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Only an urgent mission could bring Sergeant Joe Wilcox back to his Texas townand the past he's been trying to forget. The marine gets his wish when an accident robs him of his memory. The beautiful blonde who offers to nurse him back to health on a ranch that's hauntingly familiar is a bonus he didn't expect except Chloe Dawson is strictly off-limits.
The letter the wounded G.I. "Doe" is carryingaddressed to Chloeonly deepens the mystery of who he is and why he came to Brighton Valley. With desire sizzling between them, Chloe's in danger of falling for the sexy soldier. But what happens when his memory returns? Can she help him face his past and, together, find their futurea place where they can both belong?
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Brighton Valley, Texas, was the last place in the world Joe Wilcox had ever expected to step foot in again.
Well, not when it came to the good ol' U.S.A. He sure as hell wouldn't look forward to another deployment to Afghanistan. But he'd made a promise to deliver a letter for a friend, and if there was one thing that could be said about Joehe always kept his word.
So he'd packed a few belongings, rented a car just outside of Camp Pendleton and left California. He'd stopped in El Paso long enough to spend the night with Red Conway, a retired marine he'd met on a bus ten years ago. Red had taken Joe in when he'd been a down-and-out teenage runaway, hell-bent on leaving everyone and everything he'd once known behind.
The two men had shared a couple of beers, a pizza and a few stories. The next day, Joe had continued on for another nine hundred miles, finally arriving in Brighton Valley exhausted and hungry.
The first thing Joe did after checking in to a cheap but clean room at the Night Owl, a motor lodge that catered to travelers who were low on funds and just passing through, was to shove his duffle bags under the bed. There was a closet he could have used, but that had never felt like a safe place when he'd been a kid determined to protect his valuables from an uncle who might not have enough cash to buy a pack of cigarettes and a pint of Jack Daniels.
He probably should have shaken the habit years ago, but being back in town brought back all kinds of weird memories, leaving him a bit unbalanced.
Next he took a long, hot shower, slipped into a comfortable pair of worn jeans and a black sweatshirt and hoofed it across the highway to the Stagecoach Inn.
In spite of the seasonal chill in the air, a cold beer would really hit the spot right about now, but he wasn't looking for a drink or any entertainment. He was on a mission. He had a letter to deliver to a blonde cocktail waitress named Chloe Dawson.
Once he found the coldhearted woman who'd broken Dave Cummings's heart, he'd give her the letter Dave had asked him to deliver.
Now, as he stood on the side of the busy highway, waiting for a lull in the traffic so he could cross, he pulled out Chloe's photograph, the one Dave had always carried. He studied the photo in the flickering streetlight overhead. The snapshot was a little grainy, so her facial features weren't especially clear, but it was easy to see that the platinum blonde had long, wavy hair and a dynamite shape.
To be honest, when he and Dave had been stationed in Afghanistan, all Dave could talk about was the woman he'd placed on a pedestal and the dreams he'd had for them. Joe had been a little envious. He'd never had a familywell, not one he'd wanted to claimso he'd never dared to consider a white-picket-fence dream. But his buddy had grown up as an only child, adored by his parents. So why wouldn't he expect to have that same life for himself?
Joe had to admit that he'd wondered what such an attractive woman had seen in Dave. Not that his friend wasn't a good person. He was kind and generous to a fault, but he'd been so sheltered by his doting parents that he tended to be naive about life and other things.
Dave had been more sensitive than guys like Joe, who'd learned early on to get tough in order to survive, and as a result, he'd been hit hard by his father's unexpected death. Then, when his mom had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer nine months later, he'd been devastated.
Obviously Chloe had seen how broken up and vulnerable Dave had been and used it against him when she'd set her gold-digging plan in motion.
From what Joe had gathered, she'd rented a room from Dave's widowed mother, and when Dave had gone home on leave last summer, he'd fallen hard for her. And, sadly, he'd been too caught up in grief and lust and starry-eyed wonder to see the writing on the wall.
After Mrs. Cummings's funeral, Chloe had promised to take care of the ranch and to wait for him until he returned from war. Dave, of course, had bought her line of bull and had promised her the moon.
The dream that they'd get married as soon as he got back from deployment and eventually raise "a passel of kids" on the family ranch had been the only thing that kept him going.
