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Blessing Montana Book Two

Injured Sergeant Emily Sharp was forced to trade her combat boots in for a grade book. Now as a fourth-grade teacher she has her students write letters to deployed military members. It’s her way of giving back to those who are still risking their lives for their country. When a co-worker asks her to write a letter to her brother, to help him realize leaving the military isn’t the end, she’s at a loss what to say. Their situations are different. Her duty to her country was cut short, while his decision is by choice.

After twenty years in the Marines, Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Fitch’s life is about to change. Retirement is a hard pill to swallow. With the ghosts of those he lost haunting his thoughts and the weight of those whose lives would never be the same, he knows it’s time. With only weeks left he’s not sure what his future holds, until a letter arrives addressed to him.

Fate intervenes, bringing two Marines whose paths have crossed before, back together. With a stubborn older sister playing matchmaker and a freak storm, they might get more than they’d ever hoped for.

Eight weeks and Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Fitch’s last tour of duty would end. He’d be back in the States, unsure what his next steps were. After twenty years in the Marines it had become his life. Now standing in Iraq he knew his time was coming to an end. Retirement is what they called it but to him it felt like abandoning his men. Either way he didn’t think he had another deployment in him. He was tired and maybe it was finally becoming too much. How many times did he have to witness one of his men die or get injured? How many widows must he have weighing on his mind?

Staring out at camp as fellow Marines moved around, going about their evening business, he knew even one widow was too many. The cost of war was great for the warriors but the loved ones left behind felt it too. They wanted answers they might never get. He for one couldn’t give them the answers they sought.

“Gunny.” Staff Sergeant Barrett jogged toward him, an envelope in hand. “Mail call.”

“’Bout time.” He let out a sigh of relief knowing the guys wouldn’t be bitching about how long it had been since they received packages from home. “Did you get something?”

“Naw, you did though.” He held out the envelope. “I was going to drop it on your cot when I noticed you standing out here.”

Taking the offered envelope, he eyed it as if it might explode. He never received physical mail. Communication with his sister was nearly always exclusively e-mail. She understood he didn’t have time to write a physical letter to her and even if he did, what was he going to say? This part of his life was private. He couldn’t share it with anyone, especially not her.

“Thanks. See you in the morning.” Without another look at Barrett he headed toward his bunk. Something about the envelope in his hand and the unique handwriting made him want to be alone when he read it. He wasn’t sure what he’d find within the contents, maybe a grieving family member seeking clarification. Whatever it was, he didn’t need prying eyes around as he read it.

“Night, sir.”

At the last moment he opted not to hit his bunk. With his thoughts as dark as they were he wasn’t ready to be indoors yet. He needed the fresh air in order to keep from venturing down a road that was even darker. On the far side of the compound there was a boulder some of the guys would go to when they needed time to themselves. Sometime during their tour, the spot had become a place where no one was disturbed. Every one of them needed a few minutes to themselves to get their head in the game, and that had become the spot. It was exactly what he needed now.

A couple more minutes and he could shake this plague that was wrapping its dark shadow around him. He’d read the letter and whatever it said, he’d deal with it. When he left the boulder, he’d put it aside and by morning he’d be ready for whatever the day held. He wouldn’t risk the lives of the men under him because he was unable to leave past missions behind him. If he let the past occupy any more time in his thoughts it could have a disastrous outcome on the rest of his tour.

Nothing would change the things that had happened here already, but his attitude could play a role in keeping everyone safe. He leaned against the boulder and lifted his gaze toward the dark sky, searching for a star, only to find blackness.

“Eight weeks. I can stay positive for eight more weeks.” His finger slid under the edge of the flap and tugged along the seam. Inch by inch he tugged his finger across, opening the envelope. Inside his fingers brushed against thick stationary.

Standing there he half hoped there wouldn’t be enough light to read the letter by and he could put it off until later. Unfortunately for him there was enough glow from the nearby lights that he couldn’t put it off any longer. Instead he tugged the paper out and unfolded it.

Dear Gunnery Sergeant Fitch,

As I sit down to write this I realize the pressure I put on my students to come up with a letter to the service member they’re assigned. How do you start a letter like this? How are you? That doesn’t seem adequate. I’ve been overseas. While it’s not always blood and gore the news tends to portray, it’s not flowers and rainbows either.

Maybe that’s why Hazel asked me to write you. Maybe she thought I’d be able to give you support with your upcoming transition. In reality, our circumstances are different. Unlike you I didn’t make the choice to leave the military. At the time of my discharge if I could have continued to serve, I would have. Now…well it’s not an easy question to answer. There are days when I miss it, but I love being a teacher. My students bring a joy to my life that I never knew. So, I guess in the end it worked out. I have faith it will for you as well.

As I read back over what I’ve wrote above I’m tempted to crumble it up and throw it in the trash. This wasn’t how I intended to start this and by now you’re probably wondering who the crazy woman is writing you.

I’m Emily Sharp, a fourth-grade teacher at Blessing Elementary. Your sister, Hazel, and I are not only co-workers, we’ve become close friends since I moved here three years ago. When she learned my class was writing to deployed military members she convinced me to write you personally. She made me aware you prefer e-mails, but where’s the fun in that? E-mails are impersonal. Handwritten letters are a physical connection between people. They are hard evidence that there was something between them.

For the spouses who write to their loved one while they’re deployed those letters are a testimony to the love they share. They are proof that their romance can survive any distance and any obstacle. One day they can look back at those letters and remember everything they’ve overcome to get where they are.

While I was deployed, it seemed my comrades always received those letters from family and friends when they needed them the most. An envelope or package from home at their weakest moments seemed to help them through the worst moments of their lives. For that reason, I started this project with my students. Every year I receive a list of service members and throughout the school year we write letters and send care packages. The students enjoy it and I know those overseas appreciate it.

