WHEN A PROMISE BECOMES A TEMPTATION
Look after his best friend's widow and kids. It was a promise Levi Talbot was determined to keep. But returning to Whispering Pines, New Mexico, where he was once known as the local troublemaker, wasn't easy for the former soldier. Especially when gorgeous Valerie Lopez really wants nothing to do with him and Levi can't get her out of his head!
Val knows she needs Levi's helpher house is in chaos and she's juggling two young kids with a fledgling business. So she lets him take over the repairsbut there's no way she's letting Levi make himself at home! Since her husband's death, Val has kept her heart locked away but what if the handsome veteran next door is the key to her future?
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Sweat streamed down Levi Talbot's back as he sat in his pickup across the street, watching Valerie Lopez paint the window trim of a house he hadn't set foot in for
Damn. Ten years, at least.
She was even skinnier than he remembered, sharp shoulder blades shifting, bunching over the scoop of a white tank top that teased the waistband of her low-rise jeans. Her pale hair was still long, wadded on top of her head, pieces sticking out every which way. In a nearby play yard a dark-haired baby sat gnawing on a plastic toy, while her older sister lay on her belly on the mottled floorboards, quietly singing as she scribbled, bare feet swinging to and fro. Then the little girl shoved to her knees, thrusting the open coloring book toward her mother.
"Mama! I gave her hair like mine! See?"
Levi saw Val glance over, her smile gentle as she bent to get a better look. Chuckling softly, she fingered the girl's deep brown curls.
"A huge improvement, I'd say," she said. The child giggled, making Val smile even bigger, and Levi flinched.
How the hell was he supposed to do this? Whatever this was.
And why the hell had it never occurred to him he might actually have to make good on that dumb-ass promise he'd made to Tomas when they'd first enlisted?
A breeze lanced his damp shirt, making him shiver. Squinting in the bolt of sunlight glancing off the sharply angled tin roof, Levi frowned at the house, which seemed to frown right back at him. An uneasy cross between Victorian and log cabin, the house seemed to slump in on itself, like it was too tired to care anymore. Or had finally succumbed to its identity crisis. And slapping some paint over what was most likely rotting wood wasn't going to change that.
He could relate.
He waited for an SUV to passnot much traffic on this stretch of Main Street, the last gasp of civilization before miles of nothingbefore getting out of his truck, his boots crunching on asphalt chewed up even worse than usual after last winter's heavy snow. A hawk keened, annoyed, from a nearby pinon, whose branches tangled with the deep blue sky. From inside the house, a dog exploded into frenzied barking. Val and the child turned, the little girl's gaze more curious than concerned. Her mother's, however.
Yeah. Considering she hadn't exactly been a fan before he and Tommy had enlisted, Levi sincerely doubted that was about to change. Promise or no promise. In fact, what he saw in those blue eyes could only be described as Well, fierce would work. Pissed off was more likely.
He stopped at the bottom step.
"Levi." Val hauled the baby out of her little cage, tucked her against her ribs. Close-up, she seemed even smaller, probably not even coming to his shoulders. He remembered, though, how her smile could light up the whole town. Not that she'd ever given him that smile. "Heard you were back."
He nodded, unsure of what came next. Hating that this puny little blonde was unnerving him more than driving supply trucks along dusty mountain roads that might or might not have been booby-trapped by the Taliban.
"Last week, yeah."
The baby grabbed hold of a hank of her mother's hair, tried to stuff it in her mouth. The older girlseven, he thoughtsidled closer; Val looped her arm around the girl's shoulders as dark eyes exactly like her father's regarded Levi with that same intense gaze. Had Val ever mentioned Levi to her daughter? Had Tommy?
"For good?" Val said.
"For now, anyway." The dog's barking grew more frantic. "So. These are your girls?"
Val shot him an are-you-nuts look, but she played along. "Yes. This is Josie," she said, giving the older girl's shoulders a quick squeeze. "And this is Risa."
Laughter in Spanish. Levi's heart knockedTommy had never even seen his second daughter.
"Don't," Val whispered, her eyes shiny.
"I couldn't get back at the time," Levi finished through a clogged throat, remembering his shock when he'd gotten the call from Tommy's dad. "I asked, but they said no."
Her face said it all: And exactly what good would that have done?
Along with: You can leave now. Except he couldn't. Because he'd made a promise. One he fully intended to keep.
Whether his best friend's widow was good with that idea or not.
* * *
Val'd figured she'd run into Levi eventuallyhis parents didn't live far, and there was only one halfway decent grocery store in townbut she hadn't counted on him actually seeking her out.
