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"Welcome home, cowboy!"
Cutter Martin stopped just inside the door and waited for his pupils to adjust from the bright sunshine to the dim lighting of the bar and grill. Even after they had, it took a few minutes for him to spot the lean male frame propped on the barstool a few yards away.
Tom Porter. He hadn't seen the guy in years. Would have been fine with Cutter if he'd gone a few more. The mood he was in right now was not suitable for company, especially not Tom's. He waved anyway and made his way to the nearly empty bar.
"Not quite home," Cutter said, sliding onto the bar-stool next to Tom, "but close."
"Houston's a hell of a lot nearer to Dobbin than Afghanistan was."
"When you put it that way." Odd thing was Dobbin, Texas didn't seem like home anymore, either. There had been nights of sleeping on the hard ground in insect-infested forests that made the Double M Ranch loom like heaven in the back of his mind.
Now he was back in the States and the ranch was just wide open spaces. He figured he'd gone too deep into enemy territory and the military lifestyle to go back to his ranching roots. Not that he'd ever been much of a rancher. It was bronc riding on the rodeo circuit that had driven him in his younger days.
The bartender wiped a spot of moisture from the counter in front of Cutter and slapped down a paper napkin. "What can I get you?"
"Scotch on the rocks. Make it a double."
"I saw your picture in the Houston Chronicle last month," Tom said. "I been meaning to look you up ever since then. That was quite a hero's welcome you got."
"Yeah." Cutter nodded and looked away, hoping that would end the hero talk. He hadn't been any more a hero than every other frogman he'd served with.
Unfortunately, the bartender must have overheard Tom's remark. He paused as he served Cutter's drink. "Say, you're that Navy SEAL fellow, aren't you? The one who personally killed twelve of the enemy after you and your buddies were ambushed."
"So they told me. I wasn't counting at the time."
"Cool, man. I thought about becoming a Navy SEAL. My girlfriend didn't like the idea of my getting shot at, though."
Cutter studied the guy. Early twenties, hair a little too long, tattoos all over his arms like blotchy skin. Big enough, but no muscular definition. Cutter wondered if he'd last a day in BUD/S. Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training was twenty-six weeks of grueling preparation for what lay ahead for the few who saw it through.
"You must be glad to be home," the bartender continued. "Bet it was even worth getting shot in the leg to get out of the war zone."
As if on cue, Cutter's left thigh started to throb and his irritation level climbed. The bartender wasn't the first to assume he must have hated his time in the service. They were dead wrong. It was trying to adjust to life without the rugged edges that was taking the fight out of him. He didn't seem to fit in civilian life half as well as he'd fit in with his SEAL team.
He picked up his drink and downed half of it before setting the glass back on the table. Fortunately, by that time another customer had snagged the bartender's attention. Now he only had Tom to contend with.
Tom grabbed a handful of peanuts from the bowl near him, spilling a few down the front of his plaid cotton sport shirt as he dropped them into his mouth. "Are you planning to get the ranch up and running again now that you're back? I hear your aunt sold most of the stock."
Actually, she'd sold everything except her favorite horses. That was part of his adjustment problemnot that it had come as a surprise. It just hadn't quite hit home until he saw the empty pastures.
She'd asked Cutter before she'd auctioned off the herd. He'd told her to go ahead. At the time he hadn't been planning to leave the SEALs for years. The land was still there. Livestock could be added at any time.
Merlee loved her newfound freedom. At seventy-five, she was ready to travel and do some of the things his uncle Hank had never been interested in.
"They say you can't go home again," Cutter said, when he realized that Tom was still staring at him, waiting for an answer.
Tom nodded. "I know what you mean. Too quiet out in Dobbin for me. No action and nowhere to find any. I'm in waste management now, right here in Houston."
"Sounds like a winner." Cutter finished his drink. "Good to see you. I've got to run, though."
"Too bad. I was thinking if you didn't have plans, we might grab a bite to eat together. Catch up on old times."
"Maybe another day."
"Yeah, right. I'll give you a call. You in the book?" Tom asked.
