“Thanks for that cheery reminder,” the sheriff said dryly. He grabbed his hat off a peg on the wall. “I’ll get someone to drive me home.” Once he stood by the end of the booth, he told Cam, “Take tomorrow off. But let me know how you’re doin’, okay?”

Cam nodded. His cell phone buzzed with a text message, which he ignored.

Doc Monroe signaled someone behind him and finished her last shot. “Will you be all right if I take off too?”

No. “Yeah.”

The pushy doc angled across the table, forcing his attention. “I know you, Deputy Cameron McKay. Don’t do this to yourself.”

“Do what? Wonder why I had no freakin’ clue about Jeff’s military service? Maybe I could have—”

“You couldn’t have done anything. He would’ve turned away your help if you’d offered.”

Probably true. But it didn’t diminish his feelings of guilt.

“I can also see you’re worried part of you is like Jeff, because you also suffer from PTSD. That one night you’ll wake up disoriented and you’ll open fire on your family. Cam, that won’t ever happen. Not with you.”

Pissed him off that she’d picked up on that. “How can you be so sure? No one would’ve predicted a fucking insurance salesman would fill his wife’s body with bullets.”

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She gave him an intense look. “What do you do with your gun when you’re done with your shift?”

He frowned at her. “Either leave it locked up at work or lock it in the gun safe at home.”

“Do you have any unattended firearms anywhere in your house right now?”

“No.”

“Are any of the firearms in your house loaded? Even the ones locked in the gun safe?”

“Nope.”

“Where is your gun safe?”

“In the garage.”

“So if you happened to wake up disoriented from a combat nightmare, you couldn’t just reach for your gun beneath your pillow or pull it from the nightstand drawer. You’d have to grab your crutches, hobble from your bedroom to the garage, use the keys to open the gun safe, pick a firearm, and load the right clip into the gun itself. Now you’re ready to aim and fire, correct?”

“Yeah.”

“Think you’d still be asleep after all that? Think you wouldn’t have a conscious thought about what you were doing?”

“No, but I have woken up with my goddamn hands wrapped around Domini’s neck,” he snapped. “Do you have any idea how much that eats at me?” He held out his shaking hands. “Look at these paws. One swipe, one unconscious twist, and I could hurt her. I could even kill her. Just like—”

“No. No. No. No. No.” She punctuated every no with a loud smack on the table. “You aren’t like Jeff Wingate. Not at all. Not even fucking close, Cam. He never faced his demons. You are fully aware of yours. That at least gives you a fighting chance at knowing how to chase them away.”

Cam almost said something flip about facing his six demon kids everyday, but he held back.

“I know you have a million McKay family members, but somehow I don’t think you let them see this conflicted side. Except for maybe… Keely?”

“I used to. But…” It felt like he was betraying Domini even talking to his sister about such intensely emotional baggage. Yet, he didn’t want to talk to his wife about it, either.

Maybe if you don’t talk to someone about this shit you will end up just like Jeff Wingate.

“If you want a fresh pair of ears, Cam, I’m around. Completely confidential. Anytime.”

“I appreciate it, Doc. Thanks.”

She patted his hand. “You’re welcome. Now I have to scoot and meet my Valentine’s Day dates.”

“Dates? As in more than one?” Cam asked to her retreating back. He poked his head around the edge of the booth and watched his cousins, Chet and Remy West, escorting the lovely and lively doc from the bar.

Huh. Maybe he was drunker than he thought.

But that didn’t keep Cam from drinking steadily over the next couple hours. Everyone left him alone, left him mired in thoughts ranging from morose to manic to plain moronic.

So he was shocked when his brother Colt slid into the booth opposite him. “Am I hallucinating? My recovering alcoholic big bro is in… a bar?”

“Yep. I am here to haul your drunken ass home.”

“Who called you?” That’d come out belligerent.

“Lettie called Domini. Domini called me. She knows I won’t be tempted to linger in here with you and suck down what’s left of the keg.” Colt squinted at the empty pitcher of beer and then at Cam. “And I’m strong enough to carry you into the house if need be. Will I hafta do that, Deputy Bro?”

“Probably if I have any more. But I’ve been done drinking for a while.”

“Good.” Colt motioned and Lettie appeared. “Can we leave out the kitchen door?”

