Julie Keaton had everything—she had a new career in a new city and, more importantly, a bright future with fiance, Jason Sherman. That is, until the day she discovered that he had been killed in Afghanistan. In one moment, her life changed, as everything she’d hoped for died along with him.
Years later and Julie still feels the aftershocks of Jason’s death. She is no longer the same adventurous, open girl; now she wears armor around her heart in order to protect the most important thing in her life—her son.
But when Julie meets the mysterious Neal, she starts to feel the smallest flicker of hope, as what began as a fling quickly becomes something more. Neal is the first man since Jason’s death to break down her armor and make her believe again. But when she discovers the secret he’s been keeping, she has to ask herself: can she surrender to a future with Neal or will Jason’s death forever tie her to the past?
About the Author
Her fairy-tale life has been lived on four different continents—most recently, in a two-hundred-forty-year-old castle in rural Germany owned by a Graf. She was born in the Philippines, raised in Australia, and now calls the United States home, and she can currently be found enjoying the shores of Miami with her husband, two daughters, and a miniature schnauzer.
Read an Excerpt
Over Five Years Ago . . .
“I don’t think that kind of love—the kind you read in romance novels—actually exists.”
Jason Sherman, my boyfriend, fixed me with a skeptical stare. “You don’t?”
“I’ve seen it. It exists,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument. “Three words: Henry and Elsie. Those two are so in love with each other but are too dumb to figure it out.”
“You said they weren’t even dating.”
“No, they’re not. I should just knock their heads together to give them a clue. Everyone else knows but them.” Jason slid his arm under my head and gathered me close. “Anyway, that’s the kind of love I was talking about. Sometimes you just love someone without even knowing.”
I studied his handsome face, jaw scruffy from not having shaved for a few days. I liked him, more than anyone I’d ever known in my life, but did I love him the way his sister felt about his best friend?
Was the fact that I was questioning my feelings a sign that I already did?
“Do you, um, want that with me?” I asked, afraid to meet his eyes.
Jason touched my chin and tipped my head up. “I want everything with you.”
“What if I can’t love you like that?” I asked. “My parents’ marriage was pretty screwed up. I don’t know if I even know how to be a good girlfriend.”
“You’re doing fine so far.”
He laughed, the sound rumbling in his chest. “You’re a great girlfriend, Julie Keaton,” he said, cupping my face and kissing me tenderly. “And that’s why I was talking about the kind of love that burns so bright it lights you up from the inside—because that’s how I feel about you.”
A lump caught in my throat and it took a few minutes to figure out how to breathe around it. “What if I can’t love you the same way?”
“Stop questioning yourself, Jules,” Jason said, kissing my forehead. “It will happen naturally.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll try.”
I settled onto his chest, my muscles finally starting to unwind. Talk of love and of the future had always unnerved me. I could lay all the blame on my parents for the way I am with men, but deep down, I knew that my actions were my own. The fact that I was inept at love and relationships was my own doing, but maybe, just maybe, I’d finally found the right person to trust with my heart.
“Will you write me romantic war letters while you’re deployed?” I asked after some time, toying with the trail of hair below his navel.
“E-mail is faster,” he said with a grin. “And I’ll call whenever I can.”
I slid my hand down and took hold of his already swollen shaft, pressing my lips to his Adam’s apple. “Will you dream about me?”
He groaned, his hips arching up to my hand. “Every fucking night.” Then he flipped over and crouched over me, his eyes raking over my naked body. “I’ll remember you just like this.”
“Unshowered and smelly from hours of sex?”
He dipped his head and pressed his face to my chest, nuzzling my breast with his bristly cheek as he inhaled deeply. “You smell perfect—like sex and sweat and me.”
“Jason,” I said, grabbing what I could of his short hair and lifting his face to mine. “I do care about you a lot. You know that, right?”
His eyes pierced mine, so blue and bright. “Then show me.”
I gripped his shaft and guided him to my entrance, taking all of him into me, loving him the only way I knew how. I gasped as he withdrew then slid all the way back home, opening my legs to allow him farther inside.
“I love you, Julie. When I get back, I’m going to take you back to Oklahoma City with me.”
I stilled, my legs wrapped around his back. “You will?”
“Just try and stop me,” he ground out before thrusting back into me. “Nothing’s going to keep me from you anymore.”
The lonely seagull caught my eye as I jogged, and I followed it along the water’s edge, picking up speed to keep up. Eventually the bird turned toward the horizon, its silhouette dark against the brilliant orange and blue Monterey sunrise. I stopped to catch my breath, the view of the ocean before me stealing the air from my lungs.
I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the wind, tasting the ocean breeze on my tongue. I gazed back out at the sea and saw a lone figure out on the water, sitting on his surfboard and biding his time. When a large wave rolled by, he caught it and leapt onto his board effortlessly, crouching down as the ocean carried him along. He took a few rapid steps to the front of his board, looking as if he were just floating above the waves, then cantered back to the center of the board. He rode the wave to the shore, standing tall until his board finally sank under the water.
