“I need your help. Tell me how I should go about meeting your sister. What will work best to keep her relaxed and not tied in knots about me stepping into her life and replacing Ram?” Tyler Hutton asked.
Groaning, Ali slid her hand around Ram’s waist and rested her head against his shoulder. “I wish I knew, but I don’t. There are days when she’s sunny one moment and a thunderstorm the next, Tyler. And today is one of those days.”
“What happens when she’s emotionally unstable?” he asked, studying Ali, who was clearly worried. She was an incredible combatant and he had nothing but the highest respect for her. Besides that, she was very easy to work with on the mission Artemis had put together to rescue Cara and the other women.
“When she closes the door to her bedroom she’s anxious or depressed,” Ali went on. “If it’s closed, don’t knock, don’t try to see her. If her door is cracked open, knock very, very lightly, because sharp, unexpected sounds make her jump and put her into that emotional tailspin.”
“Okay, that’s valuable intel. Does Cara go outside the home?”
“On a good day, she’ll go as far as the porch swing because the rocking motion helps calm her. I think that’s been one of the biggest, most unexpected assets to helping her. That and knitting. If she’s keeping her hands busy, that calms her, too.”
“What about gardening? I was reading in the notes you sent that she loved being out in the sun weeding your mother’s huge vegetable garden.”
“On a really great day when her anxiety isn’t spiking, she’s out there on her hands and knees, weeding Mama’s garden. That was one of her jobs when she lived here with my parents while attending Arizona State University.”
“Do you join her in gardening? Did you, Ram?” he asked, looking over at his friend.
“Ali does, sometimes, but I don’t,” Ram replied. “I’ll take the bench near the wall where the garden is. Cara’s told me it makes her feel safer if I’m around when she gardens.” He glanced at Ali. “Or, if Ali goes out and does the same thing, she’ll weed for about half an hour. I think the fresh air, sunshine, and some physical activity is what you should try to work Cara toward, moving forward. I’m not a medic or a shrink, but I see a difference in her on the days she goes outside and gets some exercise, instead of hiding in her bedroom all day.”
“How about getting her back in touch with nature?” Tyler wondered.
“Sure! Cara was always an outdoors person,” Ali said, excited. “When she was still teaching, she was always taking the kids on field trips. She feels the same way you do about getting outdoors and away from being in a building. Don’t forget, she’s half Native American.”
“That’s good to know,” Tyler affirmed. “It gives me some workable ideas to keep pulling her out of the shock and getting her back into real life.”
Ram held up his hand. “Don’t go too fast with her, Tyler. Her whole world is focused on feeling safe. When Cara feels really safe, she’s out in the garden. I’ve managed to get her to walk out the front door and off the front porch,” he said, gesturing toward it, “and she’s been able to walk with me to the end of the block where the home’s stucco wall ends. But she’s deathly afraid that Azarola is going to get even and come hunt her down again, because they know where they kidnapped her the first time. She’s been home five weeks, now.”
Tyler nodded. “Mentally, that’s a big hurdle for her to overcome, Ram. For anyone. But at least you urged her out the front door and that’s half a block to the end of the home’s property. That’s real improvement. It shows she really wants to get well and get past this trauma.”
“Really?” Ali asked, hope in her tone. “Just how much psychology training do you have behind you, Tyler?”
He felt warmth sweep up into his cheeks and knew he was blushing.
“Oh, he’s so damned humble,” Ram muttered. “He got a master’s degree in psychology while he was in the SEALs. We all called him ‘Doc Shrink’,” he said, shooting Tyler a grin.
“Wow,” Ali whispered, “I didn’t know that!” She went to stand near Ram, wrapping her arm around his waist. “You sure don’t look like a shrink, Hutton.”
“No one needs to know about that,” he mumbled, hating to be the center of attention. He was here for Cara, not to spout the alphabet about the degrees behind his name. “I try not to let anyone know. Can you keep that from your sister and parents? I know a lot of people have a negative view of a psychiatrist or psychologist, as if we’re studying them like a bug under a microscope. I’m sure at some point, I’ll come clean with her but for right now, let her know me as a combat medic and bodyguard. I think that’s enough.”
“Sure,” Ali promised. “You have a nice, gentle way about you, Tyler. I really do think you’re a fit with Cara. Do you have any other questions for us?”
“Not right now. Let’s get this meeting over with. I’m sure Cara is stressed over it and I want to try to minimize her worries if I can.”
“You’re a medic,” Ram said, gesturing him ahead of them on the sidewalk. “No one has a better bedside manner than you Delta dudes. She’ll fall in love with you, I’m sure.”
Wincing inwardly, Tyler knew that Torres was unmercifully teasing him, which was what SEALs did to each other. He said nothing, quickly taking the walk ahead of them and the two steps up to the red-tiled porch. The wood door had been sculpted by chisel, hammer, and love—by someone who very talented with his hands. It was quite a work of art. There was a desert landscape with tall, handsome saguaro cactus and craggy buttes in the background that sometimes dotted the American Southwest. What he liked most was the mother deer and her fawn as the centerpiece on the door, the rising sun behind them. “What kind of wood is this?”
