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A Soldier’s Return

Written by Lee Tobin McClain

Chapter Three

He was going to see her in all her scarred glory. Gabe Smith—Babe Smith, as all her friends used to call him—would see she wasn’t the pretty girl she used to be.

She tried to push away the memory of the first moment when her husband had seen her after the attack, but it came back anyway—that little twist of his mouth had said it all.

She remembered the exact feel of the denim skirt she’d worn that day, and how the necklace she’d chosen so carefully had suddenly felt like it was choking her. How stupid she’d felt for putting on lipstick and eye shadow, as if that could compensate for her wrecked face.

No matter how hard he’d tried to fake it, Mike couldn’t get over seeing those scars. He’d turned the lights off on their first evening back together, saying candlelight was romantic, but she’d known. She’d seen the way he tried to focus on the good half of her face, the way he made sure to walk on her good side, the way he’d turned down an invitation to a party where they were likely to run into a bunch of his friends.

She’d tried, with advice from her VA counselor. She’d brought up the subject with him. She’d piled on heavy, scar-covering makeup foundation.

It hadn’t done any good. Within two weeks of their stateside reunion, he’d been gone.

But this moment with Gabe was different, she told herself sternly. Yes, Gabe had been a boyfriend—a great high school boyfriend, fun and athletic and as ambitious as she was—but that was all in the past. He wasn’t her husband, and it didn’t matter whether he found her appealing.

Now, she was here as a peer counselor, a helper. There was no reason a counselor had to be pretty.

The door swung open, and all thoughts of herself flew away.

Gabe was unshaven, his clothes rumpled, hanging loose on a body that was still handsome but gaunt. His hands clenched and unclenched with a restlessness that could only come from anxiety.

Despite his bad-boy dishevelment, he was still a man to admire, because she had an inkling of what he’d gone through.

Her heart turned over, and she reached out a hand. “Would it be easier to come out and talk a minute, or should I come in?”

He didn’t answer. He was looking at her, head cocked to one side.

Her hand flew to cover her cheek as heat suffused her face, making her scars tingle and burn. “Told you I was different.”

He smiled then, new wrinkles fanning out from the corners of his eyes. “Guess we both are.”

Daniela let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. Gabe wasn’t going to be unkind.

“You can come in,” he said. “I think I saw some tea in here, and mugs.”

She didn’t want to push it. Facing people from her former life was exhausting, and her counselor had advised her to take it slow. “I don’t have to. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.” She paused. “Are you okay?”

“Truthfully? No.”

His eyes were troubled, his hands still clenching and unclenching. Once again, her worries about herself were left behind. “How can I help?”

“You can’t,” he said flatly.

Inspiration hit. “Come over to my cabin. I want to show you something.”

He got a funny look on his face. “Um…okay?”

She couldn’t read his expression, but she did know what would soothe his anxiety. “Come on, I’m just a couple hundred yards down the road. Put some shoes on.” She was being bossy, but he didn’t seem to mind, obediently thrusting his feet into sneakers.

He followed her down the dirt lane to her cabin without speaking, and the silence was awkward. She talked into it. “Sometimes when things are bad, words aren’t enough,” she said.

He put a hand on her arm, pulling her to a stop. “Hang on, Dani. Are you sure you…”

“It’s fine. No judgment.” She turned and started walking again, and he followed.

Halfway up the steps to her cabin, she turned to make sure he was behind her. He was. So surprisingly close that she stumbled a little.

He put out both hands to steady her, gripping her shoulders. “Dani…I don’t really think we should…” Then he let out a sigh and tugged her closer.

Oh, man. He thinks I meant I wanted him to kiss me! She pulled away and held up her hands like stop signs, her face heating again. “No, Gabe, you don’t understand. I’m not offering… Here’s the beyond-words comfort I was talking about.” She turned back toward her cabin and opened the door.

Stumpie raced out, sixty pounds of solid bulldog love, and jumped up on his back legs, trying to grip her with his single front paw. She bent down to rub his head and ears, letting him lick her hot face.

When Stumpie—and Daniela—had calmed a little, she patted the step beside her and finally met Gabe’s eyes. “All I meant,” she explained, “is that you can borrow a dog, if you want. Not Stumpie, he’s mine, but there are at least a dozen good candidates over at the barn. It’s amazing how much better a little canine companionship can make you feel.”

“Oh.” Gabe eased himself down on the step beside her, shooting her a small, sheepish grin. “Makes sense. C’mere, boy.”

Stumpie obligingly tried to climb into Gabe’s lap, making them both laugh and giving Daniela a little time to regroup.

Gabe had thought she was offering up a kiss. Something she’d never dream of doing without a whole lot of time and talk, getting to know each other again. He should know that from their decidedly G-rated history together.

Then again, Gabe was one of the best-looking men she’d ever seen, and a decorated veteran. Women must throw themselves at him all the time. If he’d thought she was going to join that crowd, she supposed he could be forgiven.

Of course, he’d tried to get out of it. Even for a quick kiss, he wouldn’t want a freakish-looking woman like her. What man would?

When Stumpie finally ran down the steps to sniff around the bushes, she hazarded a glance over at Gabe. He still looked embarrassed.

Probably best to pretend that little misunderstanding had never happened. “So I’ll help you pick out a dog tomorrow,” she said. “The other thing that can help is…” She hesitated. Gabe had been a churchgoer as a kid, they all had, but she didn’t know where he stood in his walk of faith now.

Not for her to figure out, though. She knew her limits. “We have a local pastor, Carson Blair,” she said. “He’s talked to a few of our vets who were having a tough time. He’s got a connection, his wife served. Would you like me to see if he can come up for a little visit?”

“No, it’s okay.”

“Actually, it’s not,” she said. “If you’re only here a week, I’d like to offer you our full range of services, or at least as full as that limited time period will allow.”

“I’d rather not.”

He was withdrawing back into his shell. She’d seen it before. She’d done it before. “Gabe,” she said. She started to reach out and touch his arm, and then pulled her hand back. Didn’t want him to misinterpret her motives, again. “You were kind of a mess a little bit ago. You need some help, and we can offer it.”

He stood abruptly. “Thanks, but I’m fine.” He strode toward his cabin, not looking back, giving Stumpie a wide berth.

Which should make tomorrow interesting, because Daniela had no intention of letting him hole up alone for the duration of his stay.

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