Ghost of the Past
Baker City Hearts & Haunts Book 4
by Josie Malone
Genre: Paranormal Ghost Military Romance
What happens when love isn’t enough?
Former Marine, Durango Hawke never thought he’d spend years trekking through the jungles of South America looking for his missing brother, or that duty to his family would cost him the love of his life.
Heather McElroy grew up dreaming of a country music career but followed her childhood sweetheart into the military instead. Now, back in civilian life, it’s finally time to put herself first.
When Durango leaves on his latest rescue mission, he assumes she’ll be waiting when he returns.
Will chasing her dreams cost Heather the love of her life?
Baker City, Washington ~ August 2014
“I’m done coming second in your life, Durango Hawke.”
“Say again, babe. I didn’t get that.”
“You heard me.” Heather McElroy shifted on the corral rail where she’d perched so he could snap her photo with his new camera, the one she’d given him for his birthday back in March. She eyed the tawny-haired man twenty feet away. Six foot, six in his socks, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, he carried himself like the Marine he’d been for six years before he became a soldier of fortune. She’d followed him far too long.
“Let me spell it out for you, Hawke. I love you, but it’s my turn now. I’ve been offered a great job and a recording contract. I’m going to Nashville in time for the Labor Day show.”
“We’ve talked about this. It’ll have to wait. I need you here to run Hawke Construction when I’m on a mission for Nighthawke.”
“Not my circus, not my monkeys. Not anymore. My life has been on hold long enough. I told you I didn’t agree with rescuing the company when your father ran it into the ground while we were in Afghanistan, but you had to save the day one more time instead of letting it go into bankruptcy.”
“The people who’ve worked there all these years didn’t deserve to lose their retirement when it went down in flames and I was the only one that could borrow money from the extended family in Texas.”
“You did what you had to do because you always have to be the hero, but that’s not my deal. I’ve always dreamed of being a country singer and now I have a shot. I’m going to Nashville in two weeks.”
She took a deep breath and watched the storm build in his navy eyes. Irritation made his rugged, handsome features harder for her to resist. Blue jeans, boots, and a faded, sleeveless chambray shirt increased his resemblance to a Madison Avenue cowboy. But there was nothing plastic about her man!
At 28, almost 29, I have three combat tours behind me. I’ve been working part-time as a horse trainer while I rebuild my career as a country singer in the local bars. We were supposed to move to Nashville as soon as he found a manager for Hawke Construction, but the damned jarhead didn’t even look for one. He’s too freaking busy hunting for his brother, the family fave. It’s not like Durango doesn’t know how much I love music. It’s my turn, damn it!
She tossed her head, long copper hair flying in the warm breeze. “I’m through nursing you after your stupid adventures, and I’m definitely done picking up the slack at Hawke Construction when you’re off in South America. You wouldn’t hire a manager, so I did.”
“Thanks for the support.” Sarcasm laced his bass rumble.
Deliberately, she concentrated on the bandaged left shoulder. Any lower and the bullet would have hit his heart. As cantankerous as he was, though, she hadn’t asked but knew he’d taken out the attacker. She wouldn’t let Durango see how he affected her when he lowered the Nikon and strode toward her.
“I mean it.” She raised her chin. “No more system support, Hawke, when you return to Colombia on one more suicide mission. I’m going to Nashville. Someone else will have to patch you up. Just remember doctors must report gunshot wounds and all cops aren’t stupid. One might not believe you were hit in a drive-by shooting at a construction site.”
“Don’t threaten me.” He stalked closer, menace in each step. “I’ve never taken your crap. It’s why we’ve stayed together this long.”
“I won’t be here when you return this time.” Her ultimatum didn’t appear to faze him. His face was expressionless, a mask that hid any and all emotion. She reached for the emerald engagement ring on her left hand, began to remove it. “I mean it. I’m done waiting on the sidelines.”
“Watch it, Heather Marie. You don’t want to piss me off.”
“I’m not scared of you.” She shrugged, but stopped toying with the ring. She’d wait. “Save the macho act for the bunch of mercenaries you run with or one of your cousins. Don’t try to placate me or act like you think I’m cute when I’m angry. I’m serious.”
She didn’t want to know how many soldiers of fortune died in the South American jungles. It was bad enough knowing he might. He was pretty annoyed with her. She could tell by the edge in his deep voice and the tight line of his strong jaw. He paced closer, boots soft on the summer grass. Did he think he could intimidate her into silence?
No way! Too bad, too sad! After all those tours as a combat nurse in Iraq and Afghanistan, does he honestly think his tantrums frighten me?
He stopped in front of her. The shirt left unbuttoned and open because of the injured shoulder revealed his neck and tanned, muscular chest. Her gaze narrowed on the bright red scar that slashed from his right shoulder in a diagonal six-inch line toward his left nipple. The injury two years ago had been her introduction to his illegal, dangerous hunt for his younger brother. Granted, Durango was morally right when he tried to save the day and his bro, but damn it, she wanted him home, safe with her in Tennessee—not getting himself killed, pursuing a dream and a man who was undoubtedly dead.
