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Home to Thunder Ranch. In a coffin.
The only way Marine Staff Sergeant Tomas "Tuf" Hart ever saw himself returning to the place of his birth from the battlefields of Afghanistan was in a pine box.
Draped with an American flag.
Every time his unit engaged the enemy, bullets whizzed past him as mortar fire exploded in his ears. Two of his buddies died not twelve feet from him, but he'd been spared. Unscathed. Except for the invisible wounds on his soul that would be with him a lifetime. He'd seen too many innocent women and children killed for them not to.
But that was behind him and he was ready to see his family again. Though he'd been out of the Marine Corps two years, he hadn't been home. Explaining that wasn't going to be easy, but talking about the war was something he didn't do, and he hoped his family respected that.
The sleepy town of Roundup, Montana, nestled in the pine-clad valley of the Bull Mountains. The town got its name because the valley near the Musselshell River was a natural place for ranchers to round up their cattle.
It was three days after Christmas and the town was quiet as he drove down a snow-covered Main Street, tiretrack trails visible in the slush. Red-and-green decorations still fluttered from every building. Familiar storefronts. He noticed a redbrick building with black trimNumber 1 Diner. That was new, but otherwise the place was the samehis hometown.
He left town and turned south, taking the county road leading to the ranch. A light snow began to fall and he flipped on the windshield wipers. As he rounded a corner, he saw a little girl about four or five walking on the side of the road. She wore a heavy purple coat with a fur-lined hood, but the hood wasn't over her head. Flakes of snow clung to her red hair, gathered into a ponytail, as she purposefully marched forward in snow boots.
A flashback hit him. He hadn't had one in months. He could see the little girl in Afghanistan, hear the rapid spatter of gunfire, the shouts, the screams and then an unholy silence. Stopping the truck in the middle of the road, he gripped the steering wheel with clammy hands. He took a quick breath and closed his eyes, forcing happier memories into his mind as his counselor had taught him.
He was fishing on Thunder Creek with his dad. "Come on, boy. The big ones bite early. Throw your line next to that old stump." Tuf would grin and throw the line where his father had showed him.
"That's my boy."
He opened his eyes as the flashback ebbed away. The little girl trekked forward in the snow, a good distance from him now. He eased the truck closer and got out.
What was she doing out here all alone? Buddy Wright's was the closest place, and he didn't have any young kids Tuf knew about.
"Hey," he called, but the girl ignored him. She did move farther into the ditch, though. His boots slipped and slid on the snow-slick blacktop, but he made it to her without falling on his ass. "Hey, what are you doing out here?"
The little girl frowned up at him, her green eyes narrowed. "I'm not 'posed to talk to strangers."
"Sadie! Sadie!" a frantic voice called, and Tuf turned his head to see a woman running toward them. She was dressed in a denim skirt, brown boots, a suede vest and a white blouse. No coat. And the temperature was below freezing. Her deep red hair, the color of cinnamon, glistened with snow.
He'd know her anywhere.
Even though she was a year younger, he'd had a huge crush on her in high school. Since he was a bareback rider and she was a barrel racer, he saw her often at rodeos. He had asked her out twice and she'd said no both times. Figuring third time's a charm, he'd asked again and got the same answer. Puzzled and frustrated he'd asked why. Her response was "I don't like you, Tuf Hart."
That had dented his puffed-up seventeen-year-old ego. He didn't get it. He was reasonably good-looking, well liked by everyone in school and he had his own pickup. Back then that was a sure thing to get a date. Not with Cheyenne. But he didn't think it to death because he was aware the Hart and Wright families didn't get along.
Buddy was an alcoholic and had served time in prison for stealing cattle. John Hart hadn't wanted the man on his property. So Tuf, as teenage boys are known to do, moved on. He never forgot the shy, untouchable Cheyenne, though.
Since he was twenty-eight, she had to be about twenty-seven now, and she still looked the same with dark red hair and green eyes. And a slim curved body he'd spent many nights dreaming about.
She squatted and pulled the child into her arms. At that point, Tuf noticed an identical little girl running to catch up to Cheyenne. Twins. This one had the hood over her head and was bundled up tight in a pink winter coat.