Of course, her rational side knew Levi Talbot wasn't responsible for her husband's death. That particular honor went to whoever had planted that roadside bomb near some godforsaken Afghani village with a name Val couldn't even pronounce. But if Levi hadn't joined the army six years ago, Val highly doubted that Tommywho'd worshipped his best friend since high school for reasons Val had never understoodwould've decided to enlist, too.
A thought that ripped open barely healed wounds all over again.
"Josie, why don't you go inside?" she quietly asked, smiling down at her daughter. At least this one might remember her daddy. Although considering how much he'd been gone.
"Levi and I just need to talk alone for a sec, baby. And don't let the dog out, okay?"
Josie shot Levi a questioning look before shoving open the stubborn door and wriggling past the dog to get inside. Only after the door clicked closed did Val turn back to Levi, as muscled and tall as Tomas had been slight. All the Talbot boys were built like their father, tough and rough and full of surprising angles, like they'd been hastily hewn out of the mountains holding silent watch over sleepy Whispering Pines. Oh, yeah, Levi Talbot was one good-looking sonofagun, despite badly needing a shave and a half-grown-out buzz cut that wasn't doing him any favors
"So you're living here now," Levi said. Carefully, like she was a horse who might spook. Val set Risa back in her play yard and handed her a toy, then crouched, gripping the top of the pen.
"Temporarily. Since Tommy's grandmother moved in with his folks, the family said we can stay as long as we need." She heard a creak behind her as he came up onto the porch.
"Big place for three people."
As in, way bigger than Val needed. Five bedrooms, three baths. Dark. Dreary. "Yeah. It is," she said, straightening in time to see Levi's gaze flick over the worn porch floorboards, the gap-toothed porch railings.
"Needs a lot of work."
Despite the situation, a smile pushed at Val's mouth. "Part of the deal was that I get it fixed up. So they can get top dollar when it goes on the market. After everything they've done for me, I couldn't exactly say no. Besides" she almost smiled "it would break Lita's heart if I wasn't here."
Levi's brows dipped. "They expect you to foot the bill?"
"Of course not. It's not my house, is it?"
He was staring at her. Not rudely, but intently, his muddy green eyes focused on her like lasers. Exactly like he used to do when they were younger, as though he couldn't figure her out. Or more likely, why his best friend would prefer her company to his. And damned if it didn't make her every bit as uneasy now as it did then
"For pity's sake, Leviwhy are you here?"
If her outburst threw him, he didn't let on. Although his Adam's apple definitely worked before he said, "Tommy was my closest friend, Val. I was best man at your wedding. Did you think I'd come home and not check on you?"
Risa began to fuss; Val picked her up again, pressing her lips into her curls, cool and soft against her hot face. "At least you got to come home," she murmured, then lifted her gaze to Levi's, the hurt in his eyes almost enough to make her feel like a bitch. Almost. Because there were days when her anger was about the only thing keeping her from losing it. That, and love for her daughters, she thought as Risa yawned, then plugged her thumb in her mouth and settled against Val's chest.
"And as you can see," she said, ignoring her stinging eyes, "I'm okay. So. We're good."
Levi did that staring thing again, his mouth stubbornset, the earlier devastation in his eyes replaced by something else Val couldn't quite put a finger on but knew she didn't like.
"This place was a wreck fifteen years ago. I can only imagine what it's like now. Tommy's kids." He paused, his nostrils flaring when he took a breath. "They deserve better than this." Another pause. "And so do you."
His words hit her. Hard. Not that people hadn't been kind since her return. But it'd been an uncomfortable kindness mostly, a ragtag collection of mumbled "sorries" and brief, awkward hugs, soon replaced by either gaping silence or a false cheeriness that made her want to scream. With Levi, thoughit wasn't the same, that's all. Although it wouldn't be, would it?
"You can give me a list, if you want. Might as well start with this porch, though." He shifted his weight into the next plank over, making it squawk. "Some of these floorboards look pretty sketchy"
He looked up, his brow creased. "Yeah?"
It was all she could think to say. Not enough, however, to provoke an answer.
"I'll be back in the morning," he said softly, then went down the steps and back across the street, where he got into a black pickup, slamming the door before taking off. Toward his parents' house, she imagined, where she'd heard via the grapevine he was staying.
Val rearranged the now sleeping baby in her arms and grabbed the wet paintbrush, then went back inside, where she dumped the brush into the chipped kitchen sink before hauling Risa upstairs to put her in her crib. This and Josie's room were the only ones she'd painted so far: a pale aqua in here, yellow in Josie's. The gouged pine floors still needed to be redone. Along with a dozen other projects that made Val's head hurt to think about.
Because the house was a wreck, the victim of decades of benign neglect and an old woman's failing eyesight. Yes, being so close to Tommy's parents was a blessing, and the family was being very generous in so many ways. But the idea of going through renovations on top of everything else.
