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Authors: Sara Arden

Return to Glory (Hqn)

BOOK: Return to Glory (Hqn)
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In Glory, Kansas, the best bakery in three counties not only brings together ingredients for sweet treats, but is the place where—through the powerful mix of friendship, community and a well-stocked kitchen—a wounded hero can forge a forever kind of love.

Back in the hometown he left behind five years ago, Jack McConnell has returned battle-scarred and feeling like half a man. But Betsy Lewis only sees the hero who once saved her life and set her heart on fire. Now she’s burning to save him in return. She’ll use every trick she’s got up her sleeve, from her generous natural assets to her talent for baking, to coax Jack out from the bottom of his whiskey bottle.

At first, Jack responds to Betsy like any red-blooded man would. He’s always denied his attraction to the innocent girl he used to know, but he’s returned to find Betsy’s grown into a full-on woman with strength enough for both of them. Until Jack realizes the only way to conquer his demons and be worthy of the hero’s mantle she’s pinned to his shoulders is to save Betsy one last time—from himself.

SARA
ARDEN

Return to Glory

Dear Reader,

I’m so excited to share my new series, Home to Glory, with you. These are stories that prove that love really does heal all wounds by teaching us to heal ourselves. In this series, it happens in the small town where they grew up—in the town where
I
grew up. There’s something both cathartic and terrifying about healing in the town where you were raised. It’s much harder to show your scars to people who already know you. But that’s definitely where the magic happens—you can’t get to the castle until you go through the haunted forest.

I can’t begin to thank everyone who helped me with with my research. The SEALs, rangers and private contractors I spoke with helped me bring these characters to life both as soldiers and as people. They chose to remain anonymous, as some of them are still in theater, but I thank them for their help, their courage and their service.

I hope you enjoy Jack and Betsy’s story. Do stop in and let me know what you think at
www.facebook.com/saraardenbooks
.

Thanks for reading,

Sara Arden

PROLOGUE

I
T WAS DURING
the predawn hours on a Saturday morning when former navy SEAL Jack McConnell donned his dress whites and pressed the cold, hard barrel of his .357 Magnum to his temple. With only one bullet in the cylinder, he had a one-in-six chance fate would right the wrong it had so grievously dealt him eighteen months ago.

Jack was supposed to be dead.

He’d sacrificed all he had to give, and now he was nothing but a broken weapon of war. No use to anyone, or anything. If he’d had even a shred of honor left, he’d have made sure every slot in the cylinder was full when he played his little game with fate every Saturday.

But something wouldn’t let him, and for that, he cursed himself for a coward. Death was no stranger to him; it’d been a warm friend at his back for every mission. So why couldn’t he meet it with certainty?

Jack took a deep breath, hoping it would be his last, and pulled the trigger on the exhale. The hammer made an impotent little click that echoed like a gavel in his ears.

It occurred to Jack that maybe the first time he’d played this game, he’d won and this was actually hell.

Today, Glory would welcome him home, the returning hero. Welcoming him back to the town where he was born, back to the house that had stood empty since his parents’ deaths and back to the corpse of a life that was no longer his.

And he was expected to stand up in front of them all and happily accept it as his due with all eyes on him, his ruined face and his new leg made of metal and gears rather than flesh.

A loud bang exploded into the silence and Jack dived to the floor, his hand curled around the .357. The racket repeated and he realized it wasn’t an explosion. It was only someone knocking boisterously on the back screen door. Jack realized it was a paradox that he’d just held his own weapon to his head, but any sound similar to gunfire caused him to take cover. To try to protect himself.

He swore as he struggled to pull himself up onto the couch. Jack could walk on his leg, he could even run, but he still had a tough time from a prone position. The knocking banged again and the handle rattled.

Jack had a good idea who it was this early in the morning. He didn’t want anyone interfering in his business, and the best way to ensure that happened in a town like this was to act as if there was no business in which they could interfere.

