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Snow twisted, turned and sparkled around Kyle Anderson as he eased out of the rental car. He closed the door and thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his leather bomber jacket. The cold snowflakes landed in his hair, slid across his jacket and melted upon touching his face as he slowly walked toward the White Sulphur Springs Ranch house. The wind was inconstant and he hunched his shoulders, hearing his combat boots crunching in the foot of snow across the graveled parking area.
His heart squeezed with anticipation and worry. Anna Campbell, the woman he loved and had walked away from, had been in a serious auto accident two weeks ago. She'd been in a coma, though now was recovering at home.
Kyle had been notified only three days ago because his SEAL team had been out on a two-week mission. He didn't think twice before leaving to see her.
His mouth tightened and he opened the creaking white picket-fence gate. Snow had covered the bright red tiles he had helped place there as a ten-year-old. Kyle had grown up with Anna on her parents' ten-thousand-acre cattle ranch. There were so many good memories here. He halted for a moment on the covered sidewalk, looking around.
The sun was setting, the sky a light gray. He could see the sharp pointed tips of the evergreens behind the massive two-story log house. To his left were three large red barns. To his right were pipe-rail fences where the cattle were kept. Most of the animals were probably in nearby pastures, huddled in herds, their butts to the wind, keeping warm. The barns would house the wrangler's horses in box stalls, the grain and hay to feed these herds.
No one was out in the coming blizzard. The car-rental place at the Great Falls, Montana, airport had warned him that a major storm was on its way. It was expected to dump three to four feet of snow in the next one or two days. He'd arrived home just in time.
Turning, he wiped his wet face and spotted something in the window nearest the bright red wooden door. It was an electric candle sitting in the window.
Old memories flowed through Kyle as he stared at the light, filling him with remorse and yearning. When she was eighteen, Anna had bought the electric candle in a scroll-like saucer of green copper at a hardware store in Great Falls. She told Kyle she would keep the candle on during the holidays, as a light, so he could find his way home to her. Pain squeezed his heart.
The window was partly frosted over in the corners, the ice crystals making the soft yellow light look like some kind of halo an angel might wear. Anna was his angel. She always had been. His mouth pulled in at the corners as he stood there on the walk, his gaze on that candle, the memories filling him like warm, spiced red wine tainted with bitterness.
Kyle couldn't remember a time when he hadn't loved Anna. They had grown up together on this ranch, attended the same small school, played together, laughed together and had so much fun. He'd joined the Navy at eighteen and later became a SEAL. He'd left Anna crying in this very driveway that cold December day. Rubbing his chest, grief, loss and concern warred within Kyle.
Of all the people in the world he loved, Anna had always owned his heart. And he'd broken hers. Dragging in a ragged breath, Kyle tried to steady his emotions, but it was impossible. He knew from several phone calls with the head wrangler at the ranch, Jepson Turner, that Anna had a grade-three concussion, a serious one, but was steadily improving. For that, Kyle had breathed in a sigh of relief so deep that he was overwhelmed with gratefulness in that moment.
He had always expected to die in combat, not be called home because Anna teetered between life and death for two weeks in a hospital.
What could he say to her? Kyle stood with the snow falling silently around him, his gaze never leaving that candle, or the hope Anna had clung to that he'd someday come home and stay here forever. With her. The starry-eyed idealism of an eighteen-year-old girl helplessly in love with him. He'd loved her and she'd blindly loved him. At first, as children, it was puppy love. In junior high, the love turned serious. But then, she'd turned down his marriage proposal when he'd come home at twenty-two.
No one in his platoon saw him weeping. Kyle had gone off by himself. He'd cried for what he'd selfishly thrown away: Anna. He'd never talked or emailed her again, not wanting to cause her more pain. And then, five years later, he got an email from his mother, telling him that she'd divorced her wrangler husband, Tom Carter. Kyle hadn't even known she'd married. It came as a shock. But he couldn't leave the SEALs and come home and marry her. His heart wanted that, but his loyalty to his team had been a stronger calling.