All of which had sounded perfectly feasible when Angelita Lopez had promised the house to them two years ago, for when Tommy came back home.
A thought Val deliberately let linger, as though to toughen her heart. So when this oneshe leaned over the crib to finger Risa's soft curlsasked about her daddy, Val would be able to speak with love, not pain. Less pain, anyway.
Risa flipped onto her back, arms splayed like she was making snow angels. A smile flickered across the baby's mouth, making Val smile in return, her heart swell. Because life, she sternly reminded herself, was about cherishing what you had, not regretting what you'd lost. About accepting the gifts that came your way. Even those that, at first glance, seemed more trouble than they were worth. Like this butt-ugly house.
Like, say, offers from the last man in the world you wanted to deal with right nowor everto help fix up said butt-ugly house.
Back downstairs, she peeked into the cave-like living room, a hodgepodge of dull, dark wood and mismatched furniture pieces. Eyes glued to the TV screen, Josie sat cross-legged on the sofa, pointy elbows digging into scabbed bare knees. The hound stretched on the cushion beside her, dead to the world, chin and paws propped on the sofa's arm.
"Is he gone?" Josie asked.
"He is. Whatcha watching?" As if she didn't know.
Val smiled. "Again?"
The little girl shrugged. "I like it," she said, and Val's heart twisted. On his last leavetwo Christmases ago Tomas and Josie had watched the movie together a million times. Then Josie forgot about it until she found the DVD when they unpacked.
"This was Daddy's favorite scene," her daughter said softly, and Val decided this was part of that toughening-up-her-heart thing. Although if a stupid movie helped her baby still feel connected to her father, she'd take it. Because Val knew those memories would fade, would be replaced by a whole life's worth of new ones. Oh, there'd be scraps left, of course, but they'd be as soft and faded as the ribbons from Val's wedding bouquet.
"Fried chicken okay for dinner?"
Josie nodded again, then pulled her knees up to her chin, her far-too-old gaze swinging to Val's.
"So that was Levi," Josie said, and Val nearly choked.
"It was. Did.Daddy talk to you about him?"
"Uh-huh," she said easily, her gaze returning to the TV. "He said if anything happened to him? Levi would take care of us."
Val could barely hear her own voice for the clanging inside her head. "When did Daddy say that?"
Josie shrugged. "Before he left. The last time. He said if he didn't come back, Levi would make sure we were okay. Because they were best friends, that Levi always had his back. That." The little girl frowned, as though she was trying to remember, then smiled. "That, except for you, he trusted Levi more than anyone in the world."
Val dropped onto the edge of the craptastic armchair at right angles to the sofa, pressing her hand to her stomach as she rode out a new wave of anger. What the hell were you thinking, Tommy? To confide in Josiewho was only five at the timerather than her.
Not to mention even suggest that he might not come back.
Val shut her eyes, breathing deeply. Funny how, with her background, Val had always considered herself a realist. Not a pessimist, exactly, but fully aware of how often things could go wrong. Tomas, though he'd been the dreamer, the idealist, seeing silver linings where Val only saw clouds, giving her glimpses of shiny hope peeking through years of gloom and doom. No wonder she'd fallen in love with him. And consequently why, every time he left, she'd steeled herself against the possibility that he might not come home. Especially considering his particular job. "High risk" didn't even begin to cover it.
But little girls shouldn't have to worry about such things, or live in fear about what might happen. All she'd wantedwhich Tomas knewwas to make a safe, secure life for her children. That her sweet, gentle husband had gone behind her back, undermining everything she'd fought so hard for
"Mama? What's wrong?"
How about everything?
"I I didn't know. About what Daddy said."
She smiledtightlybefore holding out her arms. Josie clumsily slid off the sofa to climb on Val's lap, where Val wrapped her up tight to lay her head in her daughter's springy hair, struggling to find the peace she'd once let herself believe was finally hers.
"I'm surprised, that's all."
"That Daddy didn't tell you?"
Josie picked at the little knotted bracelet encircling Val's wrist, the one Tomas had given her when they'd first started going together, more than a dozen years ago now. It was grimy and frayed and borderline disgusting, and Val would never take it off.
"Daddy made me promise not to say anything. He said it was our secret. But that he wanted me to know it'd be okay." She leaned back to meet Val's eyes. "With Levi."
Yeah, well, somehow Val doubted that. For a boatload of reasons so knotted up in her head she doubted she'd ever straighten them out.
But she certainly didn't need to drag her little girl into the maelstrom of emotions Levi's appearance had provoked. However she supposed she might as well let the man fix her porch, since those rotting floorboards gave her the willies, too, and it wasn't as if she could replace them herself. And the nearby ski resort had apparently hired every contractor, carpenter and handyman in a hundred-mile radius for a massive, and long-overdue, renovation.
