Authors: Rebecca Crowley
Tags: #military;army;Afghanistan;small town;second chances
If they can get their hair-trigger defenses to stand down, love might stand a chance.
Homefront, Book 3
Military life may have subdued the wild child in Staff Sergeant Chance McKinley, but when he's home on R&R, all bets are very much
at Kansas City's casinos.
He's barely back from Afghanistan before he volunteers to returnâright about the time he's reminded he won something more than money on the roulette wheel the last time he was Stateside. A wife.
Bartender Tara Lambert could have gotten an annulment right after she and Chance wove their tipsy way down the aisle, but she's never been one to let a man off the hook. Even if he disappeared right after their nuptials.
When Tara finally tracks Chance down, he's as irresistible as everâand on the verge of leaving for another deployment. Their individual fires collide to burn bright and hot, but when it comes to changing the blazing paths of their lives, which will sound loudest in Chance's ears? The call to battle, or the voice of the woman he loves?
Warning: Contains a beer-soaked marriage certificate, two people who barely remember signing it, and proof that what happens in a casino shouldn't have to stay there.
“I need to see your ID, ma'am.”
“Oh. Okay.” Tara had to unbuckle her seatbelt to grab her purse from where it'd fallen off the passenger seat. She dug past three mostly empty tubes of lip gloss, two boxes of Tic Tacs, several hair elastics and one tampon to retrieve her wallet. She plucked out her driver's license and passed it to the Fort Preston gate guard through the Malibu's open window.
He glanced at her license and didn't hand it back. “What's the purpose of your visit today, Miss Lambert?”
“I'm here to see Chance McKinley.”
“Chance McKinley,” she repeated, clamping down on the impatience that'd built up over the day's long drive. “I think he's a sergeant. He's a medic with one of the units hereâthe one that came back from Afghanistan last month. Around the first week of September.”
One of the guard's brows appeared above his aviator lenses. “We don't have any admission authorizations from Sergeant McKinley on today's list. Is he expecting you?”
“Sort of. I mean, he didn't know I was coming
“Then I'm afraid I can't let you on post, ma'am.”
Tara's fingers tightened on the steering wheel as she fought to keep a smile on her face. “Can't you call him to ask? He knows who I am, I swear.”
“No, ma'am, but if you want, you can pull in right over there and call him yourself. Ask him to phone the post guard to let you in.”
. “Actually, I think he's changed his number since he got home from Afghanistan. You can't look up his new one for me, can you?”
The guard glanced at his colleague in the gatehouse, then passed her license back through the window. “Fort Preston is at FPCON Bravo today, ma'am. No unaccompanied civilians allowed on post. I'm gonna have to ask you to turn around.”
“Hang on,” she stalled, racking her brain for another way to get in. “Wait, forget Sergeant McKinley, I'm here to go to the, uhâ¦” What was that weird thing she'd seen on the post website? “â¦the infantry museum. You know, the one with all the weapons and old uniforms?”
“Closed.” He drew a circle in the air. “Turn around.”
She crossed her arms. “This is government property, funded by my taxes. I paid for this gate, and I want to go through it.”
“This is a military installation with the right to restrict access. Now you turn this car around and drive away, and I won't tell Sergeant McKinley's commander that his girlfriend is causing trouble at the gate. Deal?”
“I'm not his girlfriend,” Tara muttered but turned the key in the ignition and put the Malibu into reverse. That she'd be denied entry to Fort Preston hadn't occurred to her on the drive from Kansas City, but this was no time to be daunted. She'd drive back to Meridian and ask around. There couldn't be more than one Chance McKinley in the state of Kansas, could there?
“I mean, who names their kid Chance?” she joked to the elderly woman behind the Registry of Deeds desk at the county courthouse forty minutes later, pleased with herself for rebounding from her denial at the fort and for the bright idea to try the public records office. “After all, Chance is a possibility, not a person, right?”
“I don't rightly know,” the septuagenarian answered diplomatically. “The problem here is it's quick to find the owner of an address but slow to find the address of a tenant. The search methods are different.”
“How long will it take?”
“Ten to fifteen working days.”
“Seriously?” She shifted her purse from one shoulder to the other. “You can't just search some database for his name?”