She pointed to the healed knife wound. “Remember when I stitched that with an upholstery needle and dental floss? I cleaned it with alcohol first. You yelled like a stuck pig. Without anesthesia, I know everything I did must have hurt like hell. You fainted from the pain.”
“Yeah, I passed out. Your nursing hurt worse than being stabbed. Your point?”
“You didn’t learn anything, not from the cause or the cure. You still think you can change clothes in a phone booth. I’m not Lois Lane to your Superman.” She trembled when he gripped the fence, resting large hands on either side of her. “I’m right, damn it.”
“You always tell me so.” He leaned nearer, brushed a kiss over her lips. “It’s why we fight so much. You’re all spit and vinegar. It makes me horny as hell when you start issuing edicts, Empress. You’re my pretty little tyrant.”
She tried to turn her head, but he caught her chin in calloused fingers. “Don’t. I’m not in the mood, especially when you make fun of me.”
Of course, it’s all too easy for him to get me in the mood.
“I won’t force you.” He chuckled. “I don’t have to, and we both know it. This is your pride talking. It’s why you’ve slept on the couch for the past three weeks. It’s cold comfort at night, isn’t it? I’ve missed you hogging the covers.”
“As if you really cared. If I believed that, you’ve got oceanfront property in Arizona like the song says.” She trembled when he feathered his thumb over her lips. Of course, he didn’t have a clue that she wasn’t actually sleeping in the living-room. She sat up nights, drinking vodka while she watched insipid late night movies. Enough booze and she wouldn’t dream about dying kids who should be anywhere but in the military trying to survive in a war zone.
“You’ve ignored everything I said,” Heather went on. “You won’t admit how wrong you are. And you didn’t say a word when I moved out of the bedroom until I took away the television. Then, you bitched because you missed laughing at Walker, Texas Ranger, and your war movies.”
“I’m not stupid. If I said I needed you every minute of every day, you’d figure you won. And did you think I wouldn’t find the small flat-screen on the kitchen table? You weren’t even watching it. You just stole it for spite.”
The mockery in his deep voice grated on sensitive nerves. She’d fallen in love with him before she knew what the word meant. She trailed behind him as a child, adored him as a teen, and followed him to war as a woman. She didn’t make a secret of her feelings, unlike him. He’d never said he loved her, not once in all these years.
“Come on, baby. Don’t be this way. You know how bad I want you.” The warmth in the dark blue eyes left no doubt of the way he wanted her. “I like having you in that big, brass bed or anywhere else I can take you.”
She glared up at him, hurt, humiliated, and angry. “Want in one hand, Marine and crap in the other. See which fills up first.”
“Wow, can you talk dirty, Empress. Is this when I make you beg for me or later?”
The nickname offended her. She wasn’t as capricious or arbitrary as he made her sound. She pushed him away, jumped off the fence. “You son-of-a—!” She stopped, aware of how he felt about name-calling. She wouldn’t go that far. “You’re damned well right about one thing. I’m too good for you. I’ll find a real man, one not afraid to stick and stay with me when I get to Nashville.”
“Don’t go there.” His fingers gripped her shoulders. “You belong to me. You have since the day you were born.”
“Kiss my butt.” She wrenched free, stalked across the yard. She’d collect her purse and jacket, then hitch a ride into Baker City. From there, she could find a friend to take her back to their place in Lake Maynard.
The scent of flowers drifted from the overgrown rose garden in front of the old Victorian house where her grandparents had lived. The four-hundred-plus acre farm waited for her uncle to return. Fenian McElroy had disappeared on a covert Army mission back in 2011 with Durango’s brother, Waco.
There was little hope her uncle would come home to claim his inheritance. After all, the U.S. didn’t even admit they had troops in South America fighting the drug lords. The American government knew how to fight secret wars. The blood of its soldiers was currency to politicians and too much attention was taken up with the war in the Middle East. Durango might not have learned the lesson, but she had long before her uncle and his younger brother died.
“Nothing frightens you.” He caught up with her. He didn’t sound quite so amused when he trailed one finger down her neck to the gold chain she always wore along with the special four-leaf clover he’d given her as a gift on her sixteenth birthday. “I won’t let you leave me.”
She glared at him. “In the past, you were everything to me. I have dreams and I’m going to follow them.”
“You want me.” He nipped her ear, kissed the spot below it. “You’re too damned proud to admit it when you’re in one of your snot-slinging, foot-stomping hissy fits. You figure if you don’t let me make love to you, I’ll kowtow to your demands.”
“I’m not that manipulative or spiteful. Even if I were, you’d deserve it. You walked into the house leaking blood like a saturated surgical sponge and terrified me.”
“You didn’t show it. You fixed me up.” He pressed another kiss to her neck. “You’re one in a million and way too good for me.”
“At least we agree on something, jarhead.” She stepped away from him, headed toward the blanket she’d spread on the grass. “Let’s go home. Your idea of a picnic on the old McElroy homestead was only another try to get me in the sack.”
“We haven’t eaten yet and I still want to take some pictures of you with my birthday camera.” He followed her.
“I’m not in the mood,” she repeated, her back to him. “I’d have more luck talking to a rock. No wonder your mother claims, ‘bigger is dumber’ and acts like you’re a monster because you’re not a scawny, little runt. For once, she’s right.”