“That’s Diego’s work. He’s Ali and Cara’s father,” Ram said, running his large hand across the smooth, polished wood. “It’s mesquite and it took him two years to make this in his garage. The man is a true artist.”
Ali snorted. “You’re a terrific wood carver yourself, Torres.” She looked over at Tyler, pride in her tone. “I’ll show you the beautiful horse he carved for me. It’s awesome.”
“I’d like to see it,” Tyler said, watching Ram open the door and gestured for Ali to go on in. They followed. As he stepped across the threshold, he took a deep, steadying breath. Now, he would finally get to meet the woman in the picture.
His heart filled with hope once again, despite his uncertainty about how Cara would feel toward him. Then, he remembered that she was in his care now. Tyler tried to steel himself inwardly. This was worse than being jumped by the Taliban hiding in an ambush!
Ali knocked lightly on Cara’s bedroom door that was ajar.
“Come in . . .” Cara replied, softly.
“Hey, Tyler Hutton just arrived!” Ali said enthusiastically, stepping inside the room and leaning against the door.
Sitting on her bed, her knitting in her lap, she gave Ali an anxious look. “I heard you all come in. His voice sounded low.”
“He’s a medic, Cara. Our combat medics are some of the gentlest men and women we have. How are you doing?”
Grimacing, she placed her knitting aside on the bed. “Nervous. Anxious. Scared. The usual.”
Ali came over and sat on the edge of the bed. “I know how hard this is for you. Ram has been your light in the darkness since we brought you home.”
“No,” Cara whispered, giving her sister a warm look as she reached out and curled her hand into Ali’s. “You have always been the light in my life, and Mama and Papa, too. You’re right though, Ram did give me an extra boost of feeling protected.”
Squeezing her hand, Ali said, “Ram and I are as close as your computer screen. He’s given you his Skype handle and you already have mine. If anything comes up, you can get on there and talk to us.”
Cara bit down on her lower lip, her head dipping forward, her long curtain of black hair hiding her expression. “What’s Tyler like? Is he nervous? Does he really want to do this? Or does he consider himself a babysitter? I remember being with him and the German women after you and Ram left to defend us half way to that meadow. Honestly, I was so out of it, I don’t remember much at all as that team hustled toward escape.”
Ali gave her a slight smile. “Why don’t you ask him yourself? Tyler is an ex-SEAL. He can take anything you throw at him. Are you ready to say ‘hello’? Ram’s making coffee for all of us. We’ll stay for a bit, but I really think the two of you need to just sit down and get to know one another, alone and uninterrupted.”
“What if he’s not a fit, Ali?” Cara detested the strain, the fear in her low voice as she searched her sister’s calm face.
“Then he’ll stay here until Wyatt can get someone else to take his place.” She patted Cara’s damp hand. “You have to create trust over time, with whomever is assigned to you. I’d give it one or two weeks and see how you get along with him.”
“Is he like Ram? Will he give me space? Not follow me around like a puppy?”
“I think that you need to communicate with Tyler about what sets you off and what makes you feel calm and protected. He’s not a mind reader, Cara. He’s really looking forward to hearing what you want; that’s the best way he can serve you. You’re not going to hurt this guy’s feelings, believe me. SEALs are some of the toughest teasing dudes I’ve ever met. Tyler is quiet, he listens a lot and he asks good questions after you have your say.”
Cara chewed on her lip some more. “Okay. Dios, I’m shaking!” She wrapped her arms around herself and looked away, shame filling her.
“Come on,” Ali urged, tugging on Cara’s upper arm. “He’s not going to bite you.”
Slowly rising, Cara looked at herself in a full-length mirror. She had thought long and hard about what to wear, finally settling on some cream-colored velour trousers, her comfortable white tennis shoes, and a light-gray top with three-quarter inch sleeves.
“I noticed you put some makeup on,” Ali said.
“Just some lipstick and blush.” She touched her cheeks. “I look so pale without it these days.”
“Maybe Tyler will be able to coax you outdoors more? You used to be a tan coffee bean at this time of year.”
“I did, didn’t I?” There was lament in her voice. “I’m not who I used to be, Ali.” Grief stirred in her chest because Cara knew that was the truth.
“Well,” Ali said, placing her hand on the door and opening it wider, “I think Tyler will find you very intelligent, sensitive, and kind. Just like him.”
She frowned, hesitating at the door. “I’m so scared. I don’t want to lose you and Ram. You’ve been my anchors since I got home.”
Cara hated feeling like a coward. She had never been that way before her kidnapping. She straightened, pulling her shoulders back, and whispered, “Okay. Let’s do this.”