What happens when your internet crush…
Shows up in real life?
First Lieutenant Thane Carter has experienced great success as the senior platoon leader of a military police company at Fort Hood. But tbh, his love life stinks. Thane wishes his maddening—and off-limits—new coworker, Lieutenant Chloe Michaels, could be more like his online friend “BallerinaBaby.” It’s complicated, all right—especially when Thane learns that his workplace nemesis and his internet crush are one and the same!
About the Author
Despite a no-nonsense background as a West Point graduate, Army officer, and Fortune 100 sales executive, Caro Carson has always treasured the happily-ever-after of a good romance novel. As a Rita-winning Harlequin author, Caro is delighted to be living her own happily-ever-after with her husband and children in Florida, a location which has saved the coaster-loving theme park fanatic a fortune on plane tickets.
Read an Excerpt
Today, I was desperate for tater tots.
Chloe stared at her blinking cursor, her finger hovering over the enter key on her laptop. One second, not even that, was all it would take for that sentence to be sent to him, no way to take it back. Would he think she was dumb or would he think she was funny?
It shouldn't matter. The man was no more than a series of words on a screen, a modern-day pen pal. She wrote to him with BallerinaBaby as her user name. He wrote back as DifferentDrummer. A freebie conversation app had matched them up months ago and they'd been writing back and forth ever since, but Chloe knew that wasn't the same as being real friends in real life.
It shouldn't matter, but it did. She wanted to make him laugh. Something about his notes lately made her think her anonymous correspondent had been having a hard week. He had talked to her through all the crazy months she'd been bouncing from one place to another. He'd listened to all her thoughts and worries and hopes. It was the least she could do to help him out if he was tired and overworked. Friends and lovers ought to take care of each other. Chloe believed emotional support was just as important as physical compatibility in a relationship, so —
Chloe snatched her finger away from the enter key. She was looking at nothing more than the basic white screen of an outdated app, yet she was worrying about emotional parity in a relationship. She needed to keep the proper perspective on this ... this ... whatever it was.
What should she call it when her digital pen pal felt like a better friend than the living human beings around her? Borderline insanity?
She didn't know any of the human beings around her, that was the problem. She didn't know anyone in the entire state of Texas. She was newly arrived in a new town for a new job. All her stuff was still in boxes. The only constant was her pen pal. She didn't want him to think she was dumb, because if she lost him, too ... well, she'd lose the most reliable presence in her life for these last five months.
Her cursor was still blinking. Tots.
Tater tots. Was that what she was going to talk about? She was going to talk about tots when what she was honestly feeling was lonely?
"Roger that," she said out loud, and hit Enter.
The alarm on her wristwatch went off. Time to get ready for work.
Chloe carried her laptop with her and set it by her bathroom sink so she could keep an eye on the screen. If Different Drummer was online, he would answer immediately. It was one of the things she loved about him. She smoothed her hair back and twisted it into the low, tight bun that she was required to wear every day.
Her cursor blinked in silence.
Men didn't really joke about food cravings, at least not the men in her world, and there were plenty of men in her world. They talked about women, especially their breasts, and they talked about drinking, especially beer, but they didn't joke about food cravings.
The cursor kept blinking.
Food cravings. What had she been thinking?
She'd probably, finally scared off Different Drummer. There were so many jokes about women and food cravings, he might think she was confessing some kind of hormonal thing, a craving like pregnant women were supposed to get. Worse, maybe he thought it was a monthly craving. Guys were so squeamish about things like that. A definite turnoff.
She hadn't been trying to turn him off. She hadn't been trying to turn him on, either. It wasn't like anyone could seduce a man with a line about tater tots.
She jabbed a few extra bobby pins into her bun. Seduce him. Ha. She didn't even know what he looked like. The simple little app didn't have the capacity to send photos. She scowled at her reflection in the mirror. With her hair pulled back tightly, her face devoid of any makeup — she'd just sweat it off at work, anyway — she didn't look like any kind of seductress.
She pulled a sports bra over her bun carefully, then wrestled the rest of the way into it. Good thing she was flexible. It was the kind of bra that didn't let anything show, even when she was soaked in sweat, the kind of bra that kept a girl as flat as possible, because bouncy curves were frowned on in her profession.
She pulled on her comfy, baggy pants and zipped up her matching jacket, checking her laptop's screen between each article of clothing.
He had to be offline. If he was online, he would have answered her ... unless he was turned off by a ballerina who was obsessed with tater tots. Which she wasn't.
She yanked on her best broken-in boots. If there was anything she needed to stop obsessing over, it was him, the mystery man who always seemed to get her sense of humor, who always seemed as happy to chat with her all night as she was to chat with him. It was too easy to forget it was all an illusion. She wasn't really Ballerina Baby; he wasn't really a unique man who marched to the beat of a Different Drummer, a mystery man who sent her long notes and found himself hopelessly charmed by her words.
