advocate at nearby Fort Rickman where her brother Ted was convalescing from his war injuries, she was frustrated that he had refused to see her or answer her phone calls.
So much for a happy homecoming.
The August storm hit just as she left town, heading back to post. She leaned forward in the driver's seat, wishing she'd replaced the old windshield wipers that failed to clear the heavy downpour. Squinting, she could barely make out the yellow dividing line on the road.
A small strip mall appeared in the distance. She turned her Corolla into the parking lot to wait out the deluge and reached for her cell phone. Glancing at her client file on the passenger seat, she tapped in the number for Private First Class Joshua Webb and smiled, remembering her younger brother's high school friend.
"Joshua, this is Stephanie Upton, Ted's sister," she said when the call went to voice mail. "I'm back in town and took the position at Fort Rickman as the AW2Army Wounded Warrioradvocate. I know this is short notice, but you're on my caseload. Since we need to schedule an appointment, I thought I'd stop by now while I'm the neighborhood and see how you're doing."
She glanced at her watch. "I'm about ten minutes from your house. As soon as the rain lets up, I'll head your way. Looking forward to seeing you soon."
Joshua and Ted had served in the same unit in Afghanistan and both had been injured by an IED. Josh had lost his legs, while her brother had sustained burns on his stomach and lower extremities. The two friends had been medically evacuated to hospitals in the United States and finally sent back to Fort Rickman.
Eventually, Josh would learn to walk with prosthetic legs, but for now he was wheelchair bound, which was probably the reason he hadn't answered her call. Hopefully, he would retrieve the message before she arrived on his doorstep.
Three years ago and just a few weeks after both guys had graduated from high school, Stephanie had left Freemont, never expecting to return. At least not so soon. Over time her feelings had mellowed and eventually taken a backseat to helping her brother through his current recuperation.
Ted had been headstrong and difficult to handle in his teen years. She had hoped his stint in the military would be a positive influence. Although she didn't need an abundance of brotherly love, she had expected civility and a glimmer of hope that with time they could eventually heal the past.
The one bright note was the warm and enthusiastic welcome from the folks with whom she would be working at Fort Rickman. Stephanie had held a similar position as the advocate for wounded soldiers at Fort Stewart, a three-hour drive east, and was well aware of the importance of making initial contact with the military personnel on her caseload.
She had visited two soldiers in Freemont this morning and had planned to stop by Josh's house on her way back to Fort Rickman. Seeing Ted's old friend would be an opportunity to catch up on Josh's plans for the future. As a teen, he had always been optimistic and upbeat. In spite of his recent injury, she hoped he retained the zest for life that had endeared him to her as a kid.
As soon as the rain eased, she pulled back onto Freemont Road and headed south. Ten minutes later, she saw the sign for Josh's subdivision.
She put on her signal, and just before she made the turn, a pickup truck perched on oversize tires screeched around the corner, its rear end fishtailing on the slick pavement.
The truck flew pastnarrowly missing her carin a blur of red paint and steel chrome. Muddy water, kicked up from the big, knobby tires, shot through the air, streaking Georgia clay across her windshield.
She laid on the horn and glanced in the rearview mirror as the truck crested a rise in the road and then disappeared from sight.
Her heart pounded like a reverberating snare drum, its cadence keeping time with the tension that throbbed across her forehead as she realized how close she'd come to a collision. Pulling in a number of cleansing breaths, she turned into the Cypress Springs subdivision, determined to focus on her visit with Joshua instead of the runaway truck.
Although the rain had stopped, the sky remained dismal and gray. She swerved around a scattering of leaves and twigs that littered the roadway and parked in front of the last house on the end of one of the side streets, a modest ranch Joshua was renovating to be wheelchair accessible.
Curb appeal and a low price tag made the neighborhood of new homes a great buy for a returning soldier starting over. As Josh's advocate, she should have felt a surge of elation that he was focusing on his transition to civilian life, but all Stephanie could think about was her own close call and her rapid pulse that failed to calm.
Grabbing her purse, she stepped onto the sidewalk, closing the car door behind her. A gust of humid air tugged at her skirt as she headed toward the house, her heels clipping along the sidewalk. She pulled her damp hair back from her face and climbed the ramp to the tiny front stoop.
The enthusiastic voice of a sports announcer sounded from inside the house. The full-blast volume of the radio drowned out her knocks on the door.
When Joshua failed to answer, she tried the knob. Locked. Surely he hadn't left the house with the radio blaring.
Determined to be heard, she pounded on the door again and again, to no avail. Finally, letting out a frustrated breath, she headed around the corner to the kitchen entrance, where a second sheet of plywood served as a wheelchair ramp.
