Authors: Alexis Morgan
amn, Nick, do you know what time it is?”
He quickly did the math and grimaced. At least Leif didn’t sound as if he’d been asleep, despite the three-hour time difference.
“Sorry, man. I wasn’t thinking.”
That much was true. He’d hit Leif’s number on speed dial the second he’d cleared the woods. He kept walking, using his friend’s voice as an anchor to stay focused in the moment. Right now it would be all too easy to shred the thin fabric of reality that separated the present from his past, leaving him caught up in the hell of combat.
While he listened to Leif grumbling, Nick safely navigated his way across the yard to the front porch. Objective achieved. As soon as he opened the front door, Mooch bolted outside, almost knocking Nick down as he charged out into the darkness.
“I’m assuming you called for a reason, Sarge, not to keep me hanging on the line listening to you breathe.” At least Leif sounded more concerned than irritated. Although they’d talked a couple of times since Nick had hung up on him the other day, he’d made sure to keep the conversations low-key and focused on what they’d heard from the rest of the squad. Right now Nick was having trouble focusing on anything at all.
“What?” Nick pinched the bridge of his nose as he struggled to think. “Oh, right. How’s the ankle doing?”
His friend’s laughter rang out. “Seriously, Nick? You called me at twelve thirty in the morning to ask about my ankle? What the hell is going on? Where are you?”
Nick sank down onto the steps, relieved to have even this tenuous connection with his friend. “Yes, I called to see how you were doing. I’m still at Spence’s, and I thought maybe you might be up to flying out here to help me build a gazebo.”
This time the silence came from the other end of the line. Nick waited him out. It didn’t take long.
“Are you serious? A fucking gazebo?”
As serious as death, but Nick rephrased it for his friend. “Yeah, unless you have something better to do these days.”
He could hear Leif shifting around on the other end of the line and the soft whirr of a motor. Maybe he was using the button on his hospital bed to sit up.
“Okay, then. Let’s see. My ankle is healing as well as can be expected, which isn’t saying much. The docs say I’m better off if I use it, but I can’t be on it for very long without it hurting like hell.”
Nick grimaced at the reminder of how close he’d come to losing not just Spence, but Leif as well. He shut his eyes tight and crossed his fingers that he didn’t sound as needy as he felt. After all, he’d survived that last patrol mostly intact, physically anyway. “So is that a no?”
“Not necessarily. They are planning on booting me out of here tomorrow, so the rest of my rehab will be outpatient.”
Leif’s voice was sounding stronger now. Maybe he had been asleep after all. “Let me check with the powers that be on this end. Maybe they can arrange for my therapy out there, at least short term.”
The knot in Nick’s stomach eased up. “Thanks, man, but I wouldn’t want to interfere with your rehab. If you can’t swing a hammer, you can always sit and watch. As I recall, sitting on your ass was always your specialty anyway.”
“Screw you, Nick,” Leif said with no real heat. “We both know Spence and I did all the work.”
God, he’d missed exchanging insults with his friends, missed them all giving one another a hard time. The three of them had turned it into an art form. “Fine, if you want to sign on as supervisor, that’s okay with me.”
“Supervisor sounds boring and beneath my skill level.” Leif chuckled. “I’m thinking along the line of Gazebo God as my job title, even if I’m not quite sure what the hell a gazebo is in the first place.”
Nick laughed, feeling better than he had in hours. “Well, almighty-godlike one, let me know what you find out. If you can work out the details, let me know when and where to pick you up. The nearest commercial airport is in Seattle, but the air force base is a lot closer.”
“Will do. But one thing, Nick. When I get there, you’re going to tell me what’s really going on in that thick skull of yours. Promise?”
“Yeah, I promise. Now, get some sleep.”
“I will if you will. I hope I see you soon, Sarge.”
“Me, too, Leif. Me, too.”
He disconnected the call and whistled for Mooch to come back inside. They could both use a good night’s sleep. First thing in the morning, he’d track down a good design for the gazebo and get started. He’d have to haul ass if he wanted to have everything delivered and ready to go by the time Leif arrived, assuming he could get there at all.
But one way or the other, that gazebo was going to get built.
• • •
Callie entered the crowded Creek Café and looked around. She finally spotted Bridey in the back corner booth. Wending her way through the clutter of mismatched tables and chairs, she was stopped by several people along the way, mostly friends of her parents, but a few were ones she’d gone to school with.
A full five minutes later, she finally slid into the bench across from her friend. “Thanks for meeting me on such short notice.”
Bridey shrugged her shoulders. “Not a problem. Besides, if I wasn’t here, I’d be back at the shop trying to balance the books. This is a far more relaxing way to spend my afternoon off.”
A middle-aged waitress stopped to take their orders. Anyplace else Callie would have asked for a few minutes to make up her mind, but here there was no need. Other than the prices, nothing much had changed on the menu at the Creek Café in decades.
“I’ll have a burger, fries, and a chocolate shake.”
Bridey surrendered her menu. “I promised myself I’d have the salad, but we all know that’s not going to happen. Let’s keep it simple. I’ll have the same.”
When they were alone again, Bridey gave Callie a curious look. “So what’s going on, Callie? I don’t mind an impromptu outing now and then, but you sounded a little frazzled on the phone. Is that new hottie you’ve got stashed in Spence’s house causing you problems?”
Callie’s cheeks burned hot. “I didn’t stash Nick anywhere. He showed up on my doorstep unannounced and uninvited. As it turns out, he came to pay his respects to Spence, but also to find a home for Mooch.”
“The dog I’ve seen him with?”
“Yeah. Back in Afghanistan, Mooch got shot one night when he warned Spence’s unit about someone waiting to ambush them. They got the dog patched up and then adopted him into their unit. I guess Spence was in the process of making arrangements to have Mooch shipped back here to the States when he was . . .”
