More Than a Spirit
Baker City: Hearts and Haunts #2
by Josie Malone
Home from her Army Reserve tour in Afghanistan, she's divorced, unemployed and dealing with a spoiled, unruly six-year-old. The last thing Sergeant First Class Ann Barrett needs is a ghost playing matchmaker. Not ready to trade in her fatigues for a civilian job as a high school teacher, Ann applies for a position at the Army Reserve base.
Issues arise when she meets her new boss, former Army Ranger, Master Sergeant Harry Colter. He came to Fort Bronson in Seattle to escape his grief when his best friend died in an ambush, but he hasn’t realized he didn’t come alone, or that his buddy is playing ‘Cupid’.
It’s difficult for Ann leave the war behind when so many things enrage her, like her ex-husband and her family that puts the fun back in “dysfunctional.” However, in order to handle what comes now, she must deal with her past, her child and the 20-year-old secret she learns about Harry.
Release Date: March 3, 2020
Genre: Paranormal (Ghost) Romance
A Pink Satin Romance
Ann Barrett scooped up the hoof pick she kept in the soap dish whenever she showered. Designed to clean horse hooves, the small steel hook on a poly handle could do serious damage to an attacker’s face. Now that she was back home in Washington State, she knew she ought to feel safe, but she didn’t. The survival lessons learned during three tours in the Middle East remained with her. She had to stay vigilant if she didn’t want to be assaulted at best, raped at worst.
During her first and second combat tours in Iraq, she’d carried a pocketknife everywhere, but things were different when she went to Afghanistan on this last tour. The Command Sergeant Major told the women they couldn’t keep their knives in the latrines with them, so the company First Sergeant sent home for an order of hoof picks and taught the female personnel in the battalion how to use them. When they didn’t have enough, Ann asked her father who raised Morgan horses to send more.
Pulling off the plastic shower cap, she shook out her shoulder-length brown hair. She wrapped a skimpy brown towel around her, holding it with her left hand while she kept the hoof pick in her right. She headed down the short hall to the main part of the latrine where she’d left the clean set of fatigues.
She froze in the doorway.
A man stood at the sink washing his hands. He stared at her in the mirror.
“What are you doing here?” She snugged the towel around her, wishing the material touched her knees or her shoulders, but it didn’t. “Who the hell are you?”
“Harry Colter.” The dark-haired man finally responded. He swung around to face her. His piercing bright blue gaze locked onto the tops of her breasts. “This is the men’s latrine. Are you lost?”
“I know it’s the men’s room.” Ann gripped the hoof pick more tightly. She reminded herself not to allow her temper to take over the confrontation. “I posted a sign.”
“Did you really?” His gaze moved onto her legs.
She raked him with a scathing glare. His white shirt emphasized broad shoulders and muscular arms. She told herself that she only looked at the service ribbons and decorations, not the wide chest that tapered down to narrow hips. She lifted her gaze, glimpsed the Ranger tab and parachute decal that signified he’d qualified as one of the Airborne elite.
His dark green dress slacks ended in jump boots. She took a second look at the black epaulets on his shoulders and recognized the three rockers that showed he was a Master Sergeant, outranking her. Be careful, she told herself. Even in this situation military courtesy counted and could be held against her.
She lifted her chin and met his amused gaze. She adopted the tone of sweet reason that she used to win with stubborn teens. “I’ll say it slowly this time. Get out!”
He shook his head. “I didn’t see a sign.”
“Then, you must be blind.” Ann tossed her head. She always used the men’s latrine to shower after her lunchtime run; everybody in her unit did. The Army Reserve base hadn’t been in the best of repair before the battalion shipped out on this latest tour to Afghanistan. During the almost two years overseas, the pipes in the women’s bathroom burst. The toilets and sinks still worked, but the four showers didn’t.
Of course, the request for repairs had to go through a million hoops before maintenance resolved the plumbing issue. As always, it was a case of ‘hurry up and wait’ in the Army. Probably the unit would be shipped out to another hotspot, the World War Two barracks would collapse while they were gone, and the women’s bathroom would still be defunct.
“What’s it going to take for you to leave? I want to get dressed.”
“It’s okay if I’m here. I’m a man. You’re not. You go.”
“In a towel?” Ann gave an exaggerated gasp of shock. She’d learned how to be a drama queen from the best teachers in the world, high school girls. “You’re no gentleman.”
He leaned against the sink, quirking a brow. “Don’t have to be one. I’m a sergeant, not an officer.” A slow smile tugged at his mouth. “Are you acting like a lady?”
