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First pages

One

Vicki carefully placed the gaudy pink pig statue next to a lamp and smiled. Heck yeah! About dang time she finished. She’d lived here for almost a month and hadn’t managed to unpack. But as of now, the last box was empty and her new place finally felt like home.

She gazed around the living room, satisfied. The bright abstract paintings clashed starkly with the deep teak of the traditional German end tables. The cushy magenta couch formed an L-shape in the corner, piled high with a plethora of velvet throw pillows. The carpet appeared well-worn, and the walls a warm beige. Green ferns covered the windowsill basking in what little light filtered in on this cold September day, while various crystal knickknacks and fashion magazines littered the apothecary table in the middle of the room.

She sank her toes into the tan geometric rug and let out a gusty sigh. The apartment was perfect and messy and muddled and hers. Her things decorated the way she wanted. Not based off the latest trends to keep up with the so-and-so’s house. God, she hated Art Deco and the Rustic period. As for feng shui, she never got it, never got the flow. Her style leaned toward lived-in and this place, it was all her own. She loved it. Vicki whooped and danced around in a circle with her arms wide until dizziness stopped her. She slicked back her hair and glanced around again, her throat clenching. If only she had someone to celebrate with, that would make this moment better.

On that thought, Vicki fell onto the plush sofa and dialed her grandmother. Joonie was the only one in the family who would appreciate her accomplishment, who would understand why she was so happy. Her mother remained stuck on getting her and David back together. Vicki pulled a face at the thought of reconciling with her unfaithful ex-husband. Yeah, that’s never going to happen.

After four rings, Joonie answered, her voice sounding far away. “Hello.”

“Hey, Grams.”

Joonie’s voice got louder and echoed funny. A car door slamming zipped down the phone line. “Oh, is that you, Vee? Where are you?”

Vicki heard the sound of an engine starting. “I’m at home and I’ve officially unpacked the last box. You should be proud of me. I planned to suggest we celebrate, but it sounds like you’re already going somewhere?”

“I’m about to go on a hot date, a sixty-five-year-old widower with all his hair. Couldn’t ask for anything better except maybe a large—”

“Grandma!” Vicki rolled her eyes and rested her head on the armrest of the couch.

“I was going to say moustache. Don’t be a fuddy-duddy. Want me to see if he has any relatives?”

Vicki cringed at the idea of her grandmother playing matchmaker. No thank you. She could only imagine what kind of man that would end up being, some Tom Selleck look-alike probably. She wrinkled her nose and picked up a cushion, hugging it to her chest. “Ah, no, I’m good, Grams.”

The traffic noises increased. A car honked. Her grandmother swore, then asked in a softer voice, “You okay, butterbean?”

“Yeah, Grams.” Vicki twisted her finger in the tassels of the vivid yellow throw pillow.

“You don’t sound okay.” Her grandmother’s voice changed from wheedling to yelling. “Why are you in the left lane? You’re going the speed limit, you jackass.” Honking echoed in Vicki’s ear. “Uh. Not you, Vicki, this Saturn. People need to learn how to drive. Anyway, tell grandma all about it.”

“You’re heading out.” God, was that her voice? Even she heard the whine. When had she become a complainer? She was an independent woman, strong, capable, so why the sadness?

“So? I got a few minutes until I get there. I’m meeting him at the restaurant. You can never be too careful these days. That way, if the date ends up being a dud, I can take off.”

Ha. Vicki grinned at the thought of her grandmother skulking away from her suitor, bouffant hairdo in whatever color Joonie favored at the moment sticking up and giving away her position. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. I have the settlement, and thank you for that, by the way.”

Joonie cackled with glee. “No worries. No grandchild of mine is going to be rooked. My lawyers cleaned their clocks. Glorious victory.”

Vicki’s lips twisted at the memory. “Yeah, it was. He didn’t want to give me anything.” And wasn’t that saying something after all their years together. “Not the best moment in my life. But yeah.”

“I know that tone. Don’t get sad. The man was a pompous jackass. He was never good enough for you. I still don’t understand how you ever ended up with him. You two had that tiff around Homecoming your senior year and I thought that would be the end of it, but no.”

Vicki remembered that fight too, and afterward, her one true kiss. Heck, her only other kiss, from John Lawrence… She brushed her fingers over her lips. He’d looked so earnest with his military cut, going off to war. How could she not kiss him? What had ever happened to him?

“Vicki? Are you there?”

Vicki jumped and sat up straight. “Yeah, Grams, sorry. I drifted off. What were you saying?”

“I said you never should have gotten back with David after high school. No, you had to give him another chance. Bah. Forget being a doormat. It’s about time you stood up to him and your mother. What I ever did wrong with that girl of mine I will never know.”

“There is nothing wrong with Mom,” Vicki said automatically, the words hollow. One, because her grandmother was right, and two, because they’d had this argument so many times before it was hard to get excited, and three, she spotted her little ragdoll kitten Zelda attacking a fallen tassel on the floor.

“Anyway, I have the perfect solution.”

Wait, what? That didn’t sound good. Vicki glanced up from the cat’s antics and asked carefully, “Solution to what?”

“To you not knowing what you want to do, of course. Come work for me. The company is doing fabulous. You can get on-the-job training, start in one of the smaller branches, work in the store, go out and do some assessments, see how the business runs. You love landscaping, just like me. It will be great.”

Hrm. Vicki’s ears perked up. “That does sound good, Grams.”

“Well, of course it does, sweetie. And here I am. I am going to have to go, going to get me some.”

Vicki pictured her grandma’s cherubic face smiling, eyebrows wiggling at the innuendo. “Grandma!”

“Well, at my age that is always a celebration. You need to have your own celebration before all your girly bits fall off.”

“Grandma!”

Joonie clicked her tongue. “Just saying.”

Vicki snorted, tossed the mutilated pillow across the room, and picked up the kitty. “You use more slang than I do.”

“That’s because you have been hanging around your mother too much. You’re twenty-five going on two hundred. You need to live a little. Oh and there he is. Yummy. Toodles.”

The ringtone sounded in Vicki’s ear and she put the phone down, her gut churning. Yeah, go out and use my girly bits. Easier said than done, Grandma. Other than that one kiss, she’d only ever been with David. Not that that had been much to write home about. Not that she would have written home about that. But well, anyways, it felt wrong to go out and pick up someone. And all her so-called friends now looked away when she entered the room. A few brave souls came up and offered condolences on the divorce then wandered away. They didn’t want to associate with the pariah. Bitty, that bitch, even had the gall to ask for David’s number. No, she didn’t really have anyone close to her. Wasn’t that a sad thing to realize at her age? She absently rubbed the sweet spot behind the kitten’s ear, making her purr.

She’d been so busy pleasing her family and faux friends, she’d forgotten how to please herself, metaphorically, not literally. That, she definitely knew how to do after six years of marriage.

Was that what life was really about? No. She knew that, but her prior friends only saw the old Vicki. It was about time to show them the new one. The one she had been working on for the past year. She could do this. She could make a life for herself, a career, accomplish something. Her grandma was right. Vicki was going to take that job and she was going to succeed, darn it. Zelda meowed as if in agreement.

I can do this.

****

Whoever invented the pull-up should be shot. Sure, when in high school and going through a growth spurt, piece of cake, thirty, forty reps, no problem. After a decade of wear and tear, it wasn’t so easy anymore