He paddled back out again to wait for another wave, traversing the ocean as if it were nothing but air. I watched him, mesmerized, as he caught another wave and flawlessly sailed back to the shore.
“Morning,” he called out. It was only after he said it again that I realized he was talking to me.
“Oh, hi,” I said, watching as he tucked the board under his arm and ambled closer. It was only when he was a few feet away that I noticed he towered over my five-foot-ten frame. I took in his full-body wetsuit, appreciating how it accented his slim hips that flared up to wide shoulders.
“A little early for a morning run, isn’t it?” he asked with a smile in his eyes.
“A little cold for surfing, isn’t it?” I countered, raising an eyebrow as I sent a teasing look down to his crotch.
He grinned, and if I thought the sunrise took my breath away, his smile inflated me with a strange buoyant feeling. I smiled back, unable to help myself. “Not going to lie, it’s pretty cold,” he said. “There’s definitely some shrinkage going on.”
I burst out laughing, taken aback by his crude kind of charm, the kind I liked best. “Well, your board is plenty long enough to make up for it.”
His eyes widened, and suddenly he was laughing along with me. “You know what they say about men with longboards,” he said, standing his surfboard upright beside him.
“That we have plenty of wood to wax.”
I let myself go as we dissolved into a fit of laughter. It felt good, trading jokes with this stranger. It was the first time in a long time that I actually felt light and without care.
He held out a hand, his dark brown eyes trained on me. “I’m Neal.”
“Julie,” I said, surprised to find his hand warm. I took a moment to look him over, to his wavy light brown hair tinged with gold, his straight and narrow nose, and the boyish smile that curled up at the ends. “Have you been surfing all your life?” I asked, hoping to keep him talking for a little while longer.
“Yeah, for the most part. I grew up by the ocean, actually. You can say salt water runs through my veins.” He ran his fingers through his wet hair, slicking it back.
“I understand. I love it here.”
“Do you live nearby?”
“I’m actually from out of town. Dallas.”
He grinned. “I’m just visiting for a few days myself. Born in San Diego but have lived all over.”
It was only then that I noticed the sun had already risen. I glanced down at my watch and gasped. I’d been at the beach for almost two hours. “I have to go.”
“It was nice meeting you, Julie,” he said, flashing me that smile that was making me wish I didn’t have anywhere else to be.
“I’ll be back tomorrow for another run,” I called over my shoulder.
“I’ll be back tomorrow to surf,” he said, shooting me a look that warmed me from the inside. “Maybe I’ll see you again.”
I made it back to the Shermans’ house in ten minutes and parked the rental car in their driveway. My son, Will, and I were in town for Elsie and Henry’s wedding and were staying with the Shermans the entire weekend, the couple whose son I’d promised to marry before he’d been killed in Afghanistan. I’d offered to get a hotel but they wouldn’t hear of it, telling me that I was family even if my son was the only one technically related to them.
I sometimes still wondered what would have been if Jason hadn’t died and we’d gotten married. Would I be a different woman today if I’d had Elodie Sherman, and her daughter, in my life for the past several years?
I would have been a lot less lonely, that’s for sure.
Inside the house, I found Elodie in the kitchen, pouring pancake batter onto a griddle. “Good run?” she asked, turning her attention to the scrambled eggs.
“Kind of chilly, but good,” I said, walking around the island counter. “Do you need some help?”
“I think I’ve got everything under control,” she said, and handed me a mug that had an Air Force logo on it. “Help yourself to some coffee.”
“Oh, me, too, please.” Elsie came around the corner wearing jeans and a top, her hair in a messy bun. She grabbed a mug from the cabinet and playfully hip-checked me out of the way.
“And where have you been, young lady?” I asked with a wink. “Sneaking out to see a boy?”
Her mother sighed. “You and Henry live together and are getting married tomorrow. You couldn’t even go a few hours without seeing him?”
Elsie laughed, her cheeks taking on a pink tint. “I just went to say hi,” she said, hiding her face behind the mug.
“I’ll go wake up Will,” Elodie said, shaking her head at her daughter. “You two set the table.”
When we were alone, I turned to Elsie and said, “He’s not going anywhere. You know that, right?”
She cocked her head, the easy smile gone. “I know, but I just had to make sure,” she said, taking the stack of plates to the table. “I woke up this morning and for one second, I thought he was back in Korea and we were broken up. I had a bit of a panic attack.” She laughed nervously, trying to ease the tension in the room.
I hadn’t known Elsie for long, but I’d immediately felt a bond with her from the moment we met. Even after his death, Jason had somehow managed to bring this beautiful, flawed, wonderful woman into my life. And for that, I was grateful. “I hear it’s perfectly normal to freak out right before the wedding.”
