Baker City: Hearts and Haunts #3
by Josie Malone
Sergeant First Class Sullivan Barlow has plans for her future and none of them include the guy she slept with in a night of weakness. Intending to forget the devastation of losing her best friend in Afghanistan, Sully woke the next morning still alone. Her only solace—she hadn’t told the man her real name.
A career soldier, Tate Murphy has three more years in the Army until he’s eligible for retirement. Seven weeks ago, he met a woman in a hotel bar and spent the night with her. He hasn’t been able to get her out of his mind and can’t believe his luck when he finds her again.
Then they discover their first night together resulted in something they never expected. She’s pregnant, and Tate immediately proposes. Pregnant, struggling with survivor guilt, the last thing Sully needs is to learn her best friend may have died, but hasn’t left yet.
Tate says, ‘sometimes courage is an act of survival’. Sully fears trust is a casualty of war. Will she and Tate ever find it again either by themselves or with the help of those who have passed on before?
Release Date: March 23, 2021
Genre: Paranormal (Ghost) | Military Romance
A Pink Satin Romance
Sullivan Barlow glanced from the handwritten—make that scribbled—disposition form in front of her to the typed version on the computer screen. She’d thought the high school students during her last practicum had crappy penmanship. So, did this guy. She squinted at the signature block again. Yes, it was Master Sergeant Tate Murphy. If she ever met him in person, she’d suggest he repeat third grade and learn cursive.
Oh, wait a minute. A lot of elementary schools no longer taught it. That couldn’t be the case with him. He had to be older than she was, and she learned it back in the day in Liberty Valley. So, she’d give him hell. She took a deep breath. No, she wouldn’t. She was a Sergeant First Class, an E-7, after all. She’d be polite and recommend he find a pharmacist to decipher his hieroglyphics.
Okay, it was official. She was definitely having a bad day. She pushed back from the desk and leaned down to rub her aching left leg. She’d worked in worse conditions than Major Harper’s office. For a moment, she remembered dust, sand, and overwhelming heat. Then, she shook her head.
No, Sully. Concentrate on the moment. Think about here and now.
The room was large with two desks facing each other. Weak February sunshine filtered through the mini-blinds on the windows to her right, laying patterns on the carpeted floor. The American flag stood neatly in the stand to her left, accompanied by the Washington state flag and the one for Fort Clark. Looking at the Stars and Stripes always reminded her of that last flight home and the tri-folded flag on her lap.
She choked on the rising lump in her throat. She’d sat and held that flag on her lap on the entire flight, refusing the meals and beverages the overly sympathetic flight attendants offered.
I wish things were different. I want a do-over. If I could only go back in time... Oh, Raven, I’m so sorry.
She closed her eyes for a moment, blinked hard before she focused on the computer screen again. She always tried to avoid glancing at the U.S. flag and the glassed-in bookcases behind the stand. File cabinets lined the wall that held the same door to the hall and the break room where she could find a cup of coffee. That was if she wanted to try walking that far when her ankle throbbed in its own rhythm, pressing against her combat boot.
Okay, she’d upgrade the day from being bad to officially sucking. Her leg hurt. She had a stack of reports from a moron to type. She repeated her mantra. Don’t complain, things can always be worse. At least nobody is trying to kill me.
“Haven’t you finished those reports yet? You’ve been typing for three days.”
Sully looked from the stack of paperwork to the blonde fashion plate in front of the desk. She was slipping. She should have heard the click of high heels in the hall before Anise Tyler, the civilian clerk in charge returned to the office. “It’d go faster if you helped instead of disappearing to the breakroom every hour.”
“Speaking of that, it’s a mess.” In a clinging light blue dress that matched her heels, the civilian liaison sauntered across to her desk and eased into the leather chair behind it. “I told Mr. Edwards you’d clean it up. You’ll find the mop in the utility closet at the end of the hall.”
“Excuse you.” Sully counted silently to ten, the advice one of the other sergeants in her company had given for dealing with idiots. It didn’t work this time. “You’re joking, right?”
“Do I look like it?” Anise smiled, but it didn’t touch her pale blue eyes. Pleasure filled the lovely face. “You can go clean it now. Then come back and finish those reports.”
“I don’t think so.” Sully rose to her feet, leaning on the desk for support, and pinned Anise with an icy glare, hoping the other woman didn’t see the actual physical weakness in her stance. “Let me make one thing perfectly clear, Ms. Tyler. I am a Sergeant First Class. I’ve done three tours in the sandbox and I was reassigned here for light duty when they no longer needed me in the Finance section. I don’t scrub floors, wash windows, or take out your trash. I don’t give garbage. I don’t take garbage. I am not in the garbage business. I’ll do your correspondence. I won’t do your dirty work. Got it?”