News of her accidentthat she'd almost diedchanged everything. It changed him. But Kyle wasn't sure about anything right now. And it was the uncertainty that made him tense and edgy as he forced himself to move the last twenty feet toward that red-painted door and press the buzzer. He tried to ignore the circular wreath composed of sprigs of pine with a bright red ribbon and silver-glittered pinecones fastened to it. That was Anna's work. She loved Christmas and made beautiful arrangements to celebrate the season. When he was younger, he had helped her.
What would Anna look like now? She knew he was coming home to see her. So many years ago, at her parents' urging to protect the family property, Anna had made out a will and had given him power of attorney, if she ever got seriously injured. Kyle had completely forgotten about it because she'd made this decision so far in the past. Part of her eighteen-year-old idealism, he supposed. Even though she had gotten married, she'd never changed that in her will. Throughout the years, had Anna hoped he would return someday to her?
Now he was twenty-nine. Never had he thought he'd be pulling emergency medical leave to see Anna. Kyle had always expected to be the one to die, not her. She was too beautiful, too filled with life, to ever die. And she almost had.
The door opened. Kyle stared at Anna. She was tall and lean like a willow, dressed in a bright red cable-knit sweater, jeans and sensible leather boots. Her ginger-colored hair lay in thick red-gold tresses around her shoulders. As Kyle gazed into her forest green eyes, his breath hitched. Anna had always reminded him of a gossamer fairy found between the pages of a book. Her face was oval, eyes wide set with a full mouth that had always curved into an infectious smile.
Now Kyle saw her once-perfectly aligned nose had been broken. When had it happened? The break didn't ruin the soft beauty of her face, but it bothered him that she had suffered. As he hungrily sponged her into himself, he saw more unsettling signs of her injuries.
Usually, her cheeks were tinged pink, flushed with life, but not now. There was gauntness to her face, telling him she wasn't eating well. And the dancing gold highlights that had always dappled the green depths of her eyes were missing. Anna was pale, her eyes lifeless, her full mouth compressed, as if she were still in pain. Her hand came to rest on the wooden jamb, and Kyle saw her waver just a bit. Was she dizzy? Was the head injury causing all of this?
"I'm sorry I couldn't get home sooner," he said simply, hands at his side. "How are you doing, Anna?"
She stared up at him, gripping the jamb with her long, slender fingers. Her voice broke and she stepped to the side, gesturing for him to enter the warmth of the foyer. "You didn't have to come, Kyle."
He moved past her and took the door and closed it behind him. As he stomped his feet on the thick rug, the snow fell off his boots. His heart beat hard in his chest. He ached to open his arms and sweep Anna into them. He saw the wariness in her eyes and sensed how fragile she really was. When Anna turned her head to his left, he saw a two-inch scar above her ear, the area still red. Kyle assumed it was the blow that had caused her coma.
"I wanted to come, Anna. I didn't get the emergency message about your condition for two weeks because my team was out on a long-range patrol." Wearily, he added, "I would have come sooner, but I couldn't." He watched her wrap her arms around her waist, as if chilled. Or defensive. He hated helplessness and felt it crawling through him.
"II didn't really expect you to come home at all," she offered quietly, giving him an understanding look. "I know your SEAL family comes first."
Frustration thrummed through him. "I was out on an op, Anna. I returned three days ago from it and found out about your medical condition." Emotion colored his deep tone. "I wanted to come home. To be here for you." And he saw a bit of life come to her eyes over his sincere words. "You put me down as POA. Remember that? When we were eighteen? It was a long time ago."
"Jepson reminded me of it. I'd completely forgotten about it."
God, how badly he wanted to haul Anna into his arms. She appeared not only fragile, but more wraith than human, as if she might disappear at any moment, gone forever. His heart raged with need for her and Kyle flexed his fingers, forcing himself not to reach out and touch Anna. He'd made it clear seven years ago that the SEALs were his family, not her. He never regretted his words more than he did right now. He'd spoken them out of anger and hurt after she refused to marry him.