I thought back to my own wedding to Kyle—the man who had stepped up after Jason died and offered me a life of security—to those final seconds before I walked around the corner to face the entire church. I’d known even then that I didn’t love him, at least not the way he loved me, but I’d hoped at least to grow fond of him. “No. I didn’t freak out. But that’s because I’d already accepted I was making a mistake.”
She nodded distractedly, pinching at her lip. “But even if Henry and I were already married, it’s not like a ring on his finger will keep him from leavi—”
“Elsie,” I said, cutting her off. I grabbed her by the shoulders and peered in her face. “Henry is not going anywhere, I promise you. That man regretted every day that he was without you.”
She took a deep breath and nodded. “I know. You’re right.”
“You two are going to live happily ever after. I just know it.”
“I hope so.” A moment later, her eyes narrowed and the smile on her face transformed to something more calculating. “Henry told me there’d be a few eligible bachelors at the wedding . . .”
I backed away. “Oh, no, you are not going to fix me up.”
“When was the last time you even had a date?”
“A while, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to be fixed up.” When she opened her mouth to argue, I cut her off. “I’ve already met someone, anyway.”
“What? Who? Where?”
Though I hadn’t been thinking of him specifically, the guy on the beach came to mind. “I met someone at the beach. You wouldn’t know him.”
“Bring him to the wedding.”
“He’s from out of town. If anything were to happen between us, I want no strings attached.”
“You’re not going to find love if you never give the guy your phone number.”
“I’m not looking for love. All I want is a quick scr—”
I stopped in time as Elodie came back in the kitchen with my sleepy-looking son in tow. “This kid sleeps like the dead,” she announced.
“Just like his dad,” Elsie and I said in unison. A second later, our eyes met in horror after realizing we’d just made a dead joke about someone who was, well, dead.
“I have lots of things in common with Dad, huh?” Will asked, breaking the awkward tension in the room with his excitement.
“Yeah, you do,” I said, ruffling his hair. “Let’s go sit down and see if you eat like him, too.”
After spending the day running errands and making decorations for the wedding, we all walked down the street to have the rehearsal dinner at the Logans’ house.
During our e-mails while he was in Korea, Henry had talked only briefly about his childhood, but even though he said very little about his parents, it was clear he didn’t think much of them.
Still, I found his parents pleasant enough, if a little aloof. They were the complete opposite of my own parents, who had loved each other with a destructive fire, fighting and making up, then fighting some more, until it destroyed them both.
I’d figured out long ago, as they lowered my father into the ground, that I didn’t need that kind of passion in my life, that I would be perfectly happy as long as I kept my heart guarded.
I suppose I owed my parents some gratitude because that lesson was the reason I was able to survive the death of Jason at all.
I made my way down to the sand in my running gear and searched the length of the dark beach, a little disappointed to find that I was completely alone.
I walked along the water’s edge, avoiding the silent roll of the waves, taking in the orange glow emanating from the horizon as the sun greeted the day. Out here, along this long stretch of beach, I felt like the only person in the world.
A strong breeze blew by and wound around me, circling me, covering me in an invisible gauze. I fixed my eyes on a point on the horizon and lifted my arms, extending them out to the sides, a bird in flight.
I imagined flying far from shore, directly out over open waters to leave my past behind. I soared for miles, beating my wings against the harsh winds and the storms gathering in the distance. Nothing mattered in that little pocket of time but the open, endless sky and me.
When I finally opened my eyes, the sun was higher, infusing the dark blue sky with golden colors. I found Neal standing beside me, not in a wetsuit but in running attire, watching me with eyebrows furrowed.
I felt the smile tugging at my lips and didn’t bother trying to contain it. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“And miss seeing the first light of the day on your face?” He studied me, hardly blinking. The corners of his mouth curled up as he shook his head. “I wondered yesterday if you were some sort of siren,” he confessed. “I mean, there I was, minding my own business, when this impossibly beautiful woman just showed up by the edge of the water. If you’d asked me to swim down to the bottom of the ocean with you, I probably wouldn’t have been able to say no.”
I laughed at the corny line and the realization that it was actually working on me. “You’re cute. But I’m not of the sea.”
He nodded. “I see that now. You’re something else, a creature of the air.”
I turned toward the ocean, slightly embarrassed that he’d seen me at a moment of pure honesty. Neal followed suit, not saying anything more. We remained like that, standing together in comfortable silence, for long minutes.
“What’s on your mind?” he asked after some time.
“That sunrise is my favorite part of the day,” I said, which was only partially true. “You?”
He reached out, tangling his long, warm fingers through my own. “I was thinking of doing that. And this,” he said, touching his lips to the back of my hand.
My skin was tingling when he pulled away, the memory of the kiss still lingering. “That’s all?” I asked, unable to help myself. I hadn’t been entirely serious when I’d told Elsie about wanting a one-night stand, but now I was beginning to think the idea had real merit.
Neal raised an intrigued eyebrow, making me wonder if he could read my thoughts. “What else would you like? This?” He lifted the sleeve of my sweatshirt and kissed the inside of my wrist, pausing a few seconds to feel my pulse against his lips.