"Yeah, in the book. Look me up."
Cutter pulled some bills from his pocket and left them on the bar, more than enough to cover the price of the drink and a tip. He didn't look back as he pushed through the door and back into the humidity of a hot June afternoon.
He had another interview scheduled, this one at a new car dealership out on I-45. He made a quick decision to blow it off. Selling cars just wasn't going to cut it. Not that he had a clue what would.
He missed the danger, missed knowing that every decision was crucial, missed feeling the heat of the enemy breathing down his neck even when he couldn't see them. Most of all, he'd lost the feeling that what he was doing made a real difference.
Houston wasn't a walking town, but Cutter couldn't bring himself to crawl back into the new black Chevy pickup truck he'd left parked in the lot. He stopped by it just long enough to shed his tie and sports jacket and toss them into the backseat of the double-cab. Then, rolling up his sleeves, he headed down Montrose Boulevard.
Breaking a sweat felt good. He covered the blocks fast in spite of his slight limp, turning onto Westheimer and then onto a dozen more streets he never bothered to check the names of. Cars whizzed by him. A black man on a bicycle almost ran him over. A guy walking a pair of poodles walked by Cutter without glancing his way.
A young woman in a thin summer dress that hugged her perky breasts and swung from her narrow hips walked out of a coffee shop on his right. She caught his eye and smiled at him invitingly. He considered stopping to see how far her invitation went, but decided against it. She was about ten years too young for him and likely a lifetime too innocent.
He kept walking, past cafés that were no more than holes in the wall emitting odors of peppers and chilies and frying tortillas. Past upscale dining spots with white-shirted valets parking Mercedes and BMWs.
He was in an eclectic area of shops, restaurants, and aging houses infiltrated by sleek new townhomes, all practically within the shadows of the downtown skyscrapers.
It was dark when he ended up back at the bar, and the parking lot was full. He started to go in for another drink but decided to head back to the tiny claustrophobic condo where he was staying. Two rooms, unless you counted the closet-size bath. A living/kitchen area and a bedroom. Fortunately, there were lots of windows.
Merlee had bought the property a few years back when Hank had first been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing chemo. It was near the hospital and had eliminated the long commute during that already stressful time.
She'd decided to keep it after he died and now she and her friend Josie used it when they wanted a few days of city living. Culture, she called it, though the theater and symphony attendance was rivaled by shopping and baseball. Merlee was a rabid Astros fan.
She'd given Cutter the key to the condo when he'd started searching for employment. He'd have to take the job hunt more seriously tomorrow. Deal with more applications.
Skills: Hand-to-hand combat. Smelling out the enemy. Putting his life on the line.
None of them looked particularly good on a résumé.
There was a light on in the condo when he pulled in to his parking spot. He didn't remember leaving it on, and it couldn't be Merlee or Josie. They were off on an Alaskan cruise. He'd driven them to the airport himself.
His instincts for trouble checked in. He hesitated at the door. Interesting odors wafted out. Garlic. Onions.
The voices coming from inside were even more interesting. The male was undoubtedly George Strait singing "All My Exes Live in Texas." The female singing along with a definite lack of enthusiasm and totally off-key was anybody's guess. Except
No. He was imagining things.
Cutter opened the door, unlocked now, though he was sure he'd left it locked this morning. He stepped inside. There was definitely a woman in his kitchen and singing along with his CD. He headed that way.
"Honey, I'm home."
No mistaking the voice when it called his name. His body tightened. His stomach flipped. A second later Linney Gayle Ringle stood in the doorway. Her red hair was caught up in a knot at the nape of her neck, but more than a few tangled curls fell over her cheeks and danced about her forehead.
He gave in to the initial spicy thrill of her, letting his gaze scan her shapely body before reining in his natural instincts and reminding himself of the misery that had stemmed from their last encounter. Not to mention the fact that she was now a married woman.
She looked up at him from beneath her thick lashes, her emerald-green eyes as bewitching as ever, though the sparkle he remembered was shadowed.