"I wanted to be here for you, Anna." His throat tightened. Aching in ways he couldn't even name or control, Kyle added a slight smile, "Hey, you were always there for me. Remember? When I fell off that horse and landed in barbed wire?" He held up his left hand, pulling back the sleeve on his jacket, revealing the thin crisscross of white scars from that day. "You took care of me? Tore up part of your T-shirt to make a bandage out of it to wrap my bleeding arm?"
She looked down at her feet, her mouth softening. "Yes, of course, I remember."
To hell with it. Kyle stepped forward, placing his finger beneath her chin, making eye contact with Anna. There was such longing in her eyes that it momentarily shocked him. Longing for him? Could it be? Dropping his finger, he rasped, "Well, you've just fallen into another kind of barbed wire, Anna. And I want to be here for you if you want me."
Above all, Kyle didn't want to stay if she didn't want him around. The years between them had been long and desolate, but dammit, he felt that same warm, powerful connection with her right now. His feelings had never dimmed through the years. Not once. Now he felt an amplified intensity to them.
She lifted her head a little more confidently, held his gray gaze. "It's just that it's a shock to see you, is all, Kyle. I never really expected you to come home even though you were my POA."
That hurt worse than a bullet going through his leg, which it had. Trying not to wince at her barely spoken words, Kyle saw how changed Anna was from before. It had to be due to the concussion. "I'm here," he told her firmly. "I've got thirty days of medical leave, Anna. There's no other place I'd rather be."
"That sounds good," she whispered unsteadily, searching his eyes. "I know it's hard for you to leave your SEAL family."
Kyle wanted to deny all of that right now. Instead, he rasped, "Right now, you're the center of my universe, Anna. Just you. Okay?" He forced himself not to lift his hand and caress her pale cheek. For a moment, he saw hope flare in her dark eyes. And then, it vanished. He swore he could feel Anna's yearning for him as much as he felt for her right now. But it was all water under the bridge.
"Are you hungry? You've been traveling. I made a pot of vegetable beef soup earlier today. Why don't you come into the kitchen and eat? We can talk there."
Kyle watched her walk. Anna wasn't steady and he slipped his hand beneath her left elbow, cutting his long stride for her sake.
"It smells great," he offered. "Are you okay?" He searched her profile. Anna was a cattleman's daughter. She was the only child of Paul and Nancy Campbell. The family had a hundred-year ranching history in this part of Montana. Anna had always been strong and confident, but now she seemed just the opposite to Kyle. And it scared him.
She grimaced. "My head." She pointed to the scar above her left ear. "The neurologists are telling me with a grade-three concussion I'll have some dizziness and maybe other symptoms for a while. Eventually, they said, they'd go away." She opened her hand. "Right now, since being released, I deal with dizziness. It just comes and goes. I don't have any control over it, and I wish I did." She looked up, no doubt seeing his concern. "I'll be okay, Kyle."
"You've been out of the hospital how long?"
"Three days. Every day is better," she assured him, stopping at the entrance to the kitchen. "I'm going to let you get the bowl down from the cupboard and take as much soup as you want." She gestured toward the gas stove, where a five-quart pot sat. "I don't trust my equilibrium that much tonight."
Kyle guided Anna to one of the heavy oak chairs and pulled it out for her. His fingers tingled where they met her elbow. "Do you remember where everything is?" she asked.
He smiled and shrugged out of his coat, placing it over the chair next to Anna. "I think I do. Are you hungry? Can you eat a little something, too?"
Anna had become thin, and it pained him. He knew her parents had died in an auto wreck a year ago. Running a huge ranch like this took more than one person. All the weight of responsibility had fallen on Anna's slender shoulders. Automatically, Kyle found himself wanting to protect her, lift her burden, give her the time she needed to heal herself.
"Maybe I'll try just a little."
Kyle moved to the drain board and opened up a cupboard where the blue-and-white Delft-patterned bowls were kept. It was so easy to fall back into the routine of how they'd grown up together. He and his parents had eaten with Anna's parents every night. His father had been the foreman for the ranch. They were like extended family, and damned if anything had ever felt so fitting as this right now. "You're thin, Anna."