Special forces soldier Ben McKaslin returns home with a bum leg, a bad attitude and his career in tatters. Then, in one defining moment, an emergency has him leaping instinctively to the rescue--and locking eyes with the captivating woman he left behind. Could this be fate's doing?
After her own crushing setback, Cadence Chapman has learned to embrace life to the fullest. But she's also learned how to safeguard her heart. Yet, while Ben mends, sparks reignite between him and Cadence, and she realizes she still loves him to the depths of her soul. Dare she pin all her dreams on this embittered military man who has no idea how lucky he truly is?
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July 01, 2011
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Excerpt from What Matters Most by Jillian Hart
Ben McKaslin climbed out of his pickup, fished his debit card out of his wallet and hit the gas tank lever. His back complained. His leg complained.
He ignored both, because he was no longer in Florida. Gone were the stifling heat and the cloying humidity and the scents of moss and dampness and heat of the Gulf coast he'd never gotten used to. How could any place on earth be as good as Montana?
The sight of rugged amethyst peaks and green rolling meadows touched him deeply. It was good to be going home. There were lots of things he'd missed. The natural beauty of the state was one of them. He swiped at his scratchy eyes.
Well, he wasn't home yet, but ever since he'd crossed the Montana state line, he hadn't been able to drive fast enough. He hadn't wanted to stop for any reason and had kept on driving.
Except for the fact that the truck was on Empty. This stop would be a quick break to gas up and he'd be back on the road. As he glanced around the outskirts of Bozeman, he realized he was exactly fourteen minutes from the sleepy rural town where he'd grown up. Fourteen minutes from the house he'd grown up in.
He grabbed his crutches from behind the seat. The annoying sticks had gotten wedged beneath his stuffed rucksack, so he had to wrestle them out. If his leg could have supported his weight without pain, he'd have left them there, but the streaks shooting up his leg were a little too strong to ignore. Not that he was supposed to put his full weight on his leg much at all, but he fudged it a lot.
He wasn't the only one at the truck stop, and that surprised him, it being as late as it was--nearly midnight. Of course, this place was visible from the interstate, and the last pit stop for gas and food had been a good thirty miles back. He apparently wasn't the only one low on blood sugar and running out of gas.
His stomach might be growling like a bear, but he figured on waiting to raid his sister's fridge, since he knew Rachel would have stocked up for his benefit. He wouldn't want to let her down, right?
He leaned on the crutches, looking through the dark for danger. It was habit, ingrained from boot camp on through his PJ training, honed in jungles, deserts and mountains around the world. Even here in the good old U.S.A. he couldn't break the habit as he listened, senses alert, while crossing the short distance from the cab to the gas tank.
On the other side of the pump was a family vehicle, and the pleasant-looking middle-class woman in a loose pink T-shirt, cutoffs and flip-flops measured him suspiciously. She latched the lock on the handle pump, leaving the nozzle in the gas tank, and slid away from him.
It was late, it was dark, she was alone with kids--the dome light revealed two little ones fast asleep in their car seats. It showed good sense on the mother's part. Ben couldn't deny that he did look disreputable. Then again, he was paid by the government to be disreputable.
He slipped his card into the slot and waited for the screen to request his pin number, which he punched in lickety-split. His gaze swept the pump piles, which were flooded with bright light. A couple of big rigs were fueling up at the diesel pumps, designed for truckers. A late-night RV ambled in and parked on the other side of the semi's triple trailers.
The machine beeped, demanding he lift the nozzle and start pumping. He put in plain old unleaded. He was no longer a poor kid growing up in tough circumstances, but old habits died hard. He screwed off the gas cap, and as he was latching the handle lock, a small gray domestic sedan pulled up to the pump behind him.
It was a woman. When she opened her door and the dome light splashed on, he noticed her sleek dark locks of hair, thick and straight, and a heart-shaped face that could only be described as sweet. Or maybe that was his own interpretation.
Wait a minute--he knew that face. Her delicate features had matured, but it looked like...
No, it couldn't be her.
