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What the Heart Wants

A Clean Western Culture Romance Story

Author: Aqua Allsopp

© Copyright 2016 by Aqua Allsopp

All rights reserved.

In no way is it legal to reproduce, duplicate, or transmit any part of this document in either electronic means or in printed format. Recording of this publication is strictly prohibited and any storage of this document is not allowed unless with written permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.Respective authors own all copyrights not held by the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person,

living or dead, is purely coincidental.

From the Author:

2 Special Bonus Stories INSIDE!

Thank you for purchasing this book.

Table of Contents



What the Heart Wants


An exciting, 21st Century, clean, Western romance set in the wide open spaces of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. We explore love and romance at different stages of life, and what it means to be family.

In What the Heart Wants, we take a hard look at how a person’s central life decisions can affect their lives in unimaginable ways. Through the haze of what many call the worst military conflict in a generation—the second battle of Fallujah, we witness the real cost of war on the active duty service members, the veteran, and the families and communities of those who serve.

Ride an emotional roller coaster as our characters deal with love, family, mental illness, PTSD, veteran issues, nationalism, bigotry, romance, cultural differences, and faith as the story unfolds in the unique beauty of the American West. Explore our rich and complicated characters as they traverse love in all of its many forms.

Chapter 1 Out of the Night

It was an unusually cold night in Fayetteville, pronounced Fedville by North Carolina natives and long-time residents like my husband Charlie and me. We were sitting in the great room watching Charlie’s favorite, the World War II channel as I call it, but otherwise known as the History Channel. Wilhelm Keitel was signing the German Instrument of Surrender when I was surprised to hear the ding-dong of our doorbell since we didn’t often get visitors that time of night.

“Is that the doorbell?” I absentmindedly asked Charlie as I stood up from my perch on the double recliner loveseat, not noticing that, as usual, Charlie had already fallen asleep. “It’s nearly 11:00 pm, who the devil could that be?” I wondered out loud.

Charlie, in the opposite recliner, only snorted and barely opened his eyes. Our little cul-de-sac is so quiet and safe that I opened the door without looking through the peephole. I can’t be troubled with that thing, but I had such a start that I could hardly believe my eyes.

When the door opened, I felt the cold of the night through my flannel nightgown and terry cloth robe. I began screaming, “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, Charlie, Charlie come quick!" I was screaming and sobbing uncontrollably from the shock of what I found on the other side of the door.

Charlie awoke from his sleep with a jolt and ran to the front door as fast as his 60-year old paratrooper’s legs could carry him, not knowing what he was going to see when he arrived. As his tired eyes focused on the door he stopped in mid-stride and said, almost in a whisper, “Dear God”!

My husband, Charles Anderson, was a retired sergeant major in the U.S. Army. We met early in his military career when I was a nurse at the Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg. Charlie fell head over heels in love with me right away. He said it was because I was a beauty, but truth be told, I think it was because I cooked like his mom—downhome and Southern fried. It wasn’t until I was faced with the prospect of him leaving North Carolina that I realized how much I loved Charlie. Charlie proposed and I went from being Martha Louise Scott to Mrs. Martha Anderson after knowing him for only six months. After 30-years of wedded bliss, I know that I made the right choice.

I had no regrets about giving up my nursing career to follow Charlie around the world with the Army because becoming a wife and mother gave me my pride and joy. My baby girl Sheridan.

“Sheridan Louise Anderson, please tell me you are not wearing that to work. That is not appropriate dress for the classroom. Besides, it’s freezing outside. Charlie talk to your daughter,” I said as I buttered toast and poured the morning coffee.

“Not me, I’m staying out of this. You hens can peck each other to death as much as you want. I’ll be right over here in my neutral corner,” replied my husband Charlie. The sun shone through the kitchen window, reflecting a summerlike light off the yellow kitchen walls giving the illusion of a bright summer’s day on a wintery morning.

“Oh mom, I love you but you cannot still pick out my clothes for me like I’m 10-years-old. I know you think spaghetti straps are too sexy for work, but it’s fine, really. Besides, I have a date with Daryl tonight and I need to do a quick change after work,” my daughter Sheridan said as she wiggled and gyrated across the kitchen as she talked about her date with her boyfriend Daryl. She looked as happy as I’ve ever seen her.

“Alright, alright, I know how it is when young love is in the air, but at least, pull your tank top up and close your sweater until after work,” I said as I tugged on her clothes trying to impose my will on the headstrong Sheridan.

“Goodbye mom,” Sheridan said with a smile, a roll of the eyes, and a sweet kiss on my cheek.

“Have a good day daddy and don’t drive mom too crazy today,” she said with a kiss to her father’s forehead.

“I’ll do my best but I don’t promise anything,” he replied, over the top of the Fayetteville Observer.

As soon as Sheridan was out of the kitchen, Charlie jumped up, grabbed me around the waist, and began playfully whispering in my ear. Sheridan could hear me giggle and shouted, “Get a room you two.”

I imagined that Sheridan hoped that she and Daryl would be an old married couple like her dad and me someday, as she closed the front door behind her.

We had Sheridan late in life. For a while we thought we would never have children, but then right after Charlie returned from Operation Desert Storm, I got pregnant. Sheridan grew up as an Army brat. As much as she idolizes her dad’s service, I’m surprised, but happy that she didn’t follow in her father’s footsteps because she’s a great elementary school teacher. Her students love her and I think her boyfriend Daryl does too. What more could a mother want?

Chapter 2 The Army Wife

“Sergeant Greene!” Yelled First Sergeant Roberts, as he walked into the supply room. He took a deep breath, inhaling the smells of the Army—diesel fumes trapped in old canvas, the remnants of soil from every continent they’ve served on, trapped in the nooks and crannies of aluminum and steel equipment, and the medicinal smell of medical and dental first aid supplies.

“Yes, First Sergeant?” Sergeant Greene yelled in reply, his head stuck between two crates, as he scanned a barcode.

