Former Navy SEAL Wiley James is lucky to be alive, but the war destroyed his health, his confidence and his livelihood. Now, back at his family's Montana ranch, Wiley struggles to find new purpose. Instead he finds an old childhood pallittle Macy Shelton, who has grown into a beautiful woman. Wiley knows he should steer clear of the cheery single mom if only she'd let him.
Macy doesn't recognize this new Wiley. A bitter stranger has replaced the young man she fell for as a teen. Though Macy's heart still wants so much more, what Wiley needs most right now is a friend, and Macy is the only one he'll let in. Her friendship is a lifeline, but will Macy's love be the one thing that can finally help Wiley begin to heal?
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"Get out of here! Get!" Wiley James waved his battered straw cowboy hat at the miserable beasts, but four of the llamas kept right on munching the tops off his carrots.
A fifth stared him down, then spit.
"Oh no, you didn't "
Wiley tried charging the damned thing, but with his bum leg, he lost his balance and fell flat on his ass. Adding insult to injury, dust rising from his fall made him cough. It was early June, and his slice of northwestern Montana hadn't seen rain in a couple weeks.
His hat tumbled off in the breeze.
Frustration and sheer rage tightened his chestnot so much at his neighbor's escaped llamas, but his own situation. Six months earlier, he'd been at the top of his gamea Navy SEAL who never backed down from any challenge. Then he'd gone and done a Texas two-step with a Syrian cluster bomb and life had never been the same. Hell, he was lucky to even have his leg, but after a string of reconstructive surgeries and months in rehab, to now be stuck on this old run-down ranch instead of working with his SEAL team to do his part in saving the world Well, let's just say he wasn't exactly thrilled with his current lot in life.
"I'm so sorry," a female voice called from behind him.
"Chris, Sabrina, Kelly and Jill! Shame on you. You know better! And CharlieI told you no more spitting!"
The beasts stopped chewing long enough to give her a curious look, but then returned to their meal.
"Can I help?" The woman belonging to the voice stepped in front of Wiley, blocking the too-bright sun. Standing in shadow, he couldn't make out much of her besides a giant mass of red hair.
She held out her hand.
He refused to take it. "No, thanks. I'm good."
Wiley scrambled back onto his feet, but downright humiliated himself in the process. He had a cane somewhere in the house, but he was only thirty-two. No way would he consider using the thing till his eighties.
"I really am sorry about your garden."
"Me, too." It had taken weeks to get his plants to this stage, and her llamas had ruined damn near all of them in minutes. Now that he'd taken a good look at her without the sun in his eyes, he noticed the baby she held on her hip. The little guy had her red hair and even a few freckles. Her sky-blue eyes looked familiar. He knew herhe'd always known her. The realization that this woman was little Macy all grown up made his throat tight and chest ache.
"Henry and I will help you replant."
"Who's Henry?" he asked, playing it cool. "Your husband?"
"This is Henry. Wave," she coached the baby. "Wave hello to our nice neighbor."
The chubby baby not only flapped his hand, but grinned.
"Doesn't look like much of a gardener." Wiley fought to maintain his scowl, but it was kind of hard when faced with this level of cuteness. In another lifetime, he'd wanted to be a father. Wiley's already battered ego couldn't help but wonder why Macy hadn't recognized him. Did he look that bad?
"Ohhe loves digging, but needs help planting." She held out her free hand for Wiley to shake. "I'm Macy Stokeswell, used to be Shelton. Henry and I live just down the hill."
"I know. Clem and Dot's place."
Her smile faded. He cringed at being the subject of her appraisal. "Wiley?" As if coming in for a hug, she raised her free arm and stepped forward, but then seemed to change her mind and step back. "I didn't recognize you with your long hair and stubble. Dad told me you were back, but it's been so quiet over here, I thought he was wrong. It's great seeing you again."
"Likewise," he lied. What was the point of moving out to the middle of nowhere if you weren't going to be left alone? He didn't want the social responsibility of making small talk with the neighbors any more than he wanted to clean up after their nuisance animals.
The Veterans of Foreign WarsVFW, for shortwelcome committee had already been out on three separate occasions to invite him for Tuesday night poker, but he'd sent them packing. The last time in what he hoped was a definitive manner. When he said he didn't want to see anyone, he meant it.
He turned to hobble after his hat.
"I guess you heard about my grandfather?" Time hadn't changed their roles. She chased after him just as she had when she'd been a little girl.
"Nope. But I wish him and Dot well."