“If this isn’t the zombie apocalypse or you’re not Salma Hayek,” he began as he finally pulled himself up and grabbed his gun, “you’re about to gain ten pounds of lead.”

Why had he come back? If he’d never— He cut the thought off. He’d come back because even though he was ready to die, he still had affairs to put in order. Jack was a man of his word and he’d told
her
he’d come back. It had been visions of her, of his promise, that had kept him alive, and while part of him hated her for that, he’d been the one stupid enough to make the promise.

“I’ve got your ten pounds and I’ll raise you another ten,” Caleb Lewis, one of Glory P.D.’s finest, said with a grin and his hand on his gun. “Saw your light on and thought I’d stop in.”

Jack had been in town for only a few days and he was glad their reunion was private. It meant more that he wasn’t just one of the rubberneckers.

“I could have left it on because I’m afraid of the dark. You might have interrupted my beauty sleep.” The words felt hollow to him, and this easy banter that had once been the hallmark of their friendship felt forced and awkward. At least for Jack. Although he did put his gun down.

Caleb snorted. “I hate to break it to you, but you’re not getting any prettier.”

“That’s because you woke me up.” Jack forced the corner of his mouth that could still hold expression to curl into a half smirk. He appreciated the other man’s frank observation. It was something Caleb would have said to him before the explosion.

Silence reigned for a moment and the air was thick with expectation. It snapped when Caleb spoke again. “You know Betsy will want to see you.”

This was the collision of past and present Jack had been waiting for—the debt he’d come back to settle.

A tidal wave of memories hit him hard and fast.
Betsy.
Caleb’s sister and the girl he’d left behind holding only his dog tags and a childish promise to return. The way she’d looked at him at the bus station, as if her whole world hinged on the very air he breathed. He’d have done anything to keep that adoration in her eyes. Jack had never been anyone’s everything, and after he saved her from drowning, he’d become her hero and he’d allowed her to hoist him up on a pedestal.

He’d almost knocked himself off that pedestal when he came home after BUDs. She’d been so beautiful....

“Jack?” Caleb prompted, stemming the flow of memories.

“Yeah, I know.”

“I don’t think you do. She’s still half in love with you.”

“She’ll get over it.” He looked at Caleb pointedly.

“Hey, you know her better than that. She doesn’t care what you look like. In fact, she’ll hoist your pedestal even higher when she sees the sacrifices you’ve made.”

“So what is this? Warning me off your sister? Really?” He scowled. “I’ve never taken advantage of her.” He’d come precariously close to crossing the line, but he hadn’t. Instead he’d given her his tags and a promise to return.

“You’ve never sat in the dark alone in your dress whites with your weapon in your hand, either. I won’t pretend to understand what you’re going through, but you’re as much a part of my family as she is.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“That I see you. Maybe you should see you, too.” Jack opened his mouth, but Caleb cut him off. “And that’s all I’ll say. I gotta go, man. Maybe we can catch up over a few beers later.”

He should’ve known that Caleb would see through all of his carefully constructed walls and chimera within seconds and that he’d call him on all of his bullshit.

Especially where Betsy was concerned.

The best thing to do with her was settle up, just as he’d planned to do. Then he could leave and he’d never have to think about this town, the people or the weight of a hero’s mantle that Betsy had so artfully pinned to his scarred shoulders.

CHAPTER ONE

B
ETSY
L
EWIS NEVER
planned on staying in Glory. There was a big world out there with so much to be seen, done and most important, tasted. For one brief year, she’d escaped to the Institute of Culinary Education in New York.

If anyone were to ask her, she’d say freedom tasted like New York. Specifically, coffee and cheesecake from Junior’s before class. Sometimes, after class, too. For a city that was supposed to have horrible water, coffee didn’t taste the same anywhere else. Neither did the pizza crust, but that was another matter entirely. Her mouth watered just thinking about it. New York was freedom, success and happiness.

