Read an Excerpt
Falling for Her Soldier
A Perfect Kisses Novel
By Ophelia London, Stacy Abrams, Alycia Tornetta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Mary A. Smith
All rights reserved.
Ellie paced in front of the mirrored wall, keeping an eye on her line of pigtailed students doing their final barre exercise. Every demi-plié might not have been perfect, but watching the little heads bob up and down in sync was like a shot of heaven to her soul.
"Aaand four." Ellie took an exaggerated wait for it pause, then threw a hand in the air. "Perfecto!"
With that, eight little girls dropped their expressions of focus and reverted back to giggling, rowdy four-year-olds.
Okay, torn knee or no torn knee, Ellie wouldn't change her profession for the world.
"Missus Ellie? What leotard are you wearing next time?" This caused the rest of the girls to huddle in a circle around Ellie's legs. She couldn't help laughing at the question; she got the same one after every class.
"Hmm." She tapped her chin, faux deep in thought. "Light blue or zebra stripes?"
There was a collective gasp. "Zebra! Zebra!"
It was decided. "That's my favorite, too!" Ellie cheered along with her little group. "Now get some water and don't forget to practice your élevés at home."
Eight tiny voices rang out that they wouldn't forget, then there was a noisy dash of slippers sliding across the glossy floor toward the studio doors. Eight parents awaited their girls in the outer room. Some she would get to know very well over the next few years, and others she would probably never see after year one. That was just how it went.
Ellie grabbed a bottle of water and crossed the room, gathering towels and pulling tape off the floor along the way, tidying up after her final class of the day.
"Hey, prima 'rina. How'd it go?" Jane stood at the open glass door, wearing a black tank top catsuit and an ultra-sheer red skirt that barely covered her cheeks. Even on the days when she was manning the front office and not teaching a class, Ellie's best friend was decked out like it was opening night.
"It was perfecto," Ellie answered. "Didn't you hear my ending call?"
"Every time," Jane said. "Lori's jazz class is canceled, so I'm going to lock up and grab lunch. Want to come?"
"I can't — Wait. Where are you going?"
Jane stopped in front of the mirrored wall and tightened her long, dark ponytail. "I was thinking The Phoenix."
"Danger." Ellie cringed. "I'll get ice cream if I go there. Hot fudge sundaes wreak havoc on the body." She stood beside her friend and compared their reflections. Jane waved hello to them both. They were about the same height, but while Jane rocked a year-round tan, Ellie was as pale as they came. And with her shock of auburn hair twisted into a bun, she could've blended in with a white wall.
"Men prefer curves," Jane said, knocking their hips together. "It's a proven fact."
"And I should care because ...?"
Jane picked up a lost-and-found T-shirt left draped over the barre. "Because you're not going to be in cold storage forever. One of these days, you'll want to start dating again."
"It's not that I don't want to date; it's that I choose not to for the time being."
"How many days left until your self-inflicted one-year dry spell is over?"
Jane snorted. "Not that you're counting. This personal crusade of yours, it's totally cray-cray. Why are you doing it?"
Ellie stacked plastic chairs against the wall. "I've told you a thousand times why. I became one of those sad stories: nice girl falls for not-so-nice guy. Over and over and over." She rolled her eyes. "I was a walking, talking cliché."
"I call BS. I know you've had a string of bad luck with men, but —"
"A string?" Ellie couldn't help scoffing. "Bad luck?"
"Okay, very bad luck. You somehow managed to pick the wrong guy every time. But that's no reason to cut yourself off completely."
"I don't happen to agree," Ellie said. "The past eleven months have been like a breath of fresh air. I haven't once been stood up." She counted off on her fingers. "Haven't been lied to by a man I trust, haven't been cheated on, and not once have I fallen for a jerk."
The past almost-year had also been emotionally enlightening. She'd taken stock of her life and relationship choices. Yes, there'd been a "string of bad luck," as Jane had put it. But it took two to tango, and Ellie took responsibility for her part in picking the wrong men. She was not going to do that again, not fall into the same trap of a sexy body, charming manners, and bad-boy attitude. She deserved better.
"You can't tell me you're not happy with the studio," Ellie added, leaning against the piano in the corner. "With my mind focused away from the drama of a relationship, our roster's never been stronger. I could probably sell this place for a huge gain right now. Business is booming."
"That's because you turned into a workaholic," Jane pointed out. "Sure, you single-handedly turned this place into a more profitable business in a year, but at what expense?"