“You finished with that inventory yet? I need it on my desk by 0-six hundred hours, tomorrow,” Roberts said with a stern expression on his face.

Staff Sergeant (SSG) Greene’s head immediately popped up to make eye contact with him.

“Seriously First Sergeant? I’m not even halfway done yet. It looks like I’ll be here all night to finish up,” Greene said with a dejected look on his face. He had big plans with Sheridan tonight.

“No Sergeant, I’m just yanking your chain. I heard you’re proposing to that green-eyed beauty of yours today.”

“Yes sir, First Sergeant, and I hope she says yes because I spent a lot of money on that ring. Do you want to see it?”

“Sure!” SSG Greene reached into the lower right pocket of his digital patterned shirt and pulled out a burgundy, velvet ring box, opening it to reveal a one-carat, white gold, pear-shaped engagement ring, with 13 surrounding diamonds.

“It’s a beauty, I’m sure she’ll say yes so let me be the first to say congratulations,” Daryl’s First Sergeant said with a big grin and a vigorous handshake.

“Thank you, First Sergeant,” replied Daryl, with his own broad smile.

“Now go on and get out of here and have a good time tonight.” With that, Daryl hustled off to change and pick up Sheridan from work.

Walking through the elementary school parking lot, Daryl remembered how he met Sheridan in this very spot. He was doing a favor for a buddy by picking up his son from school. His friend was running late with his wife at her chemotherapy appointment so Daryl helped out. He looked lost so Sheridan offered to help him find his way to the boy’s classroom. Daryl came back the next day with a dozen yellow roses to thank Sheridan. He asked her out for coffee and they’ve been together going on two-years now.

“Hi babe.” Daryl said to Sheridan, offering her a kiss as she exited the school. “I have a surprise for you.” he said.

“You do?” Sheridan asked, not knowing what the surprise could be, but suspecting that it was some sort of prank that Daryl intended to play on her because he’s just that sort of guy. Being a good sport and enjoying a laugh, Sheridan played along without asking too many questions.

When Daryl pulled into the Fort Bragg horse stables parking lot he said, “Surprise!” Daryl was all smiles and excitement. He went on to say, “It’s such a beautiful evening that I thought we’d do a hay ride and have hot cider before we go to dinner.”

“Well I’m not really dressed to be out in the cold for very long Daryl,” Sheridan said as she tugged at the hem of her black mini-skirt, wishing that her boots were thigh-high instead of ending at just her calf.

“You have your winter coat, I’ve got this mink blanket for you and there’s hot cider on the ride,” Daryl said in a sweet and pleading voice as he handed Sheridan a faux-mink-blanket from his back seat.

Not wanting to disappoint Daryl and appreciating the effort that he made to be romantic, she agreed to go on the hay ride. The wagon was covered with garland and red roses. Sheridan, along with the other guests, thought it was just decorated for the upcoming holidays, but shortly after the wagon began to move Daryl dropped to one knee, held Sheridan’s hand and said, “Sheridan, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?” That’s when they all knew that the old wagon was decorated especially for Sheridan.

Sheridan let out a little squeak of a scream that sounded like someone stepping on a mouse, then she whispered, yes, amid her tears of joy. Everyone on the wagon ride erupted in applause and congratulations for the happy couple.

At the end of the evening Sheridan couldn’t wait to tell us the news. “Mom, Dad! Where are you?” Sheridan said as she tore through the house when she returned home from her date.

“Sheridan, is everything alright?” Charlie said as he sat concerned, in his recliner.

“Everything is just fine daddy, Daryl proposed,” she shrieked as she waved a sparkling ring in front of our faces. Charles and I stood up and jumped for joy right along with her. We loved Daryl and thought that he would make a good husband. We were about as happy as parents could be for their only child.

Chapter 3 Through the Fog of War

“Introducing Staff Sergeant Daryl Greene, 82nd Airborne paratrooper and Army Ranger, and Mrs. Sheridan Greene”, the emcee said as Sheridan and Daryl exited the church, with all of their family, friends, and coworkers looking on.

Daryl and Sheridan had a beautiful military wedding ceremony at the post chapel that our family attended for years, replete with the expected military fanfare. Her father and I were both brought to tears as they walked beneath the arch of sabers held by Daryl’s brothers-in-arms, dressed in their finest military dress blue uniforms. The last soldier that Sheridan passed in the line swatted her on the backside with the side of his sword and said, “Welcome to the Army ma’am.”

Daryl and Sheridan settled into a comfortable routine of brief deployments, month-long training exercises, and secret missions of undetermined amounts of time.

Before the war, Daryl, Sheridan, our three-year-old granddaughter Bailey, and eight-year-old grandson Justin laughed and played like four children, enjoying all that life had to offer. Sheridan loved the outdoors and grew up hiking in Germany, skiing in Italy, and even trekking to Paris for her high school prom night. She shared her sense of adventure and her love for nature with her husband and children.

As soon as Daryl returned from a military assignment, the family would embark on some great excursion. They seemed to be the perfect family and they really were about as near to perfect as any family could be, and then the Iraq war started.

Operation Phantom Fury was the name of the pivotal mission that would change Daryl and Sheridan’s life forever.

“Hello, babe? It’s me Daryl, can you hear me?” “Oh my God, I’ve been so worried about you. We’ve been watching the news. Are you in this operation Daryl, this second Fallujah?” a frantic Sheridan asked.

“Yeah, honey, but I’m alright really. How are you and the kids? Man, it’s good to hear your voice. Everything is crazy here babe. I feel like I’m on another planet, but I’m good, I’m good. How are the kids?” Daryl repeated.

“We’re fine here Daryl. How are you doing? Are you hurt? They’re saying this second Fallujah is the worst combat since the Vietnam War and you’re smack in the middle of it Daryl. I’m so scared for you.”

“The angels are walking with me honey, I don’t have a scratch on me, I promise.”