“Funny. You never say that in bed. You always beg for more.”
A blush scorched her cheeks. “Bragger!”
She whirled to confront him. He was right behind her. Surprised, she fell back a step, the blanket beneath her shoe. “I won’t sleep with you until you’re home for good.”
He grinned down at her. “Want to bet?” He hooked a hand around her neck. “I haven’t given you a birthday present yet.”
“My birthday isn’t until next week. You’d better be here and packing to go with me to Nashville.” When he didn’t answer, she stiffened. “I said, no.”
“I heard you.” He brushed her lips with his. “I fully intend to get started on your present today.”
“Oh, really? What do you plan to give me?”
“What do you think?” He lowered his head. “The same thing I’ve given you for the past eight years, multiple orgasms. I’m going for a new record, twenty-nine of them, one for each year.”
She shuddered, trying to ignore the heat in her face. “You can’t. It’s physically impossible. I’ll die of exhaustion.”
“You haven’t yet.” He laughed. “Let’s check it out.”
She hesitated. She wanted him as badly as he wanted her. She’d ached for his touch, longed to go to him, and forced herself to maintain a safe distance. Would surrender work any better? Could she entice him to stay home with her?
It was worth a try. At five foot eight, it wasn’t much of a stretch to tiptoe up and tease his mouth with hers. “Want me?”
“You know it.” He pulled her tight against him. “I’ve missed you.”
“Not enough to come out to the living room and charm me.”
“It wouldn’t have worked until you stopped ranting and raving.”
“I don’t have tantrums anymore.”
“When I got home, you tipped a table full of food on me. Laredo hit the door a-running.”
“That was the plan,” she said in her sweetest voice. “I couldn’t let your youngest brother see you were a bloody mess. If I had, we wouldn’t be arguing. You’d be in a hospital, then jail. You got off easy.”
“Says the woman into payback. Vengeance is always yours, baby. You do enjoy trying to make me suffer.”
“I’m not that petty.”
“You’ll go to hell for lying.” Durango kissed her brows. “You threw your engagement ring at me for a week straight. I kept putting it back on your finger.”
She tipped back her head and met his gaze. “I didn’t ask for it. I offered to bring you a jar of petroleum jelly so you could shove it where the sun doesn’t shine.”
Another laugh before he dropped a kiss on her nose. “You make me glad to be alive, except when all you give me to eat is potato soup.”
“It was good for you.”
“I hate the stuff. Then you made peanut butter cookies for dessert.” He stroked her hair. “How many times have I told you that peanut butter makes me gag? And you refused to make me chocolate chip ones, no matter how many times I asked.”
“Making you miserable was the least I could do after you scared the hell out of me.”
“You went for two and a half weeks without speaking to me, even when you were changing my bandages. Must have been a new record.” He rested his chin on top of her head. “You’re an ornery woman, Heather Marie McElroy, my ornery woman.”
“As if you’d want any other kind.” She closed her eyes and leaned against him, relishing the hard, solid feel of his body. Did he realize how close he’d come to dying? Tears burned her eyes. She blinked them away, determined not to reveal the weakness. He couldn’t handle it when she cried. She’d learned that eons ago.“You’re mine.”
“I always have been.” His mouth claimed hers. “Ever since we were kids.”
When the kiss ended, he lifted his lips a few inches from hers. Before he spoke, she slowly slid his shirt down the muscled arms, letting it fall onto the grass. “I’ve given you all of me.” Deliberately, she reminded him of the 4-H pledge they’d exchanged as teen sweethearts. “Head, heart, health, and hands. I want all of you.”
“You have me. We’ll get married as soon as I bring Waco home.”
“He’s gone by now. We have to let him and Fenn go.”
“I don’t believe that. I’ll keep looking for the two of them.”
“All right, lover. You think what you need to think.” She stopped him with a kiss, then said, “I wish there were another O’Leary who talks to the dead in Baker City, someone who could find Waco and Fenn for you, but there isn’t, and your brother means more to you than—” She paused. “No, I won’t say that. I won’t spoil this moment, but I’ll agree we’ll both do what we have to do.”
* * * *
As soon as he parked the rental car in the driveway, he knew she was gone. October leaves covered the unmown lawn and weeds shared space with the bright marigolds in the flowerbeds. Rolled-up newspapers littered the front porch. Envelopes overflowed from the small mailbox beside the screen door. Proof of her departure from his life as if he hadn’t gotten a clue when she didn’t come to the airport to meet him.
“I don’t need this crap, Heather Marie.”
He left the bouquet of golden roses, the box of her favorite chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, and the small sack from the jewelry store on the passenger seat. He’d expected her to be angry. She always got mad when he left on a trip to South America, but this tantrum was ridiculous for a twenty-nine-year-old woman, especially storming off to Nashville, Tennessee in a huff. Then again, maybe she really hadn’t gone.
He reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and flipped to the last picture he’d taken of her. Vibrant red hair cascaded to her narrow waist. High cheekbones, a pointed chin, and huge green eyes. The regal glare made him think of an absolute ruler, but there was nothing tame about his Heather. She was wild, feral, and downright vicious at times. My kind of woman, long on guts, short on self-preservation, my pretty tyrant. She’d charge hell with a bucket of water.
It was the low, rich taunting voice he always missed most. She might tear strips off him with her words, but that voice was saturated with sex. He wanted to fall into the photo, grab her and hold her forever. He’d just hold those tall curves against him. She was the perfect size for him, heart-high. In the picture, she leaned against the corral rail, the summer wind ruffling her hair.
He’d told her to say, ‘cheese’. She hadn’t, of course. She’d never followed his directions in her entire life. She’d looked him straight in the face, smiled dangerously, and purred, “But, babe. I don’t want cheese. I want you.”
His hands shook when he snapped the photo. It was pure luck, not skill it’d come out this good. He’d assumed their wild lovemaking meant everything was great between them. She’d stopped complaining and calling the hunt for his brother the definition of insanity. She’d even driven him to the airport, kissed him goodbye like they were going to jump back into the sack, not like they’d just left it.
How was he supposed to know she really intended to leave him?
He flung open the car door, paced to the trunk, and removed his duffel bag, a leftover from his stint in the Marines. He slung the carrying strap over his shoulder, slammed the trunk, and went around the house to the back door. The kitchen was dark. Daylight filtered through the door behind him. Some came through the window above the farmhouse sink.
What happened to the curtains? He flipped the light switch by the door. Nothing. Had the bulb in the overhead fixture burned out? He turned, saw the note taped neatly to the outside of the breaker box.
Durango, call to have the utilities turned on when you want them. That includes the landline. You never phone me, so I won’t worry.
“Damn it!” He tore down the note, wadded it into a ball, and looked for the wastebasket.
Gone. He walked further into the room. The table and chairs were missing too. So were all the appliances, the electric range, fridge, washer, dryer, and dishwasher. No microwave. He grimaced, grateful they’d totally furnished the rental. At least, he wouldn’t have to listen to the landlord pitching a major fit.
The cupboards were bare. Another note lay where the dishes used to be. I gave away the groceries. You had more important things to do than be here for me or the meals I cooked for you.
“You little witch.” He shook his head. He was cracking up. Imagine arguing with a piece of paper.
He stormed through the house, searching the rest of the rooms. She’d stripped the place. The furniture was gone, everything they’d bought together. A manila envelope was taped to the bedroom door, obviously where she’d left her engagement ring. Another note fluttered beside it.
I got rid of the bed. I didn’t want you to share it with someone else. Your clothes are at the cleaners down the street. You can pay them to do laundry for you. I’m outta here. I’m going to Tennessee. So long, lover!
He dropped the duffel on the floor. He ripped the paper off the door, took down the envelope, tore open one end, and shook out the emerald engagement ring, shoving it into his shirt pocket. He’d save the note inside for later, make her read it to him.
“I’ll find you, Heather Marie McElroy. When I do, I’m taking you to bed. Then we’re getting married. Enough is damn well enough! I’m done putting up with your tantrums.”
He collected the other snotty notes on his way to the back door. He slammed it behind him, pausing to lock the vacant house. A quick stop at the detached garage revealed it was empty. “Where the hell is my truck?”
She’d better not have sold the classic ’57 Chevy four-by-four. If she had, there’d be another nastygram, but he didn’t see one. Okay, so he’d track her down. After all this time, I know where she likes to party, even if she calls it ‘singing for her supper,’ and it won’t be the first time I’ve dragged her out of a bar.
Three taverns later, he’d heard the same story from all the bartenders. She hadn’t been around since September. Did her folks know her address in Nashville? If they did, would they tell him when he called or would they chew him out for standing in the way of her dreams again? He eyed the CD the last bar manager gave him, then slid it into the player.
The twang of guitars, beat of drums, and finally, organ music slid into a melody. It was an old Dottie West song. Lesson in Leavin’ was one of Heather’s favorites. Why hadn’t he realized she was giving him a warning when she sang it before he left two months ago on a vain hunt for his brother?
Okay, so he hadn’t found him this time, Durango thought, but he’d keep looking. Heather’s husky, sexy voice sent chills down his spine. The words echoed through him as a wronged woman sought vengeance for heartache.
* * * *
Liberty Valley, Washington ~ May 5th, 2015
He’d spent the day on the construction site, too busy working on a new strip mall to check messages. Finally, back in his office, he crossed to the desk, picked up the landline, and called the automatic answering service.
Her mocking voice filled his ears. “Durango, sorry I missed you. Happy birthday, lover.”
He froze, pressed the button to repeat the message. It’s not my birthday. She knows better than anyone that’s in March. What the hell is going on? What game is she playing now?
PART ONE ~ FEBRUARY 2019
Sullivan Barlow glanced from the handwritten—make that scribbled—disposition form in front of her to the typed version on the computer screen. She’d thought the high school students during her last practicum had crappy penmanship. So, did this guy. She squinted at the signature block again. Yes, it was Master Sergeant Tate Murphy. If she ever met him in person, she’d suggest he repeat third grade and learn cursive.
