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Every head in the room turned to stare at the beautiful young woman who had just released an unnerving scream at the top of her lungs. Startled expressions turned into curious stares, and a few amused smiles, that swept from corner to corner as the other patrons of Ridgeland Diner noted her infectious smile. Something had obviously made the woman extremely happy.
Seated at a cushioned booth, Tierra Braddy was jumping excitedly in her seat. Clearly embarrassed, the man seated beside her looked around sheepishly. He was hardly impressed, but his twenty-eight-year-old baby sister was fully taken by the good news she had heard.
"Girlfriend, you are the best," Tierra exclaimed into her BlackBerry. Her deep brown gaze met the dark eyes that resembled her own. She was grinning widely, but her brother's full lips were turned into a deep frown. She poked her tongue out at him as she continued her cell phone conversation. "Thank you. Thank you so much," she said just before disconnecting the call she'd been so eagerly engaged in.
"Let me guess," Tingin Braddy said, leaning back against his seat, his arms folding over his broad chest. "You were able to pull off a dozen gold-winged doves for this wedding of the century?"
Tierra's eyes widened in delight. "Better. We are confirmed for the chapel at Briscoe Ranch. Isn't that great?" she exclaimed, her whole body quivering with excitement. "You remember Eden Waller, don't you? She married Doug Waller's brother Jack."
"I remember Doug. I don't think I ever met Jack or his wife."
Tierra shrugged. "Well, Eden and her sister are the event planners at Briscoe Ranch, and they weren't sure the renovations would be completed in time for us to use it. But she said they are officially finished and mine will be the first wedding in the building since 1949! How great is that!"
"Grand," Tingin responded, no hint of enthusiasm in his voice. "But let me ask you something very important," he said, leaning forward in his seat and resting his elbows atop the table. He leaned his chin against the back of his cupped hands and met her curious stare evenly. "Are you sure about this, Tea? Because it's not too late to change your mind."
"I can't believe you would ask me something like that!" The young woman's voice was laced with attitude. "I have been planning my dream wedding since I was ten years old. That's how sure I am."
"I get the dream wedding part, kiddo. We were all just hoping you'd find a dream groom to go with those nuptials."
"Don't start, Tingin," Tierra said, the hint of a reprimand on her tongue. "Don't spoil this for me. You know how I feel about Damien."
"That's not the problem, either. It's how Damien feels about you that has me concerned."
The smile on Tierra's face had folded down into an annoyed frown. "Big brother, be in a relationship that lasts longer than a minute and then you can have a conversation with me about somebody loving somebody." Her negative attitude had magnified substantially.
Tingin held up his hands as if in defeat. "My apologies. Don't get your spine all bent out of shape. I wouldn't be a good big brother if I didn't ask, Tierra."
"You always have to try and spoil things, Tingin. Ever since we were little kids. You get some perverse thrill out of trying to burst my bubbles, don't you?"
The man laughed heartily. "You have me all figured out. I've been plotting since the day you were born to bring you down," he said sarcastically.
Tierra punched her brother in the arm, the gesture just hard enough to get his full and undivided attention. "Well, stop. It's not working."
"Ouch, that hurt." Tingin rubbed his upper arm.
"It was supposed to. Now," Tierra said, changing the subject as she gestured toward their waitress for the bill. "I need to go confirm my flower order. Do you want to come with me?"
Tingin dropped his paper napkin to the table and shook his head. "I think I'll pass, but give me a call when you go for the menu tasting!"
* * *
Tierra was still annoyed with her brother as she headed in the direction of McKinney Avenue and the Timeless Fiori floral shop. Her appointment with Hilary, the head designer, had been a last-minute scheduling, and Tierra didn't like that she was feeling out of sorts when the moment should have been one of her happiest. She heaved a deep sigh. Why aren't I happy? she wondered.
Tierra had always been certain that she would one day be Mrs. Damien Porter. She'd been convinced ever since she'd laid eyes on the boy the day she and her brother had moved into their grandmother's north Dallas home, just two doors down from where Damien lived. The two had both been twelve years old.