“Oh, thank God, I pray for you every day and the kids and my parents pray, too. We love you and miss you Daryl. We made you a big box of cookies and brownies. They might me hard as bricks by the time you get them, but just know that we’re thinking about you and all of the guys over there. Do you need anything?”

“No honey, like I said I’m good. I didn’t get so much as a scratch,” Daryl said with a fake smile plastered on his face, with the hope of sounding convincing when he said that he was fine.

What he didn’t tell Sheridan was that he was the only man in his squad who walked away with barely a bruise on that horrible day in Iraq’s Al-Anbar Province, where he witnessed most of his comrades being viciously wounded or killed.

Daryl also observed the bloated and decomposing bodies of other American military and Iraqi civilians alike, floating in the Euphrates river; the festering carnage of the escaping insurgent’s terror.

“One hundred eighty days and a wakeup baby and I’ll be back home to you.”

“I know Daryl,” Sheridan managed to smile in the hope that it would make her voice sound cheerful enough to convince Daryl that she was alright. “The kids and I mark off the calendar each day to count the days until you come home.”

“That’s really sweet honey. I love you. Kiss the kids for me and I’ll call again as soon as I can.” Daryl hung up the phone and looked down at his trembling hands, willing them to stop shaking. He grabbed the stock of his rifle and unslung it from across his back. He needed something to hold on to and his rifle would do for now.

Charlie and I were thrilled when Daryl left the Army at the end of his tour in Iraq, but he couldn’t seem to leave the war behind. It followed him like a hungry ghost, gobbling up every ounce of happiness, and each morsel of joy that dared to creep into his life.

“Daryl why won’t you talk to me?” Sheridan begged. “You walk around here saying that you just want to be left alone, barking at me and yelling at the kids, we can’t live like this. What is the matter with you? Please talk to me,” Sheridan demanded day after day. But Daryl never shared his feelings of survivor’s remorse with Sheridan, or anyone outside of the psychiatrist and psychologist that debriefed him post-deployment.

After leaving the combat zone, Daryl found himself taking 16-prescribed medications a day for depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and chronic pain.

However, after having seen the worst of what one human being is capable of doing to another human being, Daryl was a shell of his old self, after returning from the war. His unwillingness to seek help, to talk about his feelings, and a growing problem with handling the challenges of life began to overwhelm and destroy first Daryl and then the entire family. Daryl was withdrawn from everyone when he returned home, and he became almost a hermit inside his house. After leaving the Army, he literally turned the home office into a cave by blacking out the windows and forbidding even his own family to enter the room. This was where he retreated to on a daily basis so that he could be left alone with his demons. Helping out around the house, looking for work or even taking his medication on schedule seemed to be impossible tasks for him. Sheridan felt like a single parent, and on top of that, she was walking on eggshells trying to keep Daryl calm and protecting herself and the children from his violent rages.

One day, after leaving the children home alone with their father while she went to the grocery store, Sheridan came home to find Bailey crying and shaking under the dining room table. Her eyes were wide and she began screaming, “Mommy don’t leave, the monster will get you.”

“What, what monster Bailey, there are no monsters,” Sheridan said as she lifted Bailey out from under the table. She could hear Daryl yelling incoherently, then suddenly she began running towards the voice in the backyard.

It was a sweltering summer day and Daryl was barking commands at Justin, who was running up and down the backyard with a loaded rifle, steps from collapsing from heat exhaustion. Daryl ran alongside his eight-year-old son yelling about how not following orders gets people killed. Sheridan later learned that all of this was brought on by Justin’s failing a spelling test at school that day.

When Sheridan took the rifle from Bailey and told him to run inside and call his grandpa, Daryl grabbed the rifle and hit Sheridan with the rifle-stock, causing her to fall unconscious. A neighbor who was watching from the window had already called the police, who had just arrived.

After a three-hour standoff, Daryl finally released his family from their backyard prison, and found himself in police custody, followed by an extended stay in the psychiatric ward.

Sheridan had had enough! After five years of his moody, distant, and agitated behavior while he was still on active duty, followed by an 18-month struggle for him to adjust to civilian life, and then having the lives of her children as well as her own in danger, she separated from Daryl.

Sheridan wasn’t ready to call it quits on her marriage, but she knew that Daryl needed more than just three weeks of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy to be safe to rejoin his family.

Through his lawyer, because of the restraining order that she had in place, she notified Daryl that she and the children were moving in with us.

She went on to say that she was willing to work on the marriage and would attend the Veterans Administration (VA) sponsored couples counseling to try to work things out. As long as he stayed on his medication, continued weekly therapy, and showed that he was getting better she would hang in there with him.

She reassured him that she loved him deeply, but felt that she and the children were not safe with him until he got better.

“This is crazy Mike. Sheridan knows I would never hurt her, or the kids, I love my family, man.”

“I know Daryl, but you did hold your family at gunpoint. You’re under a lot of pressure with this court case. I think your wife moving in with her parents is a good thing. Let’s you and I focus on a good legal defense. You’ll continue your therapy. Put this behind you, and you and your family will move on with your lives as one big happy family again.

“As your lawyer I’m telling you to give it some time. Stay calm and stay away from your wife, you can’t afford to get into another run-in with the police right now.”

“Okay Mike, I hear you man. I’ll do what I have to do to get my family back. I just don’t want those VA doctors getting inside her head telling her to leave me.”

“Sheridan’s a level headed woman. She’ll do what’s best for the family. You go home and take it easy.”

“Okay Mike, you’re right. Sheridan loves me. I just scared her and the kids, that’s all. I’ll get myself together, get a job, and get refocused again.”

“That’s it Daryl, that sounds like a good plan. You focus on yourself and let the situation cool down for a bit.”

“I can do that,” Daryl stood up, shook Mike’s hand, and left the lawyer’s office feeling optimistic about the future.