Yes, it was. He blinked his eyes, staring. It really was her. Someone he hadn't seen in person since he was a wild and woolly eighteen-year-old with an attitude and a talent for trouble.
Incredibly, Cadence Chapman emerged into the night. She was still tall and straight and slender--as graceful as a ballerina as she walked without watching where she was going. She dug through a well-worn leather wallet and withdrew a ten-dollar bill. She still had that saunter that made her look as if she were walking a few inches above the ground.
I used to love her. His heart wrenched and left him in pain, watching as she headed straight for the cashier inside the attached quick mart.
Her long dark hair fluttered behind her, midway down her back. A small brown leather purse swung from her shoulder. He wasn't in love with her anymore, but seeing her sure felt surreal, as if it was a dream or something.
He'd pinch himself, but he already knew he was awake and not dreaming. Who would have thought--Cadence Chapman? Hadn't she moved away right out of high school, with a big college scholarship and even bigger goals?
What was a world-class athlete doing in central Montana? He'd have to ask her when she came back to her car, if she recognized him.
A cell phone somewhere nearby jangled a snappy electronic tune. The woman with the kids. The tune died, and he could hear the faint murmur of her voice from the direction of the driver's seat. She must have the driver's door open, so she could listen for the pump. It gave a distinct snap, shutting off. As she spoke to someone--her husband by the sounds of it--Ben tuned her out.
The rush of gas through the pumps served as background noise as he leaned against the side of the truck bed. He had a perfect view of Cadence through the quick mart's open door. She still had that cool way about her, the one that had often annoyed him so much.
But there was something fundamentally different about her. He couldn't put his thumb on it as he watched her slip the money on the counter and exchange pleasantries with the clerk, who was a middle-aged man watching her a little too closely, as if he were getting up the nerve to flirt.
But like the old Cadence he used to know in high school, this woman didn't return the obvious interest and snapped out of the store. She had an athletic stride, and her long lean legs were tanned from the hem of her shorts all the way down to her feet. She wore practical flat sandals.
Not at all like the Cadence he remembered. That girl loved glitter, fancy shoes and designer names. She wouldn't have been caught in public wearing bargain department-store shoes.
Before he had much of a chance to wonder about that, the air changed from calm to charged, the way it did before lightning struck. He could smell danger even before the woman on the other side of the fuel pump gasped. He leaped to render aid even before the bright flash of fire hissed like a striking snake.
Time slowed as he felt the radiant blast of heat against the right side of his face. In a blink he'd crossed the meridian and was beside the woman before she could scream. This was what he was trained for, and the greater the danger, the calmer he became. He was used to the kick of adrenaline that supercharged him. He didn't feel the shatter of pain in his leg or the sizzle of heat against his skin.
"Release it. Let go. Do it now."
She didn't respond. Panic was curling through her, and it was her enemy, blocking all rational thought. He caught her by the arm to keep her from flinging the hose away in panic. He couldn't let her spread the fire, over her, him or innocent bystanders.
"Drop it!" he commanded.
Only when her fingers released the handle did he shove her to the ground, rolling her on the concrete. This didn't help douse the flames greedily devouring her loose walking shorts.
Suddenly another set of hands came out of nowhere offering a dripping-wet blanket. Perfect. Just what he needed. He ignored the woman's cries of protest and smothered the flames. She was out of danger, and the identity of the person who'd come with the blanket didn't register in his thoughts as he barked commands to keep the woman back--he was already on task for the next priority.
The kids. The vehicle wasn't yet engulfed. Leaving the nozzle in the tank had bought enough time. Although he saw the first problem: the van had only one side door--on the pump side, where flames were visible through the closed window.
One toddler had started to cry. Ben dived into the driver's seat, spotted a trucker running with a fire extinguisher and barked orders. "Hit the tank, and stay back."
You've only got a few more minutes, so move, he told himself.
The air in the van was getting smoky. He twisted through the space between the seats, ignoring the awkward angle of his flexible cast. He unbuckled the crying kid, a little girl with red ringlet curls who seemed to have changed her mind about letting a stranger haul her out of her seat.