Paris, on the other hand, Paris tasted like Glory. A brew of bitter failure and broken dreams. She had gone there after graduation from the institute, one of the few chosen to be mentored by the famous Chef Abelard. Instead of being the jewel in her crown and the beginning of her career, it was a black stain. For her first dish, she and the other students had been told to prepare mushrooms bordelaise. They had to hunt for the mushrooms themselves, and rather than paying attention to what she was doing, she’d been too busy soaking up the countryside, the culture and Marcel to notice that she’d gathered death cap mushrooms. If not for Chef Abelard’s highly sensitive caninelike sense of smell, she might have killed someone.

After the incident, she’d told herself she never wanted to cook, she never wanted to be a chef, she was a baker. An artist who wrought beauty out of sugar and flour. Not someone who worried about brisket.

So she’d returned to Glory and the small-town life that always seemed too small. But after the incident, New York was too big.

Except for Jack McConnell. Yeah, she’d rather think about him than how she’d blown her dreams out of the water with both guns blazing. He was the only thing about Glory that was big-screen.

Jack.
Even thinking his name made her insides flutter like a thousand butterfly wings. Of course, that fluttering nonsense had been cordially invited to stop when his letters stopped. The butterflies didn’t take the hint, but she hadn’t found a way to effectively serve them an eviction notice.

They were the reason she hadn’t slept. Or more accurately, Jack was the reason she hadn’t slept. The butterflies were hosting a rave at the prospect of seeing him again. Jack had come home and as of this particular moment was barely three blocks away. The knowledge they were even in the same zip code had each nerve ending on high alert. Betsy was sure her eyes were open so wide she looked like some kind of speed freak.

She’d replayed every memory over and over again until the edges seemed tattered like an old quilt, and just like that old quilt, she’d wrapped herself in those memories—especially of his kiss.

Betsy hadn’t been kissed like that since—an electric current she felt all the way through to her toes. Not that many had gotten close enough to try. Betsy didn’t trust easily. She was friendly and warm, but few were invited to her inner circle. Almost drowning as a child had been a hard lesson. When it had happened, Betsy could see the people who were supposed to be her friends through the heavy wall of water that held her down. They’d simply stood immobile and watched as her life slipped away. The EMTs said inaction associated with fear in that kind of situation was common, but rather than offering comfort to Betsy, it drove home the idea people weren’t to be trusted.

All except Jack. He’d rescued her. That memory replayed itself more often than his kiss.

This constant cycle of thoughts had been set to “spin” since she found out Jack was coming home. Now he was here, and today they’d welcome him home in the same gym where they’d said goodbye.

She rolled over and over, trying to get comfortable, but sleep was elusive. Betsy gave up trying. Her bakeshop, Sweet Thing, would open soon. While she loved her shop, it was still the consolation prize because it was in Glory. She had a small staff, but Betsy still had to finish the cookies she was taking to the ceremony. She wanted to do those herself. They were Nutella cheesecake, Jack’s favorite.

She slipped into the dress she’d made just for today. White with a bright red cherry print sewn in her favorite pattern. It accentuated her assets while kindly camouflaging her flaws. Betsy draped a crisp apron over the creation and headed downstairs to the shop.

The scent of glazed donuts and maple coffee greeted her when she walked through the door. Betsy inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, as if she could keep more of the scent with her. There was a kind of Zen for her in the bakeshop. Simply walking through the door was a tonic for Betsy that eased her hurts and soothed her mind.

A blond head poked out from the walk-in cooler. India George was a newly minted addition to the Glory P.D. and her brother’s partner. India was supermodel gorgeous, with high cheekbones, long legs and wide blue eyes. But she’d never been one for dresses and frills; she was rough-and-tumble all the way. She’d been back only for a few months, but it was as if she’d never left. This morning she’d agreed to be Betsy’s minion and help run the shop while Betsy handled the orders for the ceremony. In return, Betsy promised no cop/donut jokes for at least a week.

“Didn’t sleep, did you?” India asked as she pulled out a tray of donuts ready for frosting and set them on a prep table.