Chapter 4 Going Off the Rails

Daryl resigned himself to working hard on recovering from post-traumatic stress (PTS) and on winning his family back. He was attending individual, group, and couple’s therapy every week. Then suddenly the train went off the rails!

Daryl made his weekly trip to the grocery store and saw a young, happy family that could have been a mirror image of his own and snapped.

“What’s that guy got in his pocket? Man, it sure is noisy in here. What was that? I saw something out of the corner of my eye, but now it’s gone. Those damn sneaky Hajis, (a euphemism that military people used for a Muslim insurgent during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) one minute they’re there the next minute they’re gone. Where are the exits in case something pops off in here?” Daryl said to himself as he processed all of the usual sights, sounds, and activities of a regular day at the grocery store, through the distorted, hypervigilant filter of a PTS trigger.

Suddenly, in his mind, seeing the family that looks like his made him agitated. Unable to quell the frustration inside, his body responds with anxiety, triggering a convergence of the fog of war from his past, with his present environment. Daryl is pushed beyond his ability to deal with his rising panic and unable to employ the coping skills that he’s learned. In his mind, the only way to stop the fear and anxiety is to get his family back.

In that moment, Daryl became hell-bent on having Sheridan and the children come home now!

“Sheridan, I need you to call me back now. If you don’t I’m going to make you pay for what you’re doing to me. Call me!” Daryl yelled into his cell phone from the grocery store parking lot.

Daryl called Sheridan no less than thirty-seven times. Sheridan had no idea about what was going on. Her cell phone was on vibrate in her desk while she was teaching class. It wasn’t until over an hour after Daryl’s first call that she answered the thirty-seventh call and listened patiently to Daryl’s demand.

“Sheridan, you had better bring my children home now and come home where you belong, or I’ll make you wish you had! I’m going to kill that VA doctor for twisting your mind against me.”

This sent a chill down Sheridan’s spine, but she remained calm and tried to calm Daryl down also. It didn’t work.

“Sheridan if you don’t come home, you’ll never see those kids again!” Daryl yelled into the phone.

“Daryl you know I can’t do that honey, I’m at work, but I’ll be home at 5 o’clock okay?”

“Don’t lie to me Sheridan, you bring my kids home right now!”

“Okay, okay, I’m coming home baby, I’m coming home right now. Just let me go pick up the kids,” Sheridan said, making eye contact with the alarmed coworker who has been eavesdropping on her conversation, with alarm.

“You’re lying Sheridan”.

“No, I’m not, I’m leaving right now,” Sheridan said, as she grabbed her purse and headed for the door. As she exited the building the hot summer sun blinded her. She began to run toward the parking lot in the direction of her car when Daryl’s red pickup truck screeched to a stop in front of her.

In one hand, Daryl held his cell phone. In the other was the unmistakable outline of a 9mm handgun. Daryl aimed it at her face. Sheridan felt the burning sensation of fear induced bile, releasing into her gut. The surge of adrenaline made her brain begin to process information at warp speed. Within seconds, she thought that the police were surely on the way, alerted to the emergency by her coworker. She thought of the children and found comfort in knowing that her parents would take care of them if she didn’t survive today’s ordeal. She even felt relieved that they were safely away from the potentially lethal situation until she saw Bailey’s little hand pressed against the window of the cab.

Opening the front door, she attempted to smile at Daryl. “Hi babe, you didn’t tell me that you picked up the children,” she said casually, slowly stepping into the truck as if everything was perfectly normal.

Bailey and Justin began to cry, but they seemed lethargic. She turned to them and softly said, “Shh, mommy’s here”, and touched each of their little hands. “Daryl what did you give them?”

“They’re okay, I put a shot of Vodka in some juice and gave it to them. They’re just a little sleepy that’s all.”

“How much did you give them Daryl?” Sheridan asked, trying not to let him hear the panic in her voice.

“It’s just a shot between them I promise, I would never hurt my kids, you know that,” Daryl yelled as he slammed the gun against the steering wheel.

Sheridan could hear the distant sound of police sirens, looking at Daryl’s face she knew that he heard them too. “Daryl, the police are coming. Let me get out with the children and you take off. We’re not supposed to be together. I don’t want to make any trouble for you. We can talk later.”

“You called the cops on me Sheridan?”

“No, Daryl I didn’t, I was on the phone with you the whole time. Someone else must have called.”

“You liar!” Daryl yelled as he sped through the parking lot. He jumped on to the All American Freeway and then took Interstate 95 North. As they drove through Virginia, Maryland, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania, there was no sign that they were being followed by law enforcement.

“Daryl, please slow down, where are we going?”

“You’re in no position to tell me what to do Sheridan, I’m in control now,” Daryl spat, waving his gun in the air. With that Sheridan sat back, remained silent, and tried to think about her next move.

Chapter 5 Into Thin Air

“Daryl, the kids need to go to the restroom and they need something to eat. It’ll be dark soon and they haven’t had anything to eat today. Can we please get off these backroads before dark and find some food?”

Without speaking, Daryl pulled his truck off the road and into the tree line. He looked over at Sheridan and said, “Stay put! I’ll use the bathroom first and then I’ll take the kids”.

Sheridan placed both hands on the dashboard in compliance, without speaking. Daryl walked to the back of the truck to relieve himself out of his daughter’s view. Perhaps being awake and driving for two days had taken its toll on him because he let his guard down by leaving his gun on the center console and the keys in the ignition. Sheridan thought this might be her last chance to escape.

Thinking quickly, she reached over and placed her hands on the truck’s automatic door locks as she simultaneously turned on the ignition, then picked up the gun. She told the children to cover their eyes until she told them to look. Daryl ran back to the car and jammed his finger when the locked door handle wouldn’t budge.

“Open the door Sheridan,” Daryl yelled while banging on the driver side window.

Sheridan ejected the gun’s magazine to ensure she had bullets. Reassuring herself that she was now in control of the situation, she turned the gun’s lever to take it off safe and chambered a round. When she looked up at Daryl, he had a rock in his hand, raised to smash the window.