Ann glowered. Despite the smart-ass attitude, she felt as if he’d caressed her with that warm sapphire gaze. How ridiculous could she be? Yes, he was the first man to catch her attention in a long time, but she’d absolutely refused to get involved with any of the men at the base in Afghanistan. Even if her husband, Will had filed for divorce while she was gone, she still felt married.
She took a deep breath. She wasn’t innocent by any stretch of the imagination. She was a thirty-one-year-old divorcee with a six-year-old daughter to support. She checked her towel, shifted the hoof pick to her left hand, then bypassed him to pull open the door, remove her cardboard sign and waved it in front of her where he couldn’t ignore it.
“This says W.O.M.E.N. Women! You'd never pass the physical, Colter. Now haul it out of here.” In a perverse way, she enjoyed the flirtation too, but she wouldn’t admit it. She jerked her head toward the door. “I'm waiting, Sergeant.”
He bunched the paper towel in his hand and tossed it into the garbage. Then he started toward her. “What would you do if I kissed you?”
Heat scorched into Ann's cheeks. She gauged the sincerity on his tough-looking features. She'd taken one look at him and felt as if her knees had rapidly turned to mush. She drew in a ragged breath. The last thing she needed was to get emotionally involved with any man. She’d learned that lesson all too well.
“What's wrong?” Harry asked. “The question too hard for you?”
“I figured you had a death wish.” When he got closer, she took a step back, wondering if she’d have to use the hoof pick to defend herself. She tensed and lowered her voice. “Back off, Colter. This has gone on long enough. I don't want you to kiss me. I don't want you to touch me. All I want is for you to get out of here so I can get dressed.”
He came to a stop in front of her and studied her mouth for a long moment. Then he strode through the open door. “Oh, well. I can wait.”
“You'll wait till hell freezes over!” What a cliché. She used to be a secondary school teacher, here in the so-called ‘real’ world. Couldn't she have done better than that? Ann caught her breath when he swung around.
“No, I won't.” Harry's smile widened into an easy grin. “I'm going to marry you.” He jerked his head toward her stack of clothes. “So, get dressed.”
“Are you freakin’ nuts?” Ann's voice rose and she struggled to control it. “You don't even know my name.”
“It doesn't matter,” Harry said. “The last one will be Colter soon enough.”
“I wouldn't have you if you were the last man on earth!”
“Yes, you would.” Harry chuckled. “But you'd stand in line. It'd be good for that temper of yours.” He paused and glanced at the hoof pick in her hand. “I’d have to take a knife away from you, but a gal who can improvise and knows how to use a hoof pick, well that’s the kind a man needs to marry.”
The door began to swing closed. Without a moment's hesitation, she slammed it behind him and heard the roar of his laughter from the hall. She'd see to it he paid for every wisecrack. To do that meant she had to get dressed, and Ann hurried toward her uniform.
Dropping her towel on the floor, she put the hoof pick next to her uniform. She reached for the yellow silk panties neatly hidden under her fatigue pants. He was a hunk and he certainly knew it. Even now, she could recall the chiseled planes and angles of his handsome features. The harsh line of his jaw and the faint scar on his right cheek, plus the fact that his nose had been broken at one time, all showed he was more than just another pretty face.
Ann put on the matching lacy yellow bra and picked up her desert tan t-shirt which she privately thought of as baby poop brown. Another wave of heat swept into her face as she realized just how much of her body Colter had seen. She pulled on her camouflage pants, buttoning them around her waist, and adjusted the black web belt. The pants were a little baggy, but she knew she’d gain weight now that she was a civilian again, so she’d hold off on buying a smaller size. Why wasn’t she more embarrassed about being caught in a towel?
Perhaps Colter's flirtation had been meant to insure just that result. If so, it increased her interest in him. Coming from the small logging town of Baker City, she preferred what she considered real men, the strong, silent ones she had to kick to see if they were still alive.
* * *
Leaning against the wall outside the men’s latrine, Zeke Garvey whistled softly in admiration. Nobody saw him anymore. Hell, they didn’t realize he was still here, not after that I.E.D. took him out six months ago. It’d taken all his energy to remove the sign with its red letters and then replace it. He’d done it to get Colter’s attention. Yes, his childhood buddy had returned to Washington State, but he hadn’t made a commitment to stay, at least not yet. A woman, the right woman would make a difference and this one had spunk. Colter couldn’t leave.
