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"You've got to do it," Eden Walters's best friend, Patti, said. "The calendar is for a good cause—all the proceeds will go to 82nd Airborne families who've lost loved ones in the line of duty. You're the best photographer in the business and you know the military. You've got to do it," she repeated.
This was a no-brainer. Eden settled back in the wrought-iron chair in her courtyard and laughed, "No, I don't, Patti. Your wheedling isn't going to get you anywhere this time, even if you are a professional at it." She was not being talked into photographing a calendar of Army jumpers. Nope. Not her kind of assignment. Just the thought made her tense up. She took a deep breath and consciously relaxed. Patti could find another professional photographer to rope into this one.
Patti added her signature snort to the attendant sounds of a late-summer evening in New Orleans' French Quarter—the burble of Eden's fountain to the left of the table, the restless whisper of a breeze through the potted palm fronds and bougainvillea, the distant float of laughter and music, the occasional whine of mosquitoes punctuating the cicadas endless chorus.
"A professional." Another snort. "You certainly know how to add a touch of glamour to my job, don't you?" They both knew Eden had the utmost respect for Patti's job as a volunteer recruiter for a nonprofit agency. "It's a good thing I love you like the sister I never had…." Patti trailed off, her good humor evident despite her grousing tone, to sip at the pale yellow limoncello, "You made this?"
"Yep. From my very own lemon tree," Eden nodded toward her pride and joy in the corner of the courtyard's brick wall confines, barely discernable in dusk's shadows.
"Delicious. And I can't believe it took me so long to get down here to see you." Patti leaned her head back against the wrought iron chair and offered an approving smile. "This place is so totally you."
Eden grinned. She'd known Patti would love her home. They'd met in sixth grade at the base's middle school in Hawaii, where both their fathers had been stationed and the two girls had become firm, fast friends. They talked once a month and had long ago fallen into the habit of not answering the phone unless they both had at least an hour at their disposal to yak. Eden had e-mailed pictures but it had taken Patti three years to manage a visit. Her money had been as tight as Eden's.
Eden had fallen in love with the vintage Creole town house, circa 1842, from the moment she'd seen its two-story pink façade faced with turquoise shutters and a second-floor iron balcony. It had spoken to her artist's soul, murmured this is where you belong. The first-floor parlor had provided the perfect gallery setting for her photographs, with the upstairs serving as her private living quarters. But it was the lemon tree, laden with the most spectacularly large, yellow fruit she'd ever seen, tucked into the back corner of the foun-tained brick courtyard that had sealed the deal for her.
The place was outside her budgeted price range. And even though a building report came back that the place was structurally sound and the wiring and plumbing had been updated post-Katrina, it needed some serious TLC. Her parents, particularly her Brigadier General father, would have a friggin heart attack— they considered New Orleans lawless and vulnerable to another disaster.
She'd made an offer the next day.
Once again her parents had tagged her as impulsive. She preferred to think of it as instinctive. And yeah, sometimes it got her into trouble—well, maybe a lot of times—and granted she'd had to eat red beans and rice damn near every meal for a year, but it was finally paying off. She and her photography business had blossomed and grown beyond her wildest imagination. It was as if, after years of growing up in the stifling military environment, she'd finally found a rich, nurturing place to plant her roots. Granted her photography took her all over the world, but she always came home to here.
"Want to play with the tarot cards?" Patti asked half an hour later when they'd finished their lemon-infused vodka. Eden wasn't drunk, she didn't even qualify as bonafide tipsy, but she was definitely relaxed. And tarot cards were the kind of thing you did with a longstanding friend on a summer night in Nawlin's. Plus, Patti seemed to have a gift with the cards. Tomorrow night they were going out for zydeco dancing, but today they'd strolled through all the French Quarter shops and tonight was for catching up.
"Sure. You grab the cards and I'll light the candles." Dusk had yielded to night while they'd talked.