Oh, wait a minute. A lot of elementary schools no longer taught it. That couldn’t be the case with him. He had to be older than she was, and she learned it back in the day in Liberty Valley. So, she’d give him hell. She took a deep breath. No, she wouldn’t. She was a Sergeant First Class, an E-7, after all. She’d be polite and recommend he find a pharmacist to decipher his hieroglyphics.
Okay, it was official. She was definitely having a bad day. She pushed back from the desk and leaned down to rub her aching left leg. She’d worked in worse conditions than Major Harper’s office. For a moment, she remembered dust, sand, and overwhelming heat. Then, she shook her head.
No, Sully. Concentrate on the moment. Think about here and now.
The room was large with two desks facing each other. Weak February sunshine filtered through the mini-blinds on the windows to her right, laying patterns on the carpeted floor. The American flag stood neatly in the stand to her left, accompanied by the Washington state flag and the one for Fort Clark. Looking at the Stars and Stripes always reminded her of that last flight home and the tri-folded flag on her lap.
She choked on the rising lump in her throat. She’d sat and held that flag on her lap on the entire flight, refusing the meals and beverages the overly sympathetic flight attendants offered.
I wish things were different. I want a do-over. If I could only go back in time… Oh, Raven, I’m so sorry.
Sully closed her eyes for a moment, blinked hard before she focused on the computer screen again. She always tried to avoid glancing at the U.S. flag and the glassed-in bookcases behind the stand. File cabinets lined the wall that held the same door to the hall and the break room where she could find a cup of coffee. That was if she wanted to try walking that far when her ankle throbbed in its own rhythm, pressing against her combat boot.
Okay, she’d upgrade the day from being bad to officially sucking. Her leg hurt. She had a stack of reports from a moron to type. She repeated her mantra. Don’t complain, things can always be worse. At least nobody is trying to kill me.
“Haven’t you finished those reports yet? You’ve been typing for three days.”
Sully looked from the stack of paperwork to the blonde fashion plate in front of the desk. She was slipping. She should have heard the click of high heels in the hall before Anise Tyler, the civilian clerk in charge returned to the office. “It’d go faster if you helped instead of disappearing to the breakroom every hour.”
“Speaking of that, it’s a mess.” In a clinging light blue dress that matched her heels, the civilian liaison sauntered across to her desk and eased into the leather chair behind it. “I told Mr. Edwards you’d clean it up. You’ll find the mop in the utility closet at the end of the hall.”
“Excuse you.” Sully counted silently to ten, the advice one of the other sergeants in her company had given for dealing with idiots. It didn’t work this time. “You’re joking, right?”
“Do I look like it?” Anise smiled, but it didn’t touch her pale blue eyes. Pleasure filled the lovely face. “You can go clean it now. Then come back and finish those reports.”
“I don’t think so.” Sully rose to her feet, leaning on the desk for support and pinned Anise with an icy glare, hoping the other woman didn’t see the actual physical weakness in her stance. “Let me make one thing perfectly clear, Ms. Tyler. I am a Sergeant First Class. I’ve done three tours in the sandbox and I was reassigned here for light duty when they no longer needed me in the Finance section. I don’t scrub floors, wash windows, or take out your trash. I don’t give garbage. I don’t take garbage. I am not in the garbage business. I’ll do your correspondence. I won’t do your dirty work. Got it?”
The sound of slow applause drew Sully’s attention to the door and away from the sputtering woman on the other side of the room. A tall, dark-haired man in camouflage fatigues stood in the doorway. Oh crap, Sully thought. She was in for it now. She should have remembered she was here temporarily and controlled her temper, not actually told the full-time office manager where to go. Of course, there’d been an audience.
I never catch a break. What a hell of a time for the major to arrive.
From his smile to the dark blue of his eyes, she knew she’d seen that ruggedly handsome face before. Where? A memory fluttered. A deep voice rumbling with laughter, a strong hand reaching across her to pour two glasses of golden Chardonnay, a sweet wine kiss, then another, deeper. She shook her head. She was losing it. He was a stranger. He had to be a stranger. And he was a rude one too. He hadn’t even come into the office. He just stood in the doorway staring at her like she was the most entertaining show in town.
“And you are?” Sully asked.
“Master Sergeant Murphy. Are you the person who has been transcribing my reports and emailing them back to me? I didn’t recognize your initials, ‘sb’.” His smile faded and he looked toward Anise. “You did check her security clearance before passing on my notes, didn’t you, Ms. Tyler?”
Red mottled under her makeup as Anise gulped for air. She hadn’t followed procedure and the three of them knew it.
Pity stirred in Sully and she cleared her throat. “I am qualified to type these bloody reports in every way, Master Sergeant Tate Murphy but I have to say it would be much easier if you’d learned to scribe a coherent hand.”
Baker City Hearts & Haunts Book 2
Home from her Army Reserve tour in Afghanistan, Sergeant First Class Ann Barrett is divorced, unemployed and dealing with her unruly, spoiled six-year-old. The last thing she needs is a ghost playing matchmaker. Not ready to trade in her fatigues for a civilian job as a high school teacher, Ann applies for a position at the Army Reserve base.