“We still use a manual system in this county.” The old woman's smile was tight. “I'll get you the form.”
Tara's heart sank as the clerk shuffled to the back of the office. She had enough cash for a couple nights in a motel or gas to drive back to Kansas Cityânot both. She picked up the pen tethered to the desk and drummed it against the wooden surface. Maybe she could trawl this Podunk town's version of a downtown district, try to pick up some bartending shifts for the weekend. And there was that diner she passed on the way in, or that lunch place on the main streetâ¦
“I'm sorry to eavesdrop, but did you say you're looking for a guy called Chance?”
Tara jerked out of her reverie. The question came from the woman who'd been in line in front of her, and was in the middle of filling out a form to have her ex-husband's name taken off her deed. Tara guessed she was around twenty-three, mother of at least two, smoker. The security pass on her keychain suggested she worked at a nursing home.
“Chance McKinley. Sergeant Chance McKinley, actually.”
“You aren't going to believe me when I tell you this, but I know him. Met him at a party once. Tall, brown hair, kind of lanky?”
“I drop weight like crazy on deployment. Normally I'm two-twenty, two-thirty, with a six-pack you can bounce a nickel off.” His smile was lazy, teasing.
“Too bad, I like 'em on the skinny side.”
“Guess this won't last, then.” He reached across the pillow, wrapped a lock of her hair around his forefinger.
Her hand found his hip, tugged him closer. “Guess not.”
Tara swallowed hard. “That's him.”
“My ex works with one of his buddies on the city road crew. Grady Reid. Big guy, real dark hairâyou can't miss him.” She glanced at her watch. “They probably haven't knocked off yet if you want to try to catch him. They're working on the hill next to Loco Lobo, over near the Presbyterian church.”
“How do I get there from here?”
“Go straight across Main Street, take a right on Fort Preston Boulevard, follow that all the way past the high school, then take a left at the last stoplight before you head out into the country, where the speed limit changes to fifty-five. You'll see it.” She grinned. “I guess this is your lucky day.”
“Yeah,” Tara muttered, sweeping up her car keys.
The woman's directions were perfect, as was her description of Chance's friend, and less than fifteen minutes after leaving the courthouse she parked her car in the lot outside the Mexican restaurant and dodged traffic to cross the street where the road crew was laying asphalt.
There was no mistaking Grady Reid, who watched her approach.
“Church's side entrance is closed,” he said as soon as she was within hearing distance. “You have to go around the front.”
Tara grinned. “I think that's the first time in my life anyone's mistaken me for a churchgoer. You're Grady, aren't you?”
“My name's Tara Lambert, and I'm looking for a friend of yours, Chance McKinley. You know where he is?”
Grady leaned on the end of his shovel, his face inscrutable. “What do you want with him?”
“Nothing bad, I promise.”
“Then you won't mind telling me exactly what.”
She crossed her arms. “It's personal.”
“But not so personal that he gave you his address, huh?”
“We haven't spoken in a while.”
“I see.” Grady straightened, his posture asserting this conversation was at its end. “I'm sorry for your trouble, but if Chance doesn't want you to find him that's between you two. It's not my place to interfere.”
Tara sighed in exasperation, slapping her arms down to her sides. “He knows who I am, we've just been out of touch for a long time. All I want is a phone number or an address and everyone in this town's acting like I'm trying to break into Fort Knox. He's just a soldier, for God's sake, not some top-secret CIA agent.” She frowned. “He's not, right? In the CIA?”
“Let's hope not.”
“Are you sure you won't help me? I swear I just want to talk to him, not firebomb his house.”
“Have you tried the phone book?”
Grady's dry remark sliced through the last rope of her composure like a chainsaw. She fisted her hands until her nails stung her palms, jammed her back teeth together until pain shot through her temples and drew hot, shaky breaths into her tight throat. She'd waited so long, traveled so far, extended so much faith, and this no-account, pig-headed redneck thought it was
She fought the urge to kick Grady in the balls, to wrench that shovel out of his hands and crack it across his shins, slap that impassive look off his handsome face until he begged her to stop.
Instead she burst into tears.
Grady's muttered, “Aw, hell,” barely penetrated the flurry of thoughts echoing through her mind in her father's voice.