He needed to stay here, so Zeke could watch over his own family. Not for the first time, he wished he could tell Twila what he felt. She’d followed him from Army base to Army base for so long and waited so patiently with their sons every time he shipped out for one more combat tour. All she’d ever asked for was a little girl, but five boys later, he’d failed there too. I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so sorry.
* * *
Harry scanned the downstairs of the two-story building. The center of the long room was a hallway with clusters of desks and chairs sectioned off in different areas. Portable bulletin boards served as partitions. He frowned and glanced over his shoulder at the main door and the men’s latrine on the right side of the entrance.
The sign with its red letters was back in place on the door. The sign he should have noticed when he came back from the Monday morning meeting with the General, but he didn’t. The truth sounded weak. He simply hadn’t paid attention to the sign. Over the drill weekend the women used the upstairs bathroom, and nobody said there was a problem with the plumbing. So why had he found this gal in the men’s latrine?
If he'd known she was showering, he never would have interrupted. Of course, if he'd stayed out of the bathroom, he'd have missed the most enticing sight in the world. She was a beautiful woman especially wearing a towel, so many curves in such a small package.
He noticed the green, brown and black fatigue shirt tossed casually over a chair on the other side of the office and crossed the room. Picking up the camouflage blouse, he noted the limp creases that once were part of a military press job, but no starch. It degraded the anti-infrared qualities of the fabric. His gaze focused on the small black tab fastened to the front of the shirt. His surprise guest was a Sergeant First Class. That made things easier and harder at the same time.
He outranked her by one grade, but she wouldn't be as susceptible to that as a more junior soldier. Privates thought their superiors could see through walls and scale tall buildings as easily as comic-book heroes. He frowned. This woman wouldn't be that gullible, not since she was a manager too. There was nothing like being totally in the wrong to impress a woman, he thought with sudden humor.
Recalling the triumph in her green eyes, the desire to apologize for the mistake died the next time he saw her. Her hair. It was the color of a sunrise, gold, red and bronze waves that nearly touched her breasts. Some of the strands were wet and had clung to her damp skin. He’d proven himself a gentleman and left the bathroom without touching her. That should give him points, but somehow, he doubted it would, not with a woman who didn’t hesitate to order him around the first time they met, even when he outranked her.
* * *
Combing her hair, Ann wished she could leave it down, but military regulations said that female soldiers needed to keep their hair above the bottom of their shirt collars. She twisted her hair into a loose knot and pinned it into place, allowing a few tendrils to escape. It wasn’t as tight as the bun she used overseas, but as the girls in her Senior English class said, there were times when a woman needed to look hot and the presence of a new guy required it.
Questions about Colter raced through her mind. When did he join the company? How old was he? What were his personal details? Surely, he was married. No way was he gay. The only logical reason for him to be in the building was that he was newly assigned to the Army Reserve, her unit in particular. Ann would have to do his paperwork for in-processing, but as an E8, he’d know which questions were too personal. At least, he should know about personnel management to be in this battalion.
She focused on the face reflected in the mirror. High cheekbones didn't make up for the cheery roundness of her features or the dash of freckles sprinkled on a small nose. Her green eyes weren't out of the ordinary either. She was just an average woman.
She straightened her bangs, allowing a few strands to flip over her right eyebrow. This was a Monday. None of her superiors would be in after they'd worked all weekend. Like most of the male sergeants, Harry undoubtedly wouldn't know all the rules about female soldiers, or that the regulations guided how she was supposed to wear her bangs too. Then again if he did, maybe he wouldn’t notice or comment on it.
How tall was Colter? He'd towered almost a foot above her own five feet, five inches. She grabbed her dog tags and dropped the chain around her neck. The small metal identification plates immediately drew attention to the curve of her breasts, so she tucked the tags under her shirt.
She took one more look in the mirror, adjusted the camouflage pants so they bloused over her suede combat boots and then headed for the door and the main room.
He stood at her desk and turned at the sound of her footsteps. “Playing detective?” Ann teased with a smile. “Why bother? I'll talk.”
Harry didn't hide his own amusement as he laid her shirt across the chair. “Would you tell me everything, Sergeant First Class? Or just what you want me to know?”
Ann inclined her head in mocking salute. “Smarter than you look, Master Sergeant Colter.”
“Thanks.” Harry headed for the coffee pot. “Would you like something to drink before we get started?”
“That's why I made it,” Ann agreed, trying to control her quick sarcasm. However, he caused a nervous reaction she was unaccustomed to feeling. She followed him to the corner of the room where they kept the always brewing coffee.