Issues arise when she meets her new boss, former Army Ranger, Master Sergeant Harry Colter. He came to Fort Bronson in Seattle to escape his grief when his best friend died in an ambush, but he hasn’t realized he didn’t come alone, or that his buddy is playing ‘Cupid’.
It’s difficult for Ann leave the war behind when so many things enrage her, like her ex-husband and her family that puts the fun back in “dysfunctional.” However, in order to handle what comes now, she must deal with her past, her child and the 20-year-old secret she learns about Harry.
Will a woman with enough baggage to fill a footlocker and a man who knows life comes with no guarantees save each other and find a future?
Ann Barrett scooped up the hoof pick she kept in the soap dish whenever she showered. Designed to clean horse hooves, the small steel hook on a poly handle could do serious damage to an attacker’s face. Now that she was back home in Washington State, she knew she ought to feel safe, but she didn’t. The survival lessons learned during three tours in the Middle East remained with her. She had to stay vigilant if she didn’t want to be assaulted at best, raped at worst.
During her first combat tour in Iraq eight years ago, she carried a pocket-knife everywhere, but things were different in Afghanistan. The First Sergeant told the women they couldn’t keep their knives in the latrines with them, so Ann sent home for an order of hoof picks and taught her friends how to use them. The female personnel in her unit were the only women on their base who weren’t attacked.
Pulling off the plastic shower cap, she shook out her shoulder-length brown hair. She wrapped a skimpy brown towel around her, holding it with her left hand while she kept the hoof pick in her right. She headed down the short hall to the main part of the latrine where she’d left the clean set of fatigues.
She froze in the doorway.
A man stood at the sink washing his hands. He stared at her in the mirror.
“What are you doing here?” She demanded and snugged the towel around her, wishing the material touched her knees or her shoulders, but it didn’t. “Who the hell are you?”
“Harry Colter.” The dark-haired man finally responded. He swung around to face her. His piercing blue gaze locked onto the tops of her breasts. “This is the men’s latrine. Are you lost?”
“I know it’s the men’s room.” Ann gripped the hoof pick more tightly. She reminded herself not to allow her temper to take over the confrontation. “I posted a sign.”
“Did you really?” His gaze moved onto her legs.
She raked him with a scathing glare. His light green Class B shirt emphasized broad shoulders and muscular arms. She told herself that she only looked at the service ribbons and decorations, not his wide chest that tapered down to narrow hips. She lifted her gaze, glimpsed the Ranger tab and parachute decal that signified he’d qualified as one of the Airborne elite.
His dark green dress slacks ended in jump boots and she took a second look at the black epaulets on his shoulders and recognized the three rockers that showed he was a Master Sergeant and outranked her. Be careful, she told herself. Even in this situation military courtesy counted and could be held against her.
She lifted her chin and met his amused gaze. She adopted the tone of sweet reason that she used to win with stubborn teens. “I’ll say it slowly this time. Get out!”
He shook his head. “I didn’t see a sign.”
“Then, you must be blind.” Ann tossed her head. She always used the men’s latrine to shower after her lunch-time run, everybody in her unit did. The Army Reserve base hadn’t been in the best of repair before the battalion shipped out on this latest tour to Afghanistan. During the almost two years overseas, the pipes in the women’s bathroom burst. The toilets and sinks still worked, but the four showers didn’t.
Of course, the request for repairs had to go through a million hoops before maintenance resolved the plumbing issue. As always, it was a case of hurry up and wait in the Army. Probably the unit would be shipped out to another hotspot, the World War Two barracks would collapse while they were gone, and the women’s bathroom would still be defunct.
“What’s it going to take for you to leave?” she asked. “I want to get dressed.”
“It’s okay if I’m here. I’m a man. You’re not. You go.”
“In a towel?” Ann gave an exaggerated gasp of shock. She’d learned how to be a drama queen from the best teachers in the world, high school girls. “You’re no gentleman.”
He leaned against the sink, quirking a brow. “Don’t have to be one. I’m a sergeant, not an officer.” A slow smile tugged at his mouth. “Are you acting like a lady?”
Ann glowered. Despite the smart-ass attitude, she felt as if he caressed her with that warm sapphire gaze. How ridiculous could she be? Yes, he was the first man to catch her attention in a long time, but she’d absolutely refused to get involved with any of the men at the base in Afghanistan. Even if her husband, Will had filed for divorce while she was gone, she still felt married.
She took a deep breath. She wasn’t innocent by any stretch of the imagination. She was a 31-year-old divorcee with a six-year-old daughter to support. She checked her towel, shifted the hoof pick to her left hand, then bypassed him to pull open the door, remove her cardboard sign and waved it in front of her where he couldn’t ignore it.
“This says W.O.M.E.N. Women! You’d never pass the physical, Colter. Now haul it out of here.” In a perverse way, she enjoyed the flirtation too, but she wouldn’t admit it. She jerked her head toward the door. “I’m waiting, Sergeant.”
He bunched the paper towel in his hand and tossed it into the garbage. Then he started toward her. “What would you do if I kissed you?”
