Clearwater Book Five

The war vet…

Juan Carlos Marquez lost everything he valued in one fateful Marine mission. Now an amputee, trying to put the pieces of his life back together, and to still be a provider for his mother and siblings, might be all he can handle.

The lonely barista…

Rebecca James found a new beginning in Clearwater after running from a disastrous past. As a part-time barista and studying for her business degree, she rarely has time for socializing, let alone a relationship.

The instant connection…

They weren’t looking for love, love found them. Will the sparks between Juan Carlos and Rebecca be just what they need to give them both a happy ending?

The quietness of the café settled around her. She reopened her law book, sank onto the swirl-stool by the cash register, and pulled her pen from her ponytail. She jotted notes down into her notebook.

“Excuse me.” A deep, masculine voice caressed her skin like warm water, forcing her to glance up. Her heart skipped a beat. A tall man loomed in front of her. Slightly over six-feet tall, his blue T-shirt clung to his chest, providing a teasing preview to the six-pack abs that lay snug underneath. His long legs were encased in light blue jeans. With his honey brown skin and deep green eyes, he belonged on the West Coast instead of Clearwater. He resembled a surfer, not a winter snowboarder.

“I’m sorry…I didn’t hear the chime of the door. What can I get you?” Rising from the chair, she tossed her pen on the notebook.

“I’m here to pick up an order for Clearwater Combat and Guns. I’m a little early, but things were slow at the shop so Cameron asked me to come over. Would it happen to be ready yet?”

She glanced at the clock behind him. Ten Thirty. “Umm, if you could give me a few minutes, I just need to prepare the drinks.” She held out her hand. “By the way, I’m Rebecca.”

Goose-bumps rose over her skin as he shook her hand. “JC.” He released her hand and lowered his bulky frame on one of the bar stools. He then ran his hand through his light, brown hair. The sun’s rays, through the windows, highlighted his hair with streaks of gold. “Take your time.”

She wanted to run her hands on that fine specimen of a man, to feel his tight muscles taut under her fingers. She turned to review the list Jennifer had left on the counter. “Can I get you something while you wait?”

“A cup of coffee would be great.”

She grabbed the pot of coffee and poured it into a cup. “You’re new around here, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.” He paused before sipping the hot coffee. “Ahh, that’s good. Cameron and I were in the Marines together. He called me to help him with the shop.”

“You’re awful young to be retired from the military.” Pouring more coffee into a to-go cup, she sneaked a peek at his dark green eyes.

“An injury cut my career short.” Was that a hint of disappointment lingering in his voice? “Are you from Clearwater?”

“Naw. I’m from all around. Dad was in the Navy, so I grew up at different ports.” She left out the part where her father’s job was the reason her mother turned to the booze. Her mother couldn’t handle the separation, moving, and everything else that went with a military man. “I moved to Clearwater a little over two years ago, but I love it here. Are you planning to stick around?”

Before he answered, he took another long sip of coffee. He smiled and her knees wobbled. “As long as I’m needed, I’ll stay. Cameron has his hands full with the business and a new baby. I’ll do what I can to help.”

For the next few minutes, she chattered about the weather to fill the awkward silence. She placed the cup holders with the drinks on the counter. “The sandwiches are in the fridge. I’ll grab them and help you…”

“I can manage.” He swallowed the last mouthful of coffee from his cup and stood. He frowned as if irritated by her offer to help.

Reaching into the fridge she glanced over her shoulder. “I doubt it. Jennifer added a little extra to the order for Tessa. They’re very good friends, but Jennifer doesn’t get away from the shop much and Tessa just had Rosalie, so to let Tessa know she’s thinking of her, Jennifer sends some of Tessa’s favorites to her when Cameron places an order.” Inside the refrigerator, eight clear plastic sandwich containers were stacked neatly on top of a large square container that contained the sweet goodies. She turned around, holding the boxes. “Why don’t you grab the drinks and I’ll follow you out.”

He shook his head and reached for the tray of cups. “If I knew the order was this large, I’d have brought one of the boys to help.”

“Boys?” As she carried the boxes around the counter, his gaze met hers for the first time since he’d entered the café.