"Mommy," the second twin cried.
"It's all right, Sammie," Cheyenne said in a soothing, soft voice. "I found Sadie." Cheyenne brushed the snow from Sadie's hair and covered it with the hood, securing it with the drawstring. Her fingers shook from the cold as she touched Sadie's red cheeks. "I've been looking all over for you. What are you doing out here?"
"I'd like to know that, too."
Cheyenne stood, holding on to the girls' hands. Her eyes narrowed much as her daughter's had. The sparkling green eyes of the cool, aloof Cheyenne from high school were gone. Now he saw only disillusionment in their depths. A look he knew well. He saw it every morning when he looked in the mirror. What had happened to her life?
"I'll take care of my daughter," she replied, as cool as the snowflakes falling on her hair.
"I hope you do. I could have hit her. Anyone driving on this road could have, and then two lives would have been changed forever."
"I'm sorry if she disturbed your drive."
He heard the derision in her voice and he relented a little. "It's dangerous out here."
"I'm aware of that." She looked down at her daughters and ignored him, much as she had in high school. "Let's go home where it's warm." They walked away, Cheyenne holding the girls' hands.
"I didn't talk to him, Mommy, 'cause he's a stranger," Sadie said.
Cheyenne started to run and the girls followed suit. Sadie glanced back at him as they disappeared into the Wrights' driveway.
Tuf pulled his sheep-lined jacket tighter around him to block the chill of a Montana December.
Welcome home, Tuf.
Some things just never changed. Cheyenne still didn't like him.
Cheyenne ushered the girls into the living room and sat them down by the fire. For a moment she let her chilled body soak up the warmth. When she stopped trembling, she hurried to the bathroom for a towel. Rushing back, she removed the girls' new Christmas coats and dried Sadie's hair and face, as well as her own. Her clothes were damp and she needed to change, but she had to talk to Sadie first.
She sat between them. "Sadie, baby, why do you keep running away?"
Cheyenne brushed back one of Sadie's flyaway curls. "Mommy is worried. Please stop this."
Sammie crawled into her lap. "I won't run away, Mommy."
She kissed Sammie's warm cheek. Their father's death had affected the girls so differently. Sammie clung to her while Sadie was defiant and seemed determined to get away from her. Cheyenne was at her wit's end trying to get Sadie to talk about what was bothering her.
Gathering the girls close, she whispered, "I love you guys."
"I love you, too, Mommy." Sammie was quick to say the words.
Fat tears rolled from Sadie's eyes. she blubbered.
Cheyenne held her tighter, feeling hopeless. Why couldn't she help her child? She smoothed Sadie's hair and kissed her forehead. "You love Mommy?"
Sadie nodded and Cheyenne held her daughters, wondering how she was ever going to reach Sadie. The fire crackled with renewed warmth, and she leaned against her dad's recliner holding the two most important people in the world to her. They snuggled against her.
Cheyenne's body was so cold she didn't think she'd ever get warm again. The fear in her slowly subsided. They'd been in town and on the way home when Sammie suddenly had to go to the bathroom. Running into the house, she'd turned on the TV for Sadie and helped Sammie out of her coat. When they'd come out of the bathroom, Sadie was gone. Cheyenne was frantic, calling and calling for Sadie.
It wasn't the first time Sadie had disappeared, and Cheyenne had tried to breathe past the fear. But Sadie wasn't in the yard or at the barn. Sammie trailed behind her crying. Cheyenne made her go back into the house for her coat. It was cold. The only place left was the road, and it had started to snow again.
When she saw a truck stopped and a man talking to her child, real terror had leaped into her throat. She had to do better than this.
And the man had turned out to be Tuf Hart, the last person she'd thought she would ever see again. She was too worried about Sadie to give him much thought. He'd changed, but she still knew who he was. He was the only man who ever made her nervous and excited at the same time. One thing was clear, though: the skinny, affable boy from school had returned a man, with broad shoulders and a muscled body that was toned from rigorous training. She knew that from her marine husband, Ryan. He'd hated the training, but Tuf seemed to have flourished in it.
Tuf is home.
