A TIME FOR HOME
by Alexis Morgan
Snowberry Creek, Book 1
A Snowberry Creek novel.
Welcome to the small rustic town of Snowberry Creek....
As Nick Jenkins travels from the war zones of Afghanistan to his comrade's hometown, the kinds of wounds he carries with him have little to do with the shrapnel damage to his arm. Burdened with the guilt of failing to save his friend Spence, Nick is nonetheless determined to find a home for the dog that had been Spence's constant companion.
Callie Redding, Spence's childhood best friend, was shocked to learn he left her his old Victorian home. She's even more surprised when one of his war buddies shows up with a dog at his side—and a heavy weight on his shoulders. As a tribute to their friend's life, Nick agrees to help Callie turn her inheritance into a welcoming bed-and-breakfast for the town of Snowberry Creek.
But as they work through their grief together, they also share something far more preciousemdash;the belief that love is worth fighting for....
"We're almost there, boy. Then you can stretch your legs."
Nick's canine companion was too busy sniffing the wind to care. Mooch had kept his nose stuck out the window since the minute they'd gotten in the truck. He reached over to pat the dog on the back, still carrying on the one-sided conversation.
"I bet it smells a whole lot different than the streets of Afghanistan, doesn't it?"
Mooch thumped his tail in agreement. In truth, everything here was a whole lot different. Nick scanned the road ahead. So much green that it hurt his eyes. He had to tip his head back to see to the top of the firs and cedars that crowded close to the two lane highway. They made him claustrophobic. Too many hiding spots for snipers. Only one way through them, leaving him no avenue of escape.
Nick flexed his hands on the steering wheel and reminded himself that he'd left all that behind weeks ago.
No one here wanted him dead. Not yet, anyway.
"Think she'll forgive me?"
Nick hoped so, because he hadn't been able to forgive himself. Something in his voice finally had Mooch looking at him, the dog's dark eyes filled with sympathy. Of course, maybe Nick was only imagining that the mixed breed mutt understood every word he said. There was no denying the dog had known his own share of suffering back in his homeland.
His shaggy fur almost hid the jagged scar where a bullet had caught him in the shoulder. Mooch had taken one for the team when he barked to warn them about an asshole lying in ambush. The bastard had shot the dog to shut him up, but too late to do himself any good. In retaliation, the squad had made damn sure it was the last time he ever pulled a trigger. Nick's buddy Spence had carried the wounded dog back to camp and conned one of the army vets into stitching him up. After a brief swearing-in ceremony, Mooch had become a full-fledged member of their unit.
In war, some heroes walked on four legs, not two.
Nick spotted a sign up ahead. He slowed to read it, hoping he was about to reach civilization. He'd left I-5 behind some time ago and hadn't expected it to take this long to reach Snowberry Creek. He had mixed feelings about what would happen once he reached the small town, but the two of them had been on the move long enough. Some downtime would feel pretty good.
But instead of announcing the city limits, the sign marked the entrance of a small cemetery. Nick started to drive on past, but a sick feeling in his gut had him slowing down and then backing up.
He put the truck in park and dropped his forehead down on the top of the steering wheel. In a town the size of Snowberry Creek, how many cemeteries could there be? He reached for the door handle and forced himself to get out of the truck. Sooner or later he was going to have to do this. Nick had never been a coward and wasn't about to start now.
"Come on, Mooch. We've got a stop to make."
The dog crawled down out of the seat. Once on the ground, he gave himself a thorough shake from nose to tail before following Nick up the slope toward the rows of gravestones. Normally, Mooch liked to explore new places on his own, but this time he walked alongside Nick silently offering his support.
It didn't take long to find what they were looking for. There were several granite markers with the last name of Lang. Nick hung a right and followed the row, finally reaching a longer than normal stone that held the name of a husband and wife, most likely Spence's parents. Nick had to force himself to take those final few steps to stand in front of the last headstone.
He dropped to his knees on the green grass and wrapped his arms around his stomach. God, it hurt so fucking much to see Spence's name etched there in block letters. His eyes burned with the need to cry, but the tears refused to come. Instead, the pain stayed locked tight inside his chest and in his head, a burden he'd been carrying since he'd held Spence's bloody dog tags in his hand.