Betsy grabbed some icing bags and handed one to India. “Sleep is overrated.”

“Have you seen him yet?” India didn’t look at her as she accepted the bag and began icing a donut.

India wasn’t only her brother’s partner, she was also his best friend and had been since the first time she made him actually eat dirt on the playground after taking her ball. India was the big sister she’d never had.

“No,” Betsy admitted. “I almost went to see him the day he came home, but I thought he’d need some time.”

“That was smart. Adjusting to civilian life is hard, even without his challenges. His parents’ deaths...” She shrugged and kept icing.

What India hadn’t mentioned, but left hanging in the air like a contagion, was the stark reality of Jack’s injuries.

“I remember when I got the call last year,” Betsy said quietly. “After his parents died when he was first deployed, I was his emergency contact. The nurse asked me if there was anything I wanted her to tell him. She thought he was going to die.”

India had a donut halfway up to her mouth but put it down. “I didn’t know that. What did you say?”

“He promised to come back to me, India.” Betsy nodded silently as that last and most hated memory churned to the surface. She’d been avoiding that one, pushing it out of her head every time it struggled forward. She’d rather drown a thousand times than ever take that call again or remember how it felt. She found her voice and lifted her chin. “I told her to remind him of his promise.”

“Oh Bets.” India covered Betsy’s hand with her own. “That was a long time ago. Maybe even another person. He—”

“It’s not like I spent the last five years waiting for him.” Betsy turned back to her work.

“Isn’t it?” India asked in a careful tone.

“No, that would be stupid.” Or maybe just pathetic. She hadn’t waited for him, but Jack McConnell had the set the bar by which she measured a man pretty high.

“When was the last time you went out with someone?” India had latched on to the idea that Betsy had waited all these years for Jack. Like a rabid dog, she wasn’t going to let it go any time soon.

“Scott Meyer.”

“Not who,
when?

Betsy cringed at the answer. “Last year.”

“And before that?”

“There was that guy in Paris.” She thought about Marcel and how he’d broken her heart right after she’d broken her own dreams. She sighed. Marcel didn’t matter. What would she have done with him anyway? Stayed in France? Married him? And never been good enough, smart enough, pretty enough or talented enough? She’d always be the wide-eyed girl from America who liked to play in the kitchen. Why had she ever put up with that from him?

“Right about when Jack stopped writing and calling?” India eyed her. “You still have his dog tags, don’t you?”

The tags were in her nightstand. “I still have my yearbook, too. That’s not especially significant.” Now, Jack, he was the one she would’ve married. If she were with him, Glory wouldn’t be such a bad place to end up. In fact, when she was a little girl, she didn’t dream of France. She dreamed of him and Glory.

“A yearbook is nowhere near the same thing as a soldier’s dog tags.”

Betsy could admit India was right about that, but Betsy didn’t think there was anything wrong with keeping his tags. He’d been a big part of her life. The breath in her lungs was there only because he’d given it to her. Keeping his tags didn’t seem above and beyond reasonable.

“Look, I know Jack isn’t the same guy who left. He couldn’t be. But that guy made me feel like a live wire and see stars where I knew there weren’t any because my eyes were closed. If someone makes me feel that again, then I’ll go out with him. I won’t settle for less.”

“Honey, if Scott Meyer didn’t make you see stars, you’re a lost cause,” India teased.

Betsy could admit Scott was a catch. He was a fireman. It was some unwritten law that all firemen had to be sexy. He was smart and funny, country-boy sweet with a pair of shoulders like Atlas. Betsy had kissed him on their third date. It had been nice, but it had reminded her of chocolate. Godiva to be exact. She liked Godiva and enjoyed it, an excellent product, but it didn’t do things to her senses the way André’s Confiserie Suisse did. Having had André’s, she was spoiled for anything else.

“Didn’t you go out with him a few times after you got back? I don’t see any follow-up dates that you had, either. You must be a lost cause, too,” Betsy deflected.