The sound of slow applause drew Sully’s attention to the door and away from the sputtering woman on the other side of the room. A tall, dark-haired man in camouflage fatigues stood in the doorway. Oh crap, Sully thought. She was in for it now. She should have remembered she was here temporarily and controlled her temper, not actually told the full-time office manager where to go. Of course, there’d been an audience.
I never catch a break. What a hell of a time for the major to arrive.
From his smile to the dark blue of his eyes, she knew she’d seen that ruggedly handsome face before. Where? A memory fluttered. A deep voice rumbling with laughter, a strong hand reaching across her to pour two glasses of golden Chardonnay, a sweet wine kiss, then another, deeper. She shook her head. She was losing it. He was a stranger. He had to be a stranger. And he was a rude one too. He hadn't even come into the office. He just stood in the doorway staring at her like she was the most entertaining show in town.
“And you are?” Sully asked.
“Master Sergeant Murphy. Are you the person who has been transcribing my reports and emailing them back to me? I didn’t recognize your initials, ‘sb’.” His smile faded and he looked toward Anise. “You did check her security clearance before passing on my notes, didn’t you, Ms. Tyler?”
Red mottled under her makeup as Anise gulped for air. She hadn’t followed procedure and the three of them knew it.
Pity stirred in Sully and she cleared her throat. “I am qualified to type these bloody reports in every way, Master Sergeant Tate Murphy but I have to say it would be much easier if you’d learned to scribe a coherent hand.”
Where had that tone come from? Gawd, she must be channeling the university professor who supervised her practicums and would be organizing the last of her student teaching when she got off active duty. The old biddy made her crazy at the best of times and today wasn’t one of them.
Murphy arched one eyebrow and Sully struggled not to laugh at her own outburst. As a broad smile spread across his face, the memory pinged at her again. She’d seen him before, hadn’t she? Why did he look so familiar? She studied his face. High cheekbones, a nose that had been broken, probably in a brawl—he was a soldier after all. A strong jaw and that mouth... Why did she know he’d be terrific at kissing? The ghost of firm lips, his tongue parting hers and sweeping into her mouth.
Sully's breath quickened as her body involuntarily responded to the phantom memory. She looked away to escape his steady gaze and gain control of her rampaging senses. Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and lifted her chin as he entered the room, followed by a shorter, sandy-haired stranger.
Her gaze fastened on the black oak leaf on the tab of the older man’s camo shirt. The major! She stepped to the right to stand next to the desk and snapped to the position of attention.
And her treacherous left leg collapsed.
She fell hard. Pain shot through her from the ankle to the hip. She hadn’t broken it again, had she? Tears burned and she forced them back. No, she wouldn’t cry. She was a combat soldier, damn it. Her stomach swirled and she tasted the oatmeal she’d had for breakfast. It wasn’t any better the second time. I’m not hurling here.
Before she struggled to her feet, Tate Murphy stood in front of her. He leaned down, caught her elbow. He pulled her up, wrapping an arm around her waist, to steady her. “So, do you always throw yourself at the feet of an officer, Sergeant Barlow? Faith, with service like that, it makes me wish I went to O.C.S.”
“Not too late, Murphy.” Major Harper frowned thoughtfully. “I’ll sign your application anytime.”
“I’d need an age waiver. Thirty-five is too old.”
Not for me, Sully thought. He’s only six years older than I am. Okay, mind back on duty and off the hot guy holding her.
“What happened, Sergeant? Is the floor wet? Why did you fall?”
“I’m sorry, sir.” Sully felt heat rush into her face. “I broke my leg, sir. The cast was removed last week before I came here. It’s all right now, sir. I just moved too quickly.”
“Sick call, Murphy.” Major Harper glanced at his aide, then turned his eagle eyes on her. “I want a second opinion, Sergeant Barlow. From a doctor.”
“What about the correspondence?” Sully slipped out of Tate’s grasp, even though she didn’t want to. Where had that idea come from? She put a hand on the desk to brace herself. “I’m not finished.”
“Yes, you are.” Major Harper said, in even tones. “We’ll see you when the doctors release you to return. Paperwork doesn’t disappear, Barlow. There will be plenty for you to do later.”
“Yes, sir.” She watched him stride into the adjoining office, then limped around the desk, still resting a hand on the wooden surface. “All right. Let’s get this over with, Sergeant Murphy.”
He chuckled. “It may come as a shock, but I actually do out-rank you, Barlow. I should issue the orders.”
“Someone ought to have told you that ‘should’ only applies to six-year-olds,” Sully retorted. “And if you move along, I’ll be back here before lunch.”
