For Love and Honor

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Chapter 1

When you grew up in a town the size of a flea circus anonymity became impossible.

There hadn’t been a chance in hell he could have slipped back in unnoticed. As an Army Ranger, Lieutenant Aiden Marshall had been to some of the most hellish corners on earth and no one had been the wiser. Except for maybe the enemy. Yet the moment he’d cranked the key in the ignition of his old pickup, it seemed the entire population of Sweet, Texas, had heard the engine catch.

Today he’d traded his fatigues for an old T-shirt and Levis, but the dog tags pressed against his heart verified he’d be a soldier until the day they put him in the earth.

He was damned lucky he wasn’t already there.

As he drove the winding road through pastures where longhorns grazed, he did not take for granted the faded yellow ribbons hugging the trunks of the large oaks that bordered the road. Those ribbons had been placed there for him and two of his best buddies. They’d all enlisted the same day. Survived boot camp and Ranger training together. Hit the sands of Afghanistan as one. Fought side-by-side.

He’d been the only one to make it home.

In the trenches they’d added one more friend to their unit. One more who’d proven faithful and trustworthy. One who’d offered comfort on dark nights and lonely days.

One more Aiden had to leave behind.

The pressure in his chest tightened as he lifted his hand in a wave to the group of seniors in jogging shoes waiting to cross the road. On the way to his destination, he could not ignore the joy on the faces of those who waved or shouted “welcome back” as he passed by. Those in his community knew none of the anguish that kept him awake night after night. They were just happy he had made it home.

His hometown had been hit hard by the loss of two upstanding soldiers, men who’d been his brothers in arms. Men he’d been honored to serve with. As a survivor, he felt none of the joy and all of the guilt. The hardest thing he’d had to face upon his return was the visits he’d paid to those heroes families. Looking them in the eye and expressing his sorrow for their loss when so much of it had been caused by his own miscalculations. Yet they’d taken him into their arms, offering him consolation he did not deserve. The thought still took his breath away.

On Main Street, beneath the old water tower where local businesses displayed patriotic signs and the flagpole in Town Square flew a pristine stars and stripes, Aiden eased his truck into the gravel lot beside Bud’s Nothing Finer Diner. Over the years the good people of Sweet had tried their best to make the town appeal to tourists. The apple orchards–like the one his family owned–had blossomed into bed and breakfasts, art galleries, antique shops, and wine rooms. Judging by the near empty streets, the place still had a long way to go.

In a space near the door he cut the truck’s engine, leaned back in the seat, and inhaled the aroma of chicken fried steak that floated in through the window on the warm summer breeze. Bud’s Diner was little more than a yellow concrete box, but since the day Aiden had been old enough to sit at the counter, he’d enjoyed extra thick milkshakes and homemade eats that made his mouth water. Even when he’d been halfway across the world. Bud’s was the first place the town folk gathered to mourn, celebrate, or discuss local politics.

He snatched the keys from the ignition and opened the door. Through six tours and countless missions in the Middle East, his mouth had watered for a slice of home. He was about to get his wish.

The bell above the door announced his arrival to the farmers and community members who huddled inside around tables nicked and scarred by years of diners with eager appetites. Marv Woodrow, a World War II Vet, stood on feeble legs and gave him a salute. Bill McBride, a Vietnam Vet, stood and gave him a one-armed hug and a fist bump. The rest also welcomed him home as he made his way to the counter. He graciously accepted their warm reception, though the soldier and friend inside of him rebelled.

Why was he still here when his friends were not?

He glanced around the diner at the wood-paneled walls and the Don’t Mess with Texas decor. As wonderful as the greetings had been, there was one welcome he’d looked forward to the most. Even though he wouldn’t enjoy giving her the news he had to share.

Back in the kitchen a good-natured argument surfaced.

“Pick up your own danged pickles, Bud. I’ve got my hands full of Arlene’s sweet potato fries, a buffalo burger, and Walter’s patty melt.”

“But the pickles are burnin’ in the fryer, girl.”

A feminine sigh of exasperation lifted above the lunchtime chatter and forks clanging on plates. At the sound, the tightness in Aiden’s chest eased and a rare smile pushed at the corners of his mouth. Before he could breathe, the owner of that sassy tone marched out of the kitchen.

“Here’s your melt, Walter.” She set an overflowing plate down in front of the old guy at the end of the counter. “Don’t be surprised if that hunk of meat finds its way back to the cow before Bud gets movin’ back there.”

Aiden picked up the plastic-coated menu he could recite blindfolded and watched her work. Quick hands. Sweet smile. Thick honey-colored hair pulled up into a ponytail that swung across her back. A pair of jeans hugged her slender thighs. A yellow Bud’s Diner T-shirt molded to her full breasts and small waist.

Good thing he was sitting down because his lower half was definitely standing at attention.

She swiped a towel over a newly vacated seat near the end of the counter. Catching a glimpse of a new customer from the corner of her eye she drawled, “I’ll be right with ya, darlin’.”

Two seconds later she set down the towel, pulled her order pad from the pocket of her apron, and made her way toward his end of the counter.

“What can I . . .” Pencil poised, her blue eyes lifted and that beautiful, plump mouth slid into a warm smile. “You’re back,” she said in a slow whisper.

A quick heartbeat passed while her gaze ate him up.

Then before he could blink, she launched herself into his arms.

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