A haunted look flashed across India’s features, only to fade into a brittle smile. “I am at that, Bets.” She nodded.

“India,” Betsy began haltingly.

“I’d rather deal with your mess than mine.” India’s expression softened. “I know you and Caleb love me. If I need you, I’ll ask, okay?”

There was so much Betsy wanted to say. India was just returning to civilian life after deployment as a military police officer. While she’d come home physically whole, something catastrophic had happened to her that was more than just the reality of war.

“Okay,” she agreed softly. “But you better hurry up in the dating department. Otherwise you’re stuck with my brother.” They’d made an oath at fifteen that if neither of them was married by thirty, they’d bite the bullet and marry each other. Betsy’s mom had been thrilled and suggested they start dating as a practice run.

“More like he’d be stuck with me.” India managed a real laugh. “Don’t you have cookies to bake?”

Betsy let it drop. “Are you sure you can handle the counter? The morning rush is kind of crazy.”

“I’m a cop.” India shrugged. “How bad can it be?”

“You’re tempting fate with that question.”

“She can go ahead and
bring it.
” India screwed up her pretty features into an expression that said she was indeed ready for anything that came her way.

That was old-school India, and Betsy was happy to hear it. “If you’re sure. If you need me, I’ll be in my
laboratory.
” She pronounced the last word with what her brother had come to call “evil genius inflection.”

Betsy had to admit that baking sometimes made her feel like a mad scientist, or a witch brewing spells and potions. It was part of what she loved about baking. Quality baked goods were all about chemistry and reaction, but not just of the ingredients themselves. It was about how those things interacted with the people combining the ingredients and those who would partake of the results.

Betsy tried to stay calm and happy while she worked. In the early days of her shop, she’d taken out her frustration on bread dough, and even though she’d done nothing different, when she was unhappy, the bread tasted like a scoop of used kitty litter.

As she mixed the dough for the cookies, Betsy let go of everything that weighed her down. She surrendered to the initial feelings that always enveloped her when she walked into the shop. Peace. Joy. Home. She kept each one on her mind and in her heart while she formed every cookie.

It was a blessed respite until several hours later. When all the batches had cooled and she packaged cookies for Jack and some for the ceremony, it occurred to her that maybe Jack wouldn’t want to see her at all. Her heart twisted in on itself, the cruel hands of possibility wringing it out like a sponge.

She crushed that thought beneath her vintage high heels. It didn’t matter if he wanted to see her or not. With all he’d lost, he needed someone. Even if it was only to let him know he wasn’t alone. It was possible and even likely he’d changed more than she could ever know, but underneath it all, he was still Jack. Betsy owed him her very life, and if he needed her now, nothing would keep her from repaying the debt. She might not be able to make mushrooms bordelaise, but she could help Jack.

Betsy kept her focus on that determination while she closed up Sweet Thing, loaded the bakery van with India and even after she’d taken her seat inside the community center.

But then her first sight of Jack obliterated all her good intentions. Any notion of debts and repayment quickly morphed into a familiar hunger. Her breath caught and time stopped.

A tsunami-like surge of emotion crashed over her now. She devoured the sight of him, as if any second he’d disappear and she’d have only these few precious seconds to remember him.

He was harder now, aged in a way deeper than skin. His shoulders were wider, his chest thicker and his jaw harder. His close-cropped hair now accentuated the high-angled sharp lines of his cheekbones and cinder block jaw. His mouth was set in a grim line, scar tissue crisscrossing in a haphazard melee across the left side of his face. When he turned his head, she saw that the scars ran down his neck and disappeared beneath his uniform.

Tears welled up in her eyes for him, but not because of how he looked. Even with the scars, he was as handsome as he’d ever been. Maybe even more. His scars were proof of his strength—of his courage. The spray of white-ridged marks across his skin, and tributaries and valleys of twisted, ropey sinew and puckered flesh, horrified her not because they were ugly, but because she couldn’t imagine the pain he’d suffered.

BOOK: Return to Glory (Hqn)
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