The thrill of desire tore up my arm and crashed into my racing heart. I wanted more, wanted him to rip off my shirt and kiss every inch of my skin, but was too hesitant to express it. Once upon a time I’d been good at this—had been able to bring a man to his knees with just one look—but the years after my failed marriage had made it so that I no longer had confidence in myself.
But then again, in our short time together, my ex-husband, Kyle, had never incited the kind of lust that was currently pulsing through my veins. Kyle had been the safe choice, the man I thought would give me the life that Jason had promised. And Kyle had tried to do just that, but our marriage was a sham and we both knew it.
I came back to the present to find Neal had pressed my hand against his chest.
“Where did you fly off to again?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said, intent on focusing on the present so that this moment wouldn’t pass me by. “I’m back now.”
I tilted my head back and studied his face. In the glow of the morning light, I could see that he had a nice golden tan, that his brown hair was tinged with blond, his eyes were not brown but actually the kind of hazel that changed depending on the light. Right then it was a mossy green as he stared down at me with furrowed brows.
His gaze flicked down to my lips then back up to my eyes. I held my breath and, tired of waiting, grabbed the back of his head to bring his mouth to mine. Our lips parted on impact, our tongues ebbing and flowing. He tilted his head and deepened the kiss, wrapping his arms around my back and almost lifting me off my feet.
I was light-headed when we pulled away, and I felt a trembling beginning low in my stomach. When I looked up at him, his eyebrows were drawn together, his eyes flying across my face.
I hesitated, wondering if I’d read him wrong. “I thought you—”
He took hold of my face and kissed me again, deeper this time, his tongue dipping deep inside my mouth to tangle with mine. He pulled away, surprise on his face. “This isn’t why I came here this morning,” he said, brushing hair away from my cheek.
I smiled up at him, my entire body still tingling. “I did.”
He let out a surprised laugh. “You are something else, Julie. No beating around the bush with you.”
“I don’t know. Beating around the bush is definitely encouraged.”
“I walked right into that,” he said with a warm smile.
“So let’s do what you came here to do.” I turned on a heel and raced off down the beach. He ran after me, his laughter and heavy breathing right at my back. I lengthened my strides, opening my body up to the run, willing him to follow.
He kept up, comfortable at the blistering pace I had set. He didn’t say anything as he slowly caught up to me, his longer legs eating up more space.
“Doing okay?” he asked through short gusts of breaths.
I sped up even more. “I’m good. Why, you getting tired?”
He pulled ahead a little, flashing me a meaningful look. “I’m fine. I can go for hours.”
“So could I,” I said, pumping my arms to go even faster.
We raced each other along the shore for a time, leaving two sets of footprints on the sand behind us, until we slowed and eventually came to a stop. I tried to catch my breath, holding my arms above my head, happy to see that he, too, was winded. I turned to face the ocean, and all of a sudden he was in front of me, blocking the view with his solid body.
“Got you,” he said breathlessly, hooking his hands on my waist and pulling me close.
I leaned into him, feeling his firm body against mine. “You’ve definitely got me,” I said, not wanting any misconceptions about our time together. “But just for today.”
His expression darkened as his eyes blazed across my face. Without another word, he walked around me so that my back pressed against his front. He gripped my wrists and lifted them back up to my head. “Keep them here,” he said in a voice deep with authority.
He unzipped my sweatshirt slowly, peeling the material away from my chest to reveal my purple sports bra.
“This is a public beach,” I managed to say despite the tightness in my throat.
His warm hands traveled up my damp skin and cupped my breasts. “There’s nobody here. We’re completely alone,” he said, rubbing my nipples to hardness with his nails.
Emboldened by that revelation, I moved my hands to the back of his head and craned my neck around, bringing his lips down to mine. He kissed me, his tongue twisting around as his fingers toyed with my pebbled nipples.
“I’m going to make you come right here, right now,” he rasped against my lips.
I froze, his words making my heart skip a beat. Then a hand slid down the sweat-slick skin of my stomach and stole into the waistband of my running capris, and my poor heart just about gave out.
“If you want me to stop, you have to say so because I have no plans of being a gentleman right now,” he said in a low, sexy tone. Gone was the affable guy; this man behind me was taking charge, his voice dripping with promise.
I didn’t say a word; I couldn’t. I simply watched him work his way deeper into my pants, his hand’s outline clear under the stretchy gray material. He gasped when his fingers made contact with the bare skin of my mound. “Fuck,” he whispered against my ear. “You are full of surprises.”
I was about to say that waxing down there was no longer so strange when his middle finger slid down and caressed the sensitive area between my folds.
My body responded to Neal’s touch, wanting more, needing more. The cold wind felt good against my overheating skin, intensifying the pulses of pleasure traveling through me.
“I want to fill you up like this,” he said and crooked a long finger into me. I closed my eyes and groaned. “You’re so ready for me.” Another one joined the first, stroking me deep within, reaching that tender spot with the pads of his fingers as they slid in and out slowly.