Sheridan slammed the truck into drive and sped away just as the driver’s side window crashed all over her. The children began to scream as the truck fishtailed through the upstate New York countryside. As Sheridan began to drive, she knew that she was far from being safe.

Daryl was trained to survive in harsh conditions and rural Watertown, New York was a walk in the park for an army ranger.

“Mommy’s okay, are you okay Justin?” Sheridan asked her son.

“Yes, I’m okay,” Justin said through his tears.

“Are you okay Bailey?”

“Mommy, I want to go home,” Bailey cried.

“I know babies, but we can’t go home right now. Your daddy’s sick in his head and doesn’t know what he’s doing. So we need to go on a little trip and let him get better.”

Sheridan knew that our lives would be in danger if she came home, but we would gladly exchange our lives for the safety of her and the children. So Sheridan decided that she was safer on her own than at home with her dad and me. She stopped at the nearest ATM and withdrew all of the money that she could from her bank accounts and credit cards, then threw them away. She left the truck in the bank parking lot and took children to the restroom at a Wal-Mart up the road.

By dusk, they left the store in new clothes, fresh haircuts and color, new names, and were freshly bathed. They took a taxi to a used car lot, paid cash for a Jeep, and she drove out of town on Interstate 90 as fast as she could—destination unknown.

“Officer, it’s been over 48 hours. How could a red pickup go unseen on I-95 for two days?” A frustrated Charlie demanded.

“Sir, I can’t imagine how you and your wife are feeling right now, but I do sympathize with you. I can assure you that the FBI takes interstate kidnapping of two children and your daughter very seriously and we are using every resource possible to find your family.”

“Agent, they’re all we’ve got. Please find my daughter and my grandchildren,” I managed to say before breaking down.

“Well ma’am, the pickup was found in a bank parking lot in Watertown, New York which is close to the Canadian border. Daryl may have gotten help with crossing into Canada by an army buddy at Fort Drum or in the surrounding area.”.

“They were seen on a few Watertown surveillance cameras, then it seems as if they disappeared into thin air, but we’ll find them.”

Chapter 6 The Triangle X

“Welcome to the Triangle X ma’am, are you checking in?”

“No, I was wondering, are you hiring? The soft-spoken redhead asked. There was something so pitiful about her that even a wet behind the ears 20-year old could see it.

“Hold on ma’am let me get the manager, she can help you out. Y’all gonna like it here at the Triangle X”. This time, he spoke with a boyish smile, a wink, and a tip of his cowboy hat, as he turned and walked away into to a building that looked like a giant log cabin.

Sheridan changed her hair. It’s now a reddish-blonde, but there’s no mistaking those dazzling green eyes. Only, like the cowboy observed, there’s a noticeable sadness scrolled across her face. She even carries it in her body with her shoulders sloping forward and a slight forward bend at the waist. At 30-years-old, she has a very youthful face that seems to have been beaten down by time and circumstance.

Misty, the hiring manager, ambled out of the cabin and over towards Sheridan. Misty had her sized up within seconds, but invited her into the office anyway. “So, you’re looking for a job?” Misty asked as she took a seat behind her desk, without inviting Sheridan to sit, so she remained standing.

“Yes ma'am,” Sheridan responded.

“Are you running away from someone or towards something else?”

Sheridan dropped her gaze to the floor and said; “Away from something.”

“Um-hum!” Did trouble follow you here?" Said Misty.

“No ma’am, I took care that it didn’t, but it’s impossible to go home right now, and I’m not alone. I have my two children with me.”

“I appreciate your honesty, but you know, if you got people that love you they’d welcome you home no matter what." Misty advised.

“Thank you, ma'am, but I’m not ready to go home just yet, but I am ready to settle down someplace. I can ride well and I know how to care for horses, I can cook, clean, and I have computer skills, but I’d rather work outside if I can."

“Beggars can’t be choosers, now can they?” Misty snapped. Sheridan took that for a rhetorical question and didn’t respond. “Well you’re in luck. I’m gonna run a background check on you and if you don’t have a police record I have an opening. We need a female chaperone and Wrangler for our children and teens program. You look like you’ve been rode hard and put up wet, and are a sandwich away from starvation, but young enough that the kids will relate to you. The job is yours if you want it,” Misty said gruffly.

Sheridan forced a smile and said, “Thank you, ma'am.”

Misty stood up, extended a rough hand attached to a strong forearm, out to Sheridan who reciprocated with a hearty handshake of her own.

“So what will you call yourself in this new life of yours?”

“Celine,” Sheridan replied.

“Are you serious?” Misty said with one hand on her slim hip. “Think again, that name sounds made up.” Misty chided.

“Victoria?” Sheridan asked.

“That’s just as bad, Stephanie Austin, that’s your new name! I have a friend in town that’ll get you some ID made,” Misty said with a wink.

“Okay!” Sheridan said with a smile. “My name is Stephanie Austin. This is my daughter Allison and my son Jake,” she said as they approached Bailey and Justin, who by now knew to just go with whatever new pretend game mommy was playing.

Misty chatted up Stephanie and her children for a while before she returned to her office, allowing them to get settled into their cabin. After a quick background check on Sheridan Anderson, Misty did some searching on the Internet and found a Fayetteville Observer news article on how Sheridan, her two children, and husband Daryl are presumed dead after being missing for two-years. “You poor thing, you have been through a lot,” Misty said to the image of her new employee, Stephanie Austin, on her computer screen.

Misty took care to delete her search history to ensure that no other employee stumbled onto this information about Sheridan Anderson—also known as Stephanie Austin.

Chapter 7 Little Wranglers

Misty, an average height, muscular woman with a weather-worn face, long brunette hair, and soft doe eyes, surprised Sheridan by placing an arm around her shoulder and saying, “come on honey, let’s all go get us something to eat. Kids never stray too far from your mom or another responsible adult. It’s easy to get lost. This is big country out here. You ever been out West before?”