As the memories began playing out in Nick's head, Mooch whined and snuggled closer. But even the familiar touch of the dog's soft fur couldn't keep Nick grounded in the present. His guilt and his fear sucked him right back to the last place he wanted to be. Just that quickly, he was in the streets of Afghanistan, riding next to Spence on yet another patrol. Instead of breathing the cool, damp air of Washington, Nick was sucking in hot dry air and feeling the sun burning down from above as he got caught up in the past and lived through it all over again.
The heat in hell had nothing on Afghanistan in July. Maybe if he could've stripped down to a pair of cargo shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, it would've been bearable. But only a fool would go on patrol without all of his protective gear, and Nick was no fool.
The back of his neck itched. It had nothing to do with the ever present dust and grit that grated against his skin like sandpaper. No, there were eyes on them. Had been since they'd entered the city. A couple of well-placed shots had cut them off from the rest of the patrol. They were trying to circle around to catch up with the others.
Nick scanned the surrounding area, constantly sweeping the buildings ahead, looking for some sign of who was watching them. In that neighborhood, it could be anyone from a mother worried about her kids to someone with his finger on the trigger.
Leif stirred restlessly. "You feeling it, too?"
"Yeah. Spence, do you see anything?"
Before his friend could answer, a burst of gunfire rained down on them from the roof of a building half a block down on the right. A second shooter opened fire from a doorway on the opposite side of the street, catching them in the crossfire.
Nick returned short bursts of fire while Spence drove like the maniac he was trying to get them the hell out of Dodge. Leif hopped on the radio, yelling to make himself heard over the racket. After calling in, he'd joined Nick in trying to pick off the shooters.
"Hold on! This ride's about to get interesting."
If more than two wheels were on the ground when Spence took the corner, Nick would happily eat MREs for the rest of his natural life. Not that he was complaining. His friend's extreme driving style had saved their asses far too often. The M-ATV lurched hard as it straightened up coming out of the turn.
"Fuck yeah, that was fun!" Spence's grin was a mile wide as he laughed and flung their ride around another corner.
The crazy bastard was actually enjoying this. Nick shook his head. He loved the guy like a brother, but damn. They made it another two blocks before the shooting began again, this time from behind them.
Leif yelled over the racket, "Ever get the feeling we're being herded?"
Nick nodded. The thought had occurred to him, but what choice did they have but to keep going? The street was too narrow to hang a U-turn and stopping sure as hell wasn't an option. He continued to scan the area for more shooters and left the driving to Spence, who knew the streets in this area better than anyone. It was like the man had a built-in GPS system. He'd find a way out for them if anyone could.
The gunfire was sporadic now with longer periods of silence between shots. The streets remained empty, as if the locals had been warned to crawl into the deepest hole they could find and stay there.
"Think we're in the clear?" Leif asked, still studying the rooftops and doorways for new threats.
Before Nick could answer, the whole world exploded in fire and smoke. A sharp pain ripped up the length of his upper arm as their vehicle started rockin'-and-rollin' on them. It went airborne and finally bounced to a stop lying on its side up against a building.
With considerable effort, Nick managed to climb out. He retrieved his weapon and shook his head to clear it. The blast had left him deaf, and thanks to the cloud of dust and smoke, damn near blind. Nick found Spence more by feel than sight. He was lying face down in the dirt, with blood trickling from his ears and nose.
Nick checked for a pulse. Thready and weak. Son of bitch, this was a major cluster fuck. He spotted Leif writhing in pain a few feet away. He crawled over to him.
"Are you hit?"
"My ankle. It's busted up pretty bad."
If the bastards who'd been shooting at them weren't already closing in, they would be soon. Nick needed to get Leif and Spence to somewhere safe and fast.
He got down in Leif's face. "Give it to me straight up. Can you walk?"
After one look at the twisted mess that had been Leif's left ankle, Nick didn't wait for an answer. Neither of his friends could make it back to safety on their own, but which one should he help first? Spence was completely defenseless while Leif might be able to protect himself for a while.
On the other hand, Leif was bleeding; already his coloring was piss poor. Nick crawled back to the rubble that had been their vehicle and pulled out the first aid kit. He bandaged Leif's damaged ankle as best he could, but he'd seen enough wounds to know Leif was going to need surgery and damn quick. His decision made, Nick crawled back to his unconscious buddy.