Patti disappeared into the house for the tarot pack she'd bought that afternoon and Eden padded barefoot across the bricks. She always risked stepping on an insect, and she had run across the occasional snake, but it was worth it to feel the sun-warmed bricks against her bare feet. She retrieved the lighter from a waterproof container she kept in the palm's pot and moved around the small courtyard lighting the tiki torches. She paused in the far corner of the yard, across from the lemon tree. For all that she loved the bright sunny spot and the happy yellow fruit, she was equally enamored with the opposite corner, where the sun only reached briefly.
She brushed her toes over the soft moss that carpeted the bricks in this spot. "Hello, handsome," she said softly as she lit the torch, illuminating the worn statue nestled amongst ferns and fragrant banana shrubs.
"Uh, is there someone else here that I don't know about?" Patti asked from behind her.
Eden laughed. "Patti, meet Mercury, Roman messenger of the gods," she said, gesturing toward the moss-covered life-size concrete casting of the nude god with winged feet. For the most part he blended in with his verdant surroundings. "Mercury, meet Patti, who knows and loves me best."
"All righty, then. Hi, Mercury." Patti shook her head. "You know this is just damn weird that we're talking to a statue."
"Hey, he spoke to me first. I found him one day when I was knocking around an antique shop. I turned the corner and there he stood, stopping me in my tracks." Lean face, chiseled lips, sculpted muscles— she'd had to have him.
"I'm guessing you didn't just toss him in your backseat and haul him home."
Laughing again, Eden shook her head. "Two guys, a dolly, and a lift truck and it was still a bitch to get him back here. Isn't he beautiful?"
"How many times have you photographed him?"
Patti knew her too well. "Lots." She'd fired off hundreds of shots. "He's paid for himself many times over. I did a numbered series of him and it sold phenomenally well."
"Good deal." Patti grabbed the lighter and flicked it on. Holding it lower, she cocked her head to one side and peered closer. "His schwing could be a little bigger."
Eden had thought the same thing—all those nicely defined muscles in the arms, chest, abs, ass and legs, but the penis was on the pretty-damn-small side, even for an unaroused state. She'd told herself it was simply a matter of the artist in her objecting to the lack of physical symmetry. Still, she had to tease Patti. "You know, you have an obsession with male genitalia."
"As if you don't. Please tell me when you're fantasizing you give him a better package."
Eden grinned. "Well, yeah." The sixteenth century sculptor could've been way more generous.
Reclaiming the lighter, Eden finished lighting the garden torches. Patti followed. "You know you seriously need to get out more if you're fantasizing about a statue."
"Says you. He's got a better personality than the last couple of guys I met."
Patti giggled. "Idiot."
"For real. Pickings are pretty slim in the man pool." Eden sat back down in the wrought-iron chair and tucked her heels on the edge, bringing her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs.
"Maybe you're fishing in the wrong pond." Patti began to shuffle the tarot deck.
"Pond? I've fished in every friggin' ocean I've crossed. There was the local guy here who wanted to wear my panties. No thanks. Then there was the guy I met in Canada who turned out to be married. The Asian guy who wanted us to meditate to an orgasm without touching one another." She paused to draw a breath and Patti held up a staying hand.
"Okay. Okay. I gotcha." She cut her eyes in a sly way. "I just offered you a new pond to fish in. Hot paratroopers."
"I'd rather sign up for a lobotomy. Wait. Getting involved with a military guy would be the same thing. I don't think so. Actually, I believe you've lost your mind."
"Far from it. You've just got such a rigid mind-set— guess you get that from your father."
"Kiss my ass." Okay, so Patti had struck a chord. Her career military father only saw things in black and white. It drove Eden crazy. Had always driven her crazy because she was all about shades of gray and Technicolor.
"Think compromise, liebling. Think about hard bodies, males in their prime in top-notch condition. Think of hot, sweaty sex. Think about you wrapping up the assignment, and then spending your time anyway you please. I get what I want, which is the best damn photographer in the business shooting my calendar, and you get what you want, a little mattress time with a real-life hottie instead of a concrete fantasy." She put one finger on her cheek and pretended to ponder. "And didn't your assistant text you this afternoon about a job rescheduling?"
Patti had had Eden wriggling in her seat with her talk of all that hot, sweaty sex. It had been too long.
But she didn't want a soldier. That was just…she wasn't going there. "You're manipulating me."
"You're all black and white."
And Patti had just moved from manipulation to outright psychological warfare. She knew that was Eden's Achilles' heel. Eden would rather do something impulsive and stupid than be rigid and uncompromising like her father. Actually, it didn't take a psych degree to know that her upbringing probably drove her impulsive tendencies. "Remind me again why we're friends."
Patti remained unrepentant. "I tell you what—let's consult the cards. I'll do a reading for you."
"Fine. And if the cards say no, you won't mention the calendar job again." And Patti'd better not mention Eden being rigid like her father. Her father's unyielding mind-set had always been a point of contention.
Her BFF handed over the deck. "You know the deal. Shuffle. And if the cards say yes, you'll shoot my calendar. Ask the question and seal your destiny."
"Should I shoot the paratrooper calendar?" Eden carefully divvied the cards into three piles in a classic three-card spread—the past, the present and the outcome.
Patti took over from there. "The past," she intoned, turning over the top card. A shiver slid down Eden's spine and she could swear the breeze blew just a tad cooler for a second.
Then Patti spoke. "The King of Swords. An authority figure. The sword could indicate the military, which all fits with your father. And it is, after all, your dad's career that makes your past what it is."
"It fits," Eden said.
"Okay. Now, the present." Patti moved on to the second deck, and flipped over the card to reveal The Star card. Her wide smile revealed the slight gap in her front teeth. "You know the star portends a new beginning, a move to hope after a bad period. Maybe in your case a new way of seeing the military."
The hair on the back of Eden's neck stood up. Sometimes the message in the cards was vague but there certainly didn't seem to be any ambiguity here. Without saying anything she nodded for Patti to reveal the third card, the future.
One deft flick of her friend's wrist and they were both faced with The Knight of Swords.
"I'm screwed," Eden said.
"I guess it depends on your perspective." Patti grabbed the interpretation book that came with the cards and started flipping through it. "Let's make sure we get this absolutely right." She stopped. "Here we are. The Knight of Swords is bold and enthusiastic, but also imaginative and clever like his Queen. He's a great champion of good causes and inspires others by his idealism and dedication to any cause he adopts. He is decisive and, while others dither over a course of action, he will just plunge headlong into it, generally winning the day. He is a symbol of creative upheaval, usually leading to success." Patti smirked. "Yeah, if you were looking to turn the assignment down, you're definitely screwed."
"Okay. I'll shoot the calendar." It looked as if Eden would be spending a couple of days exactly where she didn't want to be—an Army base.
Tarot cards or no, however, she would not be having hot, sweaty sex with anyone. There was impulsiveness and then there was insanity. And she wasn't crazy yet.
Lieutenant Colonel Mitch Dugan, 82nd Airborne paratrooper, Special Forces, threw himself into the trench at a dead run. Thwump. He hit the hard ground and immediately began to wriggle on his belly beneath the razor-sharp barbed wire, as the bullets whizzed just above him. Faster. Lives depended on it. His and his men's. Failure was not an option.
He came to the end of the barbed-wire trench, maneuvered himself free and in one powerful motion pushed to his feet. Without pause, he sprinted in a zigzag pattern toward the sand-bag-rimmed bunker fifteen meters away. Putting on a final burst of speed, he finished the last five meters—shoulder rolling into the hole in the ground that provided his only protection. Thirty seconds later Captain Eli Murdoch dove into the hole, as well. Without a word, each man performed a quick, thorough visual scan of the surrounding area. Mitch nodded brusquely. Murdoch acknowledged it with his own nod.