“Just like old times, huh?” Lettie snickered. “Sneakin’ two McKay boys out the back.”

Cam’s wobbliness had nothing to do with his bum leg and Colt propped him up without Cam having to ask.

On the ride home, Colt said, “So from what I’ve heard, a bad day on the job?”

“The worst.” He thought back to the night his cousin Luke had died. “One of the worst, for sure.”

“Domini’s beside herself with worry. Especially after she found out you were first on the scene this morning. And then she hasn’t heard a word from you except a single text.”

This day was a clusterfuck from one end to the other. “I just… I didn’t feel like talking about it. I still don’t.”

“Understood.”

Cam closed his eyes and leaned back into the headrest. After a bit he said, “I suppose it’s too late to quit my job as a deputy and start ranching fulltime?”

Colt snorted. “No dice. You’d last two days and I’d have to pick up your slack. Besides, you’re a good cop, Cam. You’re doing exactly what you oughta be. Yeah, some days are gonna suck ass. Part of life. Crawling into a bottle ain’t the way to deal with it.”

“I know.”

“You see bad shit on a daily basis that most people don’t ever see. Do you have a way to cope with it?”

“Like blathering on to a shrink or something? No.”

“You deal with it all yourself?”

“Yep.”

Of course that wasn’t the end of the discussion. Colt kept pushing. “You’re gonna bring the bad stuff from your job home sometimes. Don’t try and hide it. Let your kids and your wife see that your working life ain’t all roses and bein’ treated like a hero. Let them be the light to ward off the darkness that comes with your job.”

Few people gave Colt credit for being insightful, but Colt had been through some bad things in his life and his advice was solid. Cam whistled. “Whoa, bro. That’s almost poetic.”

Colt laughed. “You’re drunker than I thought if you’re callin’ me a poet. Come on. I’ll help you inside.”

Cam lowered himself to the ground and accepted Colt’s help getting up the steps.

Domini met them on the porch. The kids were still up and she shooed Liesl, Anton, Dimitri, Oxsana and their dog, Gracie, back inside. She slipped her arm inside Cam’s coat and he welcomed her warmth. Her support. The unconditional love that reminded him he was the luckiest man alive to get to come home to her every night.

She said, “Thank you, Colt, for bringing him home.”

“No problem.”

Cam pressed his lips on the top of Domini’s head. Inhaling her familiar scent. But she didn’t let the affectionate gesture linger. She pulled him into the house. Into the chaos that he normally reveled in.

But the lights were too bright. The TV too loud. Gracie barked and whined when Anton scolded her. Liesl chattered like a magpie, purposely talking over the twins.

Colt clapped him on the back. “Whenever I think my house is a zoo with two kids, it’s good to come to your place. Makes our house look like a freakin’ monastery. Call me if you need anything.”

Cam nodded and the door slammed behind his brother.

Domini unbuttoned his coat and removed it. She slid her hands up his chest and wreathed her arms around his neck, pressing her lithe body against his. “I was worried about you. Are you all right?”

No. I’m not even fucking close to all right.

She eased back and peered into his face. “I can see you’re not.” She rose to her toes, kissed his mouth and whispered, “What can I do?”

“Just let me crawl into bed and put this day behind me.”

“Cam, it’s Valentine’s Day. The kids planned a special surprise for you.”

“I-I can’t… be around them. I c-can’t let them see me like this.”

“Just for a little while? They’ve been waiting.”

He shook his head and closed his eyes, not able to bear their disappointed faces. “I can’t. Not tonight. I need to be alone.”

“Daddy, wait until you see what—”

“Liesl. Honey, remember what we talked about?” Domini said.

“I told you it was a dumb idea,” Anton taunted.

“You’re a dumb idea,” Liesl retorted.

Anton and Liesl argued.

Then Oxsana and Dimitri argued.

Markus beat on a xylophone and Sasha yelled at him to stop until he began to cry.

The phone started to ring.

The dog yipped.

Cam walked down the hallway to their bedroom and shut the door.

Alone in the silence. He could hear himself breathing in the blessed quiet.

Then gruesome images and coulda-woulda-shoulda regrets pushed this day’s awful events into the flashes of death from his military past, so it was like a horror movie stuck on replay—a speeded-up version of a movie that he couldn’t get to shut off even if he closed his damn eyes.