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March. Baghdad, Iraq
Another letter. From her.
Levi McPherson felt a current of heat snake through his weary limbs and settle hotly in his loins. A slow smile sliding over his lips, he sank onto the edge of his bed and ignored the various sounds echoing through the concrete barracks. The catcalls, the buzz of laughter, the odd guitar and video-game noises faded into insignificance as he carefully opened the envelope.
Quite frankly, aside from the rare telephone call and e-mail, there was nothing more wonderful to a deployed soldier than a letter from home. Since arriving in Iraq some ten months ago he'd gotten letters from his former unit matesLucas "Huck" Finn and Mick Chivershis parents, his sister, his nieces and nephews, his high-school algebra teacher and, hell, even his boat mechanic.
And he'd appreciated each and every one of them.
But the letters he'd started getting from the Mysterious Ms. X, as Levi had begun to call her, were admittedly the ones he found himself anticipating the most during mail call. Though she never signed her name to any of the letters, but instead ended each steamy missive with a simple "Yours," Levi knew she was a hometown girl because the return address was a post-office box in Bethel Bay, a sleepy little backwater town nestled just north of Hilton Head, South Carolina. Home, he thought with a pang of nostalgia, missing the scent of magnolia blossoms and salty sea air. Missing his mother's meat loaf, tag football and sailing.
The last most of all.
Though he wasn't home often enough to justify keeping his boata sweet little thirty-three-foot Columbia BoomerangLevi couldn't quite bring himself to sell it. Being out on the water, hearing the snap of the wind in the sails Other than being on the front line of a battlefield, it was the only place he'd ever felt grounded. He loved the sea, the expanse and depth, the sheer vastness of it. It was easy to make sense of his own place in the world when he was on the water.
And whoever Ms. X was knew it, too, because she'd mentioned seeing his father taking the Sabrina out for a turn around the bay. Levi winced. Damn, he really needed to do something about that name, he thought. Despite the fact that he'd painted over the monikerthat of his ex-fiancée, who'd literally left him at the altar two years agothe bright-blue letters still bled through. He should have painted them over in black, he thought darkly.
The color would have matched Sabrina's miserable, faithless heart.
Water under the bridge, Levi reminded himself, fishing the letter out of the envelope. It was done. Finished. Over. Better that he find out now that she didn't have the emotional strength to be a military wife. Hell, the first time he'd counted on her to keep the home fires burning, she'd gotten lonely and kept the sheets hot with an old flame. His lips twisted bitterly.
Unfaithfulness was sort of a deal-breaker in his book.
It was all for the best really. He'd been trying to find the kind of love his parents shared and had known deep in his heart that the connection wasn't right with Sabrina. She'd been an ill-planned substitute. Since her, though he'd been left feeling a bit hollow on the inside, Levi had given up on the idea of marriage and family. He'd decided it simply wasn't in his cards.
He heaved a silent sigh and made a mental note to check in with Adam, his little brother, who was also currently serving in Iraq. Not that he necessarily needed to check in on him. Only two years younger than him, Adam was a crackerjack soldier, and Levi knew he would always have his back. But old habits died hard and, though it was unreasonable, he couldn't seem to shake the pervading feeling that he needed to protect Adam, that even after all these years, it was still his job.
Shrugging off a bit of unease, Levi unfolded the letter and felt a smile roll over his lips as the familiar feminine writingneat and a bit loopyfilled the page.
I dreamed about you again last night. I dreamed you were home and, more importantly, mine. I dreamed you wanted me, really wanted me, that you walked through my front door, our eyes locked and a second later you were on me, taking me hard and fast against the door.
Sweet mercy, was she trying to kill him? Did this woman have any idea how these letters affected him? How therapeutic the ones he wrote back to her were?
You kissed me as though you needed my breath to breathe, you took my breasts into your mouth and suckled the peaks until I almost came. You slipped your wickedly talented fingers into my panties and I rubbed myself against you, satisfied but not, wanting more. Needing more. I'm hot and muddled now, remembering.
Welcome to the club, sweetheart, he thought, chuckling darkly. At the moment his balls felt like they'd been hit with a blow torch.
It was the sort of dream I never wanted to wake up from, and when I did, I still tingled with release, imagined I could even still feel you there, deep inside of me. I ache for you in places I scarcely recognize, most notably my heart.
Imagination was an interesting thing, Levi thought, and in this regard she definitely had the advantage. She was imagining him. Obviously, she knew him. She'd cited too many little things in previous letters including local gossipnot to know both himand his brother, for that matterrelatively well.
