To Love and Heal (The Power of Love Series), страница 1
To Love and Heal
By Tamra Rose
The Power of Love Series
Anna Knight surveyed the exposed living room drywall that surrounded her like a panoramic eyesore, wishing she could be as handy with a hammer as she was with a computer mouse.
The plan had seemed simple enough when she purchased the rundown 1920s-era Victorian a month ago in the small town of Greenville, Massachusetts. She would hire a house remodeler who would skillfully breeze through the renovations until the final nail was in place from which to hang a Home Sweet Home plaque. But much to her surprise – and growing discouragement – all the candidates so far had woefully come up short. First there was Mark who showed up for an interview with enough booze on his breath to shrivel her house plants, followed by Glenn who promised he could complete the project before starting his prison sentence, and topped off by Josh who insisted on demonstrating his prowess with a power saw, slicing open his thigh in the process. Anna squeamishly squeezed her eyes shut as she recalled the bloody slip of the saw, which required an emergency room visit and stitches but thankfully left all limbs intact.
But perhaps there was still hope. Following her lead as she trailed through the kitchen and then out to the backyard, Ralph, the latest candidate, had yet to set off alarms and the interview was winding down to a finish.
"So that completes the house tour," Anna said as she tried to gauge Ralph's interest in the job while his eyes scanned the yard.
"It's nice back here," he commented with an approving nod.
"Thanks – I actually find it almost therapeutic when I'm out here, even when I'm cutting the grass or taking care of the flower beds."
Ralph raised an eyebrow. "You cut your own grass?"
"Sure. I might not be great with a power drill, but I do know how to push a mower."
He grinned. "So I take it that part of the job will be replacing some of the damaged siding out here, since it will mean firing up some of those power tools you so love."
"That's right," Anna replied hesitantly. "Are you okay with that?"
She was too close to sealing the deal to see it fall apart now over the prospect of some outside repairs.
"Sure – I like being outdoors every chance I get."
"That's great! So I guess we've covered everything."
"Oh – and just more thing," Ralph casually added. "I prefer to not wear clothes when I'm working in the yard. I'm a big believer of being one with nature." He scanned the tree-lined perimeter encasing the house. "But it looks like you're pretty secluded here, so I don't think anyone will see."
Anna forcibly closed her gaping mouth. "Well, um, I will be able to see since I actually live here."
"Would you really have an issue with that? I didn't peg you for the conservative type."
Anna's eyes reluctantly fell to the burgeoning stomach that strained against his belt, followed by the poof of wiry brownish-gray hair that spilled out of the collar of his tee-shirt, and no doubt also made itself at home on his back.
She did her best to smile. "You know … I'm all for live and let live, but this is just a bit out of my league."
Ralph flashed a toothy grin. "The naked body is a beautiful thing."
It was getting harder to maintain her smile. "Yes, well … it can be." She gingerly extended her hand. "Thanks for coming by, and I'm sure you'll find a situation that makes you feel … you know … more comfortable in your own skin."
As he shook her hand a little too long and vigorously, Anna's only thought was how fast she could hightail it back into the house to slather her hands with antibacterial gel.
Twenty minutes later she was scanning the rundown interior of her house, wondering once again if she had made a huge mistake in buying a fixer-upper. She wasn't exactly a fixer – at least not when it came to hardcore home repair – and the situation was becoming anything but an upper. A knock on the front door interrupted her thoughts. Not expecting company, she opened it cautiously. "Hello?"
Her eyes were more than pleasantly surprised as they fell upon her unexpected visitor – all wide-shouldered, well-muscled, six-foot-one of him. Pale gray eyes locked onto her own, and even the red, slightly raised scar that ran several inches down from his right eyebrow did little to deter from his rugged good looks.
"Hi, I'm Caleb Brown. We talked on the phone yesterday and I know I was supposed to stop by later this afternoon, but I was in the area and figured I'd see if anyone was around. I hope that's okay."
After her earlier exchange with Ralph, anything would be an improvement. "Sure, come on in."
He scanned the living room interior, nodding despite bare sheetrock walls and a ceiling with peeling paint. "Definitely has potential."
"Glad you think so. It seems like with every day that I wake up to this mess, I start to wonder what the heck I was thinking when I decided to buy this place."
"You got a good deal on it, right?"
"Let's just say I got what I paid for."
"Then you'll be fine." His pale gray eyes looked away from the ceiling and met hers. She smiled and felt slightly uncomfortable when she realized he wasn't smiling back. Still, despite his considerable physical stature – and the fact that she really knew nothing about him – she didn't feel the least bit unsafe in his presence. It was more like he emanated a quiet intensity, and she could almost feel the weight of his energy.
"So are you from the area?" she asked.
She waited for more specifics, but none was forthcoming. "And you said you've done this kind of work before?"