His family would be so relieved. He'd called his mom two years ago to let her know he was out of the marines and okay. After that, there'd been no word until his cousin Beau had seen him at a rodeo in November. Tuf still didn't come home, though. The family was worried. Understandably so. Beau had assured the family that Tuf looked fine. Cheyenne could attest to that. Tuf Hart looked very fine. Yet different somehow. Being a marine changed men. It had changed Ryan and not for the better. Mentally it had destroyed him. And their marriage.
The front door opened and her dad came in after wiping his boots on the mat. He removed his hat and coat, hooking them on the wrought-iron coatrack. Tall and lean with a thatch of gray hair, Buddy Wright's rugged, lined face showed a life of too much alcohol and too many days on the wrong side of the law.
Cheyenne thought she'd never return to Roundup. As a young girl, her dream was to leave and get far away from her alcoholic father. He'd caused her and her brother, Austin, so much heartache. Yet when she was at her lowest, she'd come home to the only parent she had.
He'd finally stopped drinking and gotten his life together. It couldn't have happened at a better time for both his children. Austin had married Dinah Hart, and the Wrights were now included in the Hart family circle. It was a what's-wrong-with-this-picture type thing. When John Hart was alive, he made it clear Buddy was not welcome at Thunder Ranch. That was the main reason she would never go out with Tuf. The Harts were a prominent family and the Wrights were from the wrong side of the tracks. She would not expose her wounded pride to the Harts, especially Tuf.
"I thought you were coming to the celebration," her dad said.
"I was, but" She got to her feet and flipped on the TV. The girls scurried to sit in front of it. "Sadie ran away again."
"Again?" Her father followed her into the kitchen and watched as she made coffee. "I wondered what had happened. Leah was asking about you, and Jill wanted to know when the twins were coming, so I thought I'd better come check."
"Tuf Hart found her walking in the ditch by the road."
"Tuf?" One of her father's shaggy gray eyebrows rose as she placed a cup of hot coffee in front of him. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, Dad. I know Tuf Hart." She stirred milk and sugar into her coffee and sat at the table with him. "He's changed, though. He's not that laughing, fun-loving kid anymore. He seems so serious now."
"War does that to a man." Her father took a sip of his hot coffee, making that face he always made when he took the first taste. That oh-I-needed-this look. He sat the mug down. "The family must not know he's coming or Sarah would have been so excited. He must be planning a surprise visit."
She toyed with her cup. "I thought of calling Dinah, but if Tuf wants to surprise them, that's his business. I'm not getting involved."
"Wise decision." Her dad frowned. "Wonder where he's been for two years."
"Dinah thinks he was wounded and in a navy hospital somewhere recovering and didn't want the family to worry."
"Did he look like he'd been wounded?"
"He seemed okay."
"He'll have some questions to answer, but like you said, it's none of our business."
Her father eyed her. "So you're not going to the party?"
"I'm not rewarding Sadie with fun time. I have to start disciplining her." And that would just about kill Cheyenne. "I'm going to fix them something to eat and put Sammie to bed. Then Sadie and I are going to have a talk. She'll shrug and start crying like always. Honestly, Dad, I don't know what to do anymore."
He patted her hand on the table. "Just love her."
She nodded and got to her feet. "I imagine there's a lot of celebrating going on at Thunder Ranch right about now. I hope for Tuf's sake everyone is glad to see him."
"Sarah will be happy to see her youngest child."
"But what about the rest of the family? The ones who have been struggling to save John Hart's legacy?" Cheyenne took their cups to the sink. "I'm glad we're not there. This is family time."
"You bet. I'm going to check on the horses." He ambled back into the living room to get his hat and coat.
Tuf Hart was home and that didn't mean a thing to her. She planned to stay away from him, just as she had as a teenager.
Tuf turned onto Thunder Road that led to the ranch. He stopped the truck once again and stared. The big two-story house he'd grown up in was lit up like a Christmas tree, and the driveway was full of parked trucks and cars. What was going on? His mom always had Christmas on Christmas day, so they couldn't be celebrating the holiday.
Not wanting to deal with a crowd, he drove to the barns, parked and got out.
He breathed in the heady scent of the ponderosa pines and saw the snow-covered Bull Mountains in the distance. He was home. No more war. No more killing. No more dying.