Dave might have joined the Marines, hoping to man up and become independent, but he hadn't been cut out for a life of combat, especially when his idea of happy ever after was in Texas.
Not that life in a war zone had been a cakewalk for Joe, either, but growing up with an abusive drunk uncle and then ending up in the foster care system had made him both street-smart and strong. He hadn't realized it at the time, but in a lot of ways his crappy childhood had been a blessing.
Either way, Dave's defense mechanism for dealing with his depression and fears had been to cling to his future with Chloe. It was all he'd talked about, all he'd looked forward to. But apparently Chloe had envisioned an entirely different future, one without Dave. And it looked like fate had granted her that wish.
As the last headlights of the oncoming traffic passed, Joe crossed the street, his boots crunching on the graveled parking lot as he made his way to the entrance of the Stagecoach Inn, where blinking Christmas lights adorned the front window.
He could have gone out to the ranch looking for Chloe, but from what Dave had told him, she worked at the honky-tonk to pick up extra money. And Dave had spent many nights in the war-ravaged deserts of Afghanistan, worrying that some rowdy cowboy might pick up his girl while she was there.
Was that what had happened? Had Chloe found someone better looking? Someone with more money and a bigger ranch?
Joe supposed it really didn't matter why she'd broken Dave's heart, just that she'd done itcallously and without any thought of how lonely and despondent the poor guy had been.
When her Dear John arrived, Dave's depression spi-raled downward. And in his grief, he'd taken off after a group of combatants on his own, a reckless act that bordered on suicide and nearly got him killed.
Joe had run to his defense and gotten shot, too, which resulted in two careerending injuries. All because of that damn cocktail waitress. Couldn't she have waited until Dave had gone home to break up with him? Her abandonment in his time of need had led to him having a death wish, which eventually came true.
As Joe neared the entrance of the rowdy honky-tonk, the country music as well as the hoots of laughter grew louder. He pulled open the door, then paused in the doorway, allowing his senses to adjust to the smell of booze and smoke, to the blaring jukebox and the chatter of people milling about.
He was looking for a womana sexy blonde who'd be taking orders and serving drinks. From Dave's description, Chloe was twenty-two years old, about five foot four and a knockout. The photograph wasn't going to be all that helpful, although Joe didn't have any reason to dispute Dave's claim. Either way, in a small place like this she shouldn't be too hard to find.
Joe made his way across the scarred wood floor to the bar, which stretched across the far wall. While the bartender filled a glass of beer for a cowboy sitting three seats to the left, Joe asked, "You know a woman by the name of Chloe Dawson?"
"Yeah. She used to work here for a while, but not anymore."
"What happened to her?"
"Know where I can find her?"
The barkeep surveyed him for a beat, as if he was some kind of stalker or an abusive ex-boyfriend or something. "I got no idea where she is."
Joe didn't believe that for a minute, but there were plenty of others around here who might talk. Besides, he had a feeling she was still staying out at the Cum-mings ranch. Why wouldn't she be? Last he'd heard, Dave had left it to her in his will.
Did she know that already? Dave had already been discharged at the time of his death, so the military wouldn't have alerted her.
How long did it take for news from the outside world to reach a small town like this?
As the bartender delivered another round of drinks to a couple at the far end of the bar, Joe pulled out the stool and took a seat. It was pretty late to drive out to the ranch tonight. Besides, the sun had set several hours ago, and he was exhausted.
When the bartender finally returned, he wiped his hands on a dish towel. "What'll you have?"
Joe wasn't sure. Did he want something strong to help him unwind and go to sleep? Or something light and satisfying to wash down the road dust he'd swallowed since his trek from El Paso?
One thing he knew for sure, he was dead tired and running on fumes, although he doubted he'd be able to fall asleep right away.
"I'll have a Corona," he said.
The bartender continued to study him. "Can I see your ID?"
At twenty-six and after eight years in the military, Joe wasn't used to being carded. But then again, he'd only been out of the service and back in the States for a couple of months. He reached into the front pocket of his jeans, only to come up empty-handed.
