Wyatt Chandler straightened his Navy dress uniform collar and took a deep breath. He didn’t want to walk into that church, didn’t want to see the casket of his teammate with the American flag draped on top. Mostly, he didn’t want to see Danny’s wife and baby girl. He didn’t want Lisa to see the guilt in his eyes.
Guilt because he hadn’t been able to save Danny from the sniper’s bullet that had ended his life. Wyatt shoved a hand through his hair, cropped short in proper military style for a change, and sucked in another breath.
“Just get in there, dammit, and do your duty,” he muttered.
He shoved the door open and walked into the church. It was darker than he’d expected. It was overcast outside, and the meager light coming through the stained glass windows cast a muted glow on everything.
But of course it was gloomy. Candles flickered, but they couldn’t replace the light the world had lost when it lost Danny.
Wyatt stopped in the back of the church and took everything in. The gloom. The sobbing. The sadness. The utter despair of a life cut too short and the pain of those who had to go onward. The little girl playing down front who was too small to understand what was really happening and why her daddy was never coming home again.
A lump formed in his throat. His eyes stung. He’d sat through a funeral when he was not much older than Danny’s little girl. He didn’t remember much about it, but he remembered Gran sobbing while Gramps sat with his arm around her and tried to tell her it would be okay.
But it could never be okay. She’d lost her son and daughter-in-law. Wyatt and Gramps were all she’d had left.
Now it was only Wyatt because Gramps had died two years ago. The sobbing down front grew louder and Wyatt clamped his jaw tight at the anguish in it.
If he stayed in the Navy, would he go home in a casket too? Would Gran have to sit through another funeral, sobbing her heart out like Danny’s family was doing?
Soon he was going to have to make a decision about his future. But not today. Today was about honoring Danny, and about learning to live with this guilt that was eating him up inside.
He strode down the aisle toward the flag-draped casket. He was here to pay his respects. One last time.
Four months later…
Wyatt slid into the booth at No Man’s Land, the diner located on a portion of the Sentinel Bridge, and picked up the menu even though he didn’t really need it. The HALO pancakes topped with snow and drowned in rocket fuel were his favorite item on the breakfast menu. As a Navy SEAL, he’d done enough HALO jumps out of airplanes over enemy territory to get quite the kick out of pancakes named after what was essentially a very risky venture.
“Hi, Wyatt, how’s it going this morning?”
Mandy stood there with her order pad and a pen, smiling at him with that pretty smile of hers. He thought he should feel a hint of interest in her, but he didn’t. He should probably worry about that, especially since he’d been out of the SEALs for nearly two months now and had yet to kiss a woman—much less spend the night with one—but he couldn’t seem to care.
In truth, he had a hard time caring about much of anything right now. Except Gran, of course. Gran, who was at her doctor’s appointment and refused to let him join her. When he’d dropped her off, she’d told him to go get some breakfast and stop skulking around.
“Pretty good,” he said with a smile and a wink. “How about you?”
She said it shyly and he wondered if she was sweet on him or something. He hoped not, because he was so not the kind of man for a girl like her. Innocent. Nice. Probably naïve.
She cleared her throat. “Do you know what you want or should I just get you some coffee first and come back?”
He handed her the plastic menu. “I’ll take the pancakes and some coffee. And a side of scrambled eggs.”
“Sounds great. I’ll be back with your coffee. Food will be up soon.”
Wyatt knew from experience that he was about to get a lot of food. But he’d been doing manual labor off and on for Garrison Construction the past few weeks, so he didn’t worry about an expanding waistline. Construction wasn’t the same as humping through the jungle in full ruck, but it was still pretty hard work. It was also satisfying, like when he’d helped Adam Tucker turn the boathouse into a camp dorm over at A To Z Watersports.
The door opened and Zane Tucker, Adam’s twin, wandered in. He lifted his chin when he saw Wyatt and made his way over, flopping down in the chair opposite.
“How’s it hanging this morning, Wyatt?”
Wyatt raised an eyebrow. Ever since Zane had gotten cozy with the town librarian, Miss Harper Grace, he’d been smiling more. He was smiling now, matter of fact, and while it grated on Wyatt somewhere deep down, he was also happy for his friend. Zane was the jokester of their group—they didn’t call him Insane Zane for nothing—but Wyatt had always thought the joking hid deeper feelings of inadequacy. Maybe because Zane had been sickly as a child.
Well, he wasn’t sickly now. If anything, he was radiating health and happiness.
“It’s hanging. Lower than yours.”
Zane snorted. “Asshole. I’m still not sure I’ve forgiven you for the Wonder Woman costume. You aren’t working very hard to get back on my good side either.”
“I’m still on your good side. Without me, you might never have admitted you loved Harper.”
“Oh, I definitely would have. Without the costume, though.”
Wyatt flicked a gaze at the Snake River flowing below them. Eagle’s Ridge was beautiful this time of year. The foliage was lush, the river rolled against the banks, bringing water sports and good fishing, and the Blue Mountains soared against a clear sky.
Danny would have loved it here. He was crazy for good fishing. He’d told Wyatt all about his family farm and the bass ponds there while they were high up in the Hindu Kush, searching for insurgents and tracking down a terrorist leader. They’d survived that mission, just like they’d survived so many others.
Until one day when it all went wrong.
“What’s the bug up your ass this morning?” Zane asked, frowning.
Wyatt didn’t answer because Mandy chose that moment to return with the coffee.
“Hey, Zane—you want some coffee?”
“Sure thing. And give me the Two NCOs with Train Tracks,” he added, ordering the scrambled eggs and bacon. “Add some hash browns, too.”
