Read an Excerpt
Dallin Savatch breathed deep of the cool morning air. Stepping off the wraparound porch at Sunrise Ranch, he glanced at the damp dirt road surrounded by fields of newly sprouting alfalfa. Dark shadows clung to the jagged peaks of the McClellan Mountains, a hint of sunlight brightening the eastern sky. All was quiet; no one else was up yet. A whispering breeze carried the tangy scent of sage, horses and rain. Though the May weather had been unseasonably warm, a spring storm had struck in the middle of the night, awakening Dal with a clap of thunder. His left leg ached and he wasn't able to get back to sleep.
Phantom pain, his doctor called it.
That didn't prevent him from taking his morning run. Even at age thirty-six, nothing kept him from exercising his legs. He feared the wheelchair and losing his independence too much. Feared becoming less of a man than he already was.
He walked across the graveled driveway, then leaned against the hitching rail next to the barn. Wrapping his fingers around the coarse wood, he stretched his body for several minutes. The exercise warmed up his stiff muscles and relaxed the tight tendons.
Magpie, a gentle gray mare who didn't mind little kids tugging on her mane, stood inside the corral. She lifted her head over the rail fence and snuffled at him.
"Sorry, girl. No sugar cubes this early in the morning." Dal rubbed her between the ears. Then he turned and jogged toward the main road, picking up speed as he headed toward town, five miles away. He settled into an easy rhythm, his body moving well. Arms pumping. Blood pounding against his temples. Inhaling oxygen into his lungs.
He got his second wind just as he passed the turnoff to Secret Valley. His first-mile marker, where the graveled road turned into asphalt. His breathing came in even exhales. He was moving strong. Feeling invincible. But he knew from experience that was an illusion. Life was fragile, the human body easily broken.
He reached the main road, the sole of his running shoe pounding against the pavement. Another two miles and he'd turn back toward home. A rivulet of sweat tickled between his shoulder blades. He liked this quiet time when he jogged six miles before most people even started their day. He liked being alone to think about the work he had ahead of him back at the ranch. Horses to feed, stalls to muck out, bridles to repair, wild mustangs to train. Running not only cleared his head but also kept him in excellent condition. Something he valued more than anything else, except his relationship with God.
His gaze skimmed the fertile fields. A thin creek wound its lazy path through the valley and widened as it ran parallel to the road. Not once had he regretted his decision to move to Stokely, Nevada, the small ranching town where Cade Baldwin, his best friend, had settled and started a family of his own. Though Dal frequently felt like an intruder, the Baldwins were the closest thing to a family he would ever have, and he loved them dearly.
He focused on the terrain in front of him. Through the thick cluster of cattails, he caught a glimpse of Black Angus cattle nestled among the green pasture, chewing their cud. Soon they'd be up foraging for grass.
And then he spied a woman. Running toward him through the field on the opposite side of the stream. Through the tall willows, he could just make out the top half of her white jogging shirt and blue shorts. She pumped her bare arms hard as she ran. Sunlight gleamed against her long chestnut ponytail. Even from this distance, Dal caught the unwavering glint in her eyes. The lock-jawed determination to push herself hard.
Obviously a morning runner like him.
She glanced his way and waved. He lifted his hand in a halfhearted acknowledgment. Ever since he'd returned from the war in Afghanistan, he'd avoided women. His fiancée had broken off their engagement, and he couldn't really blame her. He no longer had much to offer a woman.
"Oww!" The stranger crumpled to the ground, disappearing from view.
Dal's mouth dropped open in surprise. She'd gone down! Maybe needed his help.
Leaving the road, he stepped down the graveled incline. He found a narrow spot in the creek where he could cross without wading through the muddy water. Gripping branches of willows, he pulled himself up the embankment. As he trotted toward the spot where he'd seen her fall, he called out, "You okay, ma'am?"
A thin wail came from the tall meadow grass. He found her lying on her side as she clutched her right ankle tight against her chest. She clenched her eyes closed and bit her bottom lip, fighting off a spasm of pain.
"Hey, you all right?" He stooped over her, giving her time to catch her breath. Hoping it wasn't serious.
