A Love From the Heartland Novel / Perfect, Indiana #2
April 23, 2013
Available in: Audio, e-Book, Trade Size
The Difference a Day Makes
Paige Langford has it all: wealth, beauty, and ambition. But when her boyfriend’s betrayal costs both her dream job and her reputation, she retreats to her brother’s rural home in Indiana to heal and figure out the rest of her life. There she meets Ryan Malloy, a gruff, hard-drinking cowboy whose surly temper can’t hide the anguish in his eyes.
Ryan Malloy has lost it all. Haunted by war and a lost love, he’s living on the edge and seeking solace in a bottle. But a job offer from his former commander provides a glimmer of hope, and a second chance for the future.
Paige has never encountered a brooding bad boy like Ryan, yet he might be exactly what she needs. Ryan, the man who thought he had nothing left to live for, is tempted to risk his battered heart one with Paige one last time.
Chapter 1 excerpt
“Hi, honey. I’m home.” Ryan’s voice reverberated through the stillness, bounced off the bare walls and came back to mock him. He set his lunchbox on the kitchen counter and leaned over to retrieve his supper from under the sink—a brand new bottle of Johnny Walker Red.
Gripping the bottle by the neck, he moved to the living room and set it on the coffee table next to his vintage .357 revolver, the letter he’d written to his folks, and the picture of his platoon, Task Force Iron, 1st Armored Division, 4th Brigade. One more item, and he could begin his nightly ritual. He retrieved the snapshot of Theresa from his billfold, laid it down and took his place on the couch.
Letter. Pictures. Gun. Bottle.
Theresa. Reaching out, he traced the laminated photo with his finger. His throat tightened. God, he missed her. How different his life would be if he hadn’t insisted they go riding that morning five years ago. He’d be coming home every evening from some swank advertising agency job. They’d have a couple of kids by now. A family. His family. He’d be surrounded by love instead of this soul-sucking loneliness.
Ah, but he wasn’t entirely alone, not if the hollow-eyed ghosts plaguing him counted. He closed his eyes, and images from the suicide bombing near Mosul played across his shattered mind.
“Jackson, radio ahead and have Staff Sergeant Reilly pick up the pace,” Lieutenant Langford ordered. “If the civilian truck gets too close, we’ll fire a few rounds into the ground to warn them off. You hear that, Gunny?” the lieutenant called over his shoulder.
“Yes, sir,” Ryan shouted down from his place in the artillery turret.
Yeah, he’d heard all right. He should’ve aimed the M240B machine gun straight into the payload before the truck got anywhere near their platoon. If he had, the IEDs would’ve detonated in the desert instead of in the middle of their convoy. Five soldiers died. Soldiers whose backs he’d sworn to protect.
Familiar sensations gripped him. Sweat beaded his brow, and dread banded his chest until he couldn’t draw breath. Powerless to stop it, he rode the wave of internal chaos, helpless to keep from being pulled under.
“Blow the suckers out of the sand! Shoot to kill. Shoot to kill,” Lieutenant Langford shouted.
Ryan opened fire, sending a flurry of metal casings raining down on their Humvee. Too damned little too damned late. The truck detonated, plunging them into the fires of hell, turning the insurgents into pink mist.
Their Humvee lifted and flipped. Jettisoned out of the turret, Ryan flew through the air amidst the flaming debris and super-heated particles of sand. Bones snapped and cracked on impact. Fire burned through his uniform. He rolled in the sand to put it out and tried to curl in on himself to protect his head. Unimaginable pain assaulted every inch of his broken body.
Seconds passed. Pain-filled, life-altering seconds of mayhem followed by the moans and screams of the injured and dying. Choking on the smell of burning plastic and the acrid stench of singed hair and flesh—was it his?—he opened his eyes to survey the damage.
His best buddy lay in pieces not three feet from him. The back of his skull had been blown away, along with most of his left side. Jackson’s eyes were open, empty and lifeless—an expression of shock permanently etched on what remained of his face.
Ryan forced himself onto his side to vomit into the sand. Another mistake. Grit thrown by the desert wind peppered his raw, exposed burns. The edges of his vision darkened. The blackness spread, and the nightmare around him faded.
Pressing his fists into his eye sockets, he tried to dislodge the memories eroding his psyche. Jackson had a wife and kid to get home to. His best friend had not deserved to die like that. No one deserved to die like that. The familiar vise-like guilt squeezed the air from his lungs, and rage roiled through him. Why did I survive?
