At The Heart’s Command – Excerpt – Patricia McLinn

Col. John Griffin, Jr., has just arrived at Far Hills Ranch, his family’s Wyoming homestead for generations. It’s run now by his aunt. But Grif hasn’t come to see her. He’s come to help two kids and their mother — the woman he’s never stopped wanting and can never have.

And nothing is going to stop him. Not the U.S. Army. Not the pair of kids he’s getting ready to face. Not Ellyn Neal Sinclair. Not even himself…

****

He moved ahead to open the back door for her. “I’ll carry the basket.”

“There’s no need for that.” He followed her out and took the basket, this time using enough strength on his first attempt to overcome her resistance. “Grif – ”

“Go on up.” He titled his head in the direction of the path to the ridge. The railroad ties that had formed rough steps had rotted, but the path was passable, at least on good days like this. “Unless you want to stay here and I’ll hang these myself.”

She’d already started up the path, recognizing Grif’s never-to-be-budged tone. But at the incongruous image, she chuckled and tossed over her shoulder, “How would it look to have a major in the United States Army hanging up laundry?”

“Colonel,” he murmured absently.

“Colonel? You’ve made full colonel? That’s quite a jump in a short time.” She looked back at him, but could read nothing in his face.

“I suppose.”

At the top, she turned and faced him. “That must have been some assignment you got – the one you left Washington for so suddenly right when…” She took a breath and finished in a different direction. “Before we moved back here.”

“It was.” His quiet answer both filled in the gap she’d left and cut off the subject like a concrete wall at the end of a one-way alley. “Where do you want this?”

She gave up thoughts of trying to break through that concrete, and nodded to a stretch of unfilled clothesline. “Thanks, Grif. Now, why don’t you go see Marti and – ”

He ignored her, pulling out a pair of racing stripe pajama bottoms and shaking them out. “Ben’s?”

“Yes, but – ”

“He must have grown a foot.”

His tone – a crust of sadness overlaying awe – clogged her throat. She nodded, and swallowed. “Meg, too.”

He jammed a clothespin over the waist of the pajamas and the line. He looked over at the items she’d hung earlier, then at his handiwork, and frowned. “That’s not secure.”

“It works better if you pin each cuff to the line – the material catches more breeze that way and dries faster. But, really, Grif, this isn’t necessary.”

As she took out another of Dale’s old shirts that she wore around the house, she used her peripheral vision to watch Grif remove the clothespin, turn the pajamas upside down and pin one cuff. He recognized the new problem immediately. She caught the inside of her cheeks between her teeth.

Trying to keep the unpinned pajama leg from flapping around, he stretched toward the basket for a second clothespin. He should have looked awkward, ludicrous, uncoordinated. Instead, the twisting, reaching motion pulled the knit of his shirt taut across long, ropy muscles in his back, and molded the fabric of his pants around the powerful curve of his thigh and the even rounder curve of his –

No longer tempted to grin, Ellyn jerked her gaze and thoughts from where they didn’t belong, grabbed a clothespin and moved in to help him.

He released the loose pajama leg to her hold, then reached over her shoulder to help keep it in place. With his other hand still on the first pin and with the pajamas in front of her, she was surrounded. She drove the pin home with more power than finesse, and quickly ducked under his extended arm.

“That’s how you do it,” she said once she’d gained some distance. “But, as I said, this isn’t the kind of duty you’re used to, Colonel Griffin.”

“Even a colonel can learn.”

As they both bent over the basket, she to retrieve the shirt she’d dropped there when she grabbed the clothespin, and he to pull out one of Meg’s sweatshirts, she glanced at him, found his eyes on her and looked away.

“You never learned to do laundry? I thought the army made men self-reliant.”

“I’ve washed clothes now and then, but nobody ever taught me the finer points. Mom did the laundry when I was a kid. When she got sick…” His next words were matter-of-fact. “My father could never be bothered with household stuff, so we sent everything out. My self-reliance comes in the form of finding the best laundry in the shortest amount of time in a new place. One good thing I learned from my father.”

A year and a half ago, and anytime in the eight years before that, she would have said that John Griffin Junior was her best friend. Now it struck her that in all the years she’d known him, stretching back to spending most childhood summers on this very ranch with him and the others, she’d heard him mention his mother maybe a dozen times, and his father half that. So exactly how well did she know him?