She let her words fade away. They both knew what had happened to keep Spence from completing that particular mission himself. “Anyway, that’s why Nick drove all the way here to Snowberry Creek. I suspect he thought I’d have a harder time saying no to the dog in person.”
No matter what, she would have given Mooch a home. Come to think of it, she hadn’t told Nick of her decision. Maybe because that would give him one more excuse to leave.
Bridey’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “So if you didn’t want him to hang around, why invite him to stay right next door? One night was one thing, but it sounds more like he’s moved in.”
That was a question with no good answer. “He offered to mow the grass.”
This time Bridey didn’t bother to hold back her laughter. “And his ability to push a mower around is all you’re interested in? Because if that’s true, send him over to my place. Believe me when I tell you my yard could use some work.”
Then she waggled her eyebrows just to make sure Callie got the point. Bridey was most likely teasing, but then again, maybe not. Neither one of them had had a date in a very long time. Bridey was right about Nick being a hottie, but he wasn’t up for grabs. Time to stake her own claim.
“Down, girl. The only mower I’m interested in him using is mine.” Then she snickered. “Well, technically it’s my dad’s, but that’s wrong on so many levels. Besides, you live in an apartment.”
“Picky, picky.” Bridey laughed right along with her. “So considering the way he looks at you, mutual attraction isn’t the problem.”
At least Callie wasn’t the only one picking up that vibe from Nick. It didn’t do much to improve her mood, but at least she hadn’t been wrong on that point. What to do about it was a whole different ballgame.
“I like Nick.” She paused to choose her words carefully. “Maybe I could even like him a whole lot.”
“So? You’re single. I’m assuming he is. What’s the hang-up?”
Leave it to Bridey to go right for the heart of the matter. “Any number of things, starting with I don’t do short-term flings. Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt.”
Bridey’s smile faded. “Yeah, I get that. But what else?”
“I can’t get a solid read on him. It’s like he’s attracted to me, but at the same time it makes him mad that he feels that way.”
There was more, like the times he seemed to get caught up in what had happened back in Afghanistan. That was his private business, nothing she would share with anyone, not even Bridey. She knew from past experience when Spence would come for a visit that it often took soldiers time to readjust to living outside of a war zone. He used to do his best to hide it, but she could always sense when he was struggling.
Just like she did with Nick.
“So have you tried just talking to him? Primitive, I know, but sometimes communicating actually works.”
Not so much. “We parted on pretty awkward terms last night, but he promised to see me today.”
She picked up her paper napkin and began folding it into smaller and smaller squares, anything to keep her hands busy. “But when I stopped by Spence’s place this morning to see if Nick or even just Mooch wanted to go on a run with me, his truck was gone. Nick still hadn’t returned when I left to come here.”
The waitress was back with their burgers and shakes. By unspoken agreement, they suspended the discussion while they ate. No life crisis was worth letting a Creekburger go cold.
It wasn’t until they were each down to their last few fries that they started talking again.
“So did you go inside to see if his stuff was gone?”
The thought had crossed Callie’s mind, but she hadn’t been able to muster up the courage to check. “No, I didn’t. I guess this will sound stupid, but since Nick’s been basically living there, it would have felt like I was trespassing or something.”
And if he caught her snooping around, she wasn’t sure if he would forgive her.
“Maybe he needed to talk to Chief Logan again.”
Callie had been about to eat her last fry, but she let it drop back down on her plate. “Again? When did Nick talk to Gage?”
Bridey frowned. “It was at the end of last week. The chief stopped in my shop for his usual iced coffee on his way to meet his daughter. He bought one for Nick and said they could talk as long as Nick didn’t mind walking over to the school with him.”
“Did Nick say what he wanted to talk about?”
“If he did, I didn’t hear it, but I was in the middle of the afternoon rush. Do you think it’s important?”
“No, not particularly. On the other hand, it does explain why Nick knew Gage liked iced coffee on Saturday when we ran into him and his daughter in the park.”
It was time to wrap this up. Nothing had been settled, but it had felt good to share some of this with Bridey. “Well, I should let you get back to adding your numbers.”
Bridey rolled her eyes. “Thanks a lot. Some friend you are.”
Callie reached for the bill. “To make it up to you, I’m buying.”
Her friend protested. “You don’t have to do that. Besides, aren’t you unemployed right now?”
Thanks to Spence, money was the least of her problems at the moment. “I invited you, so it’s my treat.”
“Fine, but the next time you stop in the shop, the muffins are on the house.”
“Agreed, even if it means I’ll have to add more distance to my morning runs.”
They stepped out into the afternoon sunshine and walked toward where Callie had left her car parked. Before they parted ways, Bridey gave her a quick hug.
“Hang in there, Callie. If you need to talk, you know you can call me anytime, day or night.”
“Thanks, Bridey. That means a lot.”
She managed a small smile for her friend. “I’m probably seeing issues where there really aren’t any. Nick’s not here to stay and is probably as skittish about getting involved short term as I am.”
“Maybe, but maybe not. Let me know how it goes.”
Callie climbed in the car and rolled down the window. “I will, and thanks again for meeting me for lunch. It was fun.”
“We should do a girls’ night out soon. Maybe call Melanie and see if she wants to join us next time she’s back in town.”
Callie pulled away from the curb as Bridey walked on down the block toward her shop. She waved at her friend one last time as she drove past. Still in no hurry to get back home to find out if indeed Nick had actually left, she headed for the grocery store to pick up a few things.
• • •
An hour later, Callie pulled into the driveway only to discover she had a visitor. He was just stepping out of the woods coming from the direction of Spence’s house. Considering he was wearing a uniform, she could only assume that he was another one of Spence’s army friends stopping by to pay his respects.