"That's just itmy grandpa died."
He paused. "Sorry to hear it. Clem was good to me. Dot, too. She okay?" Even this modest bit of pleasantry cost. More than anything, he wanted the freedom to be as glum as he liked. Pretending to be civil had proven far too much of an effort, which was why he'd chosen to hide where there were far more soaring pines than people. The ranch was twenty-five miles from town. Macy was his closet neighbor. The next closest was a good five miles down the road.
"Grandma's alive " Though her eyes welled, Macy forced a smile and jiggled her baby. "But not especially well. A few years back, she started forgetting thingsat first, leaving the teapot too long on the stove or her friends' namesbut when it started getting out of hand, my mom took her to the doctor, and Grandma Dot was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Grandpa was gutted. Honestly, I think the pain of losing hereven though she was right there with himis what literally broke his heart."
Wiley knew he should say something. Dot used to make him oatmeal cookies with butterscotch chips. He'd loved those cookies, and he'd loved her. So why couldn't he move his lips?
He'd reached his hat, but without something to lean on, there was no way he'd be able to grab it without losing what little remained of his dignity.
"You all right?" Macy asked. She'd cocked her head, and the breeze captured her mess of red hair.
Her baby giggled when the curls tickled his chubby cheeks.
The two seemed so happy, Wiley couldn't help but stare.
"Wiley?" Never dropping her gaze from his, Macy crouched to retrieve his hat then hand it to him. "Everything okay?"
His throat constricted.
"Because if not, I'll be happy to help. If it's the garden you're upset about, it's early enough in the growing season that we can replant everything that's ruined."
"I appreciate the offer," he said, "but what I'd really like is for you to take your furry friends back to your pasture, and keep them off my land."
"Okay. Sure." Her smile faded to a crestfallen expression he wasn't proud to have caused, but also wasn't particularly inspired to change. What did that say about him? About the man he'd become? He couldn't bear for her to compare him to the fit, capable, cocky teen he used to be.
"Doing it sooner would be better than later." She needed to go now. Because he could no longer stomach the sight of her adorable, cherub-cheeked baby or her direct gaze or crazy-curly ginger hair. Her creamy complexion with its smattering of freckles or her full, bow-shaped lips. Most of all, he couldn't stand this new expression of hers that he interpreted as disappointment. As much as she'd admired him when they were kids, to now see the disaster he'd become must be a letdown.
Instead of leaving as he'd asked, she just stood there, staring. And then, she cocked her head. "You never wanted me to hang around with you when we were young, but you never used to be mean about sending me on my way."
"Your point?" He crossed his arms. Her stare made him feel exposed, as if she were trying to figure him out. He didn't like it.
"No real point." She shifted the baby to her other hip. "It's just been a while since I've encountered anyone quite so rude."
Sorry, is what he should have said. It's nothing personal. It's me, not you. What came out was, "I'm busy, and wasn't expecting companyespecially not a herd of llamas."
"Whatever. Can you please at least help me get them back home?"
"I would, but " Wiley had a white-knuckled grip on the porch rail for support. "Like I said, I'm busy."
"You're not busy." She narrowed her gaze. "You're just a big old horse's behind. Forget I asked." She put her fingers to her mouth and whistled. "Chris, Sabrina, Kelly, Jill! Let's go! Charlie, you, too!"
Even though Wiley had spent his entire adult life helping others in need, on this day, he stubbornly held his groundnot because he didn't want to help, but because pride wouldn't let him.
" And then he told me he couldn't help round up my llamas because he was busy. Who says that?" After the morning she'd had wrestling her mischievous livestock back to their pasture, Macy was all too happy to unload on her parents who lived in Eagle Ridgethe nearest town to her grandparents' cabin and acreage. The hodgepodge A-frame and ranch combo where she'd spent her childhood was always sun-flooded and usually scented by some sort of baked good. On today's menuzucchini bread.
"Word around the VFW is that Wiley hasn't been the same since his last trip to the Middle East." Her father, Steve, jiggled a giggly Henry on his knee.
"What happened to him?" her mother, Adrianne, asked from the dining room table, where she worked on her scrapbooking obsession. She belonged to a club, and the one-upmanship sometimes got a little out of hand.
"Guys down at the VFW say he came darned close to losing his leg in Syria. He was in one heck of a skirmishwon just about every medal a man can for bravery and valor. But he's not right up here." He tapped his forehead with his index finger.
"Now, Steve, that's not nice. We can't know that."
