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Not what he expected.
Captain Jude Walker fingered the scrap of paper and, once again, glanced at the address Nicole had sent him114 Rosemont Avenue.
It'd been seven days since the 101st Airborne had redeployed home from the Middle East, and this was his first opportunity to leave Fort Campbell. The last mandatory reintegration briefing had ended at noon. He'd signed out on two-weeks' leave, climbed into his pickup and headed to Atlanta. Four hours later here he sat on Rosemont.
Tension tightened his shoulders, and a wave of anxiety rolled through his gut. He felt as if he was in a combat zone instead of this residential city street. It was probably the worry that had eaten at him for a month or so.
Why had Nicole stopped answering his e-mails? A glitch with her Internet provider, or so she'd claimed over the phone. The last time they'd talked, she assured him her system would be back online within a day or two.
He would have believed her except for the apprehension he'd heard in her voice.
"What's wrong, Nicole?"
"Nothing, baby. Everything's gonna be fine."
Three days later, a lone message appeared in his inbox, compounding his unease. "Don't try to find me."
Then her phone had been disconnected .
Almost five weeks and nary a word.
His military training had taught him to plan for the worst-case scenario. He'd called every hospital in the Atlanta area, just in case. The long-distance charge had been worth his peace of mind. No one named Nicole Valentine had been admitted to a medical facility in the metro area.
The police had been less than forthcoming, except to assure Jude a missing persons report had not been submitted in hername.
Foolish as it seemed, Jude had talked himself into believing she'd be waiting for him when his plane touched down at Fort Campbell. A crowd of exuberant well-wishers swarmed the tarmac, waving American flags and screaming with joy as he and his men deplaned. He searched the crowd but never found Nicole.
Standing alone when every other man had someone to wrap his arms around had been worse than marching into battle. The sense of emptiness haunted him still.
Jude let out a breath of frustration. Had he read too much into their chance meeting in Atlanta? Without a family to go home to and knowing he'd be assigned to Atlanta's Fort McPherson shortly after his thirteen-months' deployment was over, Jude had chosen the city as a good spot to visit over R&R in the middle of his stint. Meeting Nicole had been a plus he'd never expected.
The two weeks passed quickly as they got to know each other. Nicole seemed enthusiastic about their relationship until he happened to mention the possibility of a future together.
"Gotta live in the moment," she quipped when the subject came up. "Besides, you don't know me. You don't know who I really am."
"I know enough," he assured her. But the truth was, he didn't know anything about Nicole except she'd been staying at the same hotel. Unusual, yes, since she lived in Atlanta. A minivacation without leaving town, she claimed.
At that point he'd been too taken in by her warm smile and twinkling eyes to question anything.
But now, after being deployed for thirteen months, the last thing he needed was rejection.
Surely everything would work out once they were together again.
And what about her e-mail that warned him not to try to find her? Merely anxiety on her part about reconnecting after six months? At least that's what he kept telling himself.
Bracing for whatever would unfold, Jude grabbed his beret and stepped onto the pavement, wishing he'd taken time to change into civilian clothes. Hopefully, she'd be glad to see him, no matter what he was wearing.
Slamming the truck door, he glanced down Rosemont. An older neighborhood. At one time, probably prime real estate, now slightly in need of repair.
One-fourteen sat back from the road. A three-story rambling brick complete with a sprawling porch, two white wicker rockers and a pot of yellow pansies that waved a greeting as he neared. He imagined Nicole sitting in the rocker, awaiting his return.
Jude had faced combat, had known the caustic taste of bile that churned in his gut when danger needed to be faced. Not that he gave the fear control, but it was a presence, a shadow that hovered over any battlefield. Today he felt that same shadow float over him as the late-February sun slipped momentarily behind a dark and angry cloud.
An omen? Something Jude didn't believe in. A man controlled his destiny by the way he lived his life.
Still, he wasn't sure what he'd find on the other side of the door. The Nicole he'd met on R&R? Or a woman who had turned her back on the memory of their two weeks together?
Pulling in a calming breath, Jude walked toward the house. It'd been six months since they'd been together. Seemed like an eternity.
Sarah Montgomery cradled the phone on her shoulder, trying to keep the frustration from her voice. No reason for the head of the Caring Heart Foundation to know she was angry.
"Sir, I wasn't meddling. As acting director of Hope House, I was merely reviewing the records. When the figures didn't add up, I decided to dig a little deeper."
"You should have alerted me immediately, Sarah." Winton Cunningham's voice was stern.
"That's exactly what I am doing. Cynthia is due back at the end of the month. I wanted to ensure there were no problems before she returns."
Winton sighed. "Look, Sarah, the board appreciates the job you've done filling in as temporary director these past six months, but there's no reason to delve into money issues. We have credible people at the foundation who handle the finances. They do an outstanding job, and I trust their integrity."
