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It feels like we've been writing to one another forever, but it's only been a year. When I say only, a lot has happened in that time, but it makes our friendship sound insignificant somehow.
Of course you can come to see me. It would be weird not to meet you, after getting to know you so well, but strange in the same way to put a face to the name. When you are discharged, write to me, or maybe we could use more modern forms of communication once you're back in civilization.
Stay safe and I'll see you soon. It's unbelievable that you could be back here and we'd pass one another in the street without even knowing. Jessica
Jessica Mitchell stared out the window and started pacing, eyes never leaving the road. She'd been like this for almost an hour. Stupid, because it wasn't even time for him to arrive yet, and he was army. He would be exactly on time.
She knew that. Jessica knew he was punctual. She knew he would be knocking on her door at twelvenoon bang on.
She knew just about everything about him. Ryan McAdams.
Up until now, he'd just been a name. A name that made her smile, that made her run to the mailbox every morning. But that's all it had been. Innocent letters, two people confiding in one another. Pen pals.
And yet here she was, pacing in her living room, waiting to meet the man in the flesh.
Jessica looked down and watched her hands shaking. They were quivering, her whole body was wired, and for what? He was her friend. Nothing more. A friend she'd never met before, but a friend nonetheless.
So why was she still walking obsessively up and down? She could just make a cup of coffee or read the paper. Take the dog for a walk and not worry if he had to wait on her doorstep for a few minutes.
Because she wanted this to be perfect. There was no use pretending. His letters had helped her through the last year, had stopped her from giving up when she could have hit rock bottom. And she wanted to say thank you to him in person.
The phone rang. Jessica pounced on it, her pulse thumping. "Hello."
"Is he there yet?" her best friend asked. Her heart stuttered then restarted again. She let out a breath. It wasn't him. "Hi, Bella."
"I'm guessing the hunk hasn't arrived then." Why had she ever told her friend about Ryan? Why couldn't she have kept it to herself? It was stupid even making a fuss like this. He was her friend. "Jess?"
She flopped down onto the sofa.
"I'm a wreck. A nervous wreck," she admitted.
Bella laughed. "You'll be fine. Just remember to breathe, and if you don't phone me with an update I'm coming around to see him for myself."
"He could be overweight and unattractive."
Bella snorted down the line. Jess didn't even know why she'd said it. Since when did she even care what he looked like? Whatever he looked like didn't change the fact that his friendship had meant a lot to her this past year.
"Bella, I Oh, my God."
She listened to the thump of footfalls on the porch. Heavy, solid men's feet that beat like a drum on timber.
"Jess? What's happening?" Bella squawked. A knock echoed.
"He's here," she whispered. "He's early."
"You'll be fine, okay? Put down the phone, close your eyes for a few seconds, then go to the door. Okay? Just say 'okay.'"
"Okay." Jessica thought her head might fall off she was nodding so hard.
She placed the phone down without saying goodbye.
He was here. Ryan was actually here. Waiting outside her front door. How could she know this man almost as intimately as she knew her best friend, yet be terrified of meeting him?
She looked at the letter on the table, reached for it, then tucked it into her jeans pocket. She didn't need to open it to know what it said. She remembered every word he'd ever written to her.
Jessica squared her shoulders and shook her head to push away the fear. Ryan was here, waiting for her, and she had to be brave. It felt like she was about to meet a lover she was so nervous, but it made her feel queasy even thinking that way. One of her closest friends was standing at the door, and for some reason she was paralyzed with fear.
Bella had gotten her all wound up in knots, and for what? She wasn't interested in meeting a man in that way, especially not now. And she didn't want Ryan to be anything more to her, no matter what he looked like. What she needed in her life were good friends, and he had proven that he was there for her when she needed someone.
Another knock made her jump.
This was it. There was nowhere she could go but forward, down the hall.
Unless she escaped out the back window
A flash of brown streaked past her and she groaned. Hercules. She'd put him out the back with a bone and hoped he'd stay there, but he must have squeezed through the doggie door when he'd heard the knock.
At least he'd be a good distraction.
Ryan wondered if it were possible for fingers to sweat. His were curled around the paperwrapped stems of a bunch of white roses, clenching and unclenching as he tried to figure out what to do with them. Out in front seemed too contrived, behind his back looked ridiculous and hanging at his sides just seemed more ridiculous, like he was trying too hard. Why flowers? Why had he felt the need to complicate things by bringing flowers?
He was going insane. He'd survived the trauma and heartache of years serving his country, and now a stupid bunch of flowers was tying him in tight coils. He was a United States Army Ranger. Practised, strong and unflappable. He'd never have made the special ops unit with nerves like this.
Clearly he was losing his touch.
Perhaps he should throw them into the garden? He looked over his shoulder, beyond the porch, then listened as the door clicked and a small dog started barking.
He was out of time. Ryan slowly, cautiously turned back toward the house. He wanted to squeeze his eyes shut, walk back down the steps and start all over. Without the flowers dangling awkwardly from one hand, and instead standing at ease on the doorstep in front of her.
Ryan spun around as the door swished open. "Jessica."