“Cameron has a few local high school boys at the shop helping finalize preparations for the classes starting in August. We still have a lot to do before we’re ready, but it’s coming along exceptionally well.” He stepped beside her, grabbing the front door with his free hand. “Let me take those.”

“I got them. Where are you parked?”

“Right there.” He nodded to the black pickup truck with the company’s logo on the door. “I appreciate this.”

“It’s all in the service you get here at Express-Ohh’s.” She flashed him her biggest and brightest smile. “Good service keeps our customers coming back.” She wanted him to come back. With dedicating the past few years to school and work, she was out of practice when it came to flirting. Not that she ever mastered the art of flirting like most average girls in their early twenties.

“Oh, so it has nothing to do with the fact that you’re the only coffee shop in town?” He teased, digging his keys out of his pocket. He pushed the small button to unlock the truck.

She laughed. “You tasted our coffee, do you really think another shop stands a chance?” Sliding the food containers onto the passenger’s seat, she could feel his body heat behind her. His cologne teased her senses, imprinting her memories and making her want to turn into his arms.

“Never.” He sat the tray on the floor-mat. Turning to her, he dug money out of his pocket. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I hope to see you around town again.” She tucked the money in her apron pocket and strolled back to the door. “Hey, will you be at the town’s picnic on Saturday?” Even though she rarely attended the picnics she knew Cameron and Tessa went regularly with Chloe and Jordan, the owners of Winterbloom Bed and Breakfast. Jennifer also planned to close the coffee house early that day. If JC was going then Rebecca would make sure she was there, even to see him from a distance.

“I don’t know. Cameron hasn’t mentioned it. I’m bunking at their place until the manager’s flat is finished above the shop. If they want me to go with them, I guess I’ll be there unless there’s work to be done. Why?”

Butterflies danced in her stomach, playing havoc with her courage. She nudged a pebble with the tip of her shoe. “I just thought…since you’re new in town that I’d introduce you to some of the towns’ people. The picnics are a lot of fun.” At least that’s what Jennifer told her. “You really should come…if you have time.”

“If you’re going to be there, I’ll try to attend, as long as Cameron doesn’t have something he needs me to do.” He shot her one last smile before sliding into the driver’s seat and starting the engine.

Her cheeks filled with heat as she watched him drive away. She was acting like a giddy schoolgirl, but for once in her life, she didn’t care, and couldn’t wait to see to JC on Saturday.

Juan Carlos Marquez waited for the plane to disembark in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Within the hour, he’d be in Clearwater where he’d agreed to spend the next six weeks helping his former Gunnery Sergeant, Cameron White, with his new business, Clearwater Combat and Guns. JC had no idea what to expect. He was an amputee now. What could he do to help? Yet, when the man who saved his life asked for help, he couldn’t turn his back.

Since returning from deployment, JC felt like a ship lost at sea. He was unsure what to do, and his family treated him differently now. In that one mission, his life changed so dramatically. He went from being the man of his family—caring for his mother and eight younger siblings, to being useless. At twenty-one, he had provided a decent income for his mother and siblings, thanks to the Marines. But he was recently discharged because of his injury, which left him no other choice but to find something else to do.

Just the thought of that fateful mission sent phantom pains where his leg should have been. He rubbed his knee above the prosthesis, hoping to chase away the pain. Nothing helped ease the ache. It was never-ending and exhausted him. When the discomfort crept in, it was unbearable, breaking him down until he had nothing left.

He closed his eyes for a brief second, and that fateful day shot across his memory. Just another normal day of duty, the mission was going smoothly, and everything seemed innocent enough until their Humvee hit an IED. The detonation sent him flying through the air and his leg was in excruciating pain. It wasn’t until he landed hard on the ground, fifteen feet from the explosion, that he realized his leg was gone below the knee.

Cameron, the man JC owed everything, was there for him—making sure he held on to reality. Cameron reminded him of his family, refusing to let him give up. Cameron got him through the ordeal, and he owed his life to his former Gunnery Sergeant.

“Sir, excuse me, sir. We’ve landed.”

Opening his eyes, he saw the flight attendant standing next to his seat in the otherwise empty plane. Lost in his thoughts, he hadn’t heard her step up beside him.

“I apologize, ma’am.”

“It’s fine. Do you have someone waiting for you?” She leaned against the seat in front of him.