He glanced at the table, drawn by the picture of his platoon. There he was, wearing his desert fatigues, all his gear and a stupid grin. Jackson stood beside him, his arm slung around Ryan’s shoulders. He should’ve lived, not me.
Sweaty and shaking, Ryan sucked in a breath through his clenched teeth, lifted the pistol and checked to see that it still held a single bullet. He undid the safety and spun the chamber. Carefully, he set the gun back in its proper place and hoisted the bottle. Up till now he hadn’t had the balls to end his miserable non-existence. Not once had he even come close to pulling the trigger.
“Cheers.” He unscrewed the cap, lifted the bottle in a toast to the fallen, to Theresa, and took a long pull. Leaning back on the couch, he stared at the ceiling. A few more drinks, and he’d do it. Tonight he’d end the pain once and for all. He took another drink and lifted the gun. The cold metallic weight promised instant, irrevocable relief.
The handle resting in his palm warmed. Taking another swig, Ryan savored the heat going down his throat and waited for J.W. to do his part. It didn’t take long before the alcohol dulled the screaming in his brain to a manageable decibel. He brought the gun to his mouth—so close he could smell the tang of gun oil on steel. It took several long seconds before he managed to get his lips apart to place the barrel against his palate. It needed to be positioned just right, or with his luck, he’d live. Not acceptable.
Ryan took a deep, slow breath and held it. Ever so slowly he cocked the hammer with his thumb and curled his finger around the trigger. He blinked against the tears running down his face. When had he started crying? Hell, this was a new twist. It had to mean something, right?
Yes. An uncharacteristic calm and determination steadied his trembling hand. It meant tonight was the night he’d find peace at last. He put pressure on the trigger.
The wall mounted phone next to the kitchenette started to ring.
Pulling the gun out of his mouth, he closed his eyes and willed the interruption away. His heart pounded, and his breathing came in short gasps that did little to fill his lungs. The phone kept ringing and ringing. He took another drink.
If it was his mom, he didn’t want to talk to her, or his dad, brothers or sister for that matter. He hadn’t had much contact with his family since Theresa’s accident. The ringing stopped. Finally. But his momentum had been disturbed, and he had to start over. He reached for liquid courage. One, two, three swallows.
Once again he brought the gun up to the roof of his mouth and wrapped his finger around the trigger. Closing his eyes, he tried to picture Theresa and started the slow pull toward oblivion.
The phone rang again.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Ryan slammed the gun down on the table and leapt up from the couch on unsteady legs. He was tempted to rip the thing off the wall, but when he reached for it, something inside, some spark of morbid curiosity, had him lifting the receiver instead. He never got calls. Bringing the hand piece to his ear, Ryan struggled to get his breathing under control. “Hello.”
“Gunny Malloy? Is that you?”
Adrenaline surged through his bloodstream. The room began to spin, and he had to lean against the wall to stay upright. “Lieutenant Langford?” Ryan’s eyes shot to the photo on his coffee table. No fucking way.
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me. You were a hard man to track down, buddy. I thought you moved back home to Oklahoma once we got out of the VA hospital.”
“Naw, nothing for me there.” He had to swallow hard a few times before trusting his voice to sound normal. “I…I need to…” His eyes darted around his apartment in a frantic search for something that would buy him time to pull himself together. “Can you hold on for just a minute? I have something on the stove.”
“Sure, I’ll hold.”
Ryan placed the receiver on the counter and made some noise with his lunchbox. Why not? It was metal. He gripped the edge of the counter, closed his eyes tight and leaned over. You can do this, soldier. Front. Come across like everything is all right. Isn’t that what he did every day of his miserable life? He fronted at work, at the grocery store. He even pretended he wasn’t really checking out all the rooftops in town for insurgents. Pretending had become his normal.
Ryan gritted his teeth, straightened and picked up the phone. “Hey, Lieutenant, it’s good to hear your voice.” He raked a shaky hand through his too long hair, “Where’d you end up, anyway? Last I heard you were on a mission to find your stepbrother’s kid. How’d that work out?” Laughter filled Ryan’s ear, and an unidentifiable emotion ricocheted through him. Jealousy? Hope?
No. Not hope.
“It worked out really well.” Noah chuckled again. “I adopted my stepbrother’s daughter and married her mother. We have a little boy now, too, but I want to hear about you. What are you up to?”
“I’m back at the same place in Texas I worked before I enlisted.”
“Yep, pre-fab.” Dead-end boring. “I go by Ryan now. Gunny is…it reminds me of…”
“I understand. Listen, are you happy working for that cabinet place?”