She jerked her head around and gasped in surprise. "You You're "
She didn't finish her sentence, her gaze lowering to his legs. She sucked in a harsh breath, no doubt caught off guard by his prosthesis and the absence of his left leg. He got this a lot, though he never got used to it. It was an automatic response for people to stare at his legs, but he hated it with every fiber of his being.
Correction. One leg. He was an amputee above his left knee. This morning, he wore his black J-shaped running prosthesis made out of flexible carbon fibers. He wore a regular C-Leg prosthesis for walking, but he loved and wore the J-Leg whenever he could. To the point that his handicap was no longer a handicap. Not if you considered the two gold medals he'd won in the Paralympics years earlier.
He braced himself as her gaze surfed past his running shorts to his good leg, a long, muscular limb dusted by a smattering of dark hair. He ignored her wince of sympathy.
"I. Yes, I'm fine. The pain is subsiding," she said.
As she pushed herself into a sitting position, he studied her face. Something familiar about her tugged at his memory. The tilt of her head. The shape of her chin and the warm, golden color of her eyes.
And then recognition struck him like a jolt of electricity. In spite of the two decades that had passed, he knew her.
A man just didn't forget the first girl he ever kissed. She made a pretense of brushing dirt off her arms and knees. Staring at the ground. Staring at the trees. Staring anywhere but at him.
Didn't she recognize him, too? Maybe she was so distracted by his legs that she hadn't taken a good enough look at his face.
After all these years, he should be used to this by now. But he wasn't. Though he felt grateful to be able to walk and run again, the war had taken almost everything from him.
His leg. His fiancée. And almost his self-respect.
She peeled back the cuff of her white sock and rubbed her ankle. The movement commanded his gaze. Nice, trim ankles and shapely calves. He was still a man after all, and could appreciate a pair of pretty legs.
"May I?" He reached out a hand and she nodded.
He pressed his fingers gently against her bones, testing the structure for damage. Bloody abrasions scuffed her smooth skin, but he didn't have access to a first-aid kit right then. A battery of questions bludgeoned his mind. Where had she been all these years? How had life treated her? Was she married with a passel of kids? And why had she abandoned him so long ago?
"Nothing broken. You've probably just got a nasty sprain," he said.
Bracing her hands behind her, she leaned back and looked at him with a mix of dread and amazement. But not a smidgeon of recognition.
His heart rate ratcheted up several notches, and he felt suddenly protective of her. Just like the night her parents were killed. Only now he wasn't a young, powerless kid who couldn't stop Social Services from taking her away.
She shook her head with disgust. "This was so stupid of me. I took my eyes off my path and stepped in that hole over there."
She pointed at a rather deep gopher hole camouflaged by clumps of bleached grass.
"It's probably not good to run in the fields. They're very bumpy and hard on the legs," he said.
He wanted to tell her who he was, but something held him back. Something he didn't understand. Of all the people in the world, he hated for Julie to see him like this. One legged. No longer whole. But she'd turned her back on him long ago, and his situation would probably be of little importance to her now.
"How'd you lose your leg?" she asked.
He blinked, taken aback by her blunt question. But Julie had always been like that. Never mean or cruel. She'd just spoken her mind. At least until she'd disappeared from his life.
As if realizing her mistake, her face flushed. "I'm sorry. That was rude. It's none of my business."
"No, it's okay. Most people pretend they don't notice my missing leg. I lost it in Afghanistan." But her candor still surprised him. A lot. And very few people surprised him these days.
"You're in the military?" She sat forward again, looking interested.
"Not anymore. I'm a marine." He tightened his mouth, not wanting to disclose too much about himself. To anyone. Especially a girl he'd loved when he was fifteen years old and too young to know anything about the world.
"Ah, well, thank you for your service to our country. And I'm so sorry for your loss."
He caught the tone of sincerity in her soft voice. No pity, just gratitude.
She braced herself to stand, and he reached out an arm. "Here, let me help you."
She eyed him, looking skeptical. Then, without a word, she accepted his offer, sliding her fingers against his. Trusting him.
The warmth of her soft skin zinged through his arm. He tightened his grip and pulled her up, then let her go and stepped back.
"You think you can walk? Or should I call someone for you? A husband, maybe.?"
"No, I've never been married," she said.
Alone, just like him.
