“Well, well, well, look what the wind brought to Middletown, Landon Petersen.”

Derek Hayes engulfed the tall, muscular man standing outside his door in a bear hug.

“Did your bus arrive early? I was going to pick you up at the station.”

“Yes, it did. No worries,” Landon said taking a look around.

Derek was the only one who knew what his army buddy was going through.

“Welcome to our home, Landon. Come on in, and meet my beautiful wife, Bella.”

Landon stepped inside the house. A beautiful girl wearing gym shorts and a tank top smiled at the visitor.

“Hi, I’m Bella. I finally get to meet the famous Landon Petersen, the man who saved my husband’s life.”

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Hayes,” Landon shook Bella’s hand. “It’s really kind of you to say that. Sorry I missed your wedding.”

“It’s okay, Man” said Derek. “You were deployed. Do you know? Every time I look myself in the mirror and see the huge scar on my face I wonder how come my wife doesn’t run scared?”

Bella hugged her husband’s waist and said, “You know I love you for who you are, my gentle giant.”

Bella smiled at Derek, and he kissed her lovingly. Landon looked at them with a pang of envy.

“I hope I’m not imposing,” Landon said when they broke the kiss.

“You’re not imposing at all, Bro,” Derek said with a laugh. “After all, I’m the one who talked you into coming to Middletown.”

“Thank you,” the effort to act normal was taking a toll on Landon.

“So, Landon, how long are you staying in Middletown?” Bella asked.

Landon shrugged. “I’m not sure, a while I suppose.”

The tone of Landon’s voice was light, but his eyes were empty. The effort to make small talk was wearing him out.

Derek changed the subject. “Do you want to visit our gym? We were just heading there.”

“Sure.” Suddenly all the lightness in his face, in his voice disappeared as the darkness of recollection assailed him. He was lucky not to have bled to death the day they were attacked. The red-hot metal had cauterized the wound. He kept seeing Derek’s face destroyed by a metal splinter and the bodies of his buddies scattered around him. The scenes still haunted him.

He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. His face was pale, and there was a cold sweat on his forehead.

“Do you feel okay, Landon?” Bella asked him with concern. “Did you have breakfast? You look pale.”

He nodded slowly.

“I had some breakfast at the bus terminal, Mrs. Hayes. Thank you,” Landon said in a shaky voice. Truth was he had just a black coffee. He took another deep breath.

“Please, Landon, call me Bella;” she smiled at him and said, “I’ll change myself, and we’ll be ready to go.”

As soon as his wife left, Derek lowered his voice and asked full of concern, “How are you holding up, Bro?”

Landon closed his eyes and took a deep breath as he tried to relax. “I’m on medical leave for twelve weeks. They are maintaining my health benefits. I told my commander I couldn’t handle another deployment. He advised me to request a medical exam and I was diagnosed with PTSD.”

Derek moved his head up and down.

“I went through the same shit myself. Are you sleeping all right?”

Landon shook his head. He was used to waking up soaked in his own sweat.

“No, not really. I got some pills from the doctor.” Landon was not a fan of discussing his sleeping or any other issues he might have with anyone. Not even Derek.

“I still have some nightmares about what happened. They got better since I met Bella. Are you getting help?”

Landon looked embarrassed. “They gave me some pills and I saw a therapist for a while. It didn’t help. You told me about a PTSD program in Seattle.”

“Yes, that’s a good one. I went there for a while after I was discharged. I’ll drive you there.” Derek placed a big hand on Landon’s shoulder. “I’m here for you and you know it. Anything you need. I owe you my life”

“I know, Derek. Thank you. My commander said that having PTSD doesn’t necessarily mean the end of my career, but I need to seek help. He said that if I seek treatment while still in military service it will protect me from getting a bad paper and being denied veterans benefits in the future.”

“Are you going to stay here with us?”

Landon looked at Derek warily. “I don’t think that would be a good idea. I prefer to have my own place, Derek. Preferably out of town. I’m not a good company lately. Especially at night.”

“Okay. I won’t push you. Whatever you need I’m your first and your last call. A good friend of ours comes to the gym in the mornings. She’s a real estate agent. She’ll help you to find the right place for you.”

At that moment, Bella returned and the three of them headed to the gym.