Today, I was desperate for tater tots.
Nope. He wasn't hopelessly charmed. It was time for Ballerina Baby to join the real world.
Her fingertips had just touched the laptop screen, ready to close it before leaving her new apartment, when a sentence in blue magically appeared.
You crack me up.
He got it. She'd made him laugh. Mission accomplished.
The next blue sentence appeared: Or am I not supposed to laugh? The word desperate sounds rather ...
Desperate? she typed one-handed. Then she stuffed her wallet in her pocket, but not her car keys. She knew from experience that if she started chatting to Different Drummer, she'd lose track of time and forget that she had to be somewhere. She bit down on the metal ring of her key fob, holding it in her teeth to leave two hands free for typing. She wouldn't forget about work as long as she had her car keys in her teeth.
Another blue line appeared on-screen. They say most men lead lives of quiet desperation.
Chloe raised one eyebrow. They slipped in famous quotes now and then, just to see if the other person would identify the quote, their own little nerdy game. This one was no challenge. How very Thoreau of you. (Too easy.)
He replied, You, however, are not like most men. (I knew it was easy.)
For starters, I'm a woman. Her words showed up in hot pink as she typed — the app's choice for female users, not hers.
He sent her a laughing-face emoji. I was thinking more along the lines that you don't seem to lead a quiet life. You also never sound desperate. I don't think you'd be quiet about it if you were.
She was typing while holding car keys in her teeth. Quietly desperate? He didn't know the half of it.
Were you able to procure the tots? Tell me you did it noisily.
Shamelessly. I bought a big bag of frozen tots at the grocery store a couple of hours ago. They didn't survive long.
You killed them already? All of them?
All of them. A one-pound bag.
For a moment, just one tiny, insecure moment, she worried again that she'd turned him off. Ballerina Baby didn't sound like the kind of woman who would eat a whole bag of tater tots at one sitting, did she? The next second, impatient with all these self-doubts, she sucked in a faintly metallic breath around her key ring and shoved aside all the insecurity. This was her friend — yes, her friend — and sometimes a pause was just a pause.
I've shocked you into silence with my brutal killing of a bag of tots, haven't I?
Not at all. I'm deciding how best to advise you so that you won't be tried for murder. I don't think they'd let you write to me from jail. I'd miss you.
Chloe's fingers fell silent. He'd miss her, and he wasn't afraid to say it. He was so different from all the other men she knew. So much better. Would he find it weird if she suddenly switched gears and wrote that?
Instead, she wrote: If I hadn't killed them all, they would have sat in my freezer, taunting me, testing my willpower. No, they needed to die. 'twere best to be done quickly.
Very Lady Macbeth of you. (Too easy.)
Yes, well, unlike Lady McB, I ate all the evidence. I guess I shouldn't feel too superior. In order to eat her evidence, she would have had to eat the king's guards. Rather filling, I'd imagine.
He had a quick comeback. If Macbeth had been about cannibalism, English class would have been much more interesting.
Ha. She smiled around the car keys in her mouth. At any rate, 'tis done. Half with mustard, half with ketchup, all with salt.
Then you're safe. We can keep talking. How was the rest of your day?
If only the last guy she'd seriously dated had been so open about saying he liked her. If only any guy she'd ever dated had been like Different Drummer.
But the car keys in her teeth did their job. They were getting heavy; she had to go.
I wish I could stay and chat, but I gotta run. And then, just in case he thought she was an unhealthy glutton, she added, Time to go burn off a whole bagful of tater calories. Talk to you tomorrow.
There. That didn't sound desperate or obsessed or ... in love. She couldn't fall in love with a man she'd never met.
Looking forward to it, Baby.
But if they broke their unwritten rule and arranged to meet in real life ...
The alarm on her wristwatch sounded again.
If they met in real life, he'd find out she was no ballerina — not that she'd ever said she was, but she'd never made it clear she wasn't. She certainly wasn't the kind of woman who was any guy's baby. Most guys were a little intimidated by her, something it had taken her a few years to realize.
But with him? She could show so many more sides of herself. The soft side, the insecure side, the side that worried about making friends, and yes, the side that adored the ballet. A lot of pop psychology criticized the digital age for enabling everyone to pretend to be someone they were not while they were online, but Chloe felt like this situation was the opposite. The anonymity let her be her whole self with Drummer, not only her work self. She'd be crazy to mess with a good thing. She'd follow the rules, and not try to figure out who he really was.
She picked up the last item she always wore for work, her patrol cap. The way she slid the camouflage cap over her hair, the way she pulled the brim down just so, were second nature to her. The cap was well broken-in; she'd been wearing this exact one throughout her four years as a cadet at West Point, the United States Military Academy.
