Monday, June 29, 5:25 p.m.
FEELING LIKE Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, ex-Army Captain Boone Toliver stared glumly out at the treelined neighborhood as he sat on his front porch in Bozeman, Montana.
His right knee, fresh from a third surgery and wrapped in a stabilizing brace, lay propped up on a hassock. On the small table beside him sat a cell phone, a can of beer and a bottle of pain pills. He was trying to see if the beer would take the edge off his misery before surrendering to the medication. Although he knew well enough he wasn’t supposed to mix the two, he was a big guy in a world of hurt. Not all of it physical.
Third time’s a charm, the orthopedic surgeon had said.
It better damn well be. If not, he would never fully gain back the mobile life that a bomb in Afghanistan had stolen from him. For now, he had to hire someone to do everything—grocery shopping, housecleaning, chauffeuring him to doctor’s appointments.
Not that money was an issue. Along with this house, his father had left him over a million dollars. Boone had invested wisely; he was set for life, even if he never worked again. Although he’d much rather still have his dad around than any amount of money.
Plus, he was not an idle guy. He was at the end of his tether with this invalid malarkey. He had read books until his vision blurred, played video games until his thumbs ached and watched movies until his brain complained. All of his friends were military, and now that he was out of the service and injured to boot, their visits had become less and less frequent. He was no longer one of them.
Boone was bored, bummed out and bitter.
Not an attractive combo. He realized that, but he couldn’t seem to snap himself out of the doldrums. This surgery was his last chance to reclaim what he’d lost. This time he was determined to follow doctor’s orders to a T. Which meant sitting here twiddling his thumbs and watching the world pass him by.
Awfully hard for a man who’d spent a big chunk of his adult life at war.
He picked at the Velcro strap on his knee brace, pulling it off, then pressing it back down, then pulling it off again just to hear the crinkly, ripping noise it made as the two pieces separated. The sound underscored the monotony of his life.
A few houses over a couple of kids shot hoops in their driveway. The steady strumming of the basketball against cement made him nostalgic. Once upon a time, he’d been one helluva basketball player, but those days were long gone. The scent of supper hung in the air as the summer sun headed west. Idly, he thought about getting up and sticking a frozen dinner in the microwave, but he couldn’t seem to drum up enough enthusiasm for even that task.
He took a swallow of beer and tried not to think about the throbbing in his knee.
An older model Honda Accord crawled down the block and then pulled into the driveway of the ranch-style bungalow across the street. His ditzy neighbor, Tara Duvall, got out of the Accord. Quickly, Boone picked up his cell phone and pretended to be deep in conversation, but his ruse didn’t thwart Tara.
She raised her hand in greeting, gave him that radiant smile she was constantly flashing. Hell, he needed sunglasses and a bulletproof vest against her obnoxious cheerfulness.
“Hey, Boone.” She wore a skimpy little halter top and cutoff blue jeans that hit her midthigh.
He tried not to notice just how tanned and supple those long, lean legs were. Or how, when she moved, that halter top with a handkerchief hem fluttered up enough to give him a glimpse of her gold navel ring. Her abdomen was taut and flat, her skin flawless. His mouth went dry and he felt an unwanted stirring below his belt. Annoying she might be, but the woman possessed a killer body.
Block the urges, Toliver. Sure, she’s sexy, but she’s not worth the aggravation.
She toddled across the street toward him in wedge sandals that were far too high for her petite build, but somehow she managed to walk in them with startling grace.
Frick. She was coming over.
Frowning, he held up the phone for her to see and waved her away, then stuck the phone back to his ear. “Yes, uh-huh.” He feigned conversation.
Tara was one of those breezy, gabby women who could talk the hind leg off a mule. The last thing he wanted was to hear one of her upbeat, riotous stories about what had gone on at the hair salon where she worked. She was funny, impulsive, lively and reminded him far too much of his ex-wife. Spontaneous gals were nothing but trouble. Still, his body responded at her approach and he resented the heck out of her because of it.
She tiptoed up on the porch, an index finger laid over her lips.
“You don’t say,” Boone spoke into the phone.
She hitched her butt up on the porch railing, legs dangling off, blues eyes dancing with mischief.
Go away. He was not in the mood for Pollyanna.
“Yes, yes.” He nodded as if someone on the other end of his fictitious conversation had just said something he could really support.
Tara’s gaze skated over his injured knee. She pursed her lips in a pity pout, but then took in the beer and the bottle of pain pills. Her sympathy disappeared—thankfully—into a concerned scowl. She made a shame-on-you gesture, scraping one forefinger crossways over the other.
Buzz off, brat.
“Hang on a minute,” Boone said to his imaginary caller. He put his palm over the phone, met Tara’s eyes. “This conversation is going to go on for a while.”
“I don’t mind waiting.”
What the hell did she want? “I mind.”
Her lips were glossy cotton-candy-pink and her hair was four or five different shades of blond. Streaked in that chunky way that was popular these days. A modest dolphin tattoo graced her left shoulder and numerous earrings lay nestled in each ear. Her toenails were painted an alarming shade of aqua, and on the second toe of her right foot a gold toe ring spelled out LOVE.
