An hour later, Evan closed the door to his room, wishing he could appreciate the understated luxury. High-vaulted ceilings made the room feel bigger than it was. The wide bay windows disappointed him—a gnarled old oak blocked his view of the mountains. Dead branches swayed gently in the evening wind. Snow coated the grey bark, creeping down the branches and dripping into the white mound below.
For a moment he was thrown back into a field soaked with blood, to another oak tree twisted with smoking metal and dusted with ash.
He wished he could blame the trembling disquiet inside him on Claire’s distracting presence, but he couldn’t. He’d be lying to himself if he tried. Giving himself a shake, he yanked the curtains closed. He needed to get another room. One where the trees didn’t spark such painful memories.
It wouldn’t help. The room wasn’t the problem.
It was this place—too many memories and not nearly enough sleep collided with a single resurrected ghost. Turning his back on the window, he walked into the bathroom. It felt tiny compared to the high ceilings of the main room, but it beat the hell out of the tin trailers he’d called home on his last deployment to Iraq. He washed his face and brushed his teeth, then ran his wet fingers through his hair. Hell, he was just happy to have running water.
Still, he couldn’t rein in the emotions churning in his gut. Panic? No, not by a long shot. But the feeling was so foreign and unsettling, he didn’t know what to call it. He felt . . . like the boy he’d been once upon a time. Like the kid who’d stood in his parents’ living room and listened to his mother’s heartbreaking sobs.
He stretched his arms over his head, easing the tendons and focusing on what he could control. The tight pull of muscles across his damaged shoulder forced him back to the present.
Just weeks before they’d been scheduled to come home from the latest deployment—and wasn’t that always the way?—their brigade tactical operations cell had been blown up and a freak piece of shrapnel had sliced across his upper back. Four months later, the wound had healed, leaving a jagged scar. It still ached if he didn’t take care of it.
Taking over a brigade readiness exercise with less than two weeks’ notice was going to limit his ability to take care of it. But what the hell. The entire Iraq war was run on less planning and even less preparedness.
He’d survived burning command posts, blown-up trucks, and complex attacks by an enemy they were supposed to easily subdue. His entire experience from West Point through Armor Officer Basic Course to his four tours in Iraq had instilled in him one thing: purpose. Training had readied him for the fog of battle. He knew how to react to sniper fire and how to hit the deck when the whir of a rocket blew up overhead. From the moment he’d turned seventeen, his life had had a direction. A purpose. To lead soldiers. And he was good at it. That wasn’t arrogance, it was fact. But nothing had prepared him for the single act of coming home.
He was not used to feeling so unmoored and off balance. Having Claire here didn’t help matters, either. But he was a professional and he wasn’t going to let Claire distract him from the reason they were here: to prepare the soldiers of Golf Forward Support Company to face that same war, that same chaos.
It was a no-fail mission, and Evan Loehr did not fail.

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