The sound of the ball game spewed through the back door that hung open, sending another round of concern tangling along her spine. Flicking her gaze over the backyard, she searched for some sign of the injured soldier.
"It's Stephanie Upton," she called, aware of the nervous tremble in her voice as she stepped inside. "Can you hear me, Josh?"
The smell of fresh paint and new carpet greeted her, along with the announcer's voice echoing through the empty rooms.
She paused in the middle of the kitchen, straining to hear something, anything other than the backdrop of cheering baseball fans.
She raised her brow. "Joshua?"
A flutter of new fear flowed over her. The hair on her arms prickled as she peered into the living-dining combination straight ahead.
"Braves six, Astros two."
Turning left, she entered the hallway that led to the rear of the house.
"It's the top of the fifth with Atlanta in the lead." Her neck tingled. A double amputee bound to a wheelchair brought to mind all sorts of scenarios. Hopefully, he wasn't hurt.
The announcer's voice sounded over the rush of water.
Glancing into the bathroom on the right, she gasped. Her hand flew to her throat.
Joshua lay on the floor fully clothed, his body crumpled next to an overturned wheelchair and surrounded by sharp shards of a broken vanity mirror. Blood pooled under his left arm. The cloying smell filled the tiny room.
Water gushed from the spigot into the rapidly filling tub. Aware that someone else could be in the house, yet terrified for Joshua's well-being, she turned off the faucet and dropped to her knees beside the soldier. His face was pale as death, his eyes glassed over. She searched for the artery in his neck and groaned with relief when she found a faint but steady pulse.
"Josh, can you hear me?" Stephanie raised the sleeve of his blood-soaked shirt and almost heaved. Rich, red blood pulsed from the deep gash on his upper arm.
Frantic, she dug in her purse for her cell phone and hit the programmed nine-one-one.
"State your emergency." The operator's monotone drawl was barely audible over the sports announcer's booming voice.
Balancing the phone between her shoulder and ear, Stephanie groped her hand along the bathroom vanity, found the docked iPod and turned off the game.
"There's been an accident." Stretching, she grabbed a towel from the overhead rack and jammed the thick terry against the open wound. "A man's been cut by glass. He's bleeding and needs medical attention. Tell the EMTs to hurry."
"What's your address?"
"One-forty-something Cedar Springs Drive. Third house on the right."
"I need the house number, ma'am. Could you check outside?"
Josh's breathing was shallow. His partially opened eyes appeared dull and lifeless. She wanted to scream at the woman on the other end of the line who failed to recognize the severity of the situation.
"Operator, I'm trying to keep this man from bleeding to death. I can't leave him. Get an ambulance and get it here fast."
She clicked off and speed dialed Joshua's unit at Fort Rick-man. A deep male voice answered on the second ring.
"No, ma'am. This is Special Agent Brody Goodman with the Criminal Investigation Division on post."
Her eyes widened. "I dialed the CID?"
"You dialed one of the units on post, namely the Warrior Transitional Battalion. Major Jenkins is out of the office at the moment and asked me to catch the phone. May I take a message or have the major call you back?"
"Tell him Stephanie Upton phoned. I'm the new AW2 advocate." Her breath hitched. "One of the men on my caseload Private First Class Joshua Webbfell from his wheelchair and cut his arm. He's lost a significant amount of blood. An ambulance is on the way."
"Give me the address."
Once again, she relayed directions to the small house.
"Major Jenkins just stepped back into the office. I'll fill him in on the emergency. Hold tight, ma'am. We're heading your way and should be there shortly."
Stephanie didn't know Brody Goodman with the calm voice and take-charge attitude. Nor had she previously dealt with anyone in the CID. Usually they handled serious crimes on post. Perhaps Special Agent Goodman and Major Jenkins were friends or working together on a special project. She had only yesterday met the executive officer for the Warrior Transitional Battalion, but she felt a sense of relief that the two men would soon be en route.
"Josh." Her brother's voice sounded from the front of the house.
Glad for help, she called, "He's in the bathroom, Ted."
"Someone's there with you?" the CID agent asked. "Another soldier. I can't talk, Agent Goodman. Get here as soon as you can." Unable to stem the flow of blood, she dropped the cell to the tile floor and, using both hands, pushed even harder on the towel.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway.
Ted appeared in the open doorway, his slender face pulled tight. Confusion, then anger, flashed from his eyes. "What did you do to him, Stephanie?"
Hurt by his accusation, she pursed her lips. "I didn't do anything. He fell. An ambulance should be here soon. Go outside and flag down the EMTs when they turn onto the street."
"I'm not leaving Josh." Her brother knelt beside her. "Let me hold the towel."
