All Special Forces sergeant Jason Dexter ever wanted was to serve his country—with his father’s blessing. Although the elder Dexter has yet to make his peace with his son’s decision, Jason has no regrets. Still, he has mixed feelings about returning to his upstate New York town. But his perspective changes at a friend’s wedding, where he meets a lovely, gifted musician. Now Jason has a new mission: to get to know Aria Greco better.
The daughter of Jason’s commanding officer, Aria dreams of becoming a concert pianist. Meeting the handsome soldier transforms both their lives. But Aria’s ambition, Jason’s unresolved family conflicts, and jealousy over rivals on both sides soon threatens their blossoming relationship. As Jason prepares for a dangerous deployment, will the mounting tensions tear them apart, or is their love—and the faith they share—powerful enough to heal the past and embrace the future?
Praise for A Soldier Finds His Way
“Heartfelt . . . really makes one stop and think about the power of love and exactly what it’s capable of. Tender and sweet.” –RT Book Reviews
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"I can't do it, Mom. I know you want me to stay, but there's just no way." Sergeant Jason Dexter tossed his bag on the back seat of his rental car, laid the garment bag containing his tux across it, and closed the door. "I should've known nothing would change between me and Dad."
"Jason, please don't leave." His mother's tears broke his heart.
"I'm sorry, Mom. I hate that it has to be this way, but there's only so much I can take of Dad's uppity, condescending remarks about my job." Remarks that had begun not more than an hour after he walked through the front door of his parents' house. "I'm a Spec Ops soldier. It's what I do. And I'm damn good at it. If he can't accept that, so be it."
"Please reconsider. This friction between you and your father has to stop."
"I'm not the one who's throwing gas on the fire with inflammatory digs and jabs." He kissed his mother's cheek and gave her a hug. "I called Pop. He said I was more than welcome to stay with him for the next few days while I'm in town for Hank and Cindy's wedding. I'll go over there tonight, after the reception."
"All right, then." Mom's warm hand stroked his wind-chilled cheek. "Tell your grandfather I said hello. I love you, son."
"Love you too. You'd better go inside. It's too cold to be out here without your coat."
"Bye, sweetheart." Eyes brimming with tears, she smiled sadly and hurried into the house.
He got in the car, drove around the circular driveway, and pulled onto the road. The guys would be at the church in half an hour to hang out for a while before the ceremony. All of them soldiers, except for Hank who'd been medically discharged, their camaraderie would soothe the mental wounds his father inflicted. He passed through Poughkeepsie, crossed over the river on the Mid-Hudson Bridge to the east side, and headed their way.
Just once in his life, he'd like to hear his dad say he was proud of him. Pfft. Fat chance of that ever happening.
He turned on the radio and cranked up the volume. Tonight he'd enjoy his buddy's wedding, find a pretty girl or two to dance with, and have fun.
Aria Greco put on her blinker, passed a rusty old beater, and merged back into the righthand lane. The GPS on the dash estimated her arrival at the wedding chapel in twenty-two minutes. The speedometer edged toward the right, reflecting her excitement. She slowed to the speed limit.
Now twenty-three, she'd been an army brat all her life but had never met any of the guys under her father, Major Greco's, command. The mysterious men of his Spec Ops unit piqued her curiosity for more than purely patriotic reasons.
Because of the stories her dad told, she could recite the names of his current team members. But their faces remained blurred images wedged between tactical helmets and battle-dress uniforms in the fertile playground of her mind. Tonight, she would get to meet some of them.
Her father's muffled ringtone played from the confines of her purse on the passenger seat. Without taking her eyes off the road, she plucked her smartphone out of a zippered compartment. "Hey, Dad. What's up?"
"I just checked the traffic report and saw there was an accident on the Tappan Zee Bridge. Figured I'd call and see if you got caught up in the jam."
"Nope. Must have happened after I crossed over. I'm about twenty minutes from the church. Chapel. Whatever. I'm running low on gas, so I'll have to stop and fill up, but I'll still be plenty early to run through the music a few times before the wedding."