Meanwhile, his underinformed imagination had just enough sexy information from her to have him cocked, locked and ready to rock with a few strokes of her pen, but he had no face to put with the vision. Not exactly true. He'd put a face with the vision. An image of dark-red hair, big brown eyes and a mouth made for sin suddenly materialized in his mind's eye. He sucked a breath through his teeth and gave his head a small shake.
Off-limits, he told himself. Don't go there.
It couldn'twouldn'tbe her.
He desperately wanted to know Ms. X's identity, but until she slipped upor he went home to investigate, which in his present situation was out of the questionhe was completely at her mercy.
Levi McPherson didn't like being at anyone's mercy, but after the Sabrina fiasco, when he'd looked and felt like a damned fool, particularly a woman's.
Furthermore, while the sexy nature of the letters was a stoker, there was something more at work here. He felt a strange sort of connection with his anonymous letter-writer. She got him. Truly got him. And that was more of a turn-on than anything she could write.
I know I should probably stop sending you these letters, but I just can't seem to help myself. I'm bleeding my fantasies of you right onto the pagealbeit anonymouslyand it feels good to finally give voice to my feelings. My desires. I've wanted you forever, and telling you in detail is the next best thing in the absence of the courage to actually admit who I am. Cowardly, I know, but
Levi looked up and saw a couple of his unit mates standing in the doorway. The grave looks on their faces made his heart rate skip into a frantic rhythm and a cold sweat break across his shoulders. And they'd used his given name, not "Remington"as in Steelethe nickname he'd been given in jump school. Paper crackled in the wretched silence as his fingers involuntarily tightened.
"It's Adam," Will Forrester told him. "Another damned IED."
Miserable roadside bombs, Levi thought as nausea clawed the back of his throat. A punch of panic landed in his gut, momentarily ending his ability to breathe. This had always been a possibilitythey were at war, after all, soldiers on the front line of the battlefield. But no amount of mental preparation had readied him for this. He swallowed, dredging deep for the courage he knew he was going to need.
"Where is he?"
"They're bringing him in." Will swallowed. Hard. "He's in bad shape, Levi."
Yeah, well, bad shape was better than dead, Levi thought, relief flooding through him. He'd seen too many damned flag-draped coffins lately, and putting his little brother in one was more than he cared to contemplate.
Hang tight, bro. I'm coming.
I saw your boat on the bay today and wondered what it would be like to make love on the water. You rocking inside of me while the boat rocked along the waves
Three months later
Last week, when Natalie Rowland's assistant, in a bout of unusual efficiency, had mistakenly gathered up her private correspondence along with her art gallery's promotional mailings and stamped her return address onto what was supposed to have been and would forever remainan anonymous sexy love letter, then had personally carried it and the rest of the mail to the post office, Natalie had known a single blinding moment of panic as she'd belatedly realized that her privateGod help herno-longer anonymous letter had been posted.
That gut-wrenching, miserable, hyperventilating, nausea-inducing panic paled in comparison with the news she'd just received.
"Levi's c-coming home," she repeated, her voice a strangled croak. A familiar sense of unease made her stomach wobble in warning.
Adam McPherson shifted, barely winced, and tossed the five of clubs onto the discard pile. Though she knew on some level that he had to mournand even resent, to some degreethe recent loss of his right leg below the knee, since returning home to his parents' house in Bethel Bay a week ago from The Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texasthe nation's premier facility for amputee and burn victimshe hadn't voiced a single complaint.
She'd catch the occasional broodingly haunted expression, when she knew he was reliving the horror of the incident that had taken part of his leg, but the minute he caught her looking at him, he'd blink away the expression and smile. But that was Adam. A stoic goofball with hidden depths, and one of her oldest and dearest friends.
She'd missed him terribly over the years and had looked forward to his visits home, but admittedly, this was not the sort of occasion she'd been hoping for. His mother had called her as soon as she'd heard the news and had kept her updated until Adam had made it back to town.
Despite the fact that his surgery had gone well and he was healing nicely, recovery would be a long arduous road, but one she had every confidence he would tread with his usual wry humor and determination.
Even if he had to do it with a prosthesis.
His physical therapy was progressing well and, considering the recent advancements in prosthetic technology, he had every intention of returning to active duty as soon as humanly possible. Or so he said and, for his sake and sanity, Natalie certainly hoped so. At the moment Adam was staying with his parents in their beautiful bayside home just a few doors down from her own cottage while recuperating.
Speculation had run rampant during their high-school and college years as to whether their friendship would ever develop into something romantic, but that had never been a possibility. She inwardly smiled.
Probably because she'd been in love with his older brother, Levi, for what felt like most of her life.
Though she'd nursed a crush on Levi during high schoola crush that had started within a few days of the McPhersons' arrival in Bethel Bay after Levi and Adam's father had retiredNatalie could vividly remember the exact moment when she'd fallen in love with him.