“No ma’am,” Stephanie, Allison, and Jake said in unison.

“Well it’s a different life out here, but you’ll get used to it, and stop ma’aming me, I ain’t that old. I hope you like to eat because you need some food in you. One good gust of wind could knock all of you clean off a horse as skinny as you are. We need to pack some muscle on you,” Misty said with a hearty smile, as she squeezed Sheridan’s boney shoulder and pinched at the children’s ribs, which made them giggle.

The brochure Sheridan found at the Wyoming visitor’s center read “As the premier Wyoming dude ranch inside Grand Teton National Park, the Triangle X Ranch provides visitors with fulfilling experiences within unsurpassed natural beauty.”

Sheridan, now Stephanie, thought she could lose her past and any trail leading Daryl to her and the children, in the wide open spaces of Wyoming. She had been wandering from city to city until she wound up out West. After seeing the brochure for the Triangle X ranch, she thought this was as good a place as any to set down some roots for a while until she was sure that Daryl was in police custody.

As for Charlie and me, the not knowing had us worried sick. Stephanie had not so much as emailed us. No one knew where Daryl, Stephanie, or the children were, and at this point Charlie and I were praying that one day they would find our family alive.

“The Triangle X ranch has been a family run business for five generations. Most of the staff are close or distant relatives of the owners, with some townsfolk and wayward strangers mixed in,” Dusty, a senior wrangler, said during training.

Dusty took care to avoid eye contact as to not cause embarrassment over the obvious fact that Stephanie was one of those “wayward strangers” he was referring to. Dusty turned out to be a kindly man in his fifties, who had a boyish crush on Misty. Stephanie tried hard not to laugh at their mutual insults and playful banter each day.

Before she knew it, Stephanie and the kids were another year older and enjoying their lives in the Western outback. Stephanie homeschooled the children in her spare time during the day and evening, spending most of their time with the other “little wranglers” in Stephanie and Dusty’s care.

Stephanie was happy to be working out in the elements. She thought the people out West were a little rough around the edges as far as she could tell, but kind and welcoming. The food was amazing and she was so grateful to be working at a job that allowed her to keep her children close.

Allison and Jake had become fine riders and learned the terrain quickly. Dusty praised them on many occasion on how they were becoming great wranglers and mentors to the other children. This made Stephanie relieved and proud to see her children flourishing in their new lives.

Everything was going great until Stephanie received an additional work assignment. She was tasked to working with the dance team to balance out the ratio of male to female staff and guest dance partners at socials, and in the Latin and Square Dancing classes.

Stephanie was mortified to know that she had to learn how to dance. With her two left feet, lack of rhythm, and utter disdain for the male gender after what she had been through at the hands of her estranged husband, the last thing that she wanted to do was to learn how to dance.

Fearing what Misty would say, Stephanie kept her feelings to herself and showed up for dance class, bringing Allison and Jake with her.

Chapter 8 Suzie Q

The dance instructor at the Triangle X was a hulk of a man. He looked more like a California Latin gang member than a dance teacher, with his loosely curled, shoulder length hair, and muscular arms and legs that looked like tree trunks. He sported a full-sleeve Aztec tribal tattoo from shoulder to wrist on both arms.

Stephanie thought his self-confident, rico-suave charisma was annoying. Although the other ladies swooned over his slight Latin accent, Stephanie found herself wanting to yell, “Stop speaking Spanglish, I can’t understand you, and I’m not your Mommy!”

“Okay class, from the top, one two three, five six seven, and one two three, five six, no, no, no Mami (Spanish term of endearment from a man to a woman or girl) watch me, watch me,” said dance instructor, Javier Mendez, as he walked over to Stephanie to correct her dance steps. “A little lighter on your feet Mami, you’re not stomping the cucaracha (cockroach). You are dancing, floating across the floor with your partner,” Javier said with dramatic pause.

Stephanie clenched her teeth and rolled her eyes as Javier picked up her feet and lightly placed them on the floor in the correct order and position.

“Okay everybody Suzy Q! One two three and Su-zy-Q. One two three and Su-zy-Q. Very nice Allison, maybe you can practice with your mama later, she needs a little extra attention.” Javier’s snip at Stephanie only served to elicit another long sigh and rolling eyes from her.

“Excellent class everyone, that’s it for today, see you tomorrow, and practice, practice, practice. I need you staff members to be better dancers than our guests so please put in the effort.”

“Stephanie, can I talk to you please?” Javier said in his sickeningly sweet voice. Stephanie walked over to Javier and stood impatiently waiting for him to speak. “If it is okay with you, I would like you to stay after class for 30-minutes every day. I think some individual time would improve your dancing faster. Misty is really counting on you to become a good dancer and I don’t care to disappoint her—entiendes (understand)?”

“Yo en-ti-en-do (I understand)!” Stephanie replied.

“You don’t have to speak Spanish, my English is very good. I was born in Los Estados Unidos (The United States),” Javier replied.

Stephanie rolled her eyes, placed her hands on her tiny waist and said, “If you were born in the United States, why do you keep speaking Spanglish (Spanish mixed with English)? It’s annoying and half the time I don’t know what you’re saying because your accent is so thick. If you were born in America, then why do you sound like you just swam across the Rio Grande yesterday?” Spat Stephanie.

Red-faced, Javier grabbed Stephanie by the hand and said, “Shut up and dance Mami-Chula (pretty girl), and just so you know, the Rio Grande is in Texas, not Wyoming, learn some geography!” Shouted Javier.

Stephanie was so angry that she could hardly see straight. However, knowing that Misty took a chance on her, she remembered what Javier said about not wanting to disappoint Misty. With that in mind, Stephanie channeled her disdain for Javier into learning to become a good dancer to please Misty.

