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Letters from Home
By Beth Rhodes, Lewis Pollak
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Bethanne Strasser
All rights reserved.
Two months, three days, and six hours until you come home. (No, I'm not counting)
Yesterday, I walked past the school and was reminded of the first time I saw you. You might not remember because you were scolding some bully for picking on a little kid. I always wondered what set you off. You were bigger than life, dark hair flying, mouth running, in Spanish! I had no idea what you were saying, but it didn't matter, I think that's when I first fell in love with you ...
Elena Rodriguez dropped the well-worn letter into her lap and stared out the tinted window, her stomach twisted into knots. No matter how many times she read it, nerves crept up on her. She didn't even know who wrote the letter—letters. Thirteen of them, one for every month of her deployment and another for her birthday. What kind of crazy person expected her to meet him, on Christmas morning no less. If he knew her at all, he'd know she was going to church with her family first thing.
"Ay," she growled under her breath. The passenger next to her shifted, looking at her with a questioning frown. Lena cleared her throat and smiled. "Sorry. Just thinking."
When she found out who had made her fall in love with him without even telling her his name, she was going to kick his butt ... and maybe love him back. She could hope, and maybe she'd find something like her parents had. Strong and enduring.
Cold air washed over her as she stepped off the bus into Northern California's December mist. The driver pulled her army-green duffle from the cargo bay and set it on the ground at her feet. Her name was stenciled on the side with the last four digits of her social. "Thank you for your service."
She smiled and shook the hand he offered. "Merry Christmas, sir."
"Welcome home," he added, then waved before driving off.
"Lena!" An oh-so-familiar voice rang across Raley's parking lot, strong and clear—or just plain loud. Heels clattered over the cold cement, and jangling sounds of bracelets filled the air like bells in a Christmas song.
Lena relaxed in her sister's arms, the worry of the unknown falling away. "Maria, girl," she scolded, giving her younger sister a little shake and holding her out to do an initial assessment, "You need a jacket."
"Never mind that. How was your flight home? Did you have to stay long on base before they set you free?" Maria looked her over from head to toe. "You lost weight, too much weight. Oh, but, it's so good to see you."
"I'm just glad to be home. Where is everyone else? No balloons? No band? Not even a roll of ticker tape for my return?"
"Very funny. We know you too well. You would be tempted to use your M16. Come on. Mom says to stop at the church and light a candle. Then we'll go home." Maria hooked her arm through Lena's. "Have you gotten any more letters?"
"He wants to meet." Lena still didn't know what to think of it. A secret admirer? It was weird ... yet romantic, too—for a soul as deprived as hers. She hadn't had a date in eighteen months, and that last one ... eh, not so good. "Christmas morning."
The answering sigh was expected and familiar—sentimental and romantic Maria. "Have you figured out who it is?"
She threw her bag in the back of the car with a shrug and climbed in on the passenger side. "No. I've thought about it, but in the end, something stops me from really trying. Is it wrong to just enjoy the conversation? He's kind, smart, funny. He likes kids and wants a large family. Of course, I'll have to convince him otherwise about that."
"Ha ha, hermana. You love us." Maria tapped a finger on the steering wheel. "Just one guess, though. You have to have at least one guess."
"You want to gossip," Lena accused with a laugh. Of course she'd thought about it. For twelve months, she'd played a guessing game in her head. "I don't know. If I knew, I might not be so taken."
"So you are attracted."
Lena sat back against the seat and enjoyed the passing neighborhoods. The houses decked in lights and ribbons and wreaths. Christmas had taken over her little town as it did every year. "Remember Manuel from the class above me? He sells insurance now. Perhaps it's him."
"Oh." Maria scowled and gave a thumbs down. "I hope not. I see him at the diner every Thursday night. Too fat!"
Maybe all the good, nice guys who wanted to settle down were happy with themselves just as they were. Love handles wouldn't matter as long as he had a brain and a heart.
"All I know is, you won't go alone, Elena."
Lena shook her head in response. "Good Lord, I don't need an audience to watch me make a fool of myself."
* * *
"You want to play some golf today?"
Zack finished the coding on his computer screen, typed in a directive, and hit enter. He swiveled around in his chair, grabbing the half-empty beer from the desktop. "You must have me confused with someone else."
"Come on. You've been home for going on seven months now. I'm determined to make a convert of you." Mike Rodriguez had been his friend since third grade when Zack's dad had moved them to Red Bluff. He'd been eight, an only child, and motherless. Living a few houses down from this big, loud, Catholic family had been his saving grace. Especially on those days when his dad seemed to forget he existed.
"Uh, uh. No way. When I feel the need to hit something, I'll go to the gym."
Mike sighed. "Have you talked to Lena?"
Zack stilled in his chair. He'd avoided the topic. She didn't know he was home for good, that he'd ETSed at the start of June. Was he anxious to see her? Hell, yes.