"That's another thing I wanted to talk to you about. After I asked you to play the piano for Hank and Cindy's wedding, I realized I'd probably ruined your whole weekend in the city with your friend. Maybe I should have thought it through and just let them use canned music."
"You didn't ruin anything, Dad. Libby and I played for a snazzy penthouse dinner party last night, got back to her apartment late, and stayed up talking into the wee hours. We enjoyed ourselves. Plus, Libby scratches out a living with her violin, just like I do with the piano, so she understands how gigs can pop up on the spur of the moment. Please, don't give it another thought.
"Besides, I'm honored that you asked. Especially since I'd be playing for a wounded warrior and his bride. Oh, here's a gas station. I'm pulling in now. Talk to you in a little while."
Aria traded goodbyes with her father, got out, and pumped gas.
The invitation to play hadn't inconvenienced her in the least. She didn't even have to stop at home on the other side of the Hudson to get something to wear. The dress she'd worn for last night's dinner party would be perfect for the wedding.
The bride's ready-room stood halfway open, and women's laughter spilled out into the church foyer. Dexter pushed the door open all the way and stood with his tux slung over his shoulder. Ladies dressed in casual clothes sat here and there around the room, their dresses hanging on door hooks or carefully draped over chair backs. They smiled and lifted their hands with cheerful waves.
Cindy looked up from the couch and popped to her feet. "Hey, Dex. Have you come to flirt with me one last time before I become Mrs. Hank Fleming?" A poofy white veil, held to her hair with a pearly headpiece, bobbed with her breathy laugh. Somehow, on her, it didn't look out of place paired with an oversized blue T-shirt and faded jeans.
"Hey, pretty girl. This is your last chance to ditch Hank and run off with me. So, who's it gonna be, gorgeous? Me or Hank? Time's a tickin'."
The ladies laughed.
"Um, let me see." Cindy tapped her chin, turned her gaze upward then laughed again. "I think I'll stick with Hank."
"Good choice." He kissed her cheek and whispered, "Hank's a lucky man."
The piano in the sanctuary came to life. The bridal room quieted to a total hush. Cindy stood still, as if lost in a dream for a few seconds. "I don't know what that music is called, or who's playing it, but it's beautiful, isn't it?"
"I have no idea who's playing, but it's Pachelbel's Canon in D. And yes, it's beautiful. The bride-to-be deserves nothing less."
Cindy mouthed a silent thank you.
"Ladies." Dexter gave them a nod, backed out of the room, and closed the door.
Concert-quality music penetrated the sanctuary's double doors and filled the foyer. A thousand times better than the canned music they'd used during rehearsal the prior day. Without making a sound, Dexter pushed open one of the doors and stepped inside.
On the altar platform, sitting at the baby grand with perfect posture, a young woman played Pachelbel's piece as he'd never heard it before. She had started simply enough with the underlying melody that would permeate the tune to the end, but her command of the keyboard brought it to life with surprising fullness and depth of feeling.
Dexter walked toward the front on the carpeted aisle. He laid his tux bag over the back of a pew a few rows back from the altar, sidestepped into it and sat. If the pianist noticed his presence, she gave no indication and continued to play as if he wasn't there.
A decorative clip held the girl's dark brown hair in a sexy and feminine updo. Corkscrews of stray curls, the kind that tickle a man's nose when his lips make contact with perfumed skin, lay gracefully against her slender neck.
His cough earned a glance from the dark-haired beauty. He smiled and lifted a hand as a way of apology, but doubted she caught it. She played on as if nothing had happened, her shapely calf flexing with every press of the piano's floor pedals.
"Hi, Dex." Major Greco stepped into the row from the side aisle, shook Dexter's hand, and sat.
"Hey, Dave," Dexter said, defaulting to the informality members of the unit used when in a private setting.
"Did you just get here?"
"Yeah, a few minutes ago. Been sitting here listening to some fantastic music. She's awesome, don't you think?"
"Yes, I'd have to agree." Greco nodded. "She's very talented."