“I’ll go water your shrubs while you’re talking,” she said. “They look thirsty.”
“No, no.” He didn’t want her doing him any favors. “Leave it be.”
“Okay.” She held up her palms. “Didn’t mean to tread on your pride.”
Glowering, he pressed the cell to his ear again. “I’m back,” he said, feeling stupid for having gotten trapped into a fake phone call.
Well, if you could try just talking to her.
Except that never worked. Give her an inch and she took a mile. If he struck up a conversation, she’d plunk down on the porch beside him for hours as if they were friends or something.
That’s when the phone rang for real.
Tara’s lips formed a humorous O and her eye twinkled. “Oh, dude, you’re so busted.” She did the finger-shaming gesture again. “You were trying to avoid talking to me.”
“Yes, and I really am on the phone now,” he snapped and pressed the talk button without bothering to look at the caller ID. “Hello?”
“Jackie? Hold on a second.” He covered the receiver again. “It’s my sister. Could we have this conversation later?”
“You have a sister?”
“I didn’t know that.”
“There’s a lot of things you don’t know about me.” Thank goodness for that.
“You never talk about her.”
“I never talk about her to you.”
“Touché,” she murmured, but she looked slightly wounded.
He forced a smile past his injured-war-veteran grouchiness. “Right now I just want to talk to her, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure.” She shrugged. “I only came by to tell you that I’m moving away.”
Yay! No more nosy neighbor butting into his business, throwing noisy late-night parties, no more bringing over casseroles and lecturing him on proper recycling techniques. But even as he thought it, Boone felt something else entirely. A strange, soft sadness. It was the same kind of melancholy that used to come over him every Sunday afternoon when he was a kid, knowing that the weekend was over, and he had to go back to school the next day.
Part of him almost told her to wait, but he managed to squelch the impulse. “See ya.”
“See ya,” she echoed and hopped from the railing.
He watched her lope across his lawn, her fanny swaying in those snug-fitting shorts. Mesmerized, his gaze locked helplessly on Tara’s delectable butt.
“Boone? You still there?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m here.” He hitched in a deep breath and turned his full attention to Jackie. “Hey, sis. Long time no hear.”
“I’ve been really busy,” she said, sounding oddly giddy. Normally his sister was intense and serious. Her father was the famed oceanographer Jack Birchard. Jackie had followed in his footsteps and she was working on her PhD.
Boone realized it had been over four months since he’d spoken to her and he hadn’t told her about the third surgery. He hadn’t wanted her to worry. They hadn’t grown up together and they had really only gotten in touch with each other as teenagers when they’d bonded over the fact that their flighty mother had abandoned them both to their respective fathers. But Jackie was as resilient as Boone. They’d survived and thrived.
That is, he’d thrived until the damn bomb blast.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I’m getting married!” Jackie announced.
“Married?” he echoed, stunned. “To who?”
“You don’t know him. His name is Scott Everly and he’s a lieutenant in the Coast Guard.”
“Jackie, seriously? A coastie?”
“What’s wrong with a coastie?”
Boone wasn’t going to get into the fact that he didn’t consider Coast Guard real military. “I can’t see you as a military wife. In fact, I can’t see you as a wife at all.”
“What does that mean?” All the joy escaped from his sister’s voice.
Don’t be a jerk, Toliver. Apologize. “Your career means so much to you.”
“Yes, what’s that got to do with anything? Are you saying that I can’t have a meaningful career and be married at the same time?”
“How are you going to do research if you’re following him around from post to post?”
“He’s stationed in DC. Any promotions will just take him further up that chain. Besides, Scott is fully supportive of my career. He understands that there may be times when we’ll have to be separated.”
“How long have you known him?” Boone asked, feeling protective. She was his baby sister. He hated the thought of her making the same marital mistake he’d made. No matter how you sliced it, divorce hurt. He’d do whatever he could to save her from that heartache. She didn’t answer him.
“How long have you known him?” Boone repeated.
“You’re being a jerk.”
“You’re not answering the question.”
“A little over a month,” she finally admitted.
“Don’t go ballistic. I know what I’m doing. Scott is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. He’s smart and kind and he loves the ocean as much as I do and—”
“Are you insane? Didn’t you learn anything from my experience with Shaina—”
“I’m not you, Boone,” she snapped. “And Scott isn’t Shaina. This is real love, not some hot, horny, drunken Vegas hook-up on the eve of your enlistment—”
“Listen to yourself. Real love? You’ve only been dating the guy a month. He could be a serial killer for all you know.” Boone clenched a fist, quelled the urge to jump up and start pacing.
“Six weeks. I’ve known him six weeks.”
“Oh yeah, my mistake. Two weeks makes all the difference. Why didn’t you say so?”
“I thought you’d be happy for me. I finally found someone who means as much to me as the ocean.”
“You know exactly who you’re acting like, don’t you?”
“Don’t say it,” Jackie growled.