I held on to his neck for support as my legs quivered. He wrapped his arm around my chest to hold me up, grasping my breast almost savagely as his fingers continued their delicious slide. Then he twisted his thumb so that it was rubbing directly on my clit and the pleasure tripled, quadrupled.
“Neal,” I cried out. “Faster.”
“No,” he said in a gruff voice and continued the unhurried assault. “I plan on drawing this out.”
“Just do it.” I squeezed harder, focusing all my energy on that one area of my body. “Make me come or I’ll do it myself.”
He chuckled and his hand stilled. Then he began short strokes on my G-spot, wriggling his thumb, the new sensation building me up. I crested just as he bit my earlobe, and I threw my head back onto his shoulder, moaning long and high as the sensations washed over me in waves.
He kissed the heated skin on my neck as he gave me one last stroke before pulling his hand out. “Next time I’ll be inside you when I make you come,” he growled.
I took a few moments to recover, for my entire body to stop throbbing from the release, then turned in his arms. But before I could return the favor, a dog barked in the distance and its owner’s voice called out to him a second later.
Neal pulled me against him and kissed my hair tenderly, a move that took me aback. Somehow it felt more intimate than what we’d just done a few minutes before. “Come back to my hotel room,” he said against my hair, his voice husky with promise.
I studied his face, lust tingeing his handsome features. “I want to say yes . . .”
“Then say it.” He gripped my ass and clutched me against his hard length. “Let me finish what I started.”
In that moment, I was almost convinced that a bridesmaid wasn’t really necessary in the wedding. It wasn’t like I was maid of honor. “I can’t,” I said with a sigh. “But for what it’s worth, I really want to.”
He bent his head into my neck, releasing a noise between a sigh and a chuckle. “Damn. I wanted to spend the whole day with you.”
I nuzzled his cheek. “Tomorrow?”
He lifted his head, his eyebrows high. “You’re giving me another day?”
Right then, as my insides throbbed with need, I would have given him a whole month. “I’ll try my best.”
He grabbed the back of my neck and tilted my head back, kissing me slowly, a promise of things to come. “Beautiful Julie,” he said against my lips. “After tomorrow you’re going to be begging me for another day.”
“Cocky,” I said, pulling away and immediately missing his warmth.
He grinned. “You have no idea.” When I was farther up the beach, he called out, “Wait! How do I get ahold of you?”
I called out my cell phone number and he recited it back. “Don’t forget it,” I warned before turning and running back to my car.
“Julie, where have you been?” Elodie asked as soon as I stepped in the door.
“I’m sorry. I lost track of the time.”
Elodie was already wearing the signs of stress on her face. “Your son’s already eaten breakfast and he needs a bath. We need someone to collect all the decorations and help set up at the beach. Then we need—”
I held the older woman by the shoulders. “Deep breaths,” I instructed like I sometimes do when Will has a tantrum. “It’ll get done. Try not to stress about it, please. I’m sorry I was late. I’ll get right on it, promise.”
Elodie gave a short nod and wandered back down the hallway to Elsie’s room. I followed her, entering the room next door, where I found Will sitting cross-legged on his dad’s childhood bed, playing with several die-cast airplanes.
His face lit up when he saw me. “Mom! Mom! Did you know these were my dad’s old toys?”
I nodded, trying to ward away the sadness that threatened to overwhelm me every time I entered this room. My eyes remained glued to my blue-eyed son—the spitting image of his father—too afraid to look around lest it bring back old memories.
“Come on, kiddo,” I said, ruffling his blond hair. “Let’s get ready for Aunt Elsie’s wedding.”
After I dressed and did my makeup, I found mother and daughter in the kitchen, placing decorations in a box on the counter. I gently pried the shells from Elsie’s hands, taking over the job. “I’ll get these down to the beach,” I said. “You still need to get ready, Els.”
“What about Will?” Elodie asked, her hair only half-styled, making her look a little like one of the ladies on Ab Fab.
“I’m all ready!” Will announced beside us. My chest felt tight at the sight of my son looking so much older in his tan suit. It didn’t seem all that long ago that he was a tiny, chubby thing taking his first steps.
I bent down and wrapped him in my arms, fighting the urge to get all gooey and teary eyed. The truth was, I was one of those moms, the one who cried when she dropped off her kid on the first day of school, the one who kept her baby’s first onesie and took it out from time to time to sniff. To see my son getting so big was both a joy and an ache.
Before leaving with the decorations, I stopped in Elsie’s room as she was fixing her hair in front of the closet door mirror. She looked up at me and I recognized the sadness in her eyes. But it wasn’t from reservations about the guy she was going to marry; rather, it was the sorrow of a sister who wished her brother was alive to attend her wedding to his best friend.
I sat on the bed behind her, wishing I knew the right words to ease her pain. But then again, if I did, I would have told myself long ago. “I have something for you,” I told her reflection. “A ‘something borrowed.’”