The pianist ended the Pachelbel number, turned a page on the piano's music stand, and went directly into Mendelssohn's traditional wedding recessional march. Dex had heard it many times, but never played with as much enthusiasm.
"Look at those legs, will ya. Man, she's one foxy babe. A musical goddess if you ask me."
"Goddess?" Greco puffed a nasally laugh. "I'm sure she'd get a kick out of that."
"You know her?" Now Greco had his full attention.
"Yeah, I know her." The boss broke into his usual one-cheeker smile. "She's my daughter, Aria."
"Oh. Sorry. I —" Open mouth, insert foot. Dex rose to his feet and picked up his tux. "I think I'd better go see what the guys are up to."
The music stopped as Dexter stepped into the aisle.
Aria stood, descended the two steps from the platform, and started toward him.
He froze in place.
Major Greco shuffled into the aisle and stood beside him. "Aria, this is Sergeant Dexter. Dex, meet Aria, my daughter."
Dexter shook her hand. "Pleased to meet you."
"And I'm pleased to meet you as well." Her smile put a perfect set of pearly teeth on display. "It's nice to finally put a face to a name I've heard quite often."
"Uh-oh. That could be good or bad. What've you been telling her, sir?"
"I'll leave you to wonder about that." Greco pulled a ringing smartphone from his back pocket, checked the screen, and looked at Aria. "It's your mother. Dex, would you mind introducing Aria to the guys while I take this call?"
"It'll be my pleasure."
"Thanks. Behave yourself while I'm gone, Sergeant." Greco headed toward the back of the sanctuary, phone to his ear. "Hi, babe. What's up?"
Aria watched until her father disappeared beyond the double doors.
"Don't worry. I don't bite. Not hard, anyway." Dex touched Aria's arm.
Aria's attention snapped back to Dexter. "Good to know."
"I was impressed with your playing. Pachelbel and Mendelssohn never sounded so good."
"Ah, the sergeant knows his composers." A brow arched high over her left eye. "Do you play?"
Bingo. He'd tapped into her passion and piqued her curiosity. Good start if he hoped to get to know her. "I don't know if what I do on the keyboard qualifies as playing. I took piano lessons when I was a kid. Under duress, that is."
"I see." She nodded. "Your parents forced you?"
"Yeah, they claimed they wanted me to have a culturally rich education. My music teacher, on the other hand, just wanted me to die."
Dex extended his palm and invited her forward. "The guys are in a room behind the altar. Shall we?"
"Sure." She walked beside him. "My father called me last night after the rehearsal and asked if I would be willing to play for the wedding. I was in the city visiting friends, but once he told me that Hank was getting married, of course I agreed right away and drove up this afternoon."
"You know Hank?" He guided her around a corner and into a short corridor.
"No, but I've heard about him. I remember how broken my father was when he told us about the explosion that ended Hank's military career. Rocket-propelled grenade, wasn't it?"
"That's right." The images of the attack remained clear in Dex's memory. He'd never forget it, or the fact that his buddy lost an eye and the hearing in one ear because of it. "Here we are."
As he reached for the doorknob, Aria stepped aside and turned her back. "I'll wait while you make sure they're decent. They might be getting dressed."
"It's too early for that, but I'll check anyway." He opened the door and stuck his head in. "Hey guys, I brought a visitor."
"Bring him on in." Hank beckoned with a wave of his hand.
"It's not a him. It's a her." Dexter opened the door and motioned for Aria to enter. "Everybody, this is Aria Greco, the boss's daughter."
Aria smoothed her dress and took a deep breath. She'd always dreamed of meeting the men in her father's unit. Men he'd so often spoken of with such pride. Meeting Sergeant Dexter had already kicked her heart into a brisk tempo. Then again, his blond hair, handsome face, and boyish charm would have given her the nervous jitters even if he wasn't part of her father's band of merry hoodlums, as he jokingly called them.
Aria stepped into the room. Three men rose to greet her.
"Hank Fleming. Nice to meet you." The groom thrust a huge hand out for a shake. Six-four, according to her father, sandy-haired, and sturdy as a draft horse, Hank's friendly demeanor added a pleasant dimension to his muscular build.