Another low chuckle. “My father would call you a real spitfire.” Tate gazed quickly across the room. “Don’t save my reports for her, Ms. Tyler. You better get on them because I’m sure the doctors will assign Sergeant Barlow to quarters.”
“Good luck with that.” Sully measured the distance between her desk and the door. It looked as dangerous as a street in Kabul. Nope, not going there, she told herself. Just take one step at a time. She could do it. She’d faced worse. Hell, she walked on a broken leg for more than a week before the doctors realized she’d been one of the proverbial ‘walking wounded.’ Granted, she’d depended on a lot of wine to get her through but there’d been plenty of troubles to drown.
Raven. No, don’t think of her. Not here and not now.
“Shall I send for a wheelchair?” Tate asked.
“No. I can handle it.” Sully took a step, another and her leg buckled. “Damn it.”
His arm clamped around her waist. “Well, if you don’t want a wheelchair, then you’d better lean on me.”
“That’s probably what she wanted in the first place,” Anise sniped from across the room.
“Start typing if you don’t want to be here till midnight,” Sully said sweetly. She let the other non-com help her to the door, past the dreaded flag, and down the hall. “Thanks.”
“It’s the least I can do.” He lowered his voice. “Now, what is your name? Your real name? It’s not Vanna.”
“What?” She choked, stopped, stared up at him, and almost fell into the cobalt sea of his eyes. “Who are you?”
“Tate Murphy.” A wry smile twisted his mouth. “Okay, so you had a few when we met in that hotel bar outside Tacoma. And then we split two bottles of Chardonnay downstairs and another when we got to my room, but I can’t be that forgettable.”
Sully gaped at him. She shivered when he trailed a finger over her cheek, down to her chin. She’d been off base in Tacoma almost seven weeks before, determined to avoid the holidays with her family. And after a hellacious, horrible day at a memorial service in Liberty Valley, followed by a military funeral, where family and friends had barely spoken to her, clustering around her oldest stepbrother, she’d gotten blitzed in a bar. She’d seen a gorgeous guy and made a move on him. It was stupid, risky behavior, but at least he’d had a box of condoms. “You were in civvies.”
“So were you,” Tate said. “I hope you still have that red dress. It was something. You were something.”
“I was drunk.” Sully took a deep breath. Wild, fabulous sex. It was supposed to be a cure-all for heartbreak. It hadn’t worked. The next morning her head hurt. Her leg hurt. She was still hiding at a hotel, avoiding everyone who really knew her, barely making it to the base in time to jump through a dozen hoops. It was all part of Army procedures when soldiers came back alive to CONUS, one of which was the physical exam with the doctor who discovered she was walking on a broken leg. “I was drunk. You got me past a bad time.”
“And you gave me a phony name, a disconnected number and faded like smoke. I woke up and you were gone.”
“Hey, it was what every guy wants. A one-night booty call with a stranger.” She watched his eyes widen, his jaw tighten, and decided she didn’t feel guilty. She wouldn’t feel guilty. And she certainly wouldn’t tell the poor man that she barely recalled him except in dreams. Nobody needed to hear he was so inconsequential. “No commitment on either side. Now, can we go to sick call?”
“Yes.” He guided her to the elevator. “I went back to that hotel several times looking for you and I still want answers to my questions about you.”
“And I want a million dollars. Guess I better buy a lottery ticket.”
* * *
She was spunky and not nearly as tall as she’d been in the spike heels and halter-necked red silk dress that skimmed her thighs. It should have clashed with her waist-length copper hair, but somehow it didn’t. He’d seen her across the bar and watched her cut other men dead. Then, she turned on her stool and he found himself going to her. He’d asked her to dance and she refused.
She said she’d come to drink and that was what she intended to do. Her emerald green eyes were heavily made up. He’d wondered what she looked like without the cosmetics, figured he’d find out the next morning when she agreed to come to his room. The bartender had Wheel of Fortune on the TV and it’d taken her too long to answer when Tate asked her name. Why hadn’t he put things together and realized she’d lied?
Granted, she wasn’t the first woman he’d picked up in a bar, but she was the last. Somehow, nobody else matched her smile or quick wit. He’d always enjoyed bantering with smart-mouthed women. The elevator doors opened on the first floor and he ushered her toward the main entrance. Well, he’d finally found her again and the two of them could start over. They might even talk to each other instead of just falling into the nearest bed. Then again, maybe not.
“Murphy, I didn’t know you were back from the field. Is Major Harper in his office?” A balding man strode toward them, frowning at the woman next to Tate. “What’s your problem now, Sergeant Barlow? Ms. Tyler called and told me that you refused to clean up the breakroom.”