He nodded. "My brother owns a high-end construction firm and I worked for him on my summer breaks back when I was in college."
The reference to college surprised Anna, if for no other reason than she wondered why he was back to seeking this line of work.
As if reading her quizzical expression, he added, "I've been away for a while since I joined the Marines and was sent over to Afghanistan."
"Oh …" Although Anna could now easily envision him as a soldier with his peak physical condition and closely cropped hair, the revelation still came as a surprise. Not to mention that an enrollment in college had somehow turned into a stint with the Marines.
"How long were you there?" she asked, careful to keep her questions as nonintrusive as possible.
"Three tours of duty – five years total."
Anna found herself uncharacteristically at a loss for words. She had read her share of news articles on the horrors that soldiers witnessed on a daily basis in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the high price that many paid – not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Still, Caleb seemed calm and collected, if not a bit guarded.
"How long have you been back?" she finally asked.
"About a month. I gave up my apartment when I was sent over for the third tour. No point in paying rent just so the cockroaches could have the place to themselves."
Anna grinned, relieved to the flicker of a smile finally cross his face.
"I've been staying with my brother since I got back, but I need to get to work and get busy again. Anymore time on his couch and I would be growing into the cushion."
Anna laughed. "Well, between the mess up here and finishing the basement into a work studio, there's plenty to keep you busy, that's for sure. So as I mentioned on the phone, in addition to weekly pay, the job includes free rent in the guesthouse out back. And don't worry – it's a recent addition to the property, so it's actually in much better shape than the house."
"I'm sure it will be fine."
"Well, I guess the only thing left is to officiall
"I can start today." His eager reply was tempered by a calm and even voice.
Anna smiled. "I'll take that as a 'yes'. Great – how about you take the day to get yourself settled into your new digs, and you can start tomorrow."
"Sounds like a plan."
"Oh – I should have mentioned this before, but I just started my own web design business, so I'll be working from home at least part of the time. I've been working out of my room upstairs until the studio is in place – you can just come and go as you need during the day and you won't even know I'm here."
He studied her quietly for several moments, then nodded. "Sure."
Once again, she found herself wondering what he was really thinking, but she was at a loss to read past his silent intensity. She only could be sure of thing – that the cliché of a "handsome stranger" was suddenly very real … and it was a stranger that she would be seeing quite a bit of in the weeks that lied ahead.
Caleb thanked Anna for showing him to the guesthouse, then waited for her to close the door on her way out before dropping his duffel bags to the ground. He viewed his new surroundings with silent approval, if not appreciation, for the freshly painted walls, tidy furnishings and country-ish décor that clearly indicated a woman's touch without going too far into frou-frou land. An attractive woman was the last thing on his mind when he showed up hoping to land this job, and yet there she was as she greeted him in the doorway with a slightly cautious but still warm smile. Even now, her light musk perfume still reverberated in his senses as his thoughts wandered to her lively hazel eyes and the thick, wavy chestnut hair that swept across her shoulders. He took a deep breath and shook his head as if doing so could dismantle five years of the death and destruction that had been constantly in his midst. It couldn't. The disturbing images had taken up residence in his head and refused to leave, no matter how hard he struggled to show them the door. But it was apparently a revolving door, since they always came back and he had come to realize that the worst thing he could do was to sit around idly so that these thoughts could haunt him even more.
He had so much to look forward to now that he was safely back – at least that's what his family and friends had been desperately trying to drum into his head. They had recognized the significant change in his personality that was especially noticeable when he returned from his second deployment. Gone was the easygoing prankster who could find humor in just about any situation. That had died somewhere back on the Afghanistan desert, somewhere between the surreal horror of watching his comrades violently perish before his eyes – and several in his arms – to the Afghan children who viewed him through lifeless stares, their innocence yet another casualty of the war. Everyone kept telling him how he needed to focus on the fact that he was still alive … that he had been to hell and back and somehow managed to not only survive, but to do so with his body still fully intact. He knew they meant well, but they didn't understand – they couldn't understand – the thoughts that tortured him day and night. Yes, he was alive … but if dying meant that he could have saved one more fellow soldier and friend, then he would have gladly traded places. Instead, someone had put his safety first in the heat of battle and paid the ultimate price.