“No one waiting, but I do have an appointment I need to get to.”

“If you’re new to the area, why don’t I show you around after your appointment? Maybe we can grab some dinner. I don’t fly out again until tomorrow afternoon.” She bent forward to pick up the tray next to him, giving him a glimpse down the front of her blouse.

“I appreciate the offer, but no thank you.” He rose from his seat, grabbing his carry-on. He was ready to get off of the airplane, find a rental car, and make his way to Clearwater.

She reached into her pocket and handed him a business card. “Here’s my number if you change your mind. I fly this route a few times a month, so if you ever want to meet, call me.”

He shoved her card in his pocket and then headed up the aisle. No woman had approached him since his injury. His air of authority and the uniform were gone, taking away the reason so many women were attracted to him in the first place. Now flirtation from a woman made him uncomfortable. He didn’t know what to say.

He walked quickly off the plane, putting distance between him and the flirtatious flight attendant. The ache in his leg slowed his progress. He hadn’t been this sore since he was fitted with his prosthesis. As soon as he arrived at Clearwater Combat and Guns, he would take his medication to dull the pain, but he hated the pills because they left him in a haze, unable to feel anything.

Stepping out into the fresh air, he made his way to the rental car. His limp returned, making itself known. He worked so hard to hide it, to pretend he was normal. Though sometimes the limp refused to be hidden.

* * *

JC drove up the long gravel driveway, surprised by the beauty spread out before him. Lush trees bloomed, lining each side of the drive. Ahead, were mountains, more trees, and a deep blue sky with fluffy, white clouds. The only sounds, through his open window, were the birds chirping their happy songs.

This area was so different from the city, which was always busy with blaring horns, people yelling, and the stench of the many different restaurant smells mingling in the open air. He inhaled a deep breath, filling his lungs with the clean mountain air. Rejuvenation eased some of his pain.

No wonder Cameron never returned to North Carolina. This place would be hard to give up.

JC knew what it felt like to live in a city where Marines were stationed. Everything was a daily reminder of what he’d lost. In the three short years the Marines became his life, the routine and discipline reflected in every aspect of his life, even now.

He stepped out of his rental car. Clearwater Combat and Guns was a large building to the right of the driveway. It had to be over three thousand square feet, if not more. The rustic black sign with silver letters had recently been painted. He was impressed with the sheer size of the business, and wouldn’t have guessed a small town needed something so large.

“You must be Juan Carlos.” A soft female voice called from behind him.

He turned to find a woman with a baby in her arms walking down the porch of a ranch-style log home. The house dominated the other side of the driveway. Red rose bushes decorated the porch’s perimeter, drawing his gaze before he could view the rest of the house.

“Yes, ma’am. Please, call me JC. You must be Mrs. White.” He held out his hand.

“Tessa, please. I’ve heard so much about you. It’s a pleasure to finally have you here.” She placed her delicate hand in his, giving it a gentle shake. “Cameron is in the shop.” Her long brown hair swayed over her shoulders as she rocked the baby in her arms. “Come, I’ll show you around, unless you prefer to settle in first.”

He wanted his pain meds and to sleep for a while, but he came to help Cameron, and he needed to find out why his friend really wanted him to come here.

What does he expect from me?

“No, that’s fine. I’d like to see Cameron.”

“Very well.” She turned in the direction of the shop, walking next to him instead of in front like most people tended to do since his walk was a little slower. “Cam will be glad you’re here. With our baby daughter, Rosalie, and the business, he doesn’t have time to breathe. Neither of us expected the shop to take off as it has. The other man he hired, Thor, will be teaching most of the hand-to-hand combat, self-defense, karate, and martial art classes, but he doesn’t start until August. So everything’s falling on Cam now.”

“I’ll do what I can to take some of the burden from him.” JC didn’t add that he’d be useless at physical training.

She stopped in front of an open door. “Well, I’ll let you two divide the work load. I’ll be up at the house. When you’re ready, I’ll show you to your room.”

“Don’t think you’re going to get away that easy.” A deep, raspy voice JC remembered from his days in the Marines, hollered from inside the room. “Bring my little Rosie in here.”