“Considering the sergeant can barely walk, she has no business even considering doing such a thing.” Tate swept the older man with a disgusted look. “And don’t send my noncoms to mop floors. They don’t do janitorial work. They’ve paid their dues and they supervise junior enlisted. If you want somebody higher up the food chain to do it, you can have one of the ROTC cadets.”
“What happened to her?” Mr. Edwards asked. “She was fine when Army Finance sent her here to do office work.”
“Afghanistan,” Sully said in icy tones. She obviously didn’t like being talked over as if she weren’t standing in the hall between the two of them. “Kabul. IED. I walked away. Found out when I got home that I’d broken my leg.”
Utter silence fell. Tate stared at her, then at the senior civilian liaison. “Major Harper ordered her to the dispensary and that’s where I’m taking her. I’ll assign someone to deal with the breakroom when I return.”
“You don’t need to.” Mr. Edwards ran a hand over his thinning hair. “I’m sorry, Barlow. I talked when I should have listened. And Anise—”
“Always has issues when you send another woman to the Major’s office,” Tate said, “especially a competent one.”
That earned a bark of laughter before the man returned to his own office. Now, Tate had more questions. “Was your leg broken when...?”
“We were together?” She nodded. “Yes. So, I drank more than I normally would.”
“You must have a really high pain threshold. Didn’t you know?” He shook his head. “Never mind. That was stupid. If you’d known, you’d have gone to the doctor or come to the hospital at the main base.”
“Exactly.” She didn’t speak again until she was in the front seat of the Army sedan he drove on duty. “I’m not a real pain in the backside most of the time, Murphy. If there weren’t any lower-ranking enlisted and my leg didn’t hurt, I’d clean the breakroom.”
“I don’t doubt that, but neither condition applies. When you return to duty, there’s plenty of paperwork around here with all the college kids training during their spring breaks, not to mention the reserve units coming home and out-processing.” He started the engine. “Now, about your first name? I can’t keep calling a woman I slept with by her last one.”
She laughed. “Sullivan. Sully for short.”
He cruised through the parking lot, catching another glimpse of the classic, bright pink Mustang Fastback parked by itself in one corner. “I do like that name better than Vanna.”
“And I’m supposed to care what you like?”
“I thought you did last Christmas and you will again.”
“Don’t bet on it, Murphy.”
* * *
Three hours later, Sully stared at the prescriptions in her hand. Returning to work was out of the question. The doctor had taken one look at her badly swollen leg and yelled for X-rays. Whirlpool treatments followed until the swelling was reduced. It seemed like everybody poked and prodded at her until she could scream. They put a temporary splint on her leg which made the damn thing hurt even more and she’d said so. The doctor told her the resultant discomfort was because she’d overstressed the leg, but he’d write a prescription for pain relievers.
The nurse was much more tactful. She had stuck around to help Sully pull on her loose camouflage fatigue pants before vanishing back into the clinic. Quarters! She grimaced. She was stuck in her room for two days and what was she supposed to do there? She wondered if she could get a ride to the liquor store on post and load up on Chardonnay. Wait a second. Hadn’t that gotten her in trouble before? She’d opted for way too much alcohol to dull the pain and ended up in bed with Murphy.
She heard a knock on the door. “Come in. Everyone else has.”
Tate Murphy sauntered inside, holding a pair of crutches. “How do you feel?”
“Like a total idiot.” Sully shot a glare at him. “They’re sending me to my room as if I’m a problem teenager. I’m not staying on base to sit around and do nothing. Even when my leg was in a real cast, I worked at the Finance Processing Center, doing payroll for returning soldiers. Okay, so my unit is training in California and I can’t join them. But you could let me go to Supply to help inventory the equipment they’ve sent back from Afghanistan before it goes to our home base at Fort Bronson in Seattle.”
He gently closed the door and leaned against it. “You are in a snit, aren’t you? And before you ask, I won’t bring you a laptop or send you to work anywhere. I have my orders and so do you. Two days of rest and then light duty back in Major Harper’s office so we can keep an eye on you. If you have family close by, the doctors agreed you could have a two week leave at home until your unit arrives.”
She shook her head. She wouldn’t explain why she didn’t want to be in Liberty Valley right now. She couldn’t. Granted, her relatives barely called or wrote or Skyped when she was overseas. She wasn’t their favorite. That status had always belonged to Raven.
This guy didn’t have the proverbial ‘need to know’ what a failure she really was, Sully thought. Everything is wrong with me, my hair, my eyes, my body, my behavior, my choices. They hate me and I don’t blame them. Nobody’s barely spoken to me since the funeral. “I’m not going there. I’m staying on post.”
“Then, we’ll have a lot of fun.”
“I don’t think so, Murphy. Haven’t we been that route already?”
“You bet and I can’t wait to do it again.”