Caleb plunked down in a white wicker chair, its frame loudly cracking under the weight of his solidly rugged body. Its purpose was probably more for decoration than practical furniture, but it was the closest place to plant himself at the moment, and he simply needed to sit down. To say that his world had changed 360 degrees since Afghanistan was an understatement. Looking back, he felt as though he had glided through life prior to the war, sailing through the days on automatic pilot as everything came and went with ease. Sure, he had his share of crappy moments and disappointments just like everyone else, but they came and went without leaving a permanent mark on the simple actions that comprised the course of a day. But now, even the slightest task seemed an effort that was weighed down in blackness. Grabbing a morning cup of coffee at the local convenience store? It used to be an almost comforting ritual that kept him connected to routine, an expectation that the coffee would be hot and cost a couple of bucks and the caffeine would give him a bit of a much-needed morning jolt. And now? The coffee – the ritual – had no ongoing connection to anything. That was the best way he could describe it to himself. He had experienced the entire concept of "life" being altered in an instance on an almost daily basis, and now nothing felt concrete or real anymore. Even getting that damn cup of coffee triggered a knot in his stomach, yet he pushed himself to the convenience store each morning in the hope that one day a feeling of normalcy would suddenly return. Sometimes he felt he wasn't even in his own body as he handed over money to the cashier, almost as if he was watching a movie of himself as a detached observer.
Caleb looked up at the ceiling as he took a deep breath and slowly let it out, hoping it would sweep away some of the tightness in his chest and stomach. But the chokehold remained. He closed his eyes and searched deep within his psyche for happy and comforting thoughts. If he could just pull some from the past, back to when they actually existed, then maybe they could bring him to a better place now. But what disturbed him even more was the fact that actual feelings were no longer connected to these memories. He would force them to play out in his mind – riding a bike for the very first time, teenage adventures with friends, Christmas gatherings with family – and they no longer provoked a feeling of well-being, a notion that he was safe and all was right in the world. In fact, there was no feeling connected to them at all. And the more he grasped at feeling something that was no longer there, the more anxiety that flooded his being. It couldn't stay that way, he told himself. One day the feeling would return, like Novocain wearing off as the nerve endings tingled back to life.
And until then, he would have to hide his dilemma from others and do the best that he could to simply get through each day.
Anna twirled in front of her full-length bedroom mirror to check the hem of her flowered sundress, which fell just above her knees. Turning to face her reflection, she sighed as her shoulders heaved downward. Taking a few steps backwards, she flopped down on her bed next to a pile of dresses that had failed to make the cut. She was about to embark on her second dinner date with Steve Tyson, a nice enough guy who she had met at a mutual friend's cookout several weeks ago. Nice enough … but not exactly exciting enough. Anna wasn't looking for a relationship fired by drama, but as a big believer in chemistry, she was at the very least looking for a spark. And based on their pleasant-enough yet lackluster date – and the fact that she hadn't really thought about him since – she had already concluded the situation held little potential. Still, she agreed to a second date knowing that chemistry could sometimes kick in once two people got to know each other better. Sitting up, she lifted up her legs that dangled over the side of the bed, staring at her strappy white sandals in an effort to divert her thoughts elsewhere. Her focus settled on her shoes, but only for a moment as they continued to drift off with a clear destination in mind: Caleb. He was a virtual stranger – one that she had hired to remodel her home while residing on her property – but a stranger nonetheless. And yet … it was almost as if he hadn't quite left her thoughts since he first walked through her front door several days ago. There was no doubt that she found him physically attractive – make that very physically attractive – but there was definitely something more to it. She knew that behind the strong and quiet outer visage, there was a soldier who had witnessed events too horrendous for words, a man struggling to make the transition from hell on earth to the "normalcy" of being back home. And something told her the situation felt anything but normal to him right now. Anna's thoughts were momentarily interrupted as Merlin, her gray tiger cat, jumped up on the bed, rubbing his face against her arm in a plea for affection. She gladly obliged, scratching the top of his head and finding comfort as she always did in the rhythmic drone of his contented purr.
Grabbing a white knit sweater and her purse, she headed into the living room. Caleb looked up from where he had been kneeling by his toolbox, dropping a wrench inside at precisely the same moment that Anna nearly skidded to halt just several feet away.
"Oh – I'm sorry! I didn't realize you were still working."
He stood up, her eyes rising with him and liking very much what they saw.
"It's your house. No need to apologize."
"You do realize that I don't expect you to work around the clock, right?"
It took a few moments, but he managed to smile. "I actually packed up my tools a half hour ago, but then I realized I left some in this room." He nodded towards the three-inch heels of her sandals. "I wouldn't want you tripping on a screwdriver or anything."
She smiled, almost relieved to see a slight grin cross his face as his eyes met hers with surprising ease. "By the way, there are some lawn chairs and a fire pit out back, so feel free to use them if you'd like."
"Well, I'm heading out for a bit," she said, trying unsuccessfully to hide the awkwardness in her voice.
"I'll lock the door behind me," he added as he nodded towards the entrance that opened into the backyard. He paused, then turned back to her. "You know you should always keep your doors locked, right?"
Initially taken aback, Anna softened at the realization that his comment was merely a safety precaution. "Yes – of course. I left them unlocked today so you could go in and out whenever you needed."
"Good. You never know who or what's lurking around the corner, even in a quiet area like this."
"You're right. Well … enjoy the evening."