JC followed Tessa into the office and found Cameron behind a large cherry wood desk. His hair was a little longer and contentment glistened in his eyes. Pictures of his family filled the walls. Cameron, the man who drilled into JC that marriage and Marines didn’t mix, had found the two things he always said weren’t for him—happiness and family.

Cameron took the baby from Tessa, hoisted Rosalie in his arms, and then shook JC’s hand. “I’m glad you came. Have a seat.”

JC couldn’t believe his former Gunnery Sergeant, who had dedicated his life to the core, was now a family man. He held the baby like a seasoned father, yet JC couldn’t help but think how small the baby seemed to be in the big man’s arms.

“Cam, I was going to put Rosie down for a nap.” Tessa smiled at her husband cradling their daughter, and then pointed a finger. “If you’d come up to the house before she went to bed at night you’d get to see more of her.”

Cameron winked at JC. “Don’t let my wife’s sweet smile fool you. She’s quite a drill sergeant, worse than I was to you and the rest of the men.” He leaned to kiss Rosie’s head. “I’m hoping with JC here that will all change. I have some stuff to go over with him, and we’ll be up shortly. No work tonight. I’m going to throw some steaks on the grill and we’ll relax.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it.” She snuggled their daughter in her arm and gave her husband a quick kiss before leaving.

JC sat in the leather chair across from Cameron’s desk, waiting for Cameron to explain why he had asked him to come to Clearwater. When he didn’t say anything JC spoke up, he couldn’t take the anticipation any longer. “Why did you really ask me to come here?”

“I need help with the shop, and who better than someone I know that has the training and experience. You’re like a brother to me. That made the decision easy.”

His statement meant a lot to JC, but the obvious still remained. “Cameron, I’m a cripple, I can’t run a business.” JC rubbed his leg to make a point. “I’m sure there were many others you could’ve called, why me?”

“You? Because there’s no one better. You were an excellent Marine, and just because you lost your leg doesn’t mean you lost your life. I asked you here to help me, and you’ll soon learn that you still have a lot of life to live. It’s a win-win situation.” He picked up a file on his desk and tossed it into a drawer. “For all those years, I let the Marines control every aspect of my life, but now I’m a free man, and I couldn’t be happier. I never thought life outside of the Marines would ever be something I’d want to explore, let alone enjoy. You’ll be surprised at how well you adjust.” He smiled. “I know what you’re going through. I’ve seen the same uncertainty in other soldiers. Clearwater is just the place where you can find yourself and your future.”

JC frowned. “I’m not the same person. A place doesn’t change you. I’ll never be whole again no matter what I find here in Clearwater. I’ll do whatever I can to help you, but my leg will always be an issue. One I can’t move past.”

“Your leg doesn’t master you. You’re in control of your life. If you think of your prosthesis as a hindrance, it will always hold you back. You’ll never discover the future. We thrived on schedules, missions, deployments, and danger for years, but there’s so much more. Now is your time to discover it.” Cameron passed him a folder.

It would have been a waste of time arguing with Cameron. He’d always held strong beliefs, one was the will to overcome anything. So if JC believed in something strong enough, he’d succeed? But being a cripple wasn’t something he could will his mind to let go of. “I still don’t understand why you want me. I can’t teach the classes you offer here. What do you want me to do?” He held the folder in his hands, but didn’t open it.

“Inside you’ll find a list of jobs you can help me with—running the office, signing up clients for the courses, following up phone calls and emails, acquiring gun registration, and so on. You can also oversee the shooting range, assist with the gun training, and I’m sure there’s more I’m not thinking of. What do you say, will you at least give it a try?”

“If I wasn’t willing to help you, I wouldn’t be here. I just don’t want to let you down.” JC flipped through the pages in the folder. They contained all the basic information about the business he’d need to familiarize with if he was going to be assuming the office duties and allowing Cameron more time with his wife and new daughter. “When do you want me to start?”

Cameron smiled and extended his arm cross the large cherry wood desk. When JC leaned forward to shake his hand, Cameron added. “Welcome aboard. Tomorrow we can start going over the computer system and get everyone registered. It’s a great time to learn because it will be slow until the classes begin in August.” He pushed the black leather chair back from the desk and stood. “Why don’t we head to the house? You can settle in and review the folder. I’ll get the steaks on the grill.”