“I am nothing like our mother.”
He knew he’d struck a chord but for some unfathomable reason he just kept pushing. “Miranda married my dad after only knowing him for two months. How long did she date Jack before she plunged into that relationship? Six weeks, wasn’t it?”
“I cannot believe you’re reacting this way.”
Boone couldn’t believe it either. What was the matter with him? His knee hurt like a son-of-a-bitch, but that was no excuse. He could hear tears in her voice and that alarmed him. Jackie was a tough cookie. She didn’t cry easily.
You, Toliver, are the world’s biggest loser.
“I’m sorry.” He backed down. “You took me by surprise. Just tell me you’re going to have a nice, long engagement to make sure this guy is really the one.”
“We’re getting married in Key West on Saturday on the Fourth of July.”
“This Saturday? Are you out of your mind?”
“If you can be happy for me, then you’re welcome to attend the wedding. It’s at four o’clock on the Sea Anemone at Wharf 16,” she said, referring to Jack Birchard’s research vessel. “If not, then stay in Montana and stew in your own self-pity.”
She hung up on him.
Boone swore under his breath and immediately called her back. She didn’t pick up, letting the call go to voice mail. He tried three more times. She still did not answer.
A raw ache gnawed at the pit of his stomach. Disgusted with himself, he slung the cell phone across the yard.
Smart. Real smart. Now you gotta go get it.
Guilt was a rock on his shoulders. He pushed up from the chair, winced against the bolt of pain that shot up his leg. He stared at the steps, swallowed hard. Going down them would take forever. He blew out his breath.
And suddenly there was Tara.
Relief washed over him and he instantly hated the feeling. He didn’t need to be rescued.
She bent down to pick up his phone, then raised her head, concern in her eyes. “Did you have a fight with your sister?” She mounted the steps to hand him the phone.
“Thanks,” he said gruffly.
“You’re welcome.” She paused.
He said nothing.
“I guess you don’t want to talk about it?”
She nodded, sank her hands on her hips. “Okay. If you want to talk, though, I’m here. At least, for another week.”
“So,” he said, searching for something to say. “You’re moving.”
“Uh-huh. Going back home. My mom’s sick.”
“I hate to hear that.”
“Breast cancer, but they caught it early. She’s gotta have chemo and radiation, but she’s going to be okay. It’s just that, well, when something like this happens, you start thinking about what’s really important in life and there’s nothing more important than family, so I’m moving back.”
Boone almost said, “I’ll miss you.” But he bit down on his tongue to keep from uttering the words. He didn’t even know why he’d thought of it. She mainly drove him crazy with her good-natured prying. “Thanks for getting my phone for me. That was nice of you.”
“You’re welcome. I can tell you’ve been having a tough time of it.” Her gaze drifted to his knee brace. “You’re not nearly as gruff as you want everyone to think.”
Jackie would disagree.
“I know you’re the one who shoveled Mrs. Levison’s driveway last winter.” She nodded at the house of the elderly widow next door. “And that you got up at dawn to do it so she wouldn’t catch you and try to pay you.”
“Who, me?” He shrugged. “With this leg?”
“Probably one of the reasons you had to have a third surgery. You can’t stay still.”
Boone winced. She was right. “You’re too darn nosy for my own good.”
Their gazes met.
She raised a hand. “I have to go start packing.”
“Have a safe trip.”
“I’ll come say goodbye before I leave.”
“Okay,” he said, because he didn’t know what else to say.
A small furrow creased her brow. “Are you all right?”
“You’re such a liar.”
An involuntary smile twitched his lip. “I know.”
She tilted her head, studied him like he was a sad case. “Take care of yourself, Toliver.”
“Same to you, Duvall.” He wished she’d go. Boone didn’t want her watching him limp inside.
He waited until she’d disappeared before he crushed the empty beer can, scooped the bottle of pills off the table and dragged himself into his living room. He dry-swallowed one of the pills and grimaced. He was too antsy to sit, in too much pain to stand and too worried about Jackie to do anything else. He tried calling her again, but she wasn’t answering. He left a voice mail apologizing for what he’d said and asked her to please call him.
He pictured her in Florida, telling her fiancé what a tool her big brother was. Who was Boone to think he had a right to dictate how she should live her life? He had no right, and yet he could not in good conscience let her marry in haste. He’d done it. Lived through the fallout. Didn’t want her to make the same mistake. He had to see her face-to-face. Had to talk to this coastie she seemed hell-bent on marrying.
Things hadn’t been easy for Jackie. Their mother might have stayed with her longer, but that only seemed to have messed with Jackie’s head more. Boone considered himself lucky that he didn’t even remember Miranda.
Jackie, on the other hand, had been ten when Miranda took off, leaving her to be raised by her demanding father. She’d spent her life trying to measure up to Jack Birchard, and she’d told Boone on more than one occasion that the only time she felt truly relaxed were the summers they spent together in Montana at their Aunt Caroline’s lake house. Both of them kept hoping that one day Miranda would show up at her sister’s house, but she never did.
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