Somehow Sky hadn’t expected cherry blossoms. Insane really, she’d spent her entire life in the Virginia, Maryland, D.C. area, she was certainly accustomed to the sight of cherry blossoms in May. She just hadn’t expected to find them in a cemetery.
Were there blossoms years ago when she came with her parents to see the tomb of the unknown soldier?
Row after tidy row of white headstones stretched on as far as the eye could see. She raised her camera and snapped a shot.
One row over her three year old daughter stood, head tilted back, blond hair stirring in the breeze. Sky took another picture.
“C’mon, sweetpea, time to go.”
Heaven skipped over to her. “Did you take the picture of grandma’s daddy’s name?”
The late afternoon light grew soft as if a switch had been flipped. Sky frowned, looking up. No sign of a storm, only cottony white clouds painted above. Long, pale rays of sunlight filtered through the clouds, reaching out to the earth below. God’s fingers, her grandmother had called it. She took a picture and then another.
“Alright…” Every muscle turned to ice. Her heart refused to beat as she staggered in a crooked circle.
No answer. She opened her mouth to scream her daughter’s name once more, then nearly sank to her knees in gratitude when a bit of white with red polka dots vanished behind a stone and reappeared a second later.
“Heaven Danielle!” She ran after her, keeping the little sundress in sight.
Dane Ricker closed his eyes, fighting the headache that threatened to swallow his brain.
One hundred, ninety-nine… He continued counting backward, a trick one of the doctors at the VA hospital had suggested. With each number he told himself the headache was fading.
Dane kept his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his jeans. He wouldn’t touch the scar on the right side of his head, wouldn’t give it that acknowledgement.
When the pain had changed from a drill in his brain to a more manageable level, he opened his eyes.
His eyes moved over each letter, tracing the name. February of 1972. Dane had been born in March of that year, twenty-three days after his father’s death.
Sky’s hand hooked into the elastic back of her daughter’s dress, nearly jerking the little girl off her feet.
“Mommy,” she protested, “I was following the see-through man. Now he’s gone.”
The see-through man? Icy drops crawled down her spine. Granted, it was a cemetery, but she didn’t really believe in ghosts, did she?
Shifting her grip to her daughter’s hand, she let her eyes move across the rows of markers.
“Is that who you mean?” she asked, using her free hand to point to the man on one knee, head bowed, in front of a stone.
Heaven nodded, her pointy little chin bouncing up and down.
The man certainly didn’t look transparent, she thought. The light played with bits of red in his brown hair, hair that was the same shade as hers. Too bad hers came from a bottle.
She watched as he placed his hand on the headstone. The long rays of light touched his head and shoulders, illuminating him. Sky raised her camera.
The stone was warm and smooth beneath his palm. For a moment Dane had the eerie sensation that he touched human flesh.
He stared at his father’s name. A hero, who’d dragged two soldiers to safety and returned for a third when a bullet tore through his throat leaving him to bleed out in a jungle half a world away just weeks before the birth of his only child.
Dane pushed himself to his feet. Another week and he would be on his way home to Texas. His enlistment, and a twenty year career, ended next month. He had some money saved up, and he’d have his pension. The doctors assured him that the headaches would continue to fade and in a few months would be gone altogether.
A cold breeze moved over him just as a hand slammed into the small of his back. He stumbled forward, caught himself and turned, hands coming up in a defensive move.
He looked around, searching for the person who’d pushed him. Nothing in front of him but rows of white headstones, each with a small American flag stuck in the soil in front of it.
“Are you alright?”
He turned to the side. An attractive young woman in a bright blue blouse jogged toward him, a little girl at her side.
“Are you alright?” she asked again.
He started to say someone had pushed him, then thought better of it. Given that the three of them seemed to be the only ones in that part of the cemetery, she’d most likely think he was crazy.
“It was the see-through man,” the little girl said. She stared up at him with eyes the same shade as the bluebonnets back home. “We followed him here. I saw him push you.”
He looked at the mother. Wasn’t she supposed to be telling her kid not to talk to strangers? And what the hell was the see-through man?
“What’s your name?” the child asked. He could see the mother trying not to look at his scar.
“My name’s Dane,” he said, and because he had no idea what else to say to a little kid he asked, “What’s yours?”
“My name’s Heaven, cause that’s where my daddy is.”
Unsure how to respond, he looked at the mother. His heart beat quickened and words seemed to dry up in his mouth.
How long had it been since a woman made every cell in his body stand up and salute?
“C’mon,” the mother said. “They’ll be closing soon.”
Actually, the cemetery was open for another hour, but maybe she was just trying to hurry the kid along.
“Are you visiting your grandpa, too?” the child asked.
He shook his head, regretting it instantly when the pain flared bright across his vision.
A hand wrapped around his upper arm. He glanced down to see the woman looking up at him, seeing him and not that damn scar.
“Bluebonnets,” he muttered, one hand reaching for the scar. He caught himself in time and hooked his thumb back in his pocket.
“What?” Her pretty forehead creased in a ladylike frown.
Had he said that out loud?
“Your eyes. They’re the same color as the Texas state flower.”
“Nice to know. Are you alright?”
“Where are you parked? We’ll walk with you to your car.”
He started to tell her not to bother, he could walk himself out that gate and call for a cab, thanks anyway. Those eyes stopped him. Would it be so bad to walk beside a beautiful woman for a few minutes?
He fell into step beside her, watching the little girl skip ahead. She brought her fingers to her lips then touched each stone she passed.
“What’s she doing?” he asked.
“I’m kissing the soldiers,” Heaven called back.
“She has better hearing than the dog,” the woman said.