Nerves. Anticipation. It was all sitting in his stomach.
"I haven't. She okay?"
"What?" Zack sat up straighter. Coming down off a deployment wasn't easy on the toughest men. "What happened? Where is she?"
Mike waved off his alarm. "She's fine. No, that's not right—"
Zack blew out a quiet breath and turned back to his desk, trying to look disinterested and resisting the urge to demand an explanation.
"I don't know what it is." His friend hesitated again. "She's got something going on. It's the same but different. You know how girls are, but Lena, she's always been a little smarter, more reserved."
A glance to the right showed Mike leaning against the door, taking a sip of beer. "It's probably nothing," he continued. "She's been going on about some guy."
Zack's stomach tightened with nerves. He looked up from the paperwork, the pen in his hand poised above the list of supplies he'd need this week. "We could form a posse," he joked, knowing what was expected of him.
"Good idea." Mike swallowed the last of his drink and looked around.
"Garbage is in the kitchen." With not much better to do over the last few months, except wait for Lena's return, Zack had taken to cleaning the old place. He never thought he'd be back, living in the house he'd grown up in. There were a few boxes left to go through, but since his dad's move to the retirement community, neither of them seemed interested in digging up old memories.
"I gotta head out. You coming tonight?"
Of course, Lena's homecoming party. "I'll be there."
"Good." Mike tipped his bottle in a gesture of farewell. "I'll catch you later. Hey, maybe we figure out who this guy is, eh? Show him who's boss?"
Adrenaline spiked in his veins, but when Mike laughed, so did Zack. He'd always been as over-protective as Mike. "Yeah, we'll take care of it."
Mike gave him a fist pump and left.
Zack stood and paced the small space behind his chair. Had she met someone? After all this time, while on deployment? Had someone else beat him to the punch?
He rubbed a hand against the back of his neck.
His Christmas morning surprise might take more work than he'd originally thought, especially with another man involved.CHAPTER 2
"Well, if not a beer, how about some punch, Laney?"
"No thank—" She placed a hand on Phillip's arm. "Actually, some punch sounds wonderful." A gentle squeeze had his eyes lighting up like her mother's Christmas tree. He was a nice guy. Nice. Over-attentive and driving her crazy, but nice. She wasn't completely unhappy to watch him walk away for even the few minutes it would take to get her a drink.
Lena snuck into the alcove that led to the basement and stood back as family, friends, and even a few strangers took over her parents' home. Exhaustion blurred the edges of the celebration as the last four days of processing and travel caught up with her. She needed five minutes against this wall to get her second wind, because if there was one thing the Rodriguez family knew how to do well, it was celebrate. Holidays, holy days, first communions, weddings, even death. And, since she'd joined the Army, her homecomings.
Food would pour out of the kitchen as if it was the last day on earth. Drink would flow and music would sound through the rafters. She loved it and hated it. The family joke was that she'd joined the Army to be alone. There could be a grain of truth in that.
A hand settled on her shoulder, and she jerked away.
Tall, handsome, blue-eyed Zack Benson raised both hands in surrender. "Whoa. Slow down killer."
Her heart gave one long, slow thud then raced against her will. Lena scowled, more at her own reaction than his. "Oh, it's you."
She gave him a little half-smile before letting her gaze linger on the milling crowd. Zack was a friend, practically a brother—over-protective and off limits. But her heart pounded anyway, which was so wrong. She sighed and gave him a sidelong look.
He had the scruff of a goatee coming in, and his thick, brown hair had grown into the natural curl she'd always wanted to run her hands through. "Time for a haircut, Sergeant?"
They had both joined the Army, Zack out of high school and she five years later after finishing her undergrad. He shrugged then nodded toward her admirer. "If he's bothering you, I could take care of him."
He would notice. He had the eyes of a hawk, never missed a thing.
"You wouldn't," she demanded, horrified at the thought of him running off a potential love match. "You've done enough for me in the past, thank you very much, Zack. I won't have you messing with this, too."
"A love match, eh?" Zack held up a plate of food.
"I didn't say that." But she'd thought it. He knew her too damned well. If she wasn't careful, Zack could ruin her entire Christmas plan with his meddling. Her frown caused a headache right between her eyes. She grabbed a piece of broccoli from his plate and dipped it in the pool of ranch dressing. "Phillip works at the fire department—a detective, and he's very nice. He likes children." As a matter of fact, he has two of his own. That hadn't been in the—
Zack brushed a finger across the paper sticking out of her shirt pocket. Her letter. She covered it with her hand, knocking his away. "Don't." She'd had that letter on her person since October. Proof that someone on God's green Earth wanted her. Only now she was starting to worry that her Prince Charming was Philip.