"God, you look good, Cutter, much better than that newspaper photo."
To say she looked good would be the understatement of the year. She was dynamite. Too hot too handle. Nothing new there.
"Nice to see you, too, Linney. Now, care to tell me why you broke into my condo?"
"I didn't. Merlee gave me a key."
"That explains it." He let his gaze scan her body again, then wished he hadn't. Her breasts were perky little mounds that pushed against the thin cotton T-shirt that scooped just low enough to show a hint of cleavage. The white shorts hit midthigh, showing off the perfectly tanned legs. Legs that had once wrapped around him while
He fought the stirrings back into submission before he reached really dangerous territory. "So why are you here, or do you chase after every guy who gets his picture in the paper?"
"Just the cute ones."
She walked over, rose to her tiptoes and gave him a peck on the cheek. "We're friends, Cutter. I wanted to welcome you home."
There was a tenseness about her that made him sure that wasn't the whole storynot by a long shot. "You can do better than that, Linney."
"Not in present company." Linney put her hand out and Cutter spotted the little girl who'd just stuck her head around the counter that separated the living area from the kitchen. The preschool-age child walked over and scrunched behind Linney's shapely hip before stealing a sheepish glance at Cutter.
So Alfred and Linney had a daughter. Might even have a house full of kids. "Where's big Al," he asked, "or is he going to jump out next?"
"You heard about the marriage?"
"Word gets around."
"All the way to the Middle East?"
"Just the big stuff."
"Alfred and I are divorced."
That he hadn't heard. "Is this where I'm supposed to say I'm sorry?"
No and yes. It was easier to resent the both of them if they were living their idyllic life in the world of the rich and modestly famous. "Divorce is tough on kids," he said, knowing it was the most honest statement he could offer.
"Alfred and I didn't have children."
So there was a new man in her life. And still Linney was here, in his condo, the spitting image of the woman who'd starred in thousands of his unsolicited erotic fantasies over the last six years. But only after he was sound asleep and too out of it to remember that she'd walked out on him without so much as an adios.
"Look, Cutter, I know it's in bad taste to just let myself in, but I wasn't sure when you'd be home and I didn't want to keep Julie out in the hot sun."
"How did you know I was staying here?"
"Your aunt Merlee called last week and told me. She thought I should give you a call and welcome you to Houston."
"I didn't know you and Aunt Merlee were such good friends."
"We talk at the symphony during intermission, mostly about you. Our seats are only two rows apart."
"Nor did I know you were a fan of the symphony."
"There are lots of things you don't know about me."
"Apparently. Is this story going somewhere, Linney? Because I've had a really long day, and I'm not up for entertaining."
"You don't have to get in a huff, Cutter. Just tell me where you keep your extra sheets and blankets and I'll make Julie a bed on the sofa."
"Whoa! This is not a hotel."
"I know, but I need a favor. One night." She managed a strained smile. "And I cooked dinner. There's pasta with red sauce. No meat. You didn't have anyor much of anything else except beer and moldy cheese."
"I wasn't expecting company."
"Just for one night, Cutter. I promise. We won't put you out."
"I only have one bed."
"Julie can sleep on the sofa."
Which would leave the one bed for him and Linney. It was hard enough controlling his libido standing in the same room with her. Fat chance he'd be able to do it with her stretched out next to him between the same pair of sheets.
"You can't stay here." His command came out a lot harsher than he'd intended. Julie started to cry.
"Now see what you've done." Exasperation and a tinge of desperation tugged at her voice and expression.
Linney dropped to the sofa, took the small child in her arms and started rocking her back and forth. "Cutter didn't mean to frighten you, sweetheart. He's glad you're here. He loves little girls. Tell her, Cutter."
"I adore them. Linney, we have to talk."
"Right, as soon as Julie's asleep, but that will take a little longer now that you've upset her."
Cutter still had no clue what was going on, but the chances that he was going to sleep alone in this apartment tonight were growing slimmer by the second. If the vibes of anxiety Linney was emitting weren't at frightening levels, he'd insist she go to a hotel.