“What happened to her father?” he asked. “Was he in Afghanistan?”
“Dan wasn’t in the military. He was a math teacher at a community college. A good teacher. His students loved him.”
He was trying to decide if he should ask again what happened to him when the woman murmured, “It was bees.”
“Bees?” Had he missed something?
“Anaphylactic shock. He was at his sister’s, helping her husband cut down a downed dead tree. He got stung by a couple of bees. Next thing they knew Dan couldn’t breathe. They called an ambulance…” A tiny shrug finished the sentence. The gesture might have seemed offhand and cold if it hadn’t been for the tremor in her lower lip.
He looked at the little girl. Every once in a while she looked up and said something. Maybe the kid had an invisible playmate.
“How far along were you?” He thought of his father, dying before Dane was born.
“How far? Oh. Heaven was a year old.”
He looked at her, then glanced at the child.
“She’s three. She tells people she’s named Heaven because that’s where Dan is.” They walked for another moment before she said, “My mother suggested the name. Sky. Heaven.”
He frowned, the motion tugging at the scar.
“My name’s Sky,” she said.
They fell silent for a few minutes. The gate was within sight when Sky said, “I saw the name and date on the stone. Was that your father?”
“You must have been tiny. How old were you?”
Understanding smoothed her face. She nodded. “That’s why you asked about Heaven. You thought…”
“I’m glad her father had a chance to know her.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
Ask her out.
They walked through the gate.
Sky looked at the vehicles scattered around the parking lot.
Dane stood next to her, his lips pressed together. Was he in pain or fighting the urge to say something?
Heaven slipped her hand into his. “The see-through man wants you to go with us.”
Dane crouched in front of her. “Who’s the see-through man?”
Dane looked up at her, his brown eyes narrowed against the sun.
“I don’t know,” Sky said. “She mentioned him before. I thought she meant you.”
He laughed and the bold sound sent warm shivers radiating from her stomach to her spine. The man had a beautiful laugh and she wanted to hear it again.
He held his arm out, inspecting it. “Looks pretty solid to me.”
Heaven was still holding his hand. She laughed with him.
“You’re silly. He was standing behind you. He went like this.” She made a beckoning motioning with her right arm.
A faint memory, long pushed into a dusty trunk in her mind, shook itself free. She crouched next to her daughter, taking Heaven’s free hand in hers.
“What was he wearing?”
“A uniform. Like the man in the movie Grandpa was watching.”
Dane’s gaze shifted from Sky to Heaven, his forehead creased in a frown.
Sky looked at him. “My family’s been in this area forever,” she explained. “My grandmother brought me here a few times when I was little. Her father was killed in the Korean war when my grandmother was a senior in high school. She used to tell me about the ghost of the unknown.”
“He’s a soldier who walks around the cemetery. My grandmother always swore she’d seen him back when she was here with her mother. I’d forgotten all about the story.”
Heaven brought Sky’s hand and Dane’s together, folding her small hands over theirs.
The feel of Dane’s warm skin against hers sent tiny, pleasurable shocks radiating from their joined hands, up her arms and straight to her heart. She looked into his eyes and knew he was feeling it too.
Not fair! her heart cried. Not now when I’m leaving.
A rough, warm palm cupped her cheek. She pressed against it.
“Sky?” His fingers brushed a tear from her cheek. She shook her head. Insane. She’d known this man for less than thirty minutes, didn’t even know his last name. Why was she so certain that leaving him would tear her heart in two?
“Can Dane be my daddy?” Heaven asked.
Dane placed a kiss on Sky’s forehead.
“My turn to ask,” he said, one corner of his mouth lifting in an ironic smile. “Are you alright?”
“We leave for Texas in three weeks,” she said. “I took a job teaching at a small community college.”
The twitch of his lips grew into a full blown smile. Had she misread things? Was he glad she and Heaven would be so far away, complications ended before they could start?
“I told you, Texas.”
He stood slowly, pulling both Sky and Heaven to their feet.
“Texas is a big state, darling.”
Dane threw his head back and laughed that wonderful, gallant laugh.
“Do you know what’s just a few miles East of Bradshaw?”
She shook her head.
“A little nothing-to-it town called Shanlan. That’s my home town.”
“Do you go back often?” Please, please, please let him say ‘yes.’
“I haven’t been home in six years.”
Her heart, just starting to soar, dropped to the pavement at her feet.
He scooped Heaven up in his arms. She wrapped her arms around his neck and grinned.
“Do you like horses?”
“Uh-huh. But I never been on one.”
“I grew up on a quarter horse ranch. My mother lives there with my stepdad. They still have a few horses.”
“Can I ride one?”
Dane glanced at Sky. “You can if Mommy says it’s alright.”
There went her heart, taking off in the heavens again.
“I’m heading home next week,” he said. “I’m going to stay out at the ranch for a little bit while I settle back in, find a job. I spent twenty years as a mechanic in the Army. I’ve been thinking of opening my own business. Shanlan’s only twenty miles from Bradshaw.”
Her cheeks hurt from smiling so big. It was a wonderful feeling.
He held out his arm and she went to him, wrapping her arms around his waist and burying her nose against his shirt.
“I can postpone my leaving for a few days,” he said. “The three of us can spend some time getting to know each other before we meet back up in Texas.”
She kissed the corner of his mouth. She had a feeling she was going to spend a lot of time kissing him.
“Heaven, what are you doing?” Her daughter’s little arm was moving happily from side-to-side.
“I’m waving goodbye to the see through man.”
As if they were already a couple, Dane and Sky turned together to wave at someone they couldn’t see.
Heaven brought her fingers to her lips, kissed them and blew a kiss to the ghost of the unknown.