The term rocky didn't begin to define their relationship. For as long as Tierra could remember, she'd been enamored with Damien, and more times than she cared to count, Damien had been enamored with someone else. All through school Damien had been attentive and caring, but his attention could too easily be diverted elsewhere. Their high school cheerleading team had given Tierra a real run for her money, but despite his many trysts, their friendship had always drawn Damien back to her side.
College had proven to be the turning point in their youthful infatuation. Her senior year at Texas Southern University and her interest in the TSU Tigers' star quarterback had pricked Damien's jealous streak, and that quarterback's interest in Tierra had finally motivated him to make a commitment to her. He had professed his adoration for her, and the two had been virtually inseparable from that moment on.
His proposal had come five years ago, just after Damien had enlisted in the military. But the engagement had been an extended one since Damien hadn't felt it necessary for them to jump right into anything. Then with his recent deployment to Afghanistan they'd been hesitant to officially set a date. But now he was expected back for a little rest and relaxation, and the two intended to tie the knot while he was home on extended leave. Meanwhile, Tierra had been left with the mechanics of putting together a wedding all by her lonesome.
Now with the plans for her dream wedding coming together, albeit slowly, her brother had to spoil the fun by reminding her once again that no one—not him, their grandmother or her few friends—were actually happy about her marrying Damien. Every one of them believed the man couldn't be trusted to honor her love by being forever faithful. But Tierra trusted that once they were husband and wife the two of them would prove everybody wrong. She heaved another deep sigh. She still couldn't shake the melancholy that had gotten a hold of her.
She forced herself to smile. Damien would be home in less than thirty-six hours, and then the last pieces of her life plan would all fall into place. Determined to kick her excitement into gear, she accelerated the vehicle, exceeding the posted speed limit. If nothing else, Tierra couldn't wait to get to her future. She was a young woman who couldn't wait to be a wife.
Staff Sergeant Travis Stallion drew two fingers around the collar of his military dress shirt, anxious to lose the necktie and formal uniform. He would have given anything to have traveled home in his combat uniform, the casual, camouflage-colored attire far more comfortable, but he was representing the United States Army, and his dress greens were mandated.
As he threw his hand in the air, gesturing for a taxicab, he was counting down the minutes when he could pack away everything military and don his favorite jeans and white T-shirt. But he had one more stop on his list of things to do before he could officially begin his leave and simply relax for the next thirty days.
Stepping inside the yellow cab that had stopped in front of him, he leaned back against the vinyl seats and closed his eyes, purposely avoiding the conversation the young taxi driver was trying to have with him. He was too tired from his travels to talk, so he pretended to sleep to avoid the polite chitchat.
As the driver finally focused on maneuvering the car through the heavy traffic, Travis tapped his hand against his heart and the many mounted ribbons that adorned his chest. Confirming that he still had possession of the sealed envelope he'd placed in the inside pocket of his green dress coat, he took a deep breath, then slowly blew warm air past his full lips.
He'd given Private First Class Damien Porter his solemn word that he would deliver that sealed envelope to Porter's girl, who lived in Dallas, where he would be staying for the next thirty days. The young woman's downtown address would be his last stop before he found his way to his own family's home for the month.
As the taxi pulled up in front of the Main Street address and the high-rise apartment building, Travis asked the driver to wait for him to return.
"Just keep the meter running," he said as he exited the cab. "This shouldn't take long at all."
The taxi driver nodded, settling back in his seat to wait.
As Travis stood on the sidewalk, taking in his surroundings, he was impressed with the location. The neighborhood was an upscale one, and be somewhere he could eventually see himself living, he thought. He was just steps away from Neiman Marcus, the Urban Market Grocery and Café and the Main Street entertainment district, and he was in walking distance to the Arts District and Victory Park.
Inside the building he was greeted warmly by the building's concierge.
"Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you?"
Travis nodded with a quick flick of his head. A faint smile pulled at his mouth. "I'm here to see Miss Tierra Braddy, please. My name is Travis Stallion."
"Yes, sir. I'll let her know you're here," the man said as he reached for the telephone resting atop the marbled desk.
After a brief exchange, he pointed Travis to the elevators. Before the soldier could step inside, the man called out to him. "Excuse me, sir, I just wanted to say thank you." He gave Travis a quick wave of his hand. "We really appreciate the armed forces and what you men are doing for us over there."
Nodding his gratitude, Travis allowed the doors to close shut between them. Seconds later the conveyor stopped on the twenty-second floor. Heading down the carpeted hallway, he made his way to the young woman who stood waiting in her doorway, intrigue painting her expression as she watched him approach.
"Hi," Tierra said excitedly, extending her hand in greeting. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Staff Sergeant Stallion. Damien has told me so much about you."
And Damien had, extolling the man's many virtues in every conversation the two had ever had. Her fiancé had been in awe of his thirty-one-year-old platoon leader, holding the man in high esteem. His descriptions, though, didn't do the handsome man justice. Tierra was surprised by the smoldering stare that was eyeing her so intently. His pale, almond-shaped eyes seemed to draw her in like a moth to a flame. Tierra was slightly surprised by their intensity, and her reaction. She tried to shake the sensation from her thoughts.
Taken aback by the vibrant smile washing over him, Travis was briefly stunned himself. He hadn't expected the woman to be so extraordinarily beautiful. But beautiful she was, with her deep brown eyes, caramel candy complexion and a full luscious pout a man could imagine himself kissing. Tierra Braddy was probably the most exquisite creature he had ever laid his eyes upon. A flood of electric energy surged through his spirit.
Travis was suddenly aware of her small hands clasping tightly to his own large appendage. His gaze fell to the perfectly manicured fingers that warmly caressed the back of his own hand, then rose back to the woman's smiling face. The moment was strangely surreal, feeling as though it were playing out in slow motion. His tongue suddenly felt too big for his mouth, words caught deep in his chest.
So focused on her own rising anxiety, Tierra didn't seem to notice Travis's sudden discomfort. Fighting to stay focused, she eagerly pulled him inside, closing the door tightly behind them as she chatted nonstop.
"This is such a surprise. Damien didn't tell me you were coming stateside. Where is he? Did you two travel back together? I'm so excited to meet you!"
"It's a pleasure to meet you, too, Ms. Braddy," he finally managed to mutter, his voice sounding foreign to his own ears. "Please, call me Travis."
She repeated her questions.
"No, ma'am, we didn't. That's why I'm here. Private First Class Porter asked me to personally deliver this to you," he said, reaching inside his breast pocket for the letter that had traveled home with him.
Travis forced himself to continue. "He stressed that it was very important you receive it as soon as possible."
The look of fear that crossed the woman's face suddenly tore at his heartstrings as she took the envelope from his fingers, her own hand shaking ever so slightly. Her confused stare met his.
"There's nothing wrong with him, is there?" she asked, a rise of distress spilling into her tone. "Damien's okay, isn't he?"
Travis nodded. "When I last saw him he was doing just fine."
Tierra exhaled a deep sigh of relief, pulling the letter to her chest. "You scared me," she said, her voice dropping a few octaves.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to," Travis responded. He took a step toward her, the move unconscious as he suddenly wanted to pull her into his arms to ease the nervous edge that had gripped her spirit. "I really didn't mean to upset you."
Tierra giggled softly, mildly embarrassed. "I'm fine," she said, brushing her palm against his forearm. "I'm also very rude. I haven't even offered you anything to drink. Can I get you something, Travis?"
"No, but thank you for offering. Unfortunately, I really have to be going," the man said, moving back in the direction of the door. "My taxi is waiting for me downstairs."
"But you'll come back? Right?" Tierra asked, the words slipping past her full lips before she could stop them.