Certainly not well enough to have avoided being blindsided by his absence these past fifteen months.

She didn’t know how long she’d been mulling that while automatically hanging clothes before Grif’s voice cut into her thoughts. “Why aren’t you using the dryer.”

“Use a dryer on such a beautiful day? That would be a homemaker’s sin,” she said airily.

“I don’t remember you caring much about homemaking sins.”

He must have caught her reflexive wince, because he reached a hand toward her that she evaded by stretching up to secure the corner of one of Ben’s shirts.

“I didn’t mean anything critical, Ellyn. I just remember you not worrying about such things, so – ”

“Of course not. You’re right,” she said lightly. “I was never that kind of woman. A mouse to start, a bit of a tomboy later, then a haphazard housekeeper, and, as a wife – ”

Grif’s hand on her arm drew her around. “You’re talking nonsense – you know that, don’t you, Ellyn?”

“Just quoting Rose Neal Brindford.” And Dale, but Grif didn’t need to know that.

“Don’t. Your mother’s a – ”

She watched him bite back the word she could almost hear on his tongue. He turned away, and his big hand settled on the inside seam of the jeans hanging upside down. Even as kids, he’d always hated the way her mother criticized her. Hated it even worse if she criticized herself with her mother’s words. But that was a hard habit to escape.

“Ellyn.” She couldn’t take her eyes off his hand. In a motion she was certain was unconscious, his hand slid slowly along the inside seam of the jeans – her jeans. “There are some things we should talk about. Get clear.”

The caressing touch of his hand dropped lower along that seam – nearly to the point where the left leg met the right, to the point where – Oh, lord. She spun around, looking for something else, anything else to absorb her attention.

Marti and Kendra were right. She’d been alone too long. Living out here without any male companionship. Letting her libido get so desperate it rioted at the sight of a strong hand sliding down the seam of her jeans, toward – No!

“About why I’m here,” Grif was saying, “and…other things.”

This was not the time for her to try to talk to him about anything, not while images of a hand on a pair of jeans strobed through her brain and bloodstream. She needed something to keep him occupied while she got her mind on a different track…an entirely different track.

“Ellyn? Are you listening?”

She let out an audible whoosh of relief as she spotted exactly the distraction she needed.

Saved by the school bus.

“The kids just got off the bus down at the highway.” She nodded toward two distant figures starting along the ranch road. “I’m going down to wait for them inside.”

And to get away from the unexpected dangers of hanging laundry.

Grif had turned to see for himself, and now he remained looking that way as he spoke. “Maybe you should tell Meg and Ben about my being here before they see me. It could be a shock.”

“A shock?” Her own unsettled feelings sharpened her voice and words. “In the past year and half, we’ve become shock experts, and believe me, this doesn’t count, Grif. Don’t make a bigger deal of this than it is.”

And if he didn’t realize after that little speech that she’d changed, he never would. But somehow she didn’t want to see his judgment of this new Ellyn right now. She started back to the house without looking at him.

* * * *

If the army had Ellyn Sinclair, it wouldn’t need drill sergeants to cut recruits down to size.

Don’t make a bigger deal of this than it is.

That put him in perspective, didn’t it? Grif grimaced as he followed Ellyn’s straight back down the eroded steps.

Well, what had he expected? That she – they – would fall on him like a savior? Just because pulling out of their lives had been like pulling himself off life support didn’t mean it had affected them the same way.

When the four Sinclairs left Washington fifteen months ago, he’d known they’d have support in Far Hills, led by his aunt, Marti Susland. Even when he’d heard about Dale’s death, he’d been certain Ellyn and the kids would be looked after. Still, he’d planned eventually to come to Far Hills to assure himself they were okay, maybe try to pick up some of the threads that had once tied them…when the time was right, when he was sure he was ready.

The time had never been quite right, and he hadn’t been ready.

Then phrases from Marti started to nag at him. Subtle at first, but not for long. Increasingly more pointed phrases about tough times for Ellyn and the kids – tough times emotionally and practically. She’d eventually written it flat out in an email: They needed help.

So it no longer mattered if he was ready.

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