Having two dance partners at home gave Stephanie an opportunity to practice outside of the group and private classes with Javier. Jake was becoming quite a dancer himself and Allison seemed to be a natural dance teacher, correcting every minor mistake that her mother made. By the time that the next large group of guests arrived, Stephanie was ready for her dance partner debut.

It had been a very long time since Stephanie wore anything other than jeans and a blouse or tee shirt, she had forgotten that she had legs. When she slipped on the white fitted dress with a fishtail trim she was amazed at how shapely her legs had become. She smiled in the mirror, quite pleased with herself. She had always been a thin girl, but never slim and muscular. Stephanie thought western life was suiting her just fine.

Stephanie couldn’t remember when she last looked into a mirror and saw the reflection of a beautiful woman staring back at her. For so many years you only saw fear, worry and regret that her children had to go through the trauma of being kidnapped at gunpoint by their own father, in the image staring back at her. Tonight, she only saw her beauty. Looking across the room at Jake and Allison in their party clothes, excited about going dancing and showing off their new found talents made her smile. In that moment, Stephanie felt happy.

Javier choreographed a short dance routine for the Triangle X staff and their children to kick off the evening’s festivities. The 15-minute exhibition would be followed by a 30-minute dance class for the guests and then the rest of the evening, the party-goers would enjoy the music and dance as they pleased.

To Stephanie’s surprised, she was paired with Javier for the staff dance performance. Jake, danced with his sister Allison. Misty was thrilled to see staff and family members of all ages, from the little wranglers to the seniors putting on a great show. At the end of the demonstration, every guest was on their feet and ready to participate in Javier’s dance lesson.

During the open dancing, Stephanie giggled at how smoothly Misty and Dusty glided across the dance floor. Seeing Jake and Allison enjoying the party made her heart nearly jump out of her chest. She suddenly felt like she could breathe again. Feeling a little overwhelmed by emotion, she stepped out to the veranda to catch some air.

Standing in the shadows was Javier, quietly having a celebration beer, alone in the dark. Stephanie didn’t notice him there as she allowed the pent up emotions of the past four years release into the ether through a torrent of tears.

“No llores mi amor (Don’t cry my love),” Javier said as he stepped out of the shadows and handed Stephanie a handkerchief. Startled, Stephanie accepted the handkerchief, recognizing Javier’s unmistakable voice coming from the shadows, but asked, “where did you come from?” Just the same.

“I was standing just there,” pointing to the dark corner of the veranda, “having a cerveza (beer) to celebrate a good party tonight. My students, including you, made me very proud with their dancing.”

Stephanie dabbed at her face and wiped her nose with Javier’s handkerchief. She could feel that it was soaked with his perspiration, and smell that it was laden with his cologne, having been used to wipe the sweat from his face and neck after his dance performance. The scent was pleasant and masculine. She remembered enjoying the smell of him as he held her close during the dance.

She was proud of her performance too, having mastered the sultry Latin dance moves. Her silent thoughts were interrupted by Javier’s voice.

“Why are you crying mi amor (my love)?” Javier asked, with a gentle hand at the small of her back. His voice was tender and concerned.

“I’m being silly Javier. I was just…it’s just that…” Stephanie’s voice trailed off, not knowing how to explain what she was feeling. She found herself wanting to pour her heart out to Javier and tell him everything but thought better of it. Instead, she began by saying, “My children and I have been through a lot with my ex-husband and seeing how happy they look tonight, and with me accomplishing a goal by learning to dance, I just feel so happy and relieved.”

“Relieved about what mi corazon (my heart)?”

“I’m relieved that my children are going to be okay,” Stephanie said as she covered her face in shame and began to sob into her hands.

Just then, the oh0so-suave and masculine Javier’s heart began to break at hearing Stephanie’s words. He stepped closer, drew her into his arms and whispered, “no llores mi amor (don’t cry my love), you are not alone, I am here.”

Stephanie found herself nearly collapsing into Javier’s arms, where she remained, sobbing for several minutes. Catching herself, she suddenly backed away embarrassed and apologetic. “I’m so sorry to unload on you like this Javier, it was very unprofessional of me. It won’t happen again,” Stephanie stammered.

“Tranquila muneca (calm down doll), it’s okay, we are friends, it’s okay. I’m no gossip, I will not tell your business all over the ranch, you have my word.”

Stephanie hadn’t considered that he may talk about her meltdown, but she was now grateful to hear Javier promise to keep her confidence. “I should go find Jake and Allison,” Stephanie said as she returned to the party to take her children home to their little cabin.

The children talked excitedly from their beds about the evening until Stephanie told them to quiet down and go to sleep. Later, in the stillness of the cabin, Stephanie found herself thinking about Javier’s words and felt a pang of warmth rising in her belly. She realized that she was developing feelings for Javier. Thinking herself silly, she remembered from Spanish class that Latinos often use words of endearment, and even I love you, more casually than she was used to. Convincing herself that Javier was just being dramatic and familiar, rather than sincere and romantic. Stephanie laughed at how silly she was being, before drifting off to sleep.

Chapter 9 Home on the Range

Stephanie didn’t see Javier at breakfast the next day. She counted herself lucky for that, not knowing what to say to him about last night. Dusty, Stephanie, and the Little Wranglers headed out on an overnight ride to an old cowboy camp. It was an opportunity for the children and teens to feel like authentic cowboys and cowgirls, cooking their own dinner and sleeping in tents under the stars. Jake and Allison were unofficial staff on these trips now, sitting high in the saddle and supervising the safety and enjoyment of the other children.

Just before dusk, as the Little Wranglers were making camp, three adult riders slowly road into view. Stephanie recognized the horses with the Triangle X’s numbering, and the faces of two Wranglers that she knew. They asked Dusty if the third man, a guest by the name of Bill, who had fallen off his horse and whacked his head, could ride back to the ranch with him in the morning. The guest was feeling nauseous and too weak to continue riding tonight they said. Dusty agree and helped the gentlemen to get settled down in the tent that he would be sharing with Dusty for the night.