"Spence, I'm going for help. I'll be back for you ASAP."
Then he muscled Leif up off the ground and half-carried, half-dragged the poor bastard as fast as they could make it. The rest of their unit would be pouring into the area, looking for them. A minute later, he spotted them two blocks down and waved his rifle over his head to get their attention.
Their medic hit the ground running. "What do we have?"
"His ankle looks bad, but we've got to go back for Spence. I was afraid to move him."
They carried Leif the rest of the way back to one of the vehicles. Nick patted his friend on the shoulder. "They'll get you to the medics. Save a couple of the prettier nurses for Spence."
Leif managed a small smile. "Like hell. Tell him he's on his own."
"Get yourself patched up. We'll be along soon." He stepped back and checked his rifle for ammunition. "Let's move out."
The medic stopped him. "You're bleeding, too. We'll get Spence. You go with the corporal."
No, not happening. He'd return for Spence even if he had to crawl. "I'm all right. Besides, I promised I'd come back for him. Wouldn't want to piss him off. The man's got a temper."
The medic didn't much like it, but he nodded. "Lead the way."
Nick's ears were finally starting to function normally again, and he could hear gunfire in the distance. Son of a bitch! He picked up the pace, doing his best to watch for hostiles as he led the charge back to where he'd left Spence. When they were a block short of their destination, the deafening thunder of another explosion sent all of them diving for cover.
Before the echoes had died away, Nick was up and running, screaming Spence's name. He was dimly aware of the rest of his squad joining him in the mad race to save their friend. Nick's heart pounded loud enough to drown out the agonizing truth that he was too late with too little. The building next to where he'd left Spence was nothing but a smoking pile of rubble.
He coasted to a stop at the corner. The horror of what had happened and what he'd done washed over him in waves. "Spence, where the hell are you? Come on, you dumb son of a bitch, this is no time for hide-and-seek."
Please, God, let him have regained consciousness and crawled to safety.
But he hadn't; Nick knew it in his gut just as he knew it was his fault. There was nothing left of their vehicle now except scrap metal. A huge hole had been ripped in the street right where Spence had been laying, and the building had caved in on itself, leaving the street strewn with rubble. While several of the men stood watch, Nick joined the rest digging in the dirt with their bare fingers, heaving aside rocks and jagged fragments of metal, looking and praying for some sign of Spence.
Finally, the medic froze. He looked across at Nick and slowly lifted his hand. A set of bloody dog tags dangled from his fingers.
"Aw, damn, Spence."
Tears streamed down Nick's cheeks as he reached for the broken chain. He clamped his fingers around the small pieces of bloody metal and held onto the last piece of his friend with an iron grip.
The medic motioned to the rest of the men. When they had formed up, he took Nick by the arm and tugged him back down the street.
"Come on, Sarge, let's go get your arm looked at. We'll get you all fixed up."
Nick let himself be led away, but only because the longer they lingered in the area the more likely someone else would get hurt or worse. But they all knew there was no fixing this. Not today. Not ever.
A sharp pain dragged Nick back to the grassy slope of the graveyard. Mooch whined and licked the small mark where he'd just nipped Nick's arm. The poor dog looked worried. How long had Nick been gone this time? Long enough to be damp from the rain that had started falling since he'd knelt in the grass. The dog shoved his head under Nick's hand, demanding a thorough scratching that felt as good to him as it did the dog.
"Sorry, Mooch. We'll get going here in a minute."
He pushed himself back up to his feet and dusted off his pants, focusing hard on the moment. It was too easy to get caught up in spinning his wheels in the past. He needed to keep moving forward, if for no other reason than he had to make sure Mooch reached his final destination.
Nick had something to say first. Standing at attention felt odd when he wasn't in uniform, but the moment called for a bit of formality. He cleared his throat and swallowed hard.
"Spence, I miss you so damn much. Wherever you are, I hope they have fast cars and faster women." Then he sketched a half-assed salute and walked away.
"This sweet, romantic charmer will resonate with fans of small town stories." --Publishers Weekly
5 stars, Top Pick! " . . . a wonderful story with well-rounded characters you just can't help falling in love with . . ."--Night Owl Reviews
"a romance you will feel in your heart long after you finish reading the book." --Harlequin Junkie, TOP PICK!