He exhaled the word as if he'd been waiting a lifetime to say it. In a way he had.
Ryan was pleased he'd never asked her for a photograph. It couldn't have done justice to the reality of her features. Hair the color of raindrizzled sand was tucked behind her ears, eyes the shade of the richest dark chocolate peeked out beneath dark lashes. She smiled like she was greeting her first datenervously, expectantly, unsurely.
Worried. Just like he was.
After so many months of writing one another, meeting in person was kind of surreal.
He went to move and something tiny hit him in the knees and almost made him fall. By the time he looked down a small dog was doing laps around his feet, before disappearing back into the house with as much speed as he'd arrived with.
Ryan laughed then looked back to the woman waiting to meet him.
"Jessica." When he said it this time it made him smile naturally, rather than feeling like a wordstuck teenager. "It's so good to finally meet you."
She grinned as he walked toward her, then opened her arms to him.
Even the way she said his name did something to his insides, but he pushed past it. He was a soldier. He was trained to deal with difficult situations.
"I'm really glad you made it, Ryan."
He let the flowers drop to the porch as he opened his own arms to hold her. Jessica stepped into his embrace as if she'd been made to fit there, firm against his chest, arms tight around him. She hugged him like someone who cared about him.
Like he hadn't been hugged in a long time.
It had been years since his wife had died. Years since he'd felt the genuine embrace of a woman, one that wasn't out of pity, but out of something deeper, warmer.
Ryan inhaled the scent of herthe tease of perfume that reminded him of coconuts on a beach. The soft caress of her hair that fell against his neck as she tucked into him.
It felt good. No. Even better than good. It felt great.
He cleared his throat and stepped back, not wanting to make her uncomfortable by keeping hold of her too long. Jessica leapt back from him like a bear from a nest of hornets, her face alternating between happy and concerned.
They both laughed. "You first," he said.
Jessica grinned at him and rocked back and forth, arms crossed over her chest.
"I don't remember what I was going to say!"
Ryan shook his head and laughed. Laughed like he thought he'd forgotten how to, cheeks aching as he watched her do the same.
He bent to collect the fallen flowers.
"These are for you."
She blushed. When had he last seen a grown woman blush? It made a goofy smile play across his lips. "Me?" He nodded.
"It's been a long time since anyone gave me flowers."
Ryan watched as she dipped her nose down to inhale them, her eyes dancing along the white silhouette of each rose.
It had been a long time since he'd given a woman flowers.
"Do they give me passage inside?"
Jessica looked up at him with an expression he'd only seen once before. His wife had looked up at him like that from her hospital bed, full of hope, happiness shining from her face.
He clenched his jaw and stamped the memory away, refusing to go there. This was Jessica, the woman who had made an effort to write to him when most Americans seemed to forget what U.S. troops were facing overseas. This was not a time to dwell on the past.
"Yes." She looked sideways, away and then back, but he didn't miss the twinkle in her eyes. "Yes, it does. So long as you're prepared to meet Hercules properly."
"I take it Hercules is the small furball who almost bowled me over."
Jessica reached out to Ryan and grinned. "Maybe if I'd given him a more insignificant name he wouldn't be quite so full of selfimportance."
Ryan took the hand she offered and let himself be led inside. It felt too normal to touch his skin to hers, too casual, but when she looked over her shoulder at him and smiled, her fingers trailing away from his until she was just a woman walking ahead of him, he felt the loss of her touch like a limb had just been torn from his body.
The shock of doing normal things was something hard to get used to, after months being surrounded by other men in the desert. Each day started to merge with the next one.and home seemed like just a scene on a postcard.
Being back here wasn't something he had looked forward to, it was something he'd feared and wished he didn't have to confront again. But Jessica had been there for him, eagerly writing him back so he'd had something positive to concentrate on.
When everything else was gone, snatched away from him, Jessica had been there.
She'd come into his life when he'd been losing his way. When he'd almost felt as though his soul had been defeated, like he had lost his purpose. It was Jessica who had held each piece of him together when he could have lost hope.
Maybe she could help him now he was home, too.
Because nothing else had fallen into place since he'd returned.
A man could only hope.
Jessica set the flowers to rest in a vase on her bench and turned back to her guest.
"Shall we have lunch here or go out for something?"
Ryan shrugged. "I don't mind."
She laughed as he squinted at her.
"How did you know there was a but?" he asked.
Jessica tapped her nose. "You'd be surprised what I know about you."
Ryan flopped down on the sofa and crossed his legs at the ankle. He looked at home here, comfortable in her home. Aside from her brother, she wasn't used to seeing men in her space.
She didn't want it to bother her, but it did. Having a man around had become foreign to her. It felt too intimate, being so close, seeing him so at ease.
Funny, she had expected being back in America to be hard for him, but it seemed like she was the one struggling.
"Okay, you got me." He gave her a smile that made her almost want to look away, but she didn't. The way his mouth curved, his eyes creasing gently at the corners, was exactly as she'd imagined he would look. Hoped he might look.
Her stomach twisted, as if her organs had been flipped then dropped. She wasn't meant to be thinking about him like that. Not now, not ever.