A Cowboy's Homecoming
Since his return to Little Horn, Texas, former special ops soldier Grady Stillwater has felt lost. Stillwater Ranch needs his attention—and so does his brother's abandoned baby. But the injuries Grady sustained in Afghanistan have skewered his confidence. Physical therapist Chloe Miner offers hope and guidance—and a balm for the cowboy's wounded heart. Little does he know that Chloe is hiding a life-altering secret of her own. The sweet girl he remembers from high school has a baby on the way, and she may need Grady every bit as much as he does her...
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Carolyne Aarsen lives in Northern Alberta where she was born, raised and married and has raised four children and numerous foster children. Carolyne's writing has been honed between being a stay-at-home mother, housewife, gardener, crafter columnist and business partner with her husband in their cattle farm and logging business. Writing for Love Inspired has given her the chance to combine her love of romance writing with her love for the Lord.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The hospital room felt suddenly too small.
Chloe clutched the chart of her patient, Ben Stillwater, as his twin brother, Grady, limped through the doorway of Ben's room. In spite of the single crutch supporting him, Grady's presence filled the space.
He stood taller than she remembered. Broader across the shoulders. His eyes had taken on a flat look, though, all emotion leeched out of them; lines of weariness bracketed his mouth. It was as if his time serving in special ops in Afghanistan had shown him sights he wanted to forget.
"Hello, Chloe," he said. His chocolate-brown eyes, shaded by dark eyebrows, drew her in as his eyes shifted to her left hand. Chloe unconsciously flexed her fingers. Though her divorce from Jeremy had been finalized a mere four months ago, Chloe had removed her ring eight months before when she'd discovered Jeremy had been cheating on her.
"A lot of things have happened since you went away from Little Horn," she said, setting Ben's chart aside, then covering his legs with a sheet. He looked so pale compared to his twin brother, who now joined her at the foot of the bed.
She had come into Ben Stillwater's hospital room hoping to do some physical therapy with him. But for the moment, all thoughts of her patient fled as the man who had once held her heart came to stand by her side.
"I know. My cousin Eva getting married, among many other things," he said.
All of Little Horn had buzzed with the news of the injured vet's return from Afghanistan two days ago, the day after the New Year had been rung in, the day of his cousin's wedding.
Eva Stillwater and Tyler Grainger had been engaged since Thanksgiving, but they had surprised everyone by announcing that they'd decided to get married as soon as her cousin Grady could come home.
"I heard it was a lovely ceremony," Chloe said. "I'm happy for them."
"Me, too. I think they wanted to start adoption procedures as soon as possible. That's why she stepped up the date." He held her gaze. "It's good to see you again."
Chloe gave him a tight smile, disturbed at how easily old emotions had intruded. She'd known she would run into him eventually. She just wished she could have had some advance notice.
So you could have put on some makeup? Do your hair?
You 're a divorced woman and he's a war vet with an unexpected child, she reminded herself. And you have other complications. Too tangled.
Besides, she had promised herself when she discovered Jeremy's cheating that no man would hold her heart again. No man would make her feel vulnerable.
"I'm sorry. I'll leave you alone to spend time with your brother," she said, moving past Grady only to come face-to-face with her stepsister.
"Hello again, sister of mine," Vanessa Vane said, tossing her red hair, her bright smile showing off thousands of dollars' worth of dental work and a puzzling nervousness. Vanessa had never been one to show anything but overweening self-confidence.
Last month she had waltzed into Little Horn, crashing the Lone Star Cowboy League's annual Christmas party and laying claim to Cody, the baby who had been dropped off at the Stillwater ranch four months earlier. Vanessa had cried crocodile tears, telling anyone who would listen how badly she felt about abandoning Cody at that time. She should have owned up that Grady was the father and stayed around.
But she was back now and wasn't that great?
For Chloe, not so much. Vanessa's redheaded viva-ciousness was a bright contrast to Chloe's wavy brown hair and calm demeanor. And whenever Vanessa saw Chloe she liked to remind her of those differences, as well as the deficiencies of Chloe's now-deceased father, Vanessa's stepfather.
"Hello, Vanessa. How's Cody doing?" Chloe asked.
Though Chloe had heard Grady and Vanessa were an item a year ago, seeing Cody, the physical evidence of their relationship, created a surprising and unwelcome heartache.
"He's great. Such a sweetie." Vanessa smiled up at Grady, batting her eyelashes.