"I wasn't implying"
"Of course you weren't. But you must realize the stress everyone is under. Contributions are down, and the foundation's trying to hold Hope House together."
"Aren't you overexaggerating the situation?"
"Unfortunately, no. If a couple of our major contributors get wind of mismanaged funds, even if the story is unfounded" Winton sniffed "the consequences would be devastating. I'd hate to see Hope House close its doors because of a simple accounting error. So, you tend to the kids and let the foundation handle the money. Understand?"
Sarah's cheeks burned from the chastisement. "Of course."
"No need to mention this to the other board members tomorrow night at the Charity Ball. I don't want to spoil their evening. Plus, the last thing we need is bad PR. You know how the press loves to stick its nose where it doesn't belong."
"I hadn't planned to talk to anyone else about the situation, sir."
"Excellent. After dinner I'll invite you to the stage for the presentation. Accept the donation, then say a few words to the contributors."
"What about the application for the orphanage referral position? Have you submitted your paperwork?"
"It's in the mail." Sarah hesitated. "If the donations are down, won't that affect the project in South America?"
"Not at all. My wife, Elena, still has family in Colombia where she was raised. They're funding the project and insist their contributions remain separate from Hope House's resources. No matter what happens in Atlanta, they want the orphanage referral agency established so more South American children can be adopted by American families. Bottom line, the program will remain on schedule."
The stability of the Colombian project didn't make Sarah feel any better. As acting director of Hope House, her first priority was the kids in Atlanta.
She hung up the phone and sighed. If she hadn't noticed the discrepancy
Well, she had noticed and look where it had gotten her. On the losing end of a verbal squabble with Mr. Cunningham.
The sound of a car door slamming pulled her from her thoughts. Shoving the curtain aside, she peered through her office window at the man in uniform walking purposefully toward the house.
Not the usual visitor by a long shot, with his black army beret angled over his forehead, squared shoulders and a determined look plastered on his chiseled face.
She tucked the curtain back in place as three knocks resounded though the house.
"Patience is a virtue," she muttered as a second repetition echoed like machine-gun fire. Obviously, the man didn't like to be kept waiting.
Stepping into the foyer, Sarah opened the front door to the extent of the chain lock and regarded the visitor.
Crystal-blue eyes, straw-blond hair cut in a military buzz.
When he turned those blue eyes toward her, a feeling stirred deep within her. She swallowed, having difficulty finding her voice.
Not what she needed at this point in her life. Get a grip, Sarah.
"May I help you?"
Polite. She'd give him that much. Probably sixtwo, he had a thick neck, broad shoulders and biceps that bulged beneath the digital pattern of his uniform.
He glanced down at a photograph he clutched in his hand and held it up to where she could see the woman's image. Expressive round eyes, slender nose, shoulder-length black hair framing an oval face.
"Ma'am, I'm looking for Nicole Valentine." No doubt the person in the photo. Sarah raised a questioning brow. "And you came here because ?"
He let out a quick breath. "One-fourteen Rose-mont. That is your address, isn't it?"
"That's right, but"
"Nicole Valentine lives here," he stated before Sarah could continue. Then he paused, probably noticing the perplexed expression on her face. "I just returned from the Middle East. Nicole and I " He glanced again at the photo. "You see, ma'am, she sent me this address."
Sarah could read people, and everything about the man standing on her front porch said he was legit. Maybe a little mixed up as to where his girlfriend lived, but the guy didn't seem to pose a threat to either Sarah or the kids at the shelter.
"Just a minute." She slipped off the chain lock, opened the door wide and walked onto the porch.
He took a step back. Had she crowded him? "Look, Major"
His gaze warmed momentarily. "Hate to turn down a promotion, but it's captain, ma'am. Captain Jude Walker."
She nodded and tried to offer him what she realized must have seemed a halfhearted smile. But she did have work to do and kids to take care of, so
"Call me Jude, ma'am."
"And I'm Sarah Montgomery." The guy seemed sweet in a rugged sort of way, like a cocker spaniel in a rottweiler body.
"I'm afraid you have the wrong address, Jude. This is a shelter for teens. Your girlfriend doesn't live here."
He hadn't corrected her when she called the beautiful woman his girlfriend. For half a heartbeat, Sarah envied the woman in the photo.
"A teen shelter? Are you sure?"
His question sounded like one the kids would ask. "Yes, I am sure, Captain. I'm well aware of who finds lodging within this house."
He tilted his head, a flash of irritation evident in his eyes.
She'd been too abrupt. Sarah sighed. Despite the phone call with Winton Cunningham and the financial reports that didn't add up, this manthis Jude Walkerdeserved a few minutes of her time.
"Look, I'm sorry. That was harsh. It's been a rough day and "
She stopped her explanation. No reason to tell the captain about the problem she'd uncovered.