Stephanie supervised the children making dinner on the campfire while Allison and Jake helped to set up tents. As Dusty and the stranger, Bill, walked past the fire Stephanie’s stomach fell down to her ankles. Her palms began to sweat, she could taste nervous bile at the back of her throat, and her head was clear but racing. Stephanie realized that guest’s name wasn’t Bill, it was Daryl. He was about 20-pounds thinner and had a head full of curly, brown hair, but that was Daryl alright.

Daryl walked unusually upright because of an old back injury, and he had very broad shoulders, she wouldn’t mistake that gate and side profile anywhere, and his voice—the way that her flesh crawled when she heard him chatting up Dusty, she knew it was Daryl.

The ranch had a Family Service Radio (FSR) system—Motorola’s Talkabout. The FSR is an unlicensed, simplex only, personal radio service used in North America. She needed to radio the ranch for help, but sitting at the edge of the Grand Teton National Park, the sound of a radio squawking to life would travel a good mile, tipping off Daryl, and placing Dusty and the children at risk.

Stephanie felt trapped until she noticed how 11-year old Jake was taking charge of the other Little Wranglers then she had an idea.

Pulling Jake away from the other kids, she calmly explained what she needed him to do. Unafraid, Jake quietly walked his horse away while Stephanie distracted the other children’s attention from his direction. When he was a five-minute walk away from the camp, he jumped on his horse and road for another five minutes, as fast as he could, before calling the ranch on the Talkabout. Doing his best to have an adult sounding voice, he told the dispatcher that he needed to get a message to Misty ASAP. The message was, “We have three Little Wranglers feeling homesick and I don’t have the situation under control.” When the dispatcher asked for a name Jake returned to radio silence just like his mom told him to.

Fearing the repercussions of not getting a message to Misty in a timely fashion, the dispatcher set out immediately to find Misty, who was in her office. Misty felt the blood drain from her face when the dispatcher delivered the message. She jumped up from her desk and headed to the bunkhouse. Finding Javier, Misty told him all about Stephanie and how she and the children had been found by Daryl and were in trouble.

“Misty, I’ll take Stephanie and the children to the Little Medicine Wheel and wait until you send a rescue,” Javier said as he ran out of the bunkhouse. Javier road off into the night to find Stephanie, whispering, “don’t worry mi Amor, your papi (Poppy or man) is coming to save you.”

When Jake was about 50-feet away from camp he saw a rope tied between two bushes and heard “Suzy,” when he brought his horse to a stop.

Reacting to his sister Allison’s challenge, Jake responded with “Q”. Allison ran out from behind some bushes and hugged her brother around the waist. After a brief reunion, they found a place to hide and waited as instructed.

A frantic Stephanie had no way of knowing if Jake reached the ranch, or if cloud cover, or technology gremlins blocked the radio signal, or even how long it would be before Misty received the message with their pre-arranged panic phrase.

Misty knew if she ever heard those words, it meant that Daryl had found Stephanie and the children and that they were all in danger. Stephanie focused on getting all of the children settled in for the night as she prayed that Jake found his way back to camp, and that little Allison wouldn’t be too afraid sitting alone in the dark waiting for her brother’s safe return.

The FBI dispatched agents, rangers, and state troopers to the Grand Teton National Park and the Triangle X Ranch. They wanted Stephanie and the children’s safe return, but they also didn’t want a dangerous man to elude them again, so they were taking all precautions with Daryl.

Stephanie waited until she didn’t hear anything but snoring coming from the campsite before untying two horses and then walking out of the camp. “Suzy!”

A relieved Stephanie responded with “Q”. The children saw her coming and were already mounted on their horses, prepared to ride back to the ranch, through the night.

Stephanie placed her left foot into the stirrup on the right side of the horse and out of the dark heard, “Well ain’t that a precious picture right there Sheridan, a nice little family vacation. All of us at a dude ranch, together!”

Stephanie froze for a moment, allowing her brain to process what was happening, when she had, she yelled, “Ride!” Like a shot, Allison and Jake took off, with Stephanie only a stride or two behind them. Daryl was about a minute behind Stephanie. Having much more riding time and experience, Stephanie, Allison, and Jake were able to widen the gap between them and Daryl by 10-15-minutes.

In the dark, they road right past Javier, who was riding toward them. He stopped and whistled to them in the dark. The trio brought their horses around and caught up to Javier. When they were all four together, Stephanie and the children followed Javier into the night.

It was dusk when they arrived at the Little Medicine Wheel that someone built to resemble the Medicine Wheel Landmark of Big Horn National Park. There was a cave with a ledge that you had to climb up to reach, adjacent to the Little Medicine Wheel. It seemed like a great place to hide. They tied up their horses and walked to the cave.

Stephanie began to hoist Allison up when Javier said, “Not up, go down, there, behind that boulder, go down.”

Handing Stephanie, a lantern and an armful of the supplies from their horses, Javier lead the way into an aquifer. The ledge inside the aquifer was so small that one careless move could send them plunging into the frigid water of unknown depth. Javier helped them to snake their way to a wider plateau where they could rest.

Every hour Javier would peek around the above ground boulder to see if help had arrived. Stephanie knew that Daryl would be able to find them easily, if not in the dark then certainly some time after sunrise, because of his military training and ability to track both man and animal. Stephanie prayed that the authorities would arrive first.

The FBI and other agencies were using the GPS signal from the devices sewn into every Triangle X saddle, to help locate any guest or staff who may be lost or injured. However, out on the range, there are a lot of spaces where technology can’t reach. Misty knew that Little Medicine wheel was one of those places. When she saw Javier’s red blip reach the other three red dots on her computer screen, which she knew to be Stephanie and the children, she was elated. When she saw them go offline she knew they were in or close to the Little Medicine Wheel area. Just over an hour later, she saw the red dot with a code assigned to Daryl, masquerading as Bill, and Misty realized that they were running out of time to make a rescue.

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