She tried to ignore the slight zing of warmth his touch left behind. Maybe the doctor was right about needing more rest. She blinked away the touch of lightheadedness and tried to shake the fatigue from her brain.
Zack shrugged. "Just looking out for you, Lena. You look like hell. You need sleep and food in that order, not some idiot who offers you beer when it's obvious you're about to fall over already."
Tears tickled the back of her eyes. She was tired. And irritated by this whole secret game. Chinese torture, that's what it made her think of, and she wanted to scream at the world.
"M'jita, mi amor." Her mother interrupted, coming up to her, putting an arm around her shoulders, and giving Zack a firm look. "Go find something to do besides bother my daughter."
Zack winced, a pained expression on his face. "Lo siento, Anabel." He waited a heartbeat. "Lena."
She watched him walk away, guarding the sad, little part of her heart that had existed since she turned twelve. Carrying a torch for Zack was just as hard as it was annoying to carry this letter around. But she couldn't let the letter go. The words had moved her, seduced her, and curious by nature, she had to know, had to find out the identity of the author.
Phillip strode through the crowded kitchen toward her, and a small moan must have escaped because her mother tisked. "Don't do this to yourself, Lena."
"But, he could be the one, Mama," her voice faltered, and the room spun.
Phillip was standing over her with a punch in one hand and a silly grin on his face. "Laney?"
Elena opened her mouth, irritation warring with Twilight Zone music. She hated that nickname. "Don't—"
The room spun again, and she leaned to catch up with it. "Mom?"
Her mom's lovely face came into sudden, sharp focus. Her lips were moving, but it was as if someone had muted a television.
Mom's beautifully tapered fingers snapped at someone behind her. Funny, she hadn't noticed her mom's nails were painted to match the Christmas tree.
"Pretty ..." Lena slipped into the sweet, blessed oblivion of darkness.
* * *
When Anabel snapped her fingers, Zack moved. Everyone moved.
He didn't mind shoving the love-struck Phillip out of the way, either. Could this be the guy Lena had been going on about? An overseas address for the town's pride and joy could be found in the newspaper ... Maybe Zack hadn't been the only one sending her letters.
He caught Lena just as her knees gave out.
"Hey." Phillip countered the move with indignation, and his hand came out to stroke Lena's arm.
An unexpected ball of fury lodged in Zack's throat. He gritted his teeth. "Upstairs?"
Anabel patted Phillip on the arm with a consoling smile and nodded to Zack. "Sí. Take her to her room, Zack. I'm sure she's just exhausted. I'll follow you up."
He took the stairs two at a time and turned the corner to the girls' room, his steps quiet on the shaggy carpet.
Lena moaned and moved in his arms.
"Take it easy, babe."
"Oh." The word was drawn out, and she shifted in his arms. "I don't feel good."
Zack changed direction and gently kicked open the door across the hall from the bedroom. Letting go of her legs first, he set her down and lowered her to sit on the edge of the bathtub. She leaned against his leg so that he was stuck.
Bending at the waist, he reached for a hand towel from the rack above the sink, turned the cold water on, and soaked it. He squeezed the thick purple cotton, draining the water.
With one hand full of towel, he placed a hand on her head, and his fingers caught in the soft web of her hair, his breath stopped in his throat. Okay. It's just hair. Really thick, shiny hair, which he shouldn't be touching, because it made him feel an unbelievably tender ache inside. But not just that, he wanted to touch her. He shook the thought from his mind.
"Hey. Come on, Lena." With a hand supporting her shoulder, Zack lifted her weight from his leg and crouched down in front of her. He placed the cold towel in her hand and helped her place it against her forehead for a moment. "How you feeling now?"
She opened eyes still clouded from fatigue and blinked. "A little better. I think."
A knock on the door, and it opened, bumping into his back.
Anabel slipped in and set a glass of water on the counter. "Everyone okay?"
Lena nodded her head. "I think ... I just need to lie down for a little while."
"Zack, could you ...? I've got Uncle Eddie down there, and he just dumped a pan of chile con carne down the front of the oven." Giving his shoulder a squeeze, she kissed him on the top of the head. "Gracias, mi otro hijo."
Right. The reminder he needed. A son and brother. "No problem. I'll get her settled in."
"I'm not a baby."
Undoubtedly, Zack couldn't help thinking.
"You'll let your family help, young lady," Anabel ordered before she hurried back down the steps.
Lena sighed. "You don't have to do this. I'm really fine now."
"Sure you are. Come on." Zack took her elbow, which she immediately took back, making him want to grin, but he knew better. She stood, only a little shaky, pressed a hand to her stomach, and he led the way to her bedroom. "You're a doctor. You know better than to push the limit."
With a shrug, she crossed the room and pulled open a dresser drawer.
Excerpted from Letters from Home by Beth Rhodes, Lewis Pollak. Copyright © 2013 Bethanne Strasser. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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