"I've got it."
"Just like you had Hayden? You let him die. I won't let you kill Josh, too."
"Ted, please." Why did he have to bring up their painful past in the middle of this crisis?
"Please what, Stephanie? Forget about what happened? I told you never to come back to Freemont."
Her stomach roiled. No matter what she did, her relationship with her brother would never change.
"Ms. Upton, answer me. Are you all right?"
Hearing the agent's urgent voice, she raised the cell to her ear again. "I'm sorry, thought I had disconnected." She glanced down at the stained towel. "I'm okay."
But she really wasn't. She'd nearly had a fatal collision with a psycho driver just a short while earlier. Now Joshua's life was slipping away as she watched.
"Hurry," she finally warned. "Before things get any worse."
"What do you know about the new AW2 advocate?" Brody asked as he drove out the Fort Rickman main gate and headed north along Freemont Road. Recalling the urgency in Stephanie Upton's voice, he pushed down on the accelerator.
Major Jenkins sat next to him, equally worried about the situation. "She held the same position at Fort Stewart. Our former advocate had some unexpected medical problems and had to retire. Stephanie transferred here to fill the vacancy."
"And PFC Webb?"
"Lost both his legs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan."
Brody shook his head, feeling the frustration of too many young men and women being injured in the line of duty. Casualties were a horrific by-product of war. Not what he or anyone associated with the military wanted.
"Joshua Webb was initially treated at Walter Reed," the major said, "and was recently assigned to Fort Rickman."
"Do you have anyone named Ted in your battalion?"
Jenkins nodded. "Ted Upton."
"Related to the advocate?"
"Ted's her brother. He was in the same convoy that hit the IED. Upton was burned and treated at the Army Burn Center at Fort Sam Houston."
"Now they're home, getting ready to transition out of the military?"
"Private Webb will probably get a medical discharge. He's waiting for his new prostheses. Upton has the option of returning to active duty. The burns have healed, but he's still in counseling."
Brody raised his brow. "Over the phone, he sounded antagonistic toward his sister."
"I don't know anything about their relationship. I met her yesterday so it's just a first impression, but she seemed levelheaded and competent. PFC Upton's like a lot of other soldiers. He's young and wondering what the future will hold."
"What about Webb?"
Jenkins smiled. "PFC Webb's got a strong faith and a desire to make a difference in life. He'll do okay."
Your faith will sustain you, folks had told Brody nine years ago. Lean on the Lord, a statement he never understood. Why would he lean on a God who had let him down so tragically?
Brody shoved the thought aside. "What's your take on Upton? Is he stable?"
"His squad leader and first sergeant say he's guarded and doesn't readily share his feelings. The counselors encourage the soldiers to talk about their problems."
"Just as you and I had discussed earlier in conjunction with post-traumatic stress disorder."
The major nodded. "Exactly."
"What does the doc say about Upton?"
"That he needs more counseling."
The entrance to the Cedar Springs area appeared on the left. Brody turned into the subdivision littered with debris from the storm and made a right at the third street. At the end of the road, two Freemont black-and-whites sat curbside, their lights flashing. An ambulance had backed into the driveway. Its rear door hung open. A gray Chevy and an older-model Corolla were parked nearby.
Brody led the way into the house, glancing first at the police officer and then at the tall, slender woman standing near the fireplace. Arms wrapped defensively around her waist, she turned as he stepped forward, her eyes as blue as the sky and strangely haunting. The furrow of her brow and the downward tug on her full lips provided a glimpse of the concern she felt for the injured soldier.
Her pastel skirt was smeared with blood, her blouse, as well. A crusty streak lined her pale cheek. If the victim's injury hadn't been accidental, the blood-spattered advocate might be a likely suspect, but her reason for visiting the soldier seemed legit.
Confusion covered her face, probably due to the shock of finding the injured victim. Images of the scene he had walked into nine years ago replayed through his memory. His breath caught in his chest. Sweat broke out on his upper lip. He clamped down his jaw and forced the image to flee, just as he'd done a thousand times before. Today he needed to focus on the woman with the questioning eyes that bored into his soul.
She looked at him the way Lisa had. After all these years, he still needed to guard himself against the pain. More than anything, he never wanted to be vulnerable again. Especially to someone who reminded him of the woman he had loved and lost.
A young man leaned against the counter in the kitchen. The guy wore cargo pants and flip-flops with an army T-shirt. From the high, tight haircut and the splotch of angry, red skin on his left arm, he was more than likely the advocate's younger brother.
His right hand was bandaged. Blood spotted his shirt. The wail of accusation Brody had heard over the phone replayed in his mind.