Heat scorched into Ann’s cheeks. She gauged the sincerity on his tough-looking features. She’d taken one look at him and felt as if her knees rapidly turned to mush. She drew a ragged breath. The last thing she needed was to get emotionally involved with any man. She’d learned that lesson all too well.
“What’s wrong?” Harry asked. “The question too hard for you?”
“I figured you had a death wish.” When he got closer, she took a step backwards, wondering if she’d have to use the hoof pick to defend herself. She tensed and lowered her voice. “Back off, Colter. This has gone on long enough. I don’t want you to kiss me. I don’t want you to touch me. All I want is for you to get out of here so I can get dressed.”
He came to a stop in front of her and studied her mouth for a long moment. Then he strode through the open door. “Oh well. I can wait.”
“You’ll wait till hell freezes over!” What a cliché. She used to be an English teacher, here in the so-called ‘real’ world. Couldn’t she have done better than that? Ann caught her breath when he swung around.
“No, I won’t.” Harry’s smile widened into an easy grin. “I’m going to marry you.” He jerked his head toward her stack of clothes. “So, get dressed.”
“Are you freakin’ nuts?” Ann’s voice rose and she struggled to control it. “You don’t even know my name.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Harry said. “The last one will be Colter soon enough.”
“I wouldn’t have you if you were the last man on earth!”
“Yes, you would.” Harry chuckled. “But you’d stand in line. It’d be good for that temper of yours.” He paused and glanced at the hoof pick in her hand. “I’d have to take a knife away from you, but a gal who can improvise and knows how to use a hoof pick, well that’s the kind a man needs to marry.”
The door began to swing closed. Without a moment’s hesitation, she slammed it behind him and heard the roar of his laughter from the hall. She’d see to it he paid for every wisecrack. To do that meant she had to get dressed, and Ann hurried toward her uniform.
Dropping her towel on the floor, she put the hoof pick next to her uniform. She reached for the yellow silk panties neatly hidden under her fatigue pants. He was a hunk and he certainly knew it. Even now, she could recall the chiseled planes and angles of his handsome features. The harsh line of his jaw and the faint scar on his right cheek, plus the fact that his nose had been broken at one time, all showed he was more than just another pretty face.
Ann put on the matching lacy yellow bra and picked up her desert tan t-shirt which she privately thought of as dingy gray. Another wave of heat swept into her face as she realized just how much of her body Colter had seen. She pulled on her camouflage pants, buttoning them around her waist, and adjusted the black web belt. The pants were a little baggy, but she knew she’d gain weight now that she was a civilian again, so she’d hold off on buying a smaller size. Why wasn’t she more embarrassed about being caught in a towel?
Perhaps Colter’s flirtation had been meant to insure just that result. If so, it increased her interest in him. Coming from the small logging town of Baker City, she preferred what she considered real men, the strong, silent ones she had to kick to see if they were still alive.
Leaning against the wall outside the men’s latrine, Zeke Garvey whistled softly in admiration. Nobody saw him anymore. Hell, they didn’t realize he was still here, not after that I.E.D. took him out six months ago. It’d taken all his energy to remove the sign with its red letters and then replace it. He’d done it to get Colter’s attention. Yes, his childhood buddy had returned to Washington State, but he hadn’t made a commitment to stay, at least not yet. A woman, the right woman would make a difference and this one had spunk. Colter couldn’t leave.
He needed to stay here, so Zeke could watch over his own family. Not for the first time, he wished he could tell Twila what he felt. She’d followed him from Army base to Army base for so long and waited so patiently with their sons every time he shipped out for one more combat tour. All she’d ever asked for was a little girl, but five boys later, he’d failed there too. I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so sorry
Baker City Hearts & Haunts Book 1
Former Army Ranger, Rob Williams always planned to run the family guest ranch after completing his military service. Instead, he “bought the farm with his life” when he died in Vietnam, but being dead doesn’t mean he’s going anywhere. Encountering someone who “sees” and “hears” him is a welcome change.
Cat’s determination leads her into danger, when they discover an adversary wants to turn the one-time dude ranch into a gravel pit.
Will a woman with a dream and a man who’s had his dreams cut short, manage to save a ranch and each other when the biggest surprise of all is love?
“This is my home, and no haunt is taking it away…”
Catriona O’Leary McTavish
“And now a human-interest story for all you dreamers who love to write.”
Cat cracked eggs into a bowl as she listened to the news anchors on the kitchen radio talk about two men determined to sell their dilapidated family farm in an unusual way. They wanted someone to restore it as a guest ranch, so they were running an essay contest.
“So, all you have to do is describe the way you’d save the place, toss in a hundred bucks for the entry fee and you’re good to go. You could be the new owner of Cedar Creek Guest Ranch. Of course, the catch is you can’t sell it.”
Cat froze, staring first at the bowl where she was supposed to be creating French toast batter for her eight-year-old daughters and then at the radio as the babbling continued.
Oh my Gawd. I remember that place. We visited every summer until it closed when I was fourteen. It was pure heaven.
Memories floated through Cat’s mind of camping trips on horseback, square dancing in the rec hall, movies shown on the barn wall, swimming in the mountain snow melt-off of the icy river and long cozy conversations with Aunt Rose over cups of hot cocoa.