Surely he imagined the subtle throb of regret in her voice. And yet, a single man of his age was probably more sensitive to other people in the same predicament. But he was still amazed that she didn't seem to remember him.
"I'll get my truck and drive you home," he offered.
She glanced at his amputated leg again, as though assessing his abilities. He knew what she was thinking. They were out in the middle of nowhere. How could he get his truck and drive her home with only one leg?
He jabbed a thumb toward the vicinity of Sunrise Ranch, which was now shrouded behind an edge of mountains. "I don't live far from here. You'd only have to wait a few minutes."
His gaze skimmed past the white stripe along her blue runner's shorts to her scratched knees. A streak of dirt marred the edge of her chin, and he longed to brush it away. To touch her and make sure she was real. He hated being perceived as weak, especially by a girl from his past.
Correction. Woman. She wasn't a child anymore. And neither was he.
"Um, no. I don't think that'll be necessary. I can walk home."
She applied slight pressure to her ankle, testing to see if it could bear her weight. As she took a few limping steps, her face immediately contorted with pain. He knew she couldn't walk home. Not like this.
"It's three miles into town. You're gonna have to let me help you. Don't worry, it's what I do." He forced a smile.
Her beautiful eyes locked with his, filled with doubt.
"What do you do?"
"I help people. I always have." But he hadn't been able to help her twenty years ago. In so many words, he'd asked her to trust him. Again. And yet, he'd failed her once. He'd been too young to stop her from being taken away. To protect her from being hurt by people she didn't even know. But now he was a grown man. Things were different. Being a protector was in his blood. It was what had driven him to become a U.S. Marine. What had driven him to save Cade Baldwin's life in Afghanistan. And what drove him now to train horses and work with amputee kids.
Because they needed him. And it felt good to be needed.
"Okay, thank you." And then she smiled. A stunning reminder of who she was. The expression lit up her entire face, curved her generous lips and crinkled the slim bridge of her nose. If he'd had any doubts before, he lost them now. This was Julie Granger.
His first love.
He took a deep breath, then thrust his hand out in greeting. "I'm Dallin Savatch. Most people call me Dal."
He watched her face carefully, waiting for recognition to fill her eyes. Nothing. Not even a glimmer.
Instead, she dragged her gaze down to his fingers. As though hesitant to touch him. He waited for her shiver of disgust. He'd seen it before, time and time again, with other people who couldn't get past his missing leg. But that shiver didn't come. Not this time.
She clasped his fingers tight and shook his hand. "My name is Julie Granger. I'm sorry to inconvenience you like this, but I really appreciate it."
So. She didn't know him. And he couldn't decide if that was good or bad. How could she forget him so easily? Was her memory lapse selective or real?
He decided to let it pass. To pretend he hadn't been hurt when she'd stopped answering his letters and returning his phone calls. He'd tried to tell himself she'd been nothing more than a high school crush, but that never stuck. He'd loved her deeply, but she no longer felt the same.
"No problem." He let go a bit too fast. Trying to put some distance between them. Trying not to feel angry by her presence. He wished she weren't so lovely. A woman who obviously liked running as much as he did. If that were possible.
"Why don't you sit over here while I hurry home and get my truck? Then I can drive you into town to Cade's office." He pointed at a soft grassy knoll at the side of the road beneath the spreading limbs of a tall cottonwood.
"Cade?" Her knees visibly wobbled as she took a step toward the inviting spot. He reached for her arm, and she didn't refuse.
"Cade Baldwin. My partner. He's the doctor in town."
"A doctor won't be necessary," she said. "Are you a doctor, too?"
"No, no. Cade's the doctor. We were in the Marine Corps together. Now we're partners out at Sunrise Ranch. We pooled our resources and work together there. I mostly just handle the horses."
He'd always been a horseman, even when they were kids and his widowed mom had worked as a cook on a ranch in Oklahoma.
He expected Julie's doubtful stare directed toward his prosthesis, but she didn't even flinch. Most amputees didn't train horses, much less wild mustangs. But he did. And he was good at it, too. He refused to let his missing limb get in the way of his work. The horses didn't judge him. They didn't care if he only had one leg. And when he was with them, he could forget the disability he'd worked so hard to overcome.
The way Julie had forgotten him.