“No, but I’m not happy in general.” He swallowed hard. “Man, it’s been a while, hasn’t it Lieutenant?” He had a white-knuckled grip on the phone, as if holding on that hard might save him somehow.
“Yeah…yeah it has…I don’t go by Lieutenant anymore either. How about we start all over as a couple of civilians? Ryan for you. Noah for me.”
“Deal.” Ryan had to blink hard against the emotions swirling through him. Hearing the lieutenant’s voice brought it all back—the good times, the bad—the worst. “Where’re you living now? What are you up to? I know you never went back to Philly, because I tried to find you a year or so back.”
“That’s why I called. I live in Perfect, Indiana, not too far from Evansville. A couple of years ago me and my wife’s cousin started a custom furniture company. We sell mostly over the Internet. The business has been growing faster than we anticipated.”
“OK. That’s good, right?” Where was Noah going with this, and what did it have to do with him?
“We recently took over a building in town. It used to be a general store or something. There are two stories above the storefront. We have a showroom, production space and offices.”
“Sounds like you’re doing great.”
“We are, and we need help.”
Ryan frowned. “Shouldn’t be hard to come by in this economy.”
“Probably not, but I have a new mission.”
“Well of course you do. You haven’t changed much.” Rusty laughter grated its way out of Ryan’s throat. He remembered every time he’d heard those same words come from his commanding officer’s mouth. Sometimes his missions involved getting his hands on some kind of hooch, so they could all get plowed. “I’ll bite. What’s your new mission?”
“I’m only going to hire veterans.”
“To do what?”
“Right now I need someone with a graphic arts and design background, and preferably someone who has experience working with wood. I need help with the website, advertising, processing orders—that kind of stuff. Someone who can jump into production when needed would be nice. Naturally, you came to mind. I remember you saying you have a B.F.A. or something to do with graphic design. I also remembered you worked as a cabinetmaker.”
“M.F.A. I have a masters.” Ryan rubbed his forehead and tried hard to wrap his head around where the conversation had taken them. “So…let me get this straight. Are you offering me a job?”
“I am. We can’t pay you a huge amount of money right now, but there’s room to expand. You can make something out of this, Ryan. It’s an opportunity to grow with Langford & Lovejoy Heritage Furniture.”
Ryan’s heart thundered so hard his ears rang, and his legs gave out. He slid down the wall until his ass hit the floor, and the phone cord stretched to its limit. “No shit?”
“No shit. You interested?”
“Hell, yes.” He hadn’t done anything creative since Theresa died, hadn’t even wanted to. Back then, he’d just wanted to blow things up, aim a gun at something and shoot away the pain eating away at him from the inside out. Did he even have it in him to be creative anymore? He didn’t know.
“Like I said, we can’t pay much. We’ve put most of our profit into this recent expansion. But my wife and I have a carriage house on our property. I can offer it to you for dirt cheap. It’s completely furnished.”
“I don’t care about the money. As long as I have a roof over my head, I’ll be fine.” Ryan ran his free hand over his beard. “It’s been…It’s been hell. At least working with you I’ll be with someone who gets it…someone who was there.” He harbored no illusions. It would be great to work with the lieutenant again, but it wouldn’t make a difference. He’d strayed way too far into unfixable territory to expect miracles.
“Exactly. You get the mission. If we hire only vets, we can help each other through the tough spots. How soon can you start?”
“Give me a couple of weeks to settle things here.”
“Great. You have an e-mail address? I’ll send you the details and directions to Perfect.”
He rattled off his information, and the lieutenant hung up. Still sitting on the floor, Ryan stretched his legs out and leaned his head back against the wall. He started to laugh, cry and shake all at once. One minute he’d been pulling the trigger, and the next he’d accepted a new job in a different state. The emotional shift left him weak and wobbly as a newborn foal.
It took about twenty minutes before any semblance of control returned to his limbs. Ryan pushed himself up to standing, put the phone’s receiver back and turned to face the coffee table.
Letter. Pictures. Gun. Bottle.
Curious, he moved toward the table and hefted the gun. What would’ve happened? Would he have hit an empty chamber, or…? He aimed the pistol at his couch and pulled the trigger. The single bullet exploded through the barrel, burning a black hole through the cushion. A tidal-wave of shock slammed into his gut. The gun fell from his hand, thudding to the carpet a full two seconds before he lost his legs again and landed on his knees right next to the discharged .357.
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