Grace McAllister held her breath, pumping again on the leg press. Her legs and calves burned. But that was good. Exercising and exhaustion was therapy, the only way she could forget her aching heart for an hour or two.

Focusing on the next rep, she ignored the man across the room doing sit-ups on the abdominal machine with Derek. He seemed to be close to Derek and Bella. Both men had been watching her for a while and whispering.

Grace pumped her legs again, sweat trickling between her breasts. If she were honest with herself, she’d admit that Derek’s friend was easy on the eyes. He was at least six foot three, maybe taller. He was lean and rangy, muscle and bone, nothing extra.

Glancing toward him, she couldn’t help but notice how his abs rippled beneath the sweat-dampened, white T-shirt he wore. Since she’d refused to make eye contact with him, there was no way to know what color his eyes were. But he was one sexy man.

All the more reason to avoid him like the plague. A handsome man was the reason she was here now, to put the pieces of her broken heart back together.

Tears stung her eyes. Damn it! The rage at those who’d wronged her had long since waned. Now the anger was directed at herself for being so blind, so foolish and so unable to get over it.

Six months. It had been six frigging months, and still, she couldn’t even think about it without wanting to cry. The humiliation of being such a stupid, naïve, trusting idiot was too much to bear.

Her muscles protested the continued abuse, but she pressed again, lifting the heavyweights in the casing behind her. A movement caught her eye, and she stifled a groan. Derek’s friend had been convinced to make his attempt to pick her up.

Without looking at him, she didn’t give him a chance to speak. “Not interested.” There had been a time when Grace would not have thought herself capable of being so rude.

He was clearly uncomfortable. “I’m Landon. I was with Derek, in the army. He told me I should talk with you…” his voice was soft, quiet.

Grace finished another rep before answering, panting as she released the weight. “Well, you have talked with me. You can leave.”

A moment of tense silence passed before he answered, “He must have ripped your heart out.”

Startled, her gaze jerked to his. Black. His eyes were black. He had the troubled eyes of a werewolf before the change. Grace swallowed hard. “What?”

He didn’t smile. In fact, he seemed angry. “He cheated on you, didn’t he?”

Stunned, Grace tried to form a pithy reply, but words eluded her. She hadn’t talked about it with anyone, not even her brother, Steve.

His penetrating gaze held hers for several moments. Finally, she tore her gaze away, pushing again for the next rep. Exertion strained her voice as she answered. “Yeah, well, I haven’t managed to get the knives out of my back yet. So, I’d appreciate it if you’d just leave me alone to lick my wounds.”

“Understood, Ma’am. Sorry I bothered you…”

Grace cried out, her right calf muscle cramping into a tight ball and sending searing pain through her leg. She reached for it, tears once again filling her eyes.

Langdon didn’t hesitate. Grabbing the balled muscle with both hands, he squeezed and massaged until it loosened. But even before the pain eased, Grace tingled at the feel of his hands against her bare skin. Heat radiated through her, racing through her blood, waking all her senses.

After it was obvious the cramp had eased, he released her leg. She lifted her lids and found him watching her with concern.

Grace licked her dry lips. “Thanks.”

Landon swallowed, “You’re welcome.”

“I guess I’m done for the day.” Grace grabbed her towel and stood, purposely keeping the machine between them.

Derek approached the two of them and asked Landon, “Did you ask her?”

Grace looked at Derek, “I didn’t give him a chance, Derek. You know I don’t want to date anyone…”

“Date?”Derek’s voice made her jump. “What are you talking about, Grace?! My buddy Landon is going to stay in town for a while and he’s looking for a place. I told him that you could help him. I even told him you were a nice person.”

“Oh…!” Grace exclaimed and then opened her eyes with realization. “OH! So he didn’t come to pick me up… I feel such a fool! I completely misread the situation.”

Grace looked sincerely apologetic. “Please forgive my rudeness, Landon.”

Landon gave Grace a soft smile. “It was an understandable mistake. A pretty girl like you must have a lot of guys sniffing around. Don’t beat yourself up.”

“You’re very kind to say that, Landon. Let me give you my card. You can call me this afternoon and I’ll show you some places. It’s a low season, hence renting is really cheap and there’s a lot to choose.”


“This cabin is a bit far out from town, a couple of miles, but the price is right and the view is beautiful,” Grace explained to Landon.

“Being far from town is perfect. I don’t feel comfortable around crowds,” Landon explained.