Although she was so familiar with her uniform that she could dress in the dark in a matter of seconds when required, Chloe checked the mirror to be sure her uniform would pass inspection, as she'd been trained to do. The American flag on her shoulder and the name Michaels embroidered over her pocket were the same as they'd been since she'd first raised her right hand as a new cadet at the military academy and sworn to defend the Constitution.
The embroidered gold bar on the front of her hat was new. She'd graduated in May, so now she owed the US Army five years of service in return for her bachelor's degree. She was going to serve those years in her first choice of branch, the Military Police Corps. She was a second lieutenant now, the lowest rank of commissioned officers, but she was a commissioned officer with all the responsibility and authority that entailed. After four years of West Point in New York, three weeks of Airborne School in Georgia and four months of military police training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, she was ready to lead her first platoon of MP soldiers here in Texas. So ready.
Tonight, she'd be riding along in a patrol car with the officer on duty, the first of a few mandatory nights familiarizing herself with the post she'd call home for the next three or four years. Once she knew her way around the streets of Fort Hood, she'd take shifts as the officer on duty herself, the highest-ranking MP during the midnight hours, the one who had to make the final decisions — and the one who had to accept the blame if anything went wrong.
First impressions were important. After West Point, Air Assault School, Airborne School and Military Police Basic Officer Leadership Course, Chloe knew exactly what was expected of her. She looked at the officer in the mirror and wiped the smile from her face. She could be Ballerina Baby tomorrow, cozying up to her Different Drummer and being as soft and girly as she liked.
Tonight, it was time for Second Lieutenant Chloe Michaels to go be a badass.
* * *
First Lieutenant Thane Carter was done being a badass — at least for the next twelve hours.
He was almost home. His apartment building was visible through his windshield. He kept moving on autopilot, parking his Mustang, getting out, grabbing his long-empty coffee mug and locking the car. He put on his patrol cap, an automatic habit whenever he was outdoors in uniform, pulling the brim down just so, and headed for his building, a three-story, plain beige building, identical to the five other buildings clustered around the apartment complex's outdoor swimming pool.
His primary objective for the next twelve hours was to get sleep, and a lot of it, ASAP — as soon as possible. Perhaps he'd wake up after a few hours and have a pizza delivered to his door later tonight, but then he'd go right back to sleep until dawn.
At dawn, he'd get up, put on a fresh uniform and return to duty at Fort Hood, where he was both the senior platoon leader and the acting executive officer in a military police company. That MP company, the 584th MP Company to be exact, was currently short one platoon leader, and Thane was feeling the pain.
There were normally four platoon leaders in the company, each officer in charge of roughly thirty enlisted personnel. Most of the year, MPs trained for their wartime missions, the same as every other kind of unit stationed stateside, rehearsing likely scenarios, keeping up their qualifications on their weapons. But MPs were unique: roughly one month out of every three, they pulled garrison duty.
Fort Hood was a sizable town, a military installation where sixty thousand soldiers and civilians worked and where tens of thousands lived with their families. Garrison duty required MPs to perform the functions of a regular civilian police department, patrolling Fort Hood in police cruisers as they did everything from traffic control to answering 911 calls. During that month, one of the four platoon leaders was always on duty as the officer in charge of law enforcement.
Except there weren't four platoon leaders at the moment, only three. Covering the night and weekend shifts among just three lieutenants meant that each of them was pulling a thirty-six-hour shift every third day. Officers didn't get the next day off after working all night. Thane had worked Monday, then Monday night straight on through until Tuesday evening. That thirty-six hours had been followed by twelve hours off to sleep, hit the grocery store, get his uniform ready for the next day. Wednesday would be a straightforward twelve-hour day, but getting sleep Wednesday night was critical, because Thursday morning would start another thirty-six-hour shift straight through to Friday evening.
The schedule was taking its toll. Law enforcement was important work. Necessary work. But after living the MP motto, Assist-Protect-Defend, for thirty-six hours straight, Thane was ready to assist himself right into the sack.
He was single. Never married, no current girlfriend, not even dating. No surprise there. He'd worked — what? Thane counted it up in his head as he trudged from his parking space toward his mailbox, each step heavy with exhaustion. Twelve, twelve, thirty-six, twelve ... hell, he'd only had twenty- four consecutive hours off one time in the past week, and it had been that way for weeks now. They really needed to fill that fourth platoon leader slot.
More downtime would help his sleep, but it wouldn't help his love life. Having no time to date was only half the reason he didn't have a woman in his life.
Excerpted from "The Lieutenants' Online Love"
Copyright © 2018 Caroline Phipps.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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