Jane draped a towel over her shoulder and looked her friend in the eye. "Ellie, at one point you were teaching five classes a day, plus handling all the recruiting and choreographing the end-of-season recital. No one can be expected to keep that up. The expense is that you have no life outside these four mirrored walls." She gestured around the room.
Jane did have a point. But honestly, the thought of being "out there" again was kind of terrifying. Her head was finally on straight. She knew what she wanted and deserved from a relationship. But what if ...her first time back out there, the pattern started again?
What would that say about her?
At least she had twenty-four days before she needed to waste a single brain cell worrying about that. And at least she still had the e-mails ...
"Women have needs, too," Jane said, cutting into her thoughts.
"You're so modern."
"It's like anything you deprive yourself of. Sooner or later you'll snap, go berserk, and it's all you'll want."
Like hot fudge sundaes, Ellie thought. She'd been hoping after five years of retirement, she would get over that particular craving. But it was still going strong.
"It's sweet you're concerned about me becoming Franklin's town tramp, but don't worry, I'm completely dry."
Jane looked at her with concern. "Just please don't turn all bitter and anti-men on me, okay? You're supposed to be the optimistic one around here. If your heart loses the ability to trust, you'll never love again."
Ellie burst out laughing. "You sound like a Hallmark card. Never love again ..." she quoted in a robotic voice, her eyes wide and staring, arms extended like Frankenstein's monster.
"Whatever," Jane said after a snort. "So you're seriously telling me there hasn't been a single man in eleven months? Not even the thought of one?"
Ellie bent over to roll up a mat, but she couldn't stop herself from smiling, remembering that last e-mail —
She jumped about a foot and glanced up to see Jane pointing at her, mouth held in a huge grin. "Ellie Bell," Jane said in an accusatory tone. "You big cheat, there is someone. When did you meet?"
Ellie felt her smile fade, driven away by the cold chill up her back. "It was right after my brother ... you know." It pained her to watch her best friend's animated smile disappear as quickly as hers had. When would the topic not silence a room?
"How is Sam?" Jane asked, all the playfulness in her tone gone.
"Good," Ellie answered. "You know, considering."
"I've seen him a few times since he's been home. He seems fine, but I don't think I'll ever get used to that scar."
A knot pulled tight in Ellie's stomach. It would take time to get used to it, that three-inch line running down the side of her brother's face, but she would. She'd convinced herself it was from shrapnel, but for all she knew, it was gunfire, an IED, or worse. The Army had not been very forthcoming with the information about what happened in Afghanistan three months ago. She didn't want to think about it. Like her brother, she was trying to move forward.
"Sam's doing much better. He'll be his old self in no time." Ellie gave a firm nod, needing to assure herself. "I'm telling you, though, hanging out at the WS is really helping him; that place is a godsend." She stood in front of the mirror and pulled pins out of the tight bun on top of her head. Heavy auburn hair tumbled over her shoulders. "I'm meeting him there for lunch." She glanced at the clock on the wall. "I need to change."
"You're going to that rec center?" Jane asked, walking empty water bottles to the recycle bin in the corner. "I thought it was only for Army peeps."
"The Warrior Station," Ellie confirmed, running her fingers through her hair, loosening the waves. "It's not officially affiliated with the base in Indianapolis, so civilians can go there, too. Which is nice; brings some drama to Franklin, otherwise we're just another suburban college town." She paused. "And I think Sam likes hanging around other military people," she added. "Although, I'm not sure if that's healthy. Or maybe it is. I don't know."
Jane's one-track mind was set elsewhere. "Let's circle back to this someone you've got the hots for."
Grateful for the subject change, Ellie grabbed her duffel bag and started peeling off her dance gear. She wished she'd told Jane about it a long time ago, though. Instead, she'd kept the whole thing hidden inside her heart like a little secret. She should have told someone — her brother, especially.
"One of the guys over there," she began, trying to sound more breezy than she felt, "he e-mailed me a few days after I got the call about Sam being hurt."
"Like his general or something?"
Ellie laughed. Jane had lived for years in the shadows of an Army post and still had no clue about the military.
"No," Ellie said as she pulled on jeans and a T-shirt. "It was the staff sergeant from his unit. Charlie's his name."
Jane scratched her head. Of course she had no idea what a staff sergeant was Honestly, Ellie hadn't known either, not until she'd Googled it after receiving a second e-mail from Charlie Johansson.
"He wanted to let me know Sam was okay and would be transferred to a hospital in Germany. He probably knew I was freaking out, since it's just the two of us."
"How did he know that?"
"They were friends over there." Ellie hesitated, part of her not wanting to relive the story. "He was with Sam when it happened, like, with him."
"Oh, you mean ...?"