She turned around and looked at me expectantly. “Something of Jason’s?”
I nodded and pulled out the medal. “Jason’s Purple Heart,” I said, handing it to her.
Her eyes misted over as she touched it gently. “How do you have it?”
“Your dad gave it to me for safekeeping during their first visit in Dallas. He asked that I hold on to it until Will was old enough to understand.” I had stared at that medal for hours that night, unable to sleep.
Elsie nodded, taking deep breaths.
“I’m sorry. I should have given it to you before you applied your makeup.”
She let out a short laugh. “Probably so.” She stood up and gave me a warm embrace. “Thank you, Julie. This really means a lot to me.”
During the ceremony, as I stood to the side with the bridesmaids, watching Elsie bind herself to the man she’d loved all her life, Jason’s words came back to me.
The kind of love that burns so bright it lights you up from the inside.
A person only had to take one look at the expression on Henry’s face—at the way his eyes were soft around the edges, the elated smile he was fighting so hard to contain—to know that theirs was a love that spanned lifetimes.
My eyes watered at the thought that I hadn’t felt that way about Jason, that even though I loved him with all I had, in the end it hadn’t been enough.
I turned away from the bride and groom, blinking quickly, and looked out over the small group of guests. None—save for Elodie and John—looked familiar, but there in the back, almost a head taller than the rest of the guests, was a handsome face framed by brown hair tinged with gold.
After the wedding party’s procession back down the aisle, Neal stood up and made his way toward me, rubbing a hand through the scruff on his cheek. He wore a light blue sweater and gray pants that were folded up at the hems to reveal bare feet. He, too, seemed to be considering my outfit of a dark blue sleeveless cocktail dress, my blond hair twisted up into a loose chignon. Our eyes met after the quiet appraisal and we exchanged smiles.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Henry and I go way back,” he said, pushing his sleeves up his tanned arms. “What about you?”
“Friends with both of them.”
He took a step closer, his eyes almost a light green in the late afternoon light. “This is a nice coincidence.”
I stared up at him, unable to form words, the memory of that morning flashing back in my mind.
“Don’t think this means you get out of tomorrow.” He reached out and took my hand, and I became all too aware of everyone around us.
I took a step back, looking around for Will. “I have to go help with the, um, food.”
“Do you need a hand?”
“No.” I looked down at our intertwined fingers. “But I’ll need this one.” I walked off, relieved to see that Will was playing with a few others kids, digging a large hole in the sand, and hadn’t seen me holding hands with a stranger.
I managed to avoid Neal during the reception by staying busy, yet a part of me was also relieved that Will was old enough not to need his mother at all times. I kept glancing over at Neal, who seemed to be having a good time on his own, talking to other guests and looking relaxed in his surroundings.
After the sun set and people began to dance in the light of the candles, I found I could no longer avoid the inevitable. Or maybe I just couldn’t stay away any longer. Either way, my body propelled itself in Neal’s direction, with a slice of cake as my offering.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” he said with a raised eyebrow, accepting my offering and taking a bite.
“I have,” I said sheepishly. “It’s like my secret world and my real world suddenly collided. I wasn’t ready for that.”
He grinned. “In this scenario, I’m the secret boyfriend, right?”
“I think you ought to buy me a secret dinner first before earning that title.”
He set the plate down on the table behind him and leaned into me. “Would you like to take a walk along the shore?” he whispered.
To answer, I took his hand and led him away from the party.
We walked toward the water, leaving behind the soft light from the reception. Here the darkness veiled us and allowed me to shed my worries for a few moments.
He stopped and turned to me. “So tell me something about yourself, Julie.”
His question caught me by surprise. I’d thought he was leading me there for a repeat of the morning. “Like what?”
“Like . . . what were you like at fourteen?”
“A bit of a deviant,” I said with a chuckle. “That was the year I lost my virginity.”
He laughed in surprise. “Wow. That’s . . . at that age, I was still trying to get a handle on things, if you get my meaning.”
I grinned, unabashed. “What can I say? I was a bit advanced for my age,” I said. “Why, when did you lose your virginity?”
“I was eighteen. It was with some girl I just met.”
“Ah, a one-night stand.”
“I suppose, though I saw it more as a helpful Samaritan willing to help me out with a problem.”
“That I was eighteen and still a virgin,” he said with a laugh. “Actually, up until then, I was dating a girl through most of high school, but she made me wait, saying she’d made a promise to God that she wouldn’t have premarital sex.”
“Let me guess—she ended up cheating on you with another guy?”
“No, not at all. After we graduated, I realized I just didn’t want to be that committed yet. My whole life was ahead of me; I wanted to go to college, see the world. The last thing I wanted was to get married and tie myself down. So we broke up, our respective virginities intact.” He turned to the ocean, a faraway look on his face.
“You loved her,” I said softly.