It’s mine, she thought with staunch determination. Well, it will be when I write the winning essay. What can I say? How can I tell strangers how wonderful it was to have a perfect place, a place where nothing and no one could ever hurt me?
Horse lunch fed, her collie-mix pup tagging behind, Catriona McTavish strolled toward the two-bedroom trailer, planning the rest of her day. She had three horses to work before her eight-year-old daughters arrived home from school and of course her intern had chosen today to do the ‘no-show’ routine which meant Cat had to groom and saddle for herself in addition to riding. Vestiges of the argument she’d had with her husband this morning still clouded her mind. She felt like one of the twins must feel when being dragged to a doctor’s appointment.
No, no, no! I don’t wanna go to Louisiana. Listen to me. I want to stay here where I have a great boss, friends, a job I love. I’m finally making it as a natural horse trainer. I’ve followed you for nine years. Why can’t our lives be about me for once?
She’d had to throttle down the impulse to yell at him this morning. Frazer claimed he couldn’t talk to her when she was angry. He’d fled to the ‘safety’ of the casino where he worked as a pit boss, knowing she had to get the twins off to school and wouldn’t stay up till the wee hours to confront him when he reluctantly returned home.
The landline rang, interrupting her silent rage. She hastily closed the door behind her before going to pick up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Is this Catriona O’Leary McTavish?”
“Oh, good. I’m Ed Williams. Did you enter an essay contest my brother and I held?”
“Yes.” Cat caught her breath, recalling the day last spring when she’d heard the announcement on the radio. “You were awarding your family dude ranch to the person who wrote the winning essay. Did I—?”
“Yes, we picked your essay. It stirred a lot of good memories.”
“I won?” Cat asked in a whisper. “I really won?”
“Yes. You still want the ranch, don’t you?”
“Oh, my Gawd. Yes! Of course, I want it.” She resisted the urge to dance around the kitchen. “Are you serious? Do you mean I have a home? I finally have a ‘real’ home – the perfect home.”
“It’s not perfect. The place needs a lot of work. The ranch is just a few miles outside of Baker City.”
“I know,” Cat said. “I used to visit my grandmother there.”
“We thought you might be one of those O’Leary women. Glad to hear it. Welcome home, Catriona. Do you have time to meet with my brother and me tonight so we can discuss the details?”
“Of course, I do. Thank you so much. You won’t regret this, Mr. Williams. I’ll make the Cedar Creek Guest Ranch shine again. I promise.”
“We’re counting on you. We’re so happy you entered our contest.”
“Me too. You don’t know what this means to me. I’m so lucky. I feel like I just won the lottery.”
He chuckled. “Actually, you don’t know how long the town and we’ve been looking for someone like you, Catriona O’Leary. We’re the lucky ones.”
Cedar Creek Guest Ranch, Baker Valley, Washington
“If a man’s been dead more than forty years, he ought to be able to enjoy peace and quiet.”
Hearing the crunch of tires on the gravel driveway, the spirit of Rob Williams floated toward the picture window to see who dared come onto his land. A battered pickup stopped in front of the house. An equally ancient horse-trailer was hitched to the four-wheel-drive. Two little girls got out and raced around the rigs followed by a young black and gold collie, not much more than a puppy.
Not again. What was it going to take for his family to stop renting out his home? This was his place. He’d died for it at Hamburger Hill back in ’69 during the height of the Vietnam Conflict. He bought the farm with his blood. Well, actually his parents had used the money from his military insurance to pay off the last of the mortgage on their home. Rob had no intention of passing on to what was considered a ‘better place.’ Now, he had a new bunch of strangers to haunt and send away. He supposed he could call it a favorite hobby in what was supposed to be his after-life.
Suddenly, a copper-haired woman strolled into view from the far side of the truck. As he watched, she knelt and caught both girls in a hug. The pup flopped down beside them in the dust, panting. Rob may have been dead, but nothing said he couldn’t enjoy the sight of a woman who looked like one, instead of a scrawny hippie with no bosom, no waist, no hips and flowers in her long hair. That was the fashion back in the 1960s, but he’d never cared for it. Besides, curiosity had always been his downfall.
Rob drifted through the window and out onto the rotted deck of the wrap-around porch. The woman glanced toward the house and he glimpsed the emerald green of her eyes, as green as the needles on hemlock trees. Her head would have just reached his shoulder when he was alive. For a moment, he admired the voluptuous curves that filled out her lacy white western shirt and faded tight-fitting Levi’s. He could have fit both hands around her waist if only he could touch her. Rob moved closer. What was he doing? This woman was nothing to him and she would have to go, taking those kids and the dog with her.
He’d send them away, but not just yet.
Josie Malone lives and works at her family business, a riding stable in Washington State. Teaching kids to ride and know about horses, she finds in many cases, she’s taught three generations of families. Her life experiences span adventures from dealing cards in a casino, attending graduate school to get her Masters in Teaching degree, being a substitute teacher, and serving in the Army Reserve – all leading to her second career as a published author. Visit her at her website, www.josiemalone.com to learn about her books.