As Jane's voice faded out, the empty dance studio felt eerily quiet. "I don't know the whole story," Ellie continued, "or even a fraction of it, but I do know there was an accident and Sam was unconscious. Charlie carried him out from wherever they were."
"Whoa," Jane whispered.
"Yeah. He e-mailed me the info of where Sam was being taken." She took a deep breath. "I was so grateful for the information that I replied immediately. The next day he wrote again, telling me Sam was being moved." She glanced out the glass, down toward her office where her cell was. Over the past three months, she'd become addicted to her phone, never wanting to be too far away from Yahoo.
"I replied to him," she continued, "thanking him, obviously, then, I don't know, we started chatting."
"Chatting," Jane echoed skeptically. "Are we talking cybersex?"
"No! Jeez, nothing like that. We talked, I sent pictures." Jane's mouth fell open. "No, no, not pictures." Ellie couldn't help laughing. "Like, one time he mentioned he played football in high school and how much he missed the color of the field in the fall. So the next day, I drove over to Franklin High and took a picture of their field. I e-mailed it right then and told him I was watching the football practice."
"You did all that for someone you don't even know?"
"He saved my brother's life, Jane."
Ellie could have added that every message she received from Charlie Johansson in those two months was like a little blessing when she'd been the most terrified in her life. She'd felt completely cut off from her brother, even when he'd been moved to Walter Reed. That hospital was still across the country. Charlie's e-mails had kept her holding on when there was nothing else, and they'd meant the world to her.
"And by then," she added, "I felt like I did know him. He grew up in Indiana, too; he's been in the Army for ten years, has a younger sister, loves southern barbeque, and wants to spend a week golfing on his next leave."
"His leave?" Jane blurted. "Is he home? Where does he live?"
Ellie sighed. "Indiana is all I know; we didn't exchange that kind of personal info. We e-mailed for two months, but at the end of his last message, he said he'd be gone for a while. You know how the Army is." Suddenly, her throat felt a little tight, not quite over the fact that he'd stopped writing. "I got that last message the day Sam came home a month ago. Since then, I haven't been following his unit."
"And you haven't heard from him since?"
She shook her head, shaking away another twinge of sadness. "For all I know, he could be off in the desert somewhere."
"Or deep undercover in the Russian mafia," Jane added, her eyes going wide.
"I don't think the Army does that." Ellie chuckled. "All I know is, we e-mailed for two months, then it stopped cold. I think maybe he was tiding me over till he knew I wasn't alone."
Jane tilted her head. "That's kinda sweet."
"He was sweet," Ellie said, feeling a little tug at her heart. How was it possible to miss someone she didn't even know?
"But not sweet enough to keep you occupied for the next twenty-four days?"
Ellie laughed and tucked the front of her too-long T-shirt into the front of her jeans. "Apparently not."
"Keep me in the loop this time. Oh, and if you ever do decide to sell the studio," Jane said, pulling open the glass door, "if you don't come to me first, I'm taking back your BFF card. Give Sammy a big hug for me."
Ellie climbed in her car, ready to head to the Warrior Station for lunch with her brother. Instead, she pulled out her phone and flipped to the folder of saved messages.
The field hasn't changed a bit since high school, she read. I can't tell you how many hours I spent on that thing. Huh. Makes me sound like an old man. Thank you for sending the picture, Ellie. I've had a hell of a hard day, and you have no idea how seeing this little piece of home makes me smile. Ellie was smiling, too, as she read, and twirling a strand of hair. If I was there right now, I wouldn't run down the field for a touchdown. I would stand under the home goalpost, because that's the spot where Coach said he believed in me and told me why. Ellie loved this part of the story.
I was a sophomore, she read on, still trying to find my way. The things he said changed my whole outlook, made me a better player, a better teammate. After that, before every single home game, I'd go to that spot and give the post a high five. Yeah, it sounds really lame, but I couldn't let myself forget that moment. Funny, I've never told anyone that before. I wish I could show you that spot, Ellie. I wish I could stand with you under that goalpost and tell you exactly how I felt, how I feel now.
Ellie closed the message, getting the same flutter in her tummy as the first time she'd read it. Only a few messages later, and it was over. She still didn't understand why he'd never written again. Maybe he was undercover with the mafia and couldn't communicate for fear of being made. True, the e-mails started out as simple messages about Sam's whereabouts, but they'd turned into more. She'd looked forward to his e-mails; she'd liked them.
She'd liked him.
Excerpted from Falling for Her Soldier by Ophelia London, Stacy Abrams, Alycia Tornetta. Copyright © 2014 Mary A. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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