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Captain Dwayne Robertson's boots hit the blacktop and he nearly fell to his knees in relief. Only the fact that there were other Marines behind him waiting to rush off the bus and jump into their loved ones' arms kept him moving forward. Not that he had a loved one to rush to. But being trampled to death the minute he landed safely on U.S. soil wasn't his idea of a great redeployment.
Marine after Marine rushed by him, dropping their rucksacks as they went to spring into a welcome home hug. One lucky SOB had his woman all but climbing up his torso like a tree. His night was a guaranteed grand slam.
Someone behind him shrieked, and Dwayne cringed, flinched a little. God in heaven above. He should be grateful he didn't have anyone to freak out and fuss over him. His mom could never take time off work, and his sister was too busy being a single mom to make the trip across the country just to give him a hug.
Yeah. He didn't need a big welcome home... thing. He'd just grab his ruck, his locker, hail a cab, and...
Head home to an empty apartment. Order a pizza. And sulk.
Across the sea of camouflage, someone familiar caught his eye, and he smiled before he could remind himself he didn't care.
"Jeremy freaking Phillips."
"What's up, man?" Jeremy stepped over and gave him a slug on the shoulder, as if they'd just hung out the night before rather than over eight months ago. They stared at each other a moment, then both grinned and stepped into a hug.
"Damn, dude, it's good to see someone I haven't been stuck with for eight months. Even if it is your ugly mug." As Dwayne stepped away, he leaned down and hefted his ruck back over his shoulder. "You here to take me home?"
"Yup. Let's go find your locker and get the hell out of here."
"With pleasure." Though he understood the emotions surrounding all the spouses and loved ones, he was more than willing to leave the lovefest behind and go settle down in his quiet apartment to decompress. The entire ride on the bus from the airport had been a white-knuckle ride.
Twenty minutes later, after hauling his things out from under the ever-growing pile of olive bags and personal items coming off the moving truck, he tossed his duffle into the bed of Jeremy's truck.
"God," Jeremy swore as he hefted the black locker-the trunk holding most of Dwayne's personal items-over the edge and into the truck bed. "What'd you bring back? Rocks?"
"Among other things." Dwayne smiled. "Remember the last time, when we did our shakeout and that camel spider crawled out of Johnson's bag?"
Jeremy chuckled and snapped the door in place. "He screamed like a girl."
Dwayne hopped into the passenger seat. "I'm man enough to admit it. A spider the size of a house cat comes after me? I'm going to be biting back a scream too."
"Just shoot it," was Jeremy's helpful response as he carefully pulled out of the parking lot and onto the main street.
"Talk about overreaction." Dwayne smiled a little, taking in the sights of the base he'd left eight months ago. "Dang. Built up the new Burger King on the corner. That thing was just in planning stages when I left."
"Lots of changes." Jeremy pulled to a stop as he came to a red light, then signaled a turn. "Blackwater's gone. Though you'd have known that from news over there."
Good riddance. "How's the new guy?"
"Decent. Still getting a feel for him, but seems like a good guy overall. Not the prick Blackwater was. As always, we'll know more as time goes on." He laughed and shook his head. "No, you'll know. I'm almost done."
"Still can't believe you're separating, man."
"I'll be around all the damn time. I'm a contractor now, remember?" Jeremy grinned. "Or I will be, once my terminal leave starts."
"Still can't believe you're leaving the Marines. But hey, gotta do what's good for you. Well, what's good for you and Madison." Dwayne couldn't quite keep the amusement out of his voice when he asked, "Tim kicked your ass for sleeping with his sister lately?"
"No, I think we got that out of our system a while back."
Dwayne jerked as Jeremy sped through the turn a little too fast. His fist clenched around the handlebar, and he gulped down a moan. Concentrate on breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Then he bit back a yelp when Jeremy tapped the breaks. Talk about screaming like a girl... "Jesus, dude, drive often?"
"Dick in front of me's the one who can't drive. You haven't met Veronica yet." Jeremy turned the air up a notch. "She's coming along. Couldn't get a read on her at first, but now she's starting to open up more."
"You have?" Jeremy shot him a quick glance. It was all Dwayne could do not to yell at him to keep his eyes on the road. Jesus. "When was this?"
