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A Soldier’s Return

Written by Lee Tobin McClain

Forced into spending a week at Redemption Ranch, Gabe Smith comes face-to-face with his high school sweetheart, a fellow veteran, who is the ranch counselor. It’s been years since he last saw Daniela Jiminez, but she’s just as attractive as he remembers. The scars she tries to hide on her face are nothing compared to the mental scars he carries from his time overseas. Gabe feels too wounded to entertain romance with anyone, but Daniela’s patience and gentleness draw him out in a way he never expected. Along with an unlikely pair of shelter dogs, can Daniela help him find the path to recovery?

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Chapter One

“What kind of inconsiderate chump shoots off fireworks next door to a ranch for veterans?” Daniela Jiminez posed the question to her boss, not really hoping for an answer.

“I know. It’s for Memorial Day, but come on. And we have a new one who’s…sensitive.” Penny Jordan gestured down the road toward the row of cabins, beautifully backed by Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. “I need for you to handle him.”

“Maybe we could give him a dog,” Daniela suggested as another flurry of explosions filled the air. She’d studied all kinds of treatments in her counseling coursework, but therapy animals were her new go-to strategy.

“Good idea. I wish I could stay to help you work with him, but I just…” Penny trailed off and her eyes filled with tears.

Freaky to see the always-competent Penny crying, but it was understandable. The poor woman had just been devastated, her husband absconding with not only the majority of the ranch’s funds, but also with Penny’s pretty young assistant.

Men. Daniela knew what Penny was going through. She’d been devastated herself, not long ago, and she wasn’t going to repeat her mistake by getting involved with anyone new.

Not that it was even an option for her, not anymore.

She picked up Penny’s suitcase and walked with her to her car. “Sure you don’t want to stay until morning?”

Penny shook her head. “I can’t spend another night here, where he… Where we…” She shook her head again, thumbing away tears from beneath her eyes. “Finn’s going to drive me to the airport in Denver. We’ll stop over at the Leaning R and ask ’em to lay off the fireworks on our way down. But you might want to see to our friend.”

“I’ll check on… Is it a man or a woman?”

“Man. First Lieutenant Smith. He doesn’t want to be here, but his family bribed him into a week.”

Bribed him?”

“They promised they’d get off his case if he’d try this one more thing. After this, they’ll leave him alone. Let him go off and hide in some shack in the woods, be alone…”

“Isolate? Give up?”

Penny nodded, only the slightest twist of her mouth showing her sadness.

“So we’re his last chance.”

“That’s what we’re all about.” Penny’s voice caught, and Daniela knew exactly why. Penny’s husband’s embezzlement meant Redemption Ranch’s future was in jeopardy.

She put an arm around the older woman’s shoulders, then wrapped her in a full-blown hug. “You go get yourself healed,” she said. “Don’t worry about him.” She nodded toward the cabin. “Nor the ranch. You just focus on you, and when you’re feeling better, come on back and we’ll figure out what to do next.”

From the small cottage next to the main ranch house, Finn Gallagher emerged and strode toward them, his characteristic limp barely slowing him down. “You ready?” he asked. He didn’t comment on Penny’s tears—Finn, their ranch manager and a disabled vet himself, was really quiet—but he put a big hand on Penny’s shoulder as he opened the passenger door for her.

After they’d waved and driven off, Daniela headed toward the new guy’s cabin, walking slowly. It wasn’t that she disliked offering assistance; her training as a peer counselor, as well as her coursework in psychology, had given her good resources to draw on. She loved helping people, especially veterans like herself, find answers and peace.

But she preferred to work with women, for reasons she’d be the first to admit were superficial. She ran her fingers along the ridged scars that met in an inverted V on her cheekbone, then continued on in a line above her eyebrow.

Ah, well. She was fortunate that she hadn’t been blinded by the knife attack, and that her valiant fellow soldiers had fought hard to help her escape the horrible fate that would almost certainly have awaited a female prisoner of war.

She had so much to be grateful for.

Losing her beauty was a small thing, and God had already used it to show her a lot about herself and about other people. She’d gotten stronger, more sure of herself in some ways.

But men… Men were the last stronghold of her fears and weaknesses. The college boys who’d nudged each other and laughed when she’d walked across campus at her intensive residency last month. The construction worker whose wolf whistle had died midway when he’d seen the other side of her face.

Her own husband, Mike, who’d been unable to hide his distaste when he’d first seen her, and who’d almost immediately taken off for parts unknown.

She pushed that thought away. Women noticed her scars too, of course—couldn’t help it—and a few were catty. But most quickly looked beyond her face to her personhood.

Looks really mattered to guys. It was how they were made, something evolutionary, biological. And Daniela had been a beauty before the attack. She hadn’t known how much she got out of the admiration until she’d lost it.