Where the hell was ? Oh, crap. He'd showered back in the room and changed clothes. He must have left his wallet on the nightstand, next to his cell phone and Damn. The key to the room had been right beside it. All he had on him was Dave's letter and the photograph, neither of which would do him much good tonight.
So much for hiding his valuables out of sight. Talk about being too tired to think straight. He blew out a ragged sigh. "I'm not trying to pull a fast one. I'm staying across the street at the Night Owl. Apparently, I left my wallet there."
"Sorry, buddy. The guy who worked here before me got fired for serving a minor, and I was told to card anyone who looked younger than thirty."
"I understand. I need to get my cash anyway. Keep that beer cold for me. I'll be back." Joe slid off the bar stool and headed for the door. He felt like a batter with two strikes against him already. What else could go wrong?
As he stepped outside and made his way to the parking lot, a drunk stumbled past him, walking toward a Silverado pickup, the keys in his hand.
"You got someone you can call?" Joe asked the guy.
"Get off my back," the drunk said. "You sound like my wife."
Joe was going to argue, but a woman came out a moment later and called out to the man. "Larry, I told you I'd drive. Wait for me. I can pick up my car tomorrow. Just let me get my purse and tell Shannon goodbye. I'll be right back."
Glad the guy had a ride, Joe headed for the Night Owl. Did he want a beer badly enough to return to the bar once he got another key to his room? He wasn't so sure that he did. Just seeing the drunken man Larrywas a reminder of his uncle and all the nights T o Ramon had come stumbling home, slurring his words and raising his fists, ready to strike up a fight with his aunt or whoever crossed him.
For the most part, Joe didn't drink much at all. But tonight, he might be tempted to tie one on, just like Dave had been prone to do ever since they'd both been sent to the hospital in Germany.
Dave's injuries had been pretty severe. And just thinking that he'd have to go through life physically damaged had sent the already emotionally impaired man into a depression from which he hadn't been able to recover.
Hell, Joe had been bummed, too. His own gunshot wound had made him rethink his intention to reenlist, which was why he was here nowno longer officially in the corps, but always and forever a marine.
He'd shaken his own discouragement and disappointment, focusing instead on Dave's recovery and rehab. That is, until he'd been discharged and sent back to the States. Upon Dave's arrival two weeks ago, Joe had picked him up at the airport, determined to help him mend. But Dave's depression and attitude had sunk to an all-time low, and on one of his first nights back, he downed more than his prescribed dose of meds, followed by a glass of ninety proof, ending his pain forever.
The coroner had ruled Dave's death an accident, an unintentional overdose. But Joe believed otherwise. There was a life insurance policy somewhere, which wouldn't do anyone any good if the death was ruled a suicide. Joe had the power to throw a wrench into the machinery and blow things sky-high, which he was tempted to do. After all, Dave had told him that he'd made Chloe his beneficiary. And on top of that, he'd left her everythinghis money, his family ranch in Brighton Valley.
How lucky could a heartless woman get?
As Joe started across the street, heading for the Night Owl, the Silverado started up, but something wasn't quite right about the sound. Instead of backing out in a normal fashion, the driver gunned the engine and the tires spun, kicking up gravel as it blasted forward and over the curb.
Joe's pause to look over his shoulder at drunk Larry cost him his opportunity to make it all the way across the street as oncoming cars zoomed by him, leaving him no safe retreat as the truck shot onto the highway, barreling right at him.
He'd thought his day couldn't get much worse and might have considered this strike three, but he was too busy trying to dodge the speeding truck as it nailed him in the side, sending him flying into the night.
When Chloe Dawson received the call from the Brighton Valley Medical Center asking her to come to the hospital and identify a hit-and-run victim, a patient they believed to be David Cummings, her heart dropped to the pit of her stomach, and her grip on the receiver tightened. "Is he dead?"
"No, he's unconscious."
"I'll be right there."
The moment she hung up, she threw on a pair of jeans, a white T-shirt and sweater. Then she climbed into one of the ranch pickups and drove to town, her hands clammy as they struggled to control both the steering wheel and the gearshift at the same time, her knee wobbly as she stepped on the clutch.
Thank God her dad had insisted she learn to drive a stick when she'd turned sixteen, although this beat-up old GMC wasn't anything like the little Honda Civic she'd once driven.