He turned back to me. “I guess. At least, at the time I was sure I did. But I don’t regret breaking up with her,” he said. “Last I heard, she’s married and now has two kids and a fulfilling career. So you see, her life wouldn’t be as good as it is now if I hadn’t broken up with her.”
“So you did her a favor by breaking her heart?” I asked with a teasing smile.
“Not exactly. I’m just a big believer in things happening for a reason,” he said, giving me a pointed look.
“Why, Neal, you’re a romantic at heart,” I said, affecting a Southern Belle accent, trying to steer away from the serious turn in our conversation.
He shook his head, a smile playing along his lips. “I just think there are no coincidences in life. That the universe put us in exactly the right place at the right time.”
I broke away from his gaze. “I’m not so sure about that theory. What about people who die unexpectedly?”
“I’d say it was just their time to go.”
“That’s a heartless way of seeing things.”
“It’s not heartless; just realistic. You can’t outrun or cheat death. When it comes for you, you can either go down with a smile on your face or go down fighting. Either way, you’re going down.”
“I can’t believe that.” I wrapped my arms around myself, but they weren’t enough to keep the wind from seeping bone deep. Neal came to face me, shielding me from the wind. “I take it someone you loved died?” he asked, his face too earnest and intent for my liking.
“My fiancé.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and shook my head, reminding myself that this weekend was about fun, that it was only about two people having consensual, hopefully mind-blowing sex. “We don’t need to talk about it,” I said, reaching out and grabbing a handful of his sweater. “Let’s just keep this thing between us as uncomplicated as possible, okay? Talking is overrated.”
“Okay, then.” He took a step closer, all traces of gloom wiped from his face. “If we can’t talk, then we’re going to dance.”
I hooked my hands around his neck and he wound his arms around my waist, his hands a pleasant weight on the small of my back. I craned my neck to look up at him, tracing every curve and angle of his face with my gaze, from his strong nose to his square jaw.
He bent down and whispered, “I thought about you all day.” One of his palms splayed on my back and pulled me closer so that our bodies touched. I shivered at the contrasts, from the warmth at my front and the cold at my back, at the softness in his expression and the hardness of his body, at the intensity of his views on death and the easygoing attitude that quickly took its place.
I leaned my head on his shoulder. “I haven’t been held like this in so long,” I murmured, then realized belatedly what I’d said. I was only too glad that the darkness hid the blush that was no doubt coloring my face.
“That’s a damn shame,” he said, bowing his head to rest his cheek against my temple. “A woman like you should always be held like this.”
I closed my eyes and breathed in his scent, soaked up his words. He smelled like the sea after a storm, clean and cool, and his words were like rolling waves that lapped at the shore, smoothing out any imperfections in the sand.
“Let’s get out of here.”
I tipped my head to look up at him, considering his offer. Below the surface of my skin thrummed not just lust but something far more scary and complicated: genuine affection.
I jolted out of his arms, holding a hand against his chest to keep him at bay. He said nothing, just waited patiently while I sorted through the jumble of my emotions.
I stared up at him while a war raged inside me. My brain wanted out because I was getting attached already, but my body wanted in, oh, so in. The memory of that morning washed over me like cold water, raising goose bumps all over my skin. There was no denying I wanted his body, but could I sleep with him and somehow not also want the man?
I let out a frustrated breath. “This never used to be an issue.”
I shook my head. “Nothing,” I said, looking back toward the twinkling lights of the reception. “Let me check with Elsie first, make sure she doesn’t need me anymore . . .”
I scanned the beach as we headed back, not finding Will. My heart immediately started thumping wildly while my brain went into overdrive, as it always did whenever I lost sight of my son.
Trying to stave off the panic, I walked faster, leaving Neal behind. “I have to go.” I started running, still furiously searching for my son. Henry was the first person I ran into. “Have you seen Will?” I asked, making sure Neal was not within earshot.
He motioned toward the concrete steps that led up to the street. “The colonel and Will are walking around somewhere, looking for you.”
I sagged with relief.
“There you are,” Elodie said, coming up to us.
“Have you seen Will?”
“Yes, he’s in the car with John. He’s tired so we figured we’d take him back and put him to bed. That way you can stay here and enjoy the rest of the party.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Not at all.” She flicked a quick glance over my shoulder and smiled. “You stay and enjoy the rest of the night.”
“Thank you,” I said, relieved that I was free to leave with Neal yet guilty at the relief of being without my son. Being a mother is always complicated, but never more so than when another man enters the picture, battling for attention.
After Elodie left, I turned back to Neal and found him standing by the bonfire, looking so damn delicious with his hands in his pockets, his wavy hair blowing in the wind. A shiver racked my body in anticipation of what the rest of the night had in store.
He held out his hand. “You ready?”
I wrapped my arms around myself and smiled.