He had no idea what he would do about transportation in Middletown. Probably no taxis or Uber. He only hoped he could walk most places and beg a ride for longer distances. Maybe, just maybe, he would try driving. Wouldn’t be so hard on near-empty streets.

His first impression of the cabin was warmth. A large living area with expansive windows, hardwood floors and a huge fireplace. The bed was a double and looked comfortable. The headboard faced a window that framed large pine trees. The bathroom was medium size with a large walk-in shower.

Grace suddenly realized she was staring at Landon. He was moody and silent.

“The television is satellite and has a lot of stations available. You have internet service too. There’s a path just to the left of the cabin that goes up the side of the mountain. There are some great views there,” Grace went on.

Landon had come to Middletown, hoping the mountain air would help him get his head on straight.

“The owner wants to sell too in case you’re interested. He’s an old man,” the realtor kept explaining.

Landon looked out through the pines to the lake. The sky was impossibly blue against the mountains, and a cool breeze was refreshing. The scent of pines and lavender perfumed the air. The vivid shades of green stood in stark contrast to the colorless rocks and sand of much of the Middle East.

Grace cocked her head. “Anything else you would like to know?”

Landon shook her head. “It’s far more than I expected for the price I can pay,” he explained in a lifeless voice. “I’ll take it.”

“Are you sure? I could show you other options…”Grace tried to steady her voice even as she was affected by the ethereal sadness in him.

“It’s not necessary. I like it here.” Landon took a deep breath.

“Then I’ll drive you back to town to sign the paperwork and give you the keys.”

Landon nodded, but there was no heart in it. He was glad Grace didn’t push him. He got frustrated easily when he wasn’t understood.

“Thank you.”

“Then I’ll drive you back with your luggage.”

Landon hesitated, and Grace sensed that he was reluctant to take any help. “I don’t have much,” he said. “Besides, Derek and Bella invited me to dinner. I’m sure he can drive me here when we’re done.”

Grace was lingering. She should have already taken him back to town, but somehow she found herself wanting to stay longer and get to know Landon better.

“Well, it’s official then, welcome to Middletown!” Grace chirped, walked over to Landon and hugged him. She felt him wince and realized it was a mistake.

“Sorry, we don’t really do the whole shake hands approach in this town.”

“Another reason to stay away,” Landon mumbled under his breath.


Bella cooked a special dinner in Landon’s honor. They made small talk during dinner. Derek and Bella did most of the talking. They told Landon the story of how they met and fell in love.

After they ate, the two men sat down in the living room.

“Do you like dogs?” Derek asked Landon unexpectedly.

“Sure. Who doesn’t?”Landon replied. “Never had one. Money was too tight when I was a kid, then a dog didn’t really fit into army life unless it’s military.”

“There is a program in Seattle that matches shelter dogs with vets who have PTSD. They’re trained to sense when a flashback is coming and alert their vet.”

Landon hesitated. A dog? How could he take care of a dog when he could barely take care of himself right now?

Derek waited, then said gently, “You would be saving a life.” He paused.

He knew Derek was trying to force him to make a decision, but the idea suddenly appealed to Landon. Loneliness was like a shroud around him. And a dog wouldn’t ask questions or give sympathy or question his choices. “Would the cabin owner approve?”

Derek grinned. “Sure, man. A lot of people have pets around here.”

“How much is a dog? I don’t have much money.”

“It’s free. The dog has all its shots, is well trained and there’s equipment provided, as well. A dog bed, dishes. Food. Toys. Part of the program we talked about.”

Landon felt like a fish being reeled in. He didn’t like being manipulated, but he knew Derek meant well.

Derek waited, as he always did. He rarely appeared to push, but in his own subtle way, that was exactly what happened.

Landon hesitated, just as he hesitated at any move forward these days. Inertia had taken over his life. Decisions were difficult if not impossible. That was entirely new for him. He had been making decisions since he was a little older than a toddler. When set on a course he could rarely be deterred.

But that was before. Now… nothing was important.

“Landon,” Derek said, “Give it a try. At least talk to the trainer. See the dog. You don’t have to make a decision this minute.”

He shrugged and nodded his head.


The first days at the cabin were fine, hiking steeply up through the ancient evergreen forest. As he got tired of listening to nothing but his own thoughts, it got harder.