Grady's own eyes narrowed and he didn't return her smile, which surprised Chloe. Vanessa's expression grew taut as she looked from Grady to Chloe again, and her auburn hair glistened in the lights of the hospital room. "Isn't my baby adorable?"
"He is," Chloe agreed, wishing she could be less inane. More sparkly and interesting. Like her sister.
Every time Vanessa came into a room, eyes were drawn to her; men took a second look at her long red hair, slim figure and vivacious personality.
"Can you give me any information about my brother, Chloe?" Grady's resonant voice broke in over Vanessa's prattling. His eyes, deep set and dark, held hers in a steady gaze, resurrecting old feelings she couldn't allow. "Do you know when he'll come out of it? Do you know if there will be any long-term damage?"
"Don't be silly, Grady," Vanessa put in, walking past him to stand beside Ben's bed. "Chloe can't tell you anything about your brother. She's only the physical therapist."
Chloe ignored Vanessa, unconsciously tucking back a strand of hair that had freed itself from her ponytail. "The only thing I can tell you is that he will experience some measure of muscle atrophy, given how long he's been in a coma." Chloe put on her professional voice, trying not to let Vanessa's patronizing attitude get to her. "The range-of-motion exercises we perform on him will help maintain as much of his muscle tone as possible and at the same time prevent sensory deprivation."
"Ooh. Long words," Vanessa said, the joking tone in her voice negated by her flinty look. "Still trying to impress Grady? I wouldn't bother."
"Do you know anything about the coma?" Grady continued, obviously ignoring Vanessa. "At all?"
Chloe heard the hurt and fear behind his questions. She guessed the bond identical twins often shared made him more anxious.
"I only know what you know," she said. "The fall from the horse was the root cause, but there have been no other internal injuries that we can ascertain, no brain injury. No hematomas." She stopped herself there. As Vanessa had said, she wasn't a doctor. "You'll have to speak with his doctor to find out more."
"Thanks for that information at least," Grady said, his smile holding a warmth that could still make her toes curl.
"You're welcome," she said, trying to convey a more brisk and professional tone. "We hope and pray he will come out of it. That's all we can do."
"I'll take care of the hoping and leave the praying to those more capable." The bitterness in Grady's voice made Chloe wonder again about his war experiences overseas and what they had done to his once rock-solid faith.
"How long are you back for?" Chloe asked, holding up her head, determined not to let the effect he had on her show.
"For good. I got an honorable discharge from the army. I'm home."
She forced herself not to look at the crutch he leaned on to support himself.
"We can all be so thankful Grady made it back from Afghanistan. And a hero to boot," Vanessa said, the edges of her lips growing tighter, as if she had to work to maintain her vivacity.
Each word she spoke felt like a tiny lash. Her stepsister had known Chloe had a crush on Grady when they were in high school. In fact, once Vanessa had discovered this, she'd made an all-out attempt to charm and captivate Grady just to spite her. Chloe, a tomboy at heart, had known she couldn't compete with her glamorous stepsister, so she'd given up on that dream.
Given that Vanessa claimed to be the mother of Grady's supposed baby, Chloe could only reason Vanessa still held some attraction for him.
"I still can't get over how much Grady and Ben look alike." Vanessa gave Chloe an arched look as she fiddled with the sheets draped over Ben's body.
"They do look similar," Chloe murmured, trying to find an opportunity to make her escape while her stepsister chattered away.
"Similar? They are like two peas in a pod," Vanessa said, her narrowed gaze flicking from Ben to Grady. "If it weren't for Ben being flat on his back, you'd never know the difference. And did you know that twins have identical DNA?" she asked, turning to the cards on the windowsill.
And why did Vanessa think she needed to impart that particular piece of information?
"I'll leave you to visit with your brother," Chloe said, taking another step toward the door.
To her surprise and shock, Grady touched her arm, as if trying to make a connection. "It's good to see you," Grady said, lowering his voice. His eyes held hers.
Unable to look away, Chloe felt her heart quicken. Then a faint queasiness gripped her. Vanessa called out again and she dismissed the emotion as quickly as it came.
Vanessa claimed that Grady was the father of her child.
And Chloe had enough problems of her own.
Chloe's reaction to his wound still stung.
Grady fitted his crutch under his arm and made his way over the snow-covered sidewalk to the ranch house. The chill January wind biting into his face promised bitter weather to come and seemed to sum up how he felt. Vanessa had driven him in her car to the hospital. Grandma Mamie's car and Ben's truck filled the garage, which meant they had to park it outside.
All the way home he replayed that moment when he'd stepped into his brother's hospital room. He would have had to be blind not to have seen Chloe recoil from him.