I sure hoped so.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the novels of June Gray:
“Fast [and] furious.”—MsRomantic Reads
“Trust me…it definitely hooks you!”—Three Chicks and Their Books
“A hot romance…that swells your heart.”—The Book Whisperer
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Though not exactly a part of the Disarm series, June Gray's new book, Surrender uses secondary characters from that series as the main characters for this book. Making the characters familiar but not overly explored. Gray has a way with military romance due to her own experience that gives this book an authentic feel, while also putting the author's own spin on it. Readers looking for a hot read, that has some substance behind it will find this one a good next read. What I liked: Having read June Gray's Disarm series and falling in love with Elsie and Henry, I was excited about this book coming out. Julie would have been Elsie's sister-in-law, had Jason, Elsie's brother not been killed in Afghanistan. I liked the fact that Julie was someone I felt like I already knew, but didn't know very well. It made her story resonate all the more. A chance meeting on the beach with Neal turns into something more when Julie realizes that Neal is also a guest at Elsie and Henry's wedding. I liked the feel of destiny about their meeting. Like they were meant to meet each other day, fate if you will. Julie was a single mom who was really only interested in hooking up with Neal for the short term. Given the fact that her parents had a very rocky relationship and that she had lost someone she loved very much, I could sympathize with Julie's issues regarding commitment. To me it was really all a matter of not letting herself be hurt again. If you don't let it to that far it can't come back to bite you. But with Neal it was different. Julie did continue to struggle though, long after I thought she should have been willing to give Neal a chance. She didn't tell him about her son for the longest time and he didn't tell her about the fact that he was in the reserves. It just felt like their relationship was not built on honesty. Eventually they get around to it, but it felt like an afterthought and not what a good romance should be based on. Julie keeps going over and over her relationship with Jason. There were a lot of flashbacks and I found that very distracting. Yes, some of it was necessary, but I think Gray went a little overboard by letting it consume too much of the story. She was constantly comparing her relationship with Neal to her relationship with Jason and I wasn't really sure why it had to be that way. There was a lot of hot and steamy parts to the book that were realistic if you look at it from the stand point of a one night stand or a quick fling, but a little disconcerting when you think about building a lasting relationship on that kind of foundation. I liked the chemistry between Neal and Julie and they were honest about what they wanted in bed, if they were not honest about anything else. Bottom Line: This one wasn't really my cup of tea. The writing was just as good as any of Gray's previous books, but the connection between the lead characters was just not of the caliber I had come to expect from the author. It was a bit too superficial for me and the heroine had so many issues it was hard to see how a relationship would work with her and anyone.
Great ending to a great series
After enjoying the previous two books in June Gray's Disarm series, I was excited to learn it would continue with a chance at a happily ever after for Julie, the woman who was Elodie's brother Jason's fiancé when he was killed in action. Her story broke my heart so I really wanted her to find a second chance at love. Julie was the type of character I connected with immediately, despite really having nothing in common with her. She was a great mom to Will and she did a fantastic job making up for the absence of his father. The relationship between Julie and her son was sweet and touching. They were quite a team. I hated that Jason wasn't around to be a part of it all. They would've made one hell of a family, but life had different plans in mind. Despite the face she puts on for the world, Julie's still struggling with the loss of Jason. As you would expect. When she meets Neal, there's an undeniable chemistry, but there's also a concern about forgetting Jason and what bringing another man around would do to Will. Neal was a good guy. The fling he and Julie started happened really quickly and their feelings developed sooner than I might have liked, but somehow it still worked for me. I loved the playfulness between the two of them, and even more importantly, I respected the relationship he developed with Will. He was a role model and a father figure, but never tried to replace Jason. He was in it for the long haul with Julie and Will and I really wanted them to make it work. But, as there generally is in life, secrets threatened to destroy what they had built. Choices had to be made and none of them were easy, but Julie and Neal were both strong and determined characters. Life had to knock them around a little just to make sure they were committed. I expected Surrender to be an emotional book. The first two books in the series were emotional in their own right, as Elsie and Henry fought for their love and against everything that tried to take it from them. But there was something about this one, whether it was just the time at which I read it or the fact that I connected to Julie more than Elsie, that made it even that much MORE emotional for me. Military stories affect me strongly and when I find myself as wrapped up in the characters as I was with this book, I feel every single feel. Surrender brought everything back full circle. It was sad, at times, as I expected, but mostly it was hopeful. I'm a sucker for a second chance story and this was one of the more beautiful (and, at times downright frustrating) ones I've read recently. June Gray's books aren't all hearts and flowers, but instead they're a realistic look at the ups and downs of military life and love. They have a way of punching me in the gut and grabbing my heart. As sad as I am to see this series come to an end, I'm ridiculously pleased with how everything came together. I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
I thought Surrender was a great story, I liked the kind of healing and redeeming theme in the story but it was a little too heavy in the angst for my liking. I still finished the read and I still found much of it relatable but as its a sensitive issue I did like that for Julie there was still a possibility of achieving a happy life after the loss of a loved one. So there was that but in the end it was just too much negative emotional weight that kept the story from being one of my favorites.