Hadn’t realized that her looks were the main thing her husband had liked about her.

She reached the cabin, trotted up the steps of the rustic little front porch and knocked, grateful for the dim porch light. “Sir? Sir?”

No answer.

“Lieutenant Smith. Corporal O’Rourke, checking in.” She bit her tongue because she’d automatically used her married name. It had been eighteen months since the split, twelve since the official divorce. She should be able to forget the name she’d only used for a few months.

There was still no answer from the cabin, and that was more important than correcting her mistake.

“Sir, if you’re in some kind of trouble, I can call an ambulance. Or your family, or one of our local pastors—”

There was a shuffle, and then the window—not the door, but the window—opened a couple of inches. “I’m fine.”

His tight voice sounded anything but. “Sir, if you’d just come out onto the porch. Or if you’d prefer, I could come in to you. I’d just like to talk a minute, ascertain your well-being.”

“No.” The word was bitten off in a way Daniela recognized. If the man had let out even one more syllable, he’d have broken down.

She’d been there. Compassion for a man who’d served his country and suffered from the aftereffects bloomed in her chest. Most people didn’t realize how traumatic wartime could be.

“All right, sir, but I’m going to stay right here for a bit.” She settled into the pine-plank rocker on the porch, wishing she’d foreseen this and brought a jacket. “Those sounds you hear are fireworks. There’s a new dude ranch that adjoins our land, and they’re having a big Memorial Day celebration. It should stop soon.”

“Good.” Again, the word was clipped, but it suggested that he believed her. That he hadn’t descended into a full dissociative state; that he could understand what fireworks were, on an intellectual plane at least.

Another big volley came, the sort of grand finale that indicated things were winding down. They’d wind down even faster once Finn and Penny got there. Penny was fiercely protective of her veterans. She’d give the owners an earful and it wouldn’t happen again.

“This should be the last of it,” she said, pitching her voice a little louder over the echoing bangs and pops.

No answer.

Okay. Time for some new tactics. “It helps if you breathe. Count and breathe. In three, hold three, out three, hold three.”

No answer.

“Let’s do it together,” she said. “Ready? Breathe in.” She did it and counted, then choked out “exhale” in a tone that would show him she was doing the breathing, too.

No answer.

“Sir? Are you all right?”

“Yup.”

There was silence around them now, aside from the night sounds: the high pitched “woot-woot-woot” of an owl, the chittering of bats, the wind in the pines. Peaceful sounds. Soothing. She identified them all to him, talked casually about the wildlife in the area. When the dogs heard something and started barking, she explained about them—that they were mostly older dogs whose owners couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them anymore.

“We take ’em in, give them a home. Some can go back out into the world, and some need to stay here.”

“Like the vets.”

She raised an eyebrow, a smile curving her lips. Success. The nonsense she’d talked had soothed him into uttering a whole three-word-long sentence.

“Yes,” she said, “that’s true. We have a couple of vets who are here permanently, and others just pass through. Which do you think you’ll be?”

That earned her a snort of laughter. “One week. That’s it.”

There was something familiar about that voice, but she couldn’t place it. Maybe she’d served with him at one time or another. “Could you come out for a minute, sir? I’d like to make sure you’re all right for now, and then I’ll leave you in peace.” Even as she said it, she felt a moment’s anxiety. He hadn’t yet seen her face.

When he did, it would startle him. If he was a jerk, he’d make a mean comment.

But, she reminded herself, he probably wasn’t a jerk. Most people weren’t, so the odds were in her favor. And if he’d spent any time in a veterans’ hospital, he’d seen worse. Probably much worse.

She was one of the fortunate ones, and she needed to remember that. She shouldn’t let her injuries turn her inward, against the world, any more than the gentleman on the other side of the window should. “Can you open the door, sir?”

There was a brief shuffling sound. Then it stopped.

“Sir? Are you all right? Can you open the door?”

“No. Can’t.” There was a pause, and then he added, “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” In spite of his refusal, the nature sounds soothed her, as did a soul-deep feeling that she was where she was supposed to be, doing what she was supposed to do.

She smiled as a line from last week’s sermon came back to her: God does what He does for a reason, and He’s a lot smarter than we are.

The man inside spoke again, words that pushed the smile from her face. “I think I know you.”

“Oh? What’s your full name?”

“I’m Gabriel Smith,” he said. “From Esperanza Springs, just down the highway. And you’re from there, too. Daniela Jiminez. Dani Girl.”

Daniela sucked in her breath as her heart thumped, hard.

“We dated a little in high school. In fact, we were voted—”

“The best-looking couple at Esperanza Springs High School,” she interrupted as her heart sank to her toes. “I remember.”

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