"Hello, Hank." Her hand practically disappeared in his. "Congratulations. Or is it too early to say that?"
"It's not too early at all. Thank you."
One of Hank's eyes had to be prosthetic. She couldn't tell which without studying his face, and she dared not stare and risk embarrassing him.
Sergeant Dexter hung his tux on a hook near the door and put a hand on the small of Aria's back. "Aria, this is Marcus Weatherly, the unit's medic and unofficial chaplain. He'll be performing the wedding today."
Marcus stepped forward and cupped her hand in a gentlemanly grasp. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am. I'm glad you could join us today." His accent gave away his Southern roots.
"Last, but not least" — the sergeant turned her toward the third man — "this is Lieutenant Edward Giordano, Hank's brother and best man."
Her mother hadn't been exaggerating when she said the lieutenant was one of the most handsome men she'd ever seen. Tall, dark hair, steely blue eyes, he may as well have been chiseled from a stone made of solid sex appeal. The wedding band on his left hand marked him as taken. Not that she needed to see it to know he was married. Her father and mother had attended his wedding earlier in the year. Married or not, his striking good looks couldn't be denied.
The lieutenant nodded slightly and gave her hand a quick, snug shake. "Aria."
Dexter's hand remained on her back. "Did you guys know that Aria was the one playing the piano out there a few minutes ago?"
"Really? That was you?" Hank's eyes widened. "Greco said he had a surprise lined up for Cindy and me today. An intangible wedding present, he called it. But I wouldn't have guessed this in a million years. Fantastic. Thanks, Aria."
"You're most welcome. It's an honor for me to play for you and Cindy today. I can't wait to meet her."
"I see you've all been introduced."
Aria turned toward her father's voice. "Yes, we have."
"Thank you, sir." Hank shook her father's hand. "Great surprise. Cindy's gonna be thrilled."
"You're welcome. Aria, I understand there's a soda machine in the basement. I'll introduce you to Cindy and the other ladies. Then we'll go downstairs and wet our whistles before you hit the keys again." Dad offered the crook of his elbow and smiled. "She practices like a perpetual motion machine. It's hard sometimes to peel her away from the piano."
Aria took her father's arm. "It was nice meeting all of you."
Dexter's hand slid off her back as she turned to leave with her father. The warmth of his touch dissipated instantly. "See you later," he called after her before she and her father turned at the end of the short corridor.
She didn't look back, but tossed a wave over her shoulder. "I certainly hope so," she said under her breath.
"What's that you say?" Dad patted the hand she'd hooked on his arm.
"It was nothing, Daddy. Nothing at all." Her cheeks heated.
Clean and tastefully decorated, the small basement snack area couldn't be cozier. Aria sat at a bistro-style table and kicked off her shoes. Her father had been wise to suggest she take a break before the guests started to arrive. Condensation dampened Aria's palm. She shook it off and switched the ice-cold Sprite to the other hand. "It was nice of Cindy to invite me to stay for the reception, wasn't it?"
"Mm-hmm. Figured she would." Dad turned toward the snack machine and dropped a few quarters into the money slot. "Share some peanuts?"
"Sure. You don't think my staying is too much of an imposition, do you? After all, these dinners are meticulously planned, and —"
"She wouldn't have asked if it was an imposition." Dad grabbed the peanuts that dropped, opened them, and shook half the nuts into Aria's cupped palm. "You remember the pretty blonde you just met upstairs in the bridal room?"
"Lieutenant Giordano's wife, Audra?" The couple reminded her of Barbie and Ken.
"Yeah. She helped plan the whole wedding. Her parents own this chapel and the reception hall next door. Did you notice how she excused herself and made a phone call right after Cindy invited you?"
"Yes. What about it?" She hadn't thought anything of it.
"I overheard her telling someone to add another setting to the Greco table. Looks like you'll be sitting with your mom, me, and Dexter."
Excerpted from "A Soldier's Song"
Copyright © 2018 Irene Onorato.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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