"I'll take you to your mom, okay?" he said, hauling her little wiggly form against him. Someone was there--the RV driver, he realized--so Ben shoved the girl at him.
"Go!" he shouted, choking on a mouthful of smoke. The passenger window was open and the flames were roaring.
The sleeping baby was harder to grab. He heard the squeal of a siren, the shouts from bystanders telling him to hurry and the lethal roar of the fire gaining strength. The buckle gave, the limp baby tumbled into his hands and he pulled him against his chest. The baby stirred, waking with a cry, but he was moving fast, feeling the heat and counting the seconds.
Fresh air beat across his face, and he was free. He kept on going, feeling no pain, aware only of the eerie seconds stretching out like minutes. He shielded the little one with his body, keeping on his feet as the fire surged. He felt the heat burn into his back.
The kids were safe, but he was on fire.
He hated fire.
"I'll take him." It was a middle-aged woman--probably from the RV--and he handed over the little tyke.
"Go out toward the street. Go," he told the woman and the man, who must be her husband. "No telling how dangerous this'll be if it explodes. And get everyone back."
He beat at his shirt the best he could, but he wasn't sure about where he couldn't see or reach. It couldn't be too bad, though, or he'd be in serious trouble by now. He kept smacking at the worst of it--emberlike spots mostly--and didn't give it any more thought. He had a medical situation to assess.
It wasn't as if he hadn't been on fire before. It happened to soldiers, and he was well trained.
The mom was sitting up on the ground, held back by the clerk from behind the counter. Her fear rose eerily into the smoky air. He saw Cadence kneeling beside the woman, wrapping her burns with dripping-wet rags. Cold water. The best way to cool down the fire-hot flesh. He dropped to his knees and peeled back an icy terry cloth.
Good. The water wasn't merely cold, it was freezing. Melting chunks from bagged ice bobbed in a bucket. Nothing more than second-degree burns, from the looks of it. She was one lucky woman. But she was frantic, beyond panic, trying to get to her babies.
"They're safe, I promise. I got them out." He said it over and over again until the woman focused on what he was saying. "They're safe, and let me take a look at your hand."
"My babies. You're sure? You're sure they're out?" She couldn't believe him. She was in shock, and rightfully so. Worse, she probably didn't feel pain from the burns, with all the adrenaline in her system. He knew about adrenaline. It was why he was moving his leg.
"I'm sure," he told her. "See? There they are, safe with those people. Here are the fire trucks. It's going to be all right. You just lie back and we'll keep cold water on these burns."
"Thank you so much." Reason returned. Her relief became grateful tears as she refused to take her gaze from the completely unharmed children being looked after by a grandparent-type couple.
"You did good work." He removed the cloth and redunked it into the ice bucket, intending to thank whoever had brought the wet towels. Not everyone helped in a crisis.
But the instant his gaze met her face, the words lodged in his throat.
Cadence. He should have known it was her. She worked with her head down, intent on icing the mother's burned knee, and he noticed Cadence's slender hands. It had been more than a decade, but he would know her long sleek fingers anywhere, slender and soft. Her nails were short but painted a conservative pearled pink.
He took in the details. She wore more inexpensive items. Her cutoffs had been worn nearly white, and the T-shirt was faded from too many washings. It was hard to read the crinkled white letters proclaiming Swim For The Kids.
She was still the same old Cadence with her everything-in-its-place methodology, and she was still a bleeding heart. Swim-a-thon fundraisers and offering aid.
Well, there was no ring on her left hand. That was something to think about as he turned to the young mother, talking to her above the screaming sirens and the air brakes of the fire trucks. The pain was probably starting to set in now. He thanked the clerk from the quick mart for a blanket and started wrapping her up.
"And you, ma'am." He offered her one of his best grins and rubbed the tears from her cheeks, gently as if she were a child. "I'm going to turn you over to the paramedics. Look, they're just pulling up now. They aren't as good-looking as I am, I'm sure." He winked. "But they'll probably be able to take good care of you."
"You're trying to make me laugh." She was sobbing harder. "You saved my babies. How can I ever thank you for that?"