"Skype. We kept crossing paths when she was at Skye and Tim's house, then when she moved in with Madison." He smiled a little at the memories. Some of the best moments of the deployment were from teasing Veronica until she blushed and fidgeted in her seat. She'd turned into some sort of mental mascot for his time over there. A bright spot to cling to when things turned to shit.
Something white fluttered next to the road in his peripheral vision. Dwayne grabbed at the oh shit bar and beat down the urge to jerk the wheel out of Jeremy's hands and avoid hitting the trash. They were going to get themselves killed driving like this. His eyes squeezed shut in automatic defense.
No. Look again.
Dwayne forced his eyes open and watched in the side mirror as the white object dipped and fell, floating and landing again as cars whizzed past it without a second thought.
Plastic bag. It's a fucking plastic bag. You're losing your shit over nothing.
Though he tried to let go, Dwayne's grip on the bar was cement strong. He gave up and did his best to relax his fingers one by one before he lost feeling.
To distract himself, he asked, "What's some of the other changes? The new CO can't be all."
"Nope, definitely not all. For one, Tim's up on the board for promotion to major."
"Dickhead didn't say anything." He wouldn't have, though. Tim wouldn't see it as anything but another day in the office. Not out of overconfidence or arrogance. Just that he did his job, did it right, and did it quietly.
"Well, tease him over dinner about it. You can also tease him about getting married."
Dwayne raised a brow at that. "He's already married. Did he turn to polygamy while I was gone?"
Jeremy shook his head and came to a fast stop when a light suddenly turned yellow. God. At this rate, Dwayne was going to lose the two-day-old sandwich he'd scarfed down on the bus.
"No. Since his parents missed the first wedding-"
"We all missed the first wedding. They got married in secret in Vegas," Dwayne reminded him. "Though we happened to be in Vegas too and didn't rank an invitation," he added with a grin. The one and only time Tim had ever been impulsive, and it landed him a wife. It made Dwayne want to laugh just thinking of it.
"Yes, well, his parents want to do some sort of commitment ceremony or something. A fake wedding of sorts. And do the big reception afterward."
"Everyone loves a party. Can't argue there."
As Jeremy took an exit too early, his brows rose. "I know I've been gone eight months, but did you forget the way to my place? I'm two exits up."
"I need to pop by Skye and Tim's while I'm out this way. You don't mind, do you?"
Dwayne glanced down at his cammies-three days too late for a wash-and shrugged. Nothing Tim hadn't seen before. And Skye was too laid back to care, if she was even there. "Sure. I just need to get to a few things today, like calling the bank and utility companies and crap. The usual, you know."
"Yup, yup." As Jeremy slowed to take the turn into Tim and Skye's townhouse complex, Dwayne let himself grin. This was good. Seeing both Jeremy and Tim for a welcome home was good. Easy. He could handle this. Then he could slip home, shower, order a pizza, and decompress. Nothing stressful. One day at a time, he could ease back into stateside life without any problems.
He wouldn't have problems. No.
They pulled in behind Tim's SUV, but Skye's little hybrid was nowhere to be seen. He jumped down from the passenger seat and shut the door. "Skye at work?"
"Oh, uh, not sure." Jeremy ran a hand over his hair, which was getting a little long if you asked Dwayne. But you'll have that with someone edging up on terminal leave.
Dwayne tapped the toes of his boots on the driveway as they walked up to the front door. "This is good. I'll knock out seeing both my friends, maybe Skye if she's home. Then I can spend the rest of the day decompressing at my place."
"Need the peace and quiet, old man?" Jeremy joked, waiting for him to walk around the front of the truck.
"You know how it is. Get home and just need some time to put yourself back in the game, mentally. I do that best alone," he lied.
"I thought that was me who liked to be alone. I mean, before Madison." Jeremy frowned. "Maybe we shouldn't stop by now. If you need some time to-"
"No, it's cool." Dwayne stepped up onto the porch, taking his cover off. "Just stopping by for a few minutes with Tim won't kill me. He won't care if I bug out after a couple minutes. He'll get it."
Jeremy's hand froze over the doorbell. "Are you sure? We can get in the car now and head to your place for a beer."