So. A job she could give him. Anything else, though Holding her daughter even more tightly, Val reminded herself, again, to be grateful for what she still hadher beautiful daughters, Tommy's doting parents, a roof over their heads, even if it wasn't exactly hers. More than she ever thought she'd have, once upon a time.
And damned if she was about to let Levi Talbot screw that up.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Good book about two people who learn to live and love again after loss. Levi has come home after leaving the army. He's not sure what is next in his life, but he has a promise to keep in the meantime. His best friend was killed in the war and Levi had promised Tommy that he would look out for his wife and kids if anything happened. He wasn't one of Val's favorite people, so the promise was going to be a challenge. Val is just trying to make it through one day at a time. She's living in a house that needs significant repairs, raising her two daughters, and embarking on a business as a baker. The last thing she wants is Levi hanging around, reminding her of what she's lost, but he won't stay away. So she agrees to let him do the repairs, but tries to keep him at a distance. I really liked Levi. He had been a bit of a troublemaker as a kid, but never in a mean or dangerous way. Looking for direction, he decided to enlist, never expecting his recently married best friend to join him. He tried to talk Tommy out of it, but couldn't, and was filled with guilt when Tommy died. He doesn't have an easy time talking Val into letting him help, as he knows she holds him responsible. It soon becomes obvious that there's more than keeping his promise behind his actions. Levi has always had feelings for Val which is an additional motivator for what he does. Helping her out with her repairs has another benefit - it is giving him time to decide what he's going to do with the rest of his life. As more of his past is revealed and faced, Levi is able to move forward and see what he is meant to do. I loved the event that showed him what that was, as it once more showed what a good man he really is. It took me a little longer to warm up to Val. She was a great mother and doing her best to move through her grief. But her attitude toward Levi really bugged me. He was nothing but nice and helpful and she treated him like he couldn't be trusted. Her attitude slowly changed as she realized how unfair she was being to him. She also had some unresolved issues about her relationship with her husband that she had to work through. I liked seeing her be able to talk about Tommy with Levi and how some of the things he said helped her see what she needed to do. I liked seeing their relationship grow. Levi was sweet and persistent, doing his best to show Val that he was no threat. His feelings for her were always there, but he didn't think anything would come of them. I liked that he saw her strength even when she didn't. Val slowly began to see that Levi was very different than he had been before and that the new Levi was beginning to mean something special to her. But those growing feelings scared her and made her question things about herself. I liked Levi's patience as he let her work through her issues, though it certainly wasn't easy for him. I loved the ending, as Val's eyes and heart are opened. Because of space limitations, review is continued at: http://susans2016readingblog.blogspot.com/2016/02/a-soldiers-promise-karen-templeton-hse.html
Instead of a romance, this story was more of a journey of several people, a journey towards happiness and joy, and love, from all the devastation life has offered them in the past. Levi has been a lot of trouble in his younger years, always ready for mischief and adventure, trying the limits, gaining of a reputation of being trouble. But he was a kind, caring, loyal man, who took his responsibilities seriously, and had a heart to help others around him. Val has faced so much in her life, her father abandoned her at a young age, her mother wasn't an easy person to be around with, and had a reputation in town, she lived up to, and she lost her husband, Tommy, in the war. Now back in her hometown, she is trying to find happiness again, trying to accept that Tommy isn't coming home, learn to accept the troubled childhood, while remodeling a house, working as a waitress and a baker, and being a mother to her two children. While working on the house for Val, Levi is making a connection with Val and her daughters. As they get to know each other, learn to trust each other, they open up, share painful memories, heal together from the past, and find love, devotion, and affection with each other, that turn into a passion and desire to build a life together, support each other through the rest of the journey, and to be a team as they face the future they have planned for themselves. The story is touching and tender. There's so much Levi, and especially Val, has to work, face, and deal with. I love how Levi was with the kids, his kind soul was obvious during those encounters. Even though the story moved on a little slow at times, it is a poignant tale, that will touch your heart. ~ Four Spoons
A touching story of healing after loss and finding the strength to overcome your fears to live and possibly love again. When he returns from the Army, the first place Levi Talbot goes is back home to Whispering Pines, New Mexico. He made a promise to his best friend, and he intends to keep it. Valerie Lopez isn't happy to see Levi walk up her driveway. He might have been her husband Tommy's best friend, but he isn't anything to her except a reminder of what she lost. Levi is determined to help Val and the kids in any way he possibly can, even if she's not happy about it. He can't let Tommy down. Will he be able to convince her that it's okay to be happy again? ** Received free in exchange for an honest review **