“I'm curious,” Harry said. “Why were you in the men's room?”
“Because the female shower doesn't work. That's why I hung the sign.”
“I guess I wasn't paying attention.” Harry filled a foam cup with coffee, passed it to her and then poured a cup for himself. “I just walked in. I don't know what I was thinking.”
“Is that an apology?” Ann tilted her head, allowing her curiosity to show.
“That's one of the things I don't do.” Harry smiled but there was no humor in his eyes. “I'll fix the female latrine though. How's that?”
“Sounds wonderful to me.” Ann studied the dark depths of her coffee and tried for a more casual subject. “I should have put a note on the front door. Then you'd have known Margo and I went running at lunchtime. We used to go every day before our units shipped out to the ‘box,’ and thought we’d start back up again.”
“I wouldn't have seen your note.” Harry's smile broadened into a more genuine one. “I came in the back way from the supply room.”
“Well, that could cause a problem all right.” Ann controlled the urge to giggle. “Have you been in the battalion very long?”
Harry smiled down at her. “A week. It's one reason why I'm so glad the Sergeant Major got me somebody to do word processing. Granted the computers haven’t gotten back here yet, but the adjutant at HQ promised we’d have them in a few days. I can set them up, but I'm all thumbs at typing.”
Ann stared up at him. Typing? The word ricocheted in her head. Her stomach clenched. “Who are you, Colter? What are you doing here?”
“I'm the new company technician.”
“What?” Ann almost choked on the question.
When the battalion finally got the word they were coming home, she applied for a job as an Active/Guard Reserve office worker here at Fort Bronson. She’d do paperwork and basically run this company by herself on weekdays. She’d attended a course to update her skills in military payroll instead of training in California with the rest of her unit during the past three months as they transitioned from active duty to civilian life, finally returning to Washington State two weeks ago.
Her head buzzed and it was hard to hear, much less understand what he said as he continued about something. She forced herself to listen.
“We've got a lot of work to do to help the battalion finish the transition from combat to peace time. Sergeant Major said he'd get somebody to handle the paperwork while I catch up supply and the motor pool.”
She lifted the cup to her lips, but doubted she’d be able to swallow. The lump of tears in her throat grew. “You've got your work cut out for you, Sergeant.”
Harry nodded. “You've got that right. I thought I'd seen sloppy units when I was active duty, but if we get hit with a surprise inspection, the C.O. will be in trouble. That stuff still runs downhill, and HQ won’t cut the battalion any slack for only being in Seattle less than a month or morale being in the swirly.”
She struggled to control the urge to break down. Her knees shook. She wished Harry would simply talk straight. Had she been passed over for the office job with the unit? Colonel Stewart, the battalion commander said they needed two more full-time people, one to handle supply, weapons, and vehicles, while the other dealt with correspondence, payroll, and filing.
She took a deep breath. After all, Colonel Stewart had said that nobody else could be as motivated or hardworking as she was. He'd practically guaranteed her the new job before she left California for the payroll school back East. She’d flown in last Saturday night, but the CO ordered her to take three days off to reunite with her family.
She relaxed, drank coffee and then asked, “How long were you active duty, Colter? Did you just transfer to the reserves?”
Harry glanced at her, obviously measuring her sincerity. “I got in my twenty, but I’m not ready to retire, so I came here from my last tour. I was in the Rangers most of the time.”
“Then you must have seen a lot of combat.” Ann frowned at the epaulets on Harry's shoulders. He had a great deal more time in the Army than her fourteen years in the reserve. “How many times have you been in the Sandbox?”
Harry frowned at the reference to Iraq and Afghanistan. “Six. Seven, if you include the first Gulf War. How about you?”
“Three.” Ann sipped her coffee. “This one was the longest.”
“I know your rank, but I don't know your name.”
Taking another sip of her coffee, Ann stared at Harry as the warmth faded from his face. “What is it, Colter? What’s wrong?”
He moved to stand between her and the front door. “I suppose the Colonel didn't call you?”
Ann shook her head. “Why?”
Pity seeped into his face, and his voice softened. “Did the Command Sergeant Major?”
“Last week while I was still back east at payroll school. He didn't tell me you were here.” Dread trickled into her soul, but she had to make one last ditch try. “The C.O. wants two more full-timers anyway.”
“The unit only gets one more full-time technician, Barrett.” Harry shook his head, regret on his face. “And that’s me.”