Dwayne's brow lifted. "I just said I was fine with it. And when did we start having to ring the bell at Tim's place? Shit hasn't changed that much while I was gone, has it?"
Jeremy took a step back. "Let's drop your stuff off at your apartment. We can hang out later."
Dwayne shook his head and gave a quick courtesy knock before opening the door.
And stepping into his own personal hell.
Veronica Gibson settled the last platter of food on the coffee table. "Skye, what else do you need from me?"
Skye bounced on the balls of her bare feet, a broad grin spread over her face. "Relax. I need you to relax and enjoy." She took a side step and dodged a pair of Marines in polo shirts and cargo shorts heading to the kitchen for drinks. "Hey, Steve, Bryson. Beers are in the cooler on the deck, soft drinks in the fridge." Skye walked toward the front door where there was a small pocket of space, her frothy tangerine skirt swirling and draping around her legs in the process. Veronica followed automatically, though she couldn't call anything she wore frothy. Or even fun, for that matter. "Jeremy sent us a text right before he picked Dwayne up so we know they're coming."
"And he has no idea you're hosting a party for him?" Veronica glanced around the townhouse, decorated by Skye and Madison in preparation for Dwayne's arrival.
Skye laughed and waved that away. "He's a total social guy; he'll love it. Dwayne loves being around people. Plus, it's only us and a few guys from the unit. Nothing big."
"Hmm." One of the Marines from before-Steve-brushed by and touched her arm lightly to let her know he was behind her. She held back the urge to pull away from the simple, friendly, benign touch. "If you think he'll be all right with it, you know him more than I do. I don't know him at all."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. You've talked to him several times now," Skye said with a smile.
"A few conversations on Skype do not count."
Madison saved Veronica from having to elaborate. "Hey, everyone!" Being short, Madison took advantage of the second step on the stairs and waved her hands in the air to grab the attention of the fifteen guests. "Jeremy sent me a quick text from the red light. They're almost here!"
Veronica wiped damp palms on her khakis. Why was she so nervous? Just another person to meet. This should not be such a big deal.
But it was. She could admit that to herself as she took her place behind the crowd. The few Skype conversations she had had with Dwayne sparked something inside her. Something she didn't know she was missing. Interest. Feminine interest in a man. Someone completely unattainable, but it was there nonetheless.
Through the computer screen, the attraction seemed so safe. They were on different continents, and she could turn the computer off whenever she was ready. But now he was back in the states, back to his friends, and she was going to be face to face with Captain Dwayne Robertson... the star of more than one of her nighttime fantasies.
She was ready for this. She could do this.
No, no, she really couldn't. Just as Veronica turned to slip into the kitchen-under the guise of checking the soft drink supply-the front door opened and her eyes shot to the man she'd been thinking about nonstop.
Terror. White-knuckled, silent-screaming terror was the first thought in her mind. Not hers. His. Though nobody else seemed to notice, Dwayne froze the moment everyone jumped up and yelled, "Welcome home!" And as the swarm of friends enveloped him in a hug, she could see him fighting with every tense muscle not to bolt, or worse.
Her heart ached just a little. Skye swore he was social and would greet the party with open arms, and maybe he was, on a normal basis. But perhaps the party had been too much too soon. She'd seen that look before, with other missionaries coming back to home base from a bad month of travel.
Jeremy clamped a hand on Dwayne's shoulder, and Dwayne's entire body jerked in response. He played it off well, though. With a tight smile, Dwayne shrugged until the hand fell away and nodded at something Tim said.
Every instinct in Veronica screamed to slip back into the kitchen, fade into the background, melt away from sight.
But something about him drew her across the living room until she mixed into her group of new friends. She said nothing, only watching the way his lips tightened in something that looked like a smile-grimace hybrid.
Skye wrapped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her closer. "Dwayne, you might recognize Veronica." She laughed a little. "You two probably talked more than the rest of us, thanks to luck."
Dwayne turned her direction, and maybe she was seeing things, but his face seemed to relax, just a bit.
"Hey, yeah. My Skype buddy." His smile grew. "How are you, Miss Veronica?"