Pull yourself together, you stupid baby. How pathetic can you be? No one's going to fall for that fake-ass crying so you might as well dry up, otherwiseâ
Grady's hand was on her arm. She sniffed, blinked, looked up at him.
His voice was so soft she barely heard him. “He knock you up?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that. Though I guess you could say he tried.” She managed a weak smile.
Grady sighed wearily. “Is he going to kill me for telling you where he is?”
“I figured. What time is it?”
“Must be almost five o'clock.”
“There's a bar around the corner from the mall called Rock's. Give it an hour. Don't worry, I won't warn him.”
“Thank you, Grady,” she replied in earnest.
He inclined his head and hoisted the shovel. She spun to return to her car when he called her name.
One side of his mouth lifted. “When you see Chance, tell him I said he's a whiskey tango lunatic and you could do way better. Say it just like that.”
“He's a whiskey tango lunatic and I could do way better,” she repeated.
“You could,” he agreed quietly.
In response she lifted her chin and turned her back.
Tara didn't give it an hourâshe didn't even give it five minutes. She drove straight to Rock's and parked in the lot outside the cell phone shop across the street, giving herself a clear vantage point to watch the bar's front entrance. She didn't want Chance after two happy-hour tequila shots and a couple of beers. She wanted him sober, clearheaded, fully cognizant of the situation as it unfolded.
She didn't want any blame-it-on-the-alcohol excuses. Not this time.
She had plenty of time to think as she waited, to worry and doubt and fear and then resolve anew. The mid-autumn sun angled toward the earth to send honeyed light slanting through the windshield, and she thought about the watery winter daylight on that fateful December morning, how surreal it felt, how intrusive, that sluggish dawn trying and failing to douse the raging heat fueling them through the night.
She'd glared defiantly at that self-insisting sun when they emerged from the casino that morning, then smirked at it through the car window on the ride back from the courthouse. Two unwelcome glimpses of reality before they plunged back into the new, artificially lit world they'd created, where there were no clucking tongues, no overdue notices, just him and her and an unconditional acceptance the likes of which she'd never known beforeâor since.
No matter how loudly her inner cynic scoffed at her girlish idealism, or how often her father sneered that she'd been used, or how carefully her coworker paused as she tried to find a gentle way to articulate that this was a huge mistake, Tara knew she had to recover what she'd found and lost with equal abruptness in those thirty-six hours with Chance. If it really was a one-off, if he couldn't remember her, if she had to drive back to Kansas City and beg for her old job then so be it, but she had to try. She couldn't live with the uncertainty anymore. She had to know, one way or the other.
A sleek, high-end pickup with an extended cab pulled into the lot and parked several cars over. Tara tensed, then relaxed. The driver who emerged from the truck was black, and anyway she couldn't see Chance trading in his noisy, tricked-out orange Dodge Challenger for something so sensible. She returned her attention to the bar, vaguely registering additional door slams and the murmur of male voices. The two men had reached the curb by the time they came into her line of view, angling to cross the street to Rock's, and suddenly Tara couldn't remember how to breathe.
She didn't need to see his face to know it was him. The loose gait, the long limbs, the head tilted ever so slightly skyward as if he was bored of earth's challenges and wondering what other adventures the universe had to offer.
She'd never seen the ocean, and she wondered if this was how it felt to be knocked down by a wave. She was overcome, choking on a thick swell of joy and disbelief and terror and fury and the same reckless hope that had carried her through the last ten months. She was breathless with it, gasping, and yet some part of herself managed to shove open her car door and lurch out onto the asphalt, then stagger to the sidewalk.
The men had just made it to the other side of the street. Tara stuck her thumb and middle finger in her mouth and whistled.
He turned. Her knees weakened. His eyes widened. Even from this distance she could see they were exactly as she remembered, the lush green of late-summer leaves only days away from beginning to yellow.
She'd imagined this moment for months and months, rehearsed twenty different versions of what she might say or do. Instead she acted purely on impulse.
“Hey, McKinley, remember me?” She held up her left hand, the waning light catching the cheap, heart-shaped amethyst on her ring finger. “I'm Tara. Your wife.”