Not that he blamed her. A crippled soldier and, according to Vanessa, the father of a child born out of wedlock. A child from her own stepsister.
Grady knew Cody wasn't his, and though part of him wanted to tell Chloe, he knew it was neither the time nor place; he wasn't even sure if it mattered to her. He was still frustrated at how glibly the lies had tripped off Vanessa's tongue when she had confronted him at the ranch, Cody in her arms. He had come directly here once he was discharged and the first person he'd met at the ranch house had been Vanessa.
She had unleashed a stream of innuendo and falsehoods about how she and Grady had been intimate at a party that he and Ben had attended. Initially she had said he was too drunk to remember, but Grady wasn't a drinker. Nor was he the kind of guy who slept around. At all. But the DNA test had shown Cody was a Stillwater, so Grady guessed, given his brother's wild living, Ben had fathered the child at that party.
When he'd confronted Vanessa with that information she had conceded that maybe she'd had a bit too much to drink herself and quickly claimed it must have been Ben. The trouble was, though he had made it very clear to Vanessa that he wasn't Cody's father nor was he interested in her, she still flirted with him. It annoyed him and even though he didn't encourage it, he could only guess how the situation looked to Chloe. Not exactly the hero he had hoped he would return from the war as.
Injured, with the whiff of scandal surrounding him and his family.
Precisely the thing he had left Little Horn to escape after his father's debilitating injury had sent his mother away, unable to live with a crippled man. The shame of his mother's defection and subsequent divorce had caused Grady to join the army, looking for discipline and meaning to his life. It had sent Ben on a path of hedonism and self-indulgence. Their mother's death while traveling abroad hadn't helped matters, either.
It seemed both their lives had come full circle. Now he suffered from a life-changing injury that had cut short his army career and Ben lay in the hospital after being thrown from a horse. Both living echoes of their now-deceased father.
"Slow down, soldier," Vanessa called out as she got out of her car behind him. "Let me help you."
He tried not to cringe as he kept going, tucking his chin into his jacket against the cold, trying to banish the picture of Vanessa standing beside Chloe, their differences so obvious.
Chloe with her sweet, gentle smile. Vanessa with her overly loud voice and tactless attitude. He knew he shouldn't compare, but he couldn't help himself.
Vanessa hurried ahead of him as he struggled up the stairs to the covered veranda that wrapped around the Colonial-style house. "You know, I can never figure out which of these doors to use," she muttered as she grabbed the handle of one of the double doors. She pulled it open just as Grady came close, and the door connected with his leg.
He bit down on a cry as he stumbled, his crutch slipping out and away.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to hit you." Vanessa clutched his arm as he regained his balance, pain shooting up his leg and clouding his vision.
He rode it out, then shook off her hand, frustrated at his helplessness. "I'm okay. Please."
"I'm just trying to help you," she complained as he fitted his crutch back under his arm. "You don't need to get all huffy."
"Sorry," he said, unable to say more than that as he stumped into the entrance of the house. As Vanessa closed the door behind them, heat washed over him blended with the scent of supper baking and his frustration eased away.
He was home.
Beyond the foyer a fire crackled in the stone fireplace that was flanked by large leather couches. He wanted nothing more than to sink into their welcoming depths, close his eyes and forget everything that had happened to him the past few years. The war. The secret mission he and his team had been sent on and the hard consequences.
He just wanted to find the simple in life again.
But the sound of a baby crying upstairs broke the peace of the moment and reminded him of his obligations and how complicated his newly civilian life would be.
"Grady? Vanessa? Are you home?" his grandmother called out from somewhere in the house.
Vanessa sauntered past him to the living room, ignoring his grandmother's question.
Just as Grady shucked off his heavy winter coat, his grandmother came down the stairs toward him, carrying Cody, who was fussing and waving his chubby arms.
In spite of knowing Cody wasn't his, it wasn't hard to see the resemblance. The little boy's brown eyes and sandy hair were exact replicas of his and Ben's, and he looked identical to Grady and Ben when they were babies.
He could see how people might believe he was the father. That Chloe might believe he was bothered him more than he cared to admit.
"Is he okay?" Grady asked, hobbling over to his grandmother, the injury in his leg making itself known as he faltered.
"He's just fussy. Missing his mom, I think." Mamie Stillwater shot a meaningful glance over her shoulder at Vanessa, who was now lounging on the couch leafing through a magazine she had bought on their way back from the hospital.
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Book Description Love Inspired, 2015. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110373818823