"I served in the first Gulf War, and plenty of the men I came home with were never the sameyou hear about it all the timethink about those poor guys who served in Vietnam. Personally, when the time is right, I wouldn't mind talking to Wiley about what he's been through. I know we had our differences, but that was back when he was a teen and our daughter was moon-eyed over him. That said, I'd feel more comfortable if Macy kept her distanceespecially with the baby."
"Dad " Macy sat beside him on the sofa, and took Henry's tiny hand. "The Wiley I knew was strong, and filled with self-confidence, and maybe even a little wildbut never dangerous."
"Yeah, well, you knew him as a teenand I didn't much like him then. Now, he's a Navy SEALor at least wasyou don't know what kind of hell those special ops guys go through. Stuff probably straight out of the movies. As far as I'm concerned, you'd be better off safe than sorry. Just stay away."
"Is Wiley still handsome?" Adrianne asked. "You used to have the worst crush on him. Your grandparents once bought you one of those disposable cameras and when we had it developed, the whole thing was full of sneaky pics you'd taken of him."
"Mom!" Macy's cheeks no doubt glowed from excess heat. "That's so not true. I remember that camera, and I had lots of horse pictures, too."
"Whatever you say. You know how I love my pictures. If you'd want to launch a friendly wager, I'm sure I can find them around here somewhere."
Macy rolled her eyes. "You're acting nuts. I don't know why I even came over."
Her dad snorted. "You're here for free dinner."
Adrianne laughed. "True! And don't think you're getting out of here without telling me if Wiley's still handsome."
"He's okay." And by okay, she meant, good Lord, was he hot!
Macy wasn't even sure where to start.
That morning, Wiley hadn't been just easy on her eyes, but steal-her-breath-away gorgeous. His brown gaze was so intense she'd had to look away. He wore his dark hair on the long side, and judging by his scruffy facial hair, he hadn't shaved in days. And his bodywhew. His broad shoulders barely even fit in his faded PBR T-shirt she remembered him getting when his grandpa took him to the Vegas finals.
"Just, okay?" Her mom frowned. "That's disappointing. I had visions of a romantic reunion."
"Don't encourage this," Steve said. "Do you want our girl to get hurt?"
"Oh, quit being a worrywart." Adrianne waved off her husband's concern. "Wiley's a fellow veteran. I would think you'd give him your respect."
"He has my highest admiration and thanks. One day, I'd be honored if he considered me a friend. But when it comes to giving my blessing for him to marry our daughter and become Henry's stepfather, can you blame me for wanting to be cautious?"
Macy sighed. "Hate to interrupt this charming debate, but you two are aware of the fact that at no point when Wiley ordered me, Henry and our llamas off his land did he ever once propose?"
Wiley had never been a morning person, but his leg pain made it especially tough to get out of bed with a smile. The constant ache shaded his life in gray, and turned even cheery sun dull.
He tossed back the sheet and quilt to ease from the bed. The cold plank floor nipped the soles of his feet. Having spent the past decade on base in Virginia Beach, and in mostly hot-as-hell Middle Eastern locations, the chilly mountain starts to his days took some adjusting to.
After using the bathroom, then splashing cold water on his face, Wiley wound his way through the four-room log cabin to the kitchen. The place had been in his family for three generations, and though it had been updated with modern plumbing and electric, the hand-hewn logs held on to the original character. Age made them glow with a golden patina.
He rummaged through the fridge, but shouldn't have bothered. No food fairies had shown up in the night. He settled on a protein bar and steaming mug of half coffee, half whiskey to dull his pain.
With his second serving of fragrant, fresh-brewed java and Jim Beam, he wandered out to the covered front porch only to get a shock.
Macy was hard at work in his garden.
She'd woven her mane of wild red hair into a loose braid, and hummed while planting green beans that looked larger than the ones her llamas had eaten.
Baby Henry sat beside her, happily shrieking each time he raked his fingers through the soft soil.
The sight of mother and child both incensed and mesmerized him.
Why were they on his property when he'd told Macy he didn't need help? Why couldn't he look away from the quintessential slice of normalcy they represented? Lord help him, but he envied her ability to find joy in the simple work.
He shouted from the porch, "I told you I could handle replanting."
"Good morning!" Her pretty smile didn't help his dour mood. "Gorgeous day, isn't it? But I hear it's supposed to be rainy by tonightwhich is good. We could use a good old-fashioned toad strangler."
"Why are you here?"
"Aren't you cold with no shirt? It's chilly."