So, when Derek called him the next Friday, offering to drive him down to Seattle to meet the dog, he accepted.

“They won’t let the dog go with just anyone,” Derek warned Landon on the way there. “There has to be a fit.”

Landon swallowed. What if the dog rejected him? He didn’t know whether that was what he wanted or not. He had decided that if it did work he was going to keep an emotional distance from the animal.

Why had he let Derek talk him into this? Now he had to make a decision.

“You’re second-guessing yourself again,” Derek said reading his mind. It was spooky.

“If the introduction goes well, you are expected to stay at the trainer’s ranch for several days for intense training and to ensure the match will be successful.”

Maybe it wouldn’t be. In the past few days, he had read enough about the program to know there had to be trust on the part of both the veteran and the dog. He didn’t know if he could give that.

Derek turned onto a dirt road that led to a small ranch house outside Seattle. There were also stables, an oblong building with a chimney, kennels, and a fenced-in area. Several dogs came to the fence and barked as Derek parked the car.

A wiry woman came to the car as Landon stepped out.

“You must be Landon Petersen,” she said. “I’m Audrey Schmitt. Call me Audrey. Everyone does.” She held out a weathered hand, and Landon took it.

“Follow me,” Audrey said.

Before any more thoughts flickered through his mind, he was herded into the ranch house. A dog was at the window, watching. He didn’t move until they were all inside and Audrey said, “Scout, say hello.”

The dog approached obediently. He was medium size where Landon had expected a larger animal. But this dog more resembled a small collie; his coat appeared woven of shades of black, white, and tan. He had blue eyes that regarded him cautiously.

“Scout?” Audrey said again.

The dog held up his paw.

Landon took it gingerly. The fur was soft, and the dog’s gaze seemed to reach inside him and ask questions he couldn’t answer. Then his tongue flicked out and licked his hand.

“He likes you,” Audrey smiled.

Landon found himself petting the dog.

“Try behind his ears,” Audrey suggested. “That and his stomach are his favorite spots.”

Landon followed the advice and rubbed behind the dog’s ears. Scout turned on his back and bared his stomach. Landon rubbed it, stopping when he heard a rumbling noise.

“That’s a groan of pleasure,” Audrey explained with a smile.

“You sure about that?”

“I’m sure.”

Landon went back to rubbing Scout’s stomach before straightening up.

“You think he will do?” Audrey asked.

Landon stood and Scout sat in front of him. He hesitated. Scout lifted the same paw that he had before and looked expectant.

“He has accepted you. Now it’s up to you,” Audrey said. “He’s a smart dog, one of the smartest I’ve trained, and that says a lot. He had to be to survive. If you feel through the fur, you’ll find scars. He had some rough times before we rescued him.”

Landon nodded. He knew exactly how the dog must have felt.

Audrey continued. “Scout has a natural empathy that makes him ideal for our purposes. If you have a nightmare, he knows to wake you up. He will remind you when it’s time to go to bed. Panic attack? He will physically interrupt you and redirect the panic.”

Landon was stunned. He had read about dogs and vets but hadn’t realized exactly what they did. “All of that?” he asked dubiously.

“And more. He can find and locate objects, like your shoes, or your phone or keys. In other words, he can pretty much do anything you want to teach him to do.”

Landon found it hard to believe a dog could do all that. But if he just interrupted the nightmares, he would be grateful.

“I know it’s hard to believe,” Audrey said, “but it’s really remarkable what these dogs can do.”

“Derek said they are free. How can you do that?”

“Ninety percent of the dogs come from shelters. I have sponsors too. Derek is one of them. But there are others, including area veterinarians who donate their services. I do it because my son had PTSD, only it wasn’t recognized like it is now.” She paused, then added, “He committed suicide.”

“I’m truly sorry for your loss,” Landon said sincerely. Losing someone was something he understood very well. Sadly, he was familiar with suicide too.

Audrey simply nodded. “If you decide you want to come into the program, you’ll stay with the dog until I think the two of you are ready. Maybe a week, maybe less, maybe more. You’ll live in the bunkhouse with the dog while you get to know each other. He’s trained, but you’re not. But I want to know for sure that you’re committed, that you will stick with it.”

Landon looked down at the dog, who looked up at him. He would have sworn the dog smiled.

“Are you ready for me?” Landon asked him.