Bad Boy Rancher(5)

By: Karen Rock

As for her former coworkers, they’d kept to themselves, working independently. It was a different mind-set than the military, where you worked as a unit, brothers in arms, and had each other’s backs.

She’d discovered that the real world was a lonely place.

Not that she’d let herself get close to anyone again. Not after… Her eyes swung off the road and landed on the dog tags. Not in a professional capacity. Not ever again. It could trigger a PTSD episode, one she might not survive this time.

Her new position as the head of Fresh Start, a mental health and drug rehabilitation facility in the remote Colorado Rocky Mountains, was her second chance at regaining her footing.

And she’d better not mess it up.

If she ever found the place.

“Recalculating,” the GPS droned, sounding put out.

Brielle’s head whipped left. What? She’d missed the turn? She groaned. Even a cheap gadget could navigate the real world better than she could.

The rural route stretched beyond her headlights, not showing a decent place for her big van to turn around. A sigh hissed through her clenched teeth. The facility’s owner had texted her a half hour ago when she’d missed their meeting time.

Her. A no-show?

She lived by a schedule and was never late. As her Army colonel father had bragged (when he used to be proud of her), Brielle was born on her due date, during the Army-Navy game’s halftime, the timing so precise he hadn’t missed a minute of the action.

So much for dependability.

She needed to message her new boss back, but she didn’t trust the road’s flimsy shoulders enough to pull over. Should she take a chance and text while driving? Was that legal in Colorado?

Given she barely knew how to drive a stick shift, or her whereabouts, exactly, she didn’t need to add to her distractions. But if she didn’t hurry, she’d lose another job, her fresh start over before it began. And then where would she go?

Not to her parents. After her breakdown, while she’d sorted out next steps, her mother had hovered and recited PTSD jargon she’d learned in online support groups. While her father ordered her to pull herself up by her bootstraps and loomed in her bedroom’s doorway each night, shaking his head when she’d spent another day under the covers.

“Turn left on Laurel Moon Road,” snapped the GPS.

Was it her or did the GPS lady sound snippy?

If so, she wasn’t the only one losing her patience.

Brielle’s beams picked up an unpaved road just ahead, no laurels or a street sign in sight.

Take it?

At the last moment, she veered left, the van protesting as she downshifted on the narrow road. Here, the dark pressed closer still, dredging up old, remembered horrors of what lurked just out of sight. Her breaths shortened. Quickened. She flicked on her high beams and wiped her damp palms on her dress slacks. A split-rail fence ran along either side of the road—if you could call it that, though path seemed more fitting. Hopefully no one approached from the other direction.

“Turn right,” the GPS directed.

“Where?” Cattle with long, deadly-looking horns lifted their heads as she neared. She couldn’t turn into a pasture. In fact, she couldn’t turn at all. Abruptly the road ended at a locked gate.

“Awesome. Now what?”

“Recalculating,” the GPS bit out savagely.

“Enough.” Brielle flipped off her navigator, applied the brakes then popped the truck into Park. Her burning forehead dropped to the steering wheel.

It’d been a dark night like this when a soldier stopped by to see her before heading out on patrol.

“I don’t believe in this war anymore,” Jefferson had told her. “Everybody’s angry. Crazy. Trying to kill you. Blowing each other up.” He’d paused, and his eyes burned into hers. “It makes no sense—who gets killed and who stays alive. Sometimes you mess up, and it’s okay. Sometimes you do what you’re supposed to and people get hurt.”

“You can’t control everything that happens,” she’d said. “You’re only in charge of your own actions.”

“No.” He’d dropped his eyes and shook his head. “I can’t even do that all the time.” His face turned hard. “Once I thought you could help me. But you’re a chaplain. Your hands are clean. You don’t know what it’s like to do what we do.”

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