Letters are set to go out tomorrow and while I have one from every student sitting here on my desk, I haven’t finished mine. Hazel told me to just send you an e-mail, but I couldn’t do that. This letter is our first communication and an e-mail would have been a disservice to everything I believe. How could I expect my students to write a letter when I opted for e-communication? I wouldn’t be a very good teacher if I took the short cut, would I?

Your sister warned me that if you replied it wouldn’t be with a handwritten letter, but that’s okay. I’ll enclose my e-mail below if you wish to respond, though it’s not necessary.

Staring out the window in my classroom I debated what to write next. Did I want to mention Hazel’s reason behind giving me your address? Did I want to tell you more about me? Did I want to close this letter and consider my obligation done?

That’s just it, this isn’t an obligation. It’s something I wanted to do. Maybe this letter will give you encouragement or bring a smile to your face knowing that someone is thinking about you. None of this is about me. It’s about you and, to a point, about Hazel. She’s worried about you. She’s your big sister but she doesn’t know how to help you. You’re hurting, but you won’t confide in her, leaving her unsure of what to do. She’s hoping a letter from a third party, an unknown face concealed in a friendly letter, will break the wall you’ve built around yourself. In reality, I know it won’t. I wish it could, if only to relieve the worry from your sister. But you don’t know me. Why would you confide in me?

She doesn’t want to listen, but I’m sure you already know she’s stubborn. You don’t have to respond to my letter, but if you can contact Hazel it might help ease her mind. She’s your older sister—while I don’t have any personal experience with siblings—she’s concerned about you. What’s that the third time I’ve mentioned it? That should be enough for you to realize how much her personal feelings have impacted me and this letter.

I’ve wracked my brain for the perfect thing to say that might bring you some closure and I’ve come up with nothing. You’re leaving the Marines but it’s not the end. I’ve been out for a couple years now and I still have contact with some of the ones I’ve served with. More than that I’ve made new friendships with veterans. A new chapter in my life started but it happens often in life. The problem with that is so many people don’t like change. I’m one of them. I was terrified starting this new chapter, but it worked out. I’m happy.

Have you considered what you’ll do next? Where you’ll go? Hazel said you’ve been stationed at Camp Lejeune for the last eight years. Do you plan to stay in Jacksonville, North Carolina? Hazel’s hoping you’ll come back to Blessing. She’s hoping you’ll settle down here, or at least close enough she can see you more than once or twice a year. I’ve no doubt your sister has already expressed her wishes to you personally. You need to do what makes you happy.

I’ve rambled on long enough. I hope within all of this you realize there are people back here thinking about you. One chapter of your life is coming to an end but the next one is waiting for you to write it. You’ve served your country for more than twenty years now it’s time for you to live a little. Maybe there’s a place you’ve always wanted to visit. Now you have the chance. Maybe take a trip to Blessing. Hazel would love it. Maybe we could grab coffee?

The future is unwritten and will be whatever you make it. Make it a good one for those who never had the chance.

Miss Emily Sharp

Unable to form a complete thought, Fitch sat there staring at the letter in his hand. He wanted to be angry at Hazel for convincing a co-worker to write him. This Emily was right, he couldn’t confide in her. She was a stranger, more than that she was a friend of his sister. Anything he shared with her would find its way back to Hazel. He loved his sister, but this part of his life was off limits. She could interfere with whatever other part of his life that she wanted but not here. The things he witnessed, the men he lost, those were his burden to carry. Hazel was as innocent as the kindergarten students she taught.

“Why, Hazel?” He slid the folded stationary back into the envelope and let out a deep breath. His sister meant well, but the last thing he needed was someone else prying into his thoughts. Or worse yet, asking questions he didn’t have answers to.

What was he going to do after this? Hell, he didn’t know. For twenty years he did as he was told. The very idea of this new freedom increased his heart rate. He didn’t know what he’d do next or what he wanted to do. Would the answers come with time? He didn’t know. One thing he did know: he was already tired of the uncertainty this new life held for him. He needed to know what tomorrow held, but no matter how hard he tried, the answers wouldn’t come.

Just like Mrs. Hammond. She had questions that he couldn’t answer. He knew the answer, but they wouldn’t give her the closure she so desperately sought. She didn’t need to know what her son’s final minutes were like. Or that he died asking for her. It tore his heart to pieces, it would be worse for her.

My burden to carry.

I started A Touch of Home while my husband and the teachers of West Virginia were going through a trying time. Rallies and walk-ins happened nearly on a daily occurrence. A state-wide teacher strike was approved and loomed in the future. Through it all it seemed as though no one was listening to the teachers’ (and all public employees’) plight. I wanted to distract myself from all of it and dive into another world. I had planned to write a romantic suspense, but Emily and Fitch plagued me, demanding I focus on them.

The halfway point of A Touch of Home should have been an easy journey home. Instead a curve ball was thrown into my life. The teachers went out on strike. I couldn’t sit at home and continue on my day to day schedule. Rather I joined in to support the West Virginia public employees in their fight. If I wasn’t out there in person with them, I was listening to legislation as they worked through the issues at hand, so that I could keep everyone updated. It was a stressful two weeks (nine actual school days) yet in the end we came out with what was needed. I was able to get back to A Touch of Home and teachers were able to get back to their classrooms and students.

It was an experience I’ll never forget, one that brought so many people closer together. The community support was there when the public employees needed it the most and for that we will always be thankful. Oklahoma and Arizona teachers are now working through their own issues and I wish them all success. By the time I’d completed Touch of Home this teacher movement was happening around the county, no longer just in those three states. Teachers, stand strong. #55United