“Be right up,” Mandy said as she jotted on her order pad. A few seconds later she was back with a second coffee cup.
When she left this time, Zane took a sip and waited. He clearly hadn’t forgotten his question, or Wyatt’s silence.
“There’s no bug,” Wyatt said, knowing Zane wouldn’t give up. They were too close for lies, so Wyatt went with evasion instead. “How’s Harper?”
“Nice try. She’s fine, by the way. But you aren’t. We’ve all noticed it.”
Wyatt’s gut twisted. “Why would you say that? I’m exactly where I want to be, doing what I want to do. I’m the definition of fine.”
“You’ve been in town for almost two months, and all you do is the occasional construction project for the Garrisons, or odd jobs for whoever gives you something to do.”
“I spent a solid week pasting photos into Gran’s albums, don’t forget. Gave myself a paper cut.”
Zane wasn’t fooled by the attempt at humor. “What’s going on with you, Wyatt?”
Wyatt’s hand tightened on the mug. “I’m fine, Zane.”
“Yeah, but you left the SEALs—and you won’t tell any of us why.”
Wyatt kicked back as if he were the most relaxed guy in the world. “It was time, that’s all. Gran’s sick. She needs me—”
“That woman does not need you, bro. She hasn’t slowed down a bit since her diagnosis. About all I’ve noticed is she doesn’t stop at the bakery for donuts anymore. Type 2 diabetes isn’t a death sentence. It’s controllable with medication and diet, and she’s doing just that.” Zane leaned forward, elbows on the table. “So what really gives, huh?”
Wyatt hesitated for a long moment. But his pain was his alone. He wasn’t going to burden his friends with any of it. Ryder, Adam, and Zane were happier than he’d ever seen them. He didn’t know about Jack, couldn’t get him to commit to anything more than a few phone calls, but he suspected Jack was dealing with something serious of his own. Then there was Noah, who was dealing with some serious family shit, and Ford, who seemed determined to stay on the other side of the country even though his family wanted him home and had a construction company for him to run.
Nope, nobody needed to listen to his shit so he wasn’t going to talk about it.
“Nothing, man. I’m just tired. I saw a lot overseas, a lot of bad stuff…” He hesitated. “Gran is the only family I have left. I thought I should come home and be around for her.”
Zane’s gaze searched his. He could tell the moment his friend decided to quit digging. Knowing Zane, however, it was only a temporary reprieve.
“Fine. But what do you plan to do with yourself in the long run? You’re too young to retire, and you need more than odd jobs here and there to keep you alive.”
Wyatt shook his head and grinned. “I saved a lot of combat pay. I’m good for a long time to come.”
Zane didn’t seem convinced. “I’m glad you won’t be panhandling or anything, but I still think you need to find your calling. Whatever that is.”
The food arrived then and Wyatt’s mouth started to water at the sight of all those pancakes. Nobody made pancakes like these. Not only that, but Sam Tucker’s homemade maple syrup was the taste of Wyatt’s childhood in a bite.
Zane tore into his eggs and bacon, and Wyatt forked up a bite of fluffy pancakes before meeting his friend’s eyes again.
“It’s cool, Zane. I have some ideas, but I’m not ready to jump on any of them yet.” It was a lie, but Zane didn’t need to know that.
Zane nodded. “Let me know if I can help. When you’re ready.”
“I definitely will. You owe me a few.”
“Pretty sure you owe me after the Wonder Woman incident.”
After breakfast, they parted ways. Zane returned to A To Z, and Wyatt shoved his hands in his pockets and walked back to his truck. It was still a good half hour before he had to pick up Gran. He leaned against the truck, one leg crossed over the other, and studied the picture the mountains and river made.
Eagle’s Ridge was beautiful. The scenery was practically the only thing that gave him any measure of comfort these days. When you stood beneath mountains so glorious, your troubles didn’t seem nearly as big as you thought they were.
His cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He slid it out and glanced at the screen. It was a Maryland number, but not one he recognized. He thought about letting it go to voicemail, in case it was a telemarketer or something, but since he had time to kill he decided to answer.
“Hey, Wyatt. This is Hawk,” a voice said in response to his clipped greeting.
Wyatt blinked. Hawk, whose real name was Jack Hunter, had been a legendary sniper in the Hostile Operations Team, the special terrorist hunting unit Wyatt had been a member of for the past three years. Hawk had left HOT to start his own security firm protecting high-end clients like his wife, pop superstar Gina Domenico. Wyatt had met the man a couple of times, but didn’t really know him.
“Hey, Hawk. What can I do for you?”
“I understand you’ve left the unit,” the other man said. “And I was wondering if you’d like to put your special skills to use.”
Special skills was code for the ability—and willingness—to use lethal force in a variety of ways. Wyatt frowned as he gazed at the mountains. There was a peak up there where the eagles nested that gave the town its name. He hadn’t been up there in years. He really needed to go see it again…
“I don’t think so,” he said. “But I appreciate the offer.”
“You haven’t even heard the offer yet,” Hawk replied. He sounded amused rather than annoyed.
“Yeah, well, I gotta tell you the truth—I think I’d be tempted. And I don’t want to be.”
Because yeah, he did miss the high octane thrill of operations. He missed the adrenaline rush, the highs of a job done well. He missed being a SEAL, and he missed HOT, a place where only the best of the best gained entrance.
Still, he’d made his decision. He was done.
“Look, it’s pretty simple really,” Hawk continued. “I have a client who needs guarding in Eagle’s Ridge. Nothing more complicated than that. You interested?”
He didn’t want to be. He really didn’t. But he could listen, right?
“You have my attention.”
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