She started to speak, then squeaked when he bent down and pulled her into a hug. Her hands, instinctively coming up to put a barrier between them, were squished between his chest and her shoulders. But Dwayne didn't seem to notice, only squeezed a little tighter before letting go. And when he let go, she dropped to the floor, the impact jarring her teeth a bit. The man was much taller than expected. Well over six feet.
Veronica quickly stepped back, more out of habit than anything. "Welcome home."
Welcome home? The man has been starring in your dreams for months and the best you can do is say welcome home?
If Dwayne noticed the weak greeting, he didn't mention it. "Glad we're finally meeting, sweetheart. I think Skye's right. With us crossing paths so often on accident, I talked to you more than these two idiots." He nudged Tim with his elbow and got a none-too-gentle nudge in return.
She nodded, trying to unstick her tongue from the roof of her mouth. But along with all the saliva in her mouth, it appeared as though all her brain cells had dried up as well, because all she could do was keep nodding like the bobblehead on Skye's dashboard.
Dwayne hefted up his olive green duffle bag and tilted his chin at the stairs. "All I have is PT gear, but it's better than nothing. Mind if I change? Can't exactly rock the welcome home party in cammies all day."
Tim thumped him on the back again. "Yeah, sure. Mad ran to your place the other day and grabbed a few changes of clothes. They're in the office."
"You guys thought of everything." Though he said the statement lightly, his eyes were dark and darted around the room as if on watch for something. "I'll be back down in a few."
He disappeared upstairs, his footsteps from those huge boots still echoing clearly as he made his way to what used to be Veronica's room and shut the door.
"Damn, it's good to have him home." Tim grinned and reached over to pull Skye to him. Nuzzling against her temple, he placed a soft kiss there. "Thanks for throwing the party."
Veronica fought back against the overwhelming sense of longing at watching her cousin and her husband interact. Their marriage-though unconventional from the start, according to stories she'd pieced together from Skye and Madison-was a rock now, and enviable from her point of view.
This is why you made the Big Change. So you could find something similar. Now stop feeling sorry for yourself and go help.
Madison glanced at the stairs. "Did we plan this all wrong? He didn't seem quite as excited to see everyone here as I thought he would be."
"Nah." Jeremy mirrored Tim's gesture with his wife and pulled Madison tightly against his side. "Dwayne loves a party." But as Jeremy tipped a bottle of beer up to his lips, Veronica couldn't help but notice his eyes darted toward the stairs too, just for a moment, as if thinking quite the opposite.
Moments later, Dwayne thundered back down the stairs to cheers from the partygoers. He smiled and waved like a goofy king, bowing at the foot of the steps. "Thank you, thank you."
Some of the worry smoothed away from Jeremy's eyes as he called Dwayne back over and handed him a bottle of beer. "You have got to be the biggest ham I've ever known."
"Hardly. You've known Madison for almost as long." He smiled when Madison leaned over to punch him in the gut. But her hand merely made a sharp smack against the man's stomach, like it had come up against a wall.
Veronica wondered what a stomach like that would look like. Then immediately flushed when she realized that was an awful thing to think. And when her eyes met Dwayne's, he winked at her as if he knew what she was thinking.
Time for a fast escape. Her specialty. "Anyone want anything from the kitchen?" She took a step back, then another, bumping into a Marine as she put some distance between the potent man and his cocky swagger that seemed to drain all her common sense.
Dwayne held up his beer that he'd yet to open. "Actually, I wouldn't mind a bottle of water, if you're heading that direction already. Want to make sure I hydrate after all the travel."
"Of course. No problem. We've got someone out back manning the grill as well. Did you want anything?"
He leaned forward again, like he was about to share a secret. "Steak. Rare as he'll go." His lip tilted up a little at the edges and he leaned over. The sheer mass of his shoulders made her feel crowded in, though she had an open room at her back. His voice dropped down a little as he added, "If it's still mooing when you bring it out, now that's just perfect."
She couldn't help the little shiver that raced down her spine. Men in general were a struggle for her to interact with, but she'd made such great headway in the last few months. Now with one hot look, she seemed back to square one. Her tongue seemed to swell, rendering her speechless, so she just nodded and walked away as fast as she could.
But as she wound her way through the cheerful party attendants, she heard Jeremy's voice drift behind her.
"Damn, D. Did you have to scare the hell out of her with your Southern badass routine?"