By Geri Krotow
Copyright © 2013 by Harlequin Books S.A.
Val didn’t speak for several strides, and Lucas sent her a quick look to see if she was tearing up.
“Needless to say, Chet left almost everything to his wife and my nephews, but he also left me a sizable chunk of cash. It was totally unexpected and I planned on giving it to my sister-in-law and the kids. She persuaded me not to, said they were more than taken care of, thanks to Chet’s smart financial planning and preparation for the worst.”
They were near the crest of the run, the highest point on the tiny island. She slowed her pace to a walk and he did the same.
“I was so proud of him. A career in the Army isn’t what I would’ve picked for him, especially considering our family background, but it was his calling.”
Val’s profile against the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest was an artist’s dream. Her soft curves contrasted with the harsh contours of the wind-eroded cliffs behind her. Lucas wanted to reach out and embrace her, but he simply let her tell her story.
“I had horrible nightmares the first six months after Chet was killed. He was on the battlefield, and I couldn’t stop thinking about his suffering, his blood soaking into the desert sand.”
“It was awful, that whole first year. I stayed with Chet’s widow, Erin, and my nephews, to help her out. Since I was looking for a change but didn’t know which direction to take, and I’m single, it made sense for me to move in with them. I’d been living in Seattle for ten years, and Chet was stationed at Fort Lewis, a short drive away. Erin’s family is on the east coast and she didn’t want to relocate the boys right away. Now she’s even thinking of buying a place on Whidbey Island.”
Val flashed him a grin. “She’s a schoolteacher, and kept her job in the same elementary school the kids attend. But the boys are getting older, and she’s ready for something different.”
“Like you were.” Like he was.
“How did you find this place?” He was impressed by how much she’d accomplished in such a short time.
“I came here on a trip with my boyfriend, Bob. It was supposed be a fun weekend, a chance to rekindle our relationship after I’d spent so much time with Erin and the kids, after Chet’s death.” She shook her head as if shaking off bad memories.
“It turned into our break-up fight. But that’s all ancient history. It happened more than two years ago.” She turned toward Lucas. “Something good came out of it, though, because I went for a run and ended up here, in this very spot. And after some serious thought and meditation, I concluded that this would be the perfect place for families to heal. Even with my soon-to-be-ex sleeping in the resort a few miles away, I’d been able to find peace, serenity, in these surroundings. I knew it was where I could start my life over.”
She laughed. “Pretty naive of me, wasn’t it? It sounds crazy, but I had a gut feeling that I had to be here, to live here, to stay here. So I did. Bob packed up and left by himself after our disaster of a weekend, and I stayed behind for two weeks. I scoured this island and several nearby. The old abandoned family hotel I finally bought was the best option and the most financially feasible for me.”
“I know what you mean,” Luke said, nodding. “The best things in my life have happened when I’m not trying too hard. Like finding this job on the same day I’d had a rough time at work in DC. I thought it’d cheer me up to see all the other jobs I could apply for, knowing none would be as good as what I had at Walter Reed. Until I read I’d be in ‘God’s Country’ for six months, making a difference to Gold Star families.”
She laughed again. “I put that ad out there on impulse. I’ve usually hired all my other counselors locally.”
“Are you still in touch with him?”
“With whom? Oh, you mean Bob?” She shook her head. “No, not at all. We were together because it was convenient for both of us. That’s the sad truth of it. He never wanted me to move out here and I decided I didn’t want to move back to Seattle. You could say I had an epiphany while I was living with my sister-in-law.”
“I can see why you fell in love with this area.”
“Even after your horrible ferry crossing?”
Lucas groaned. “Don’t remind me. But yes, even after that. It seems like a lifetime ago, and it was only last month.”
“This place does that with time. No sense of hurry, yet so much more seems to get done.” She gave him a shy grin. “I’m scaring you, aren’t I? You’re wondering exactly what you signed on for?”
They both laughed.
He watched her face, her exquisite smile, and marveled at the lovely ring of her laughter as they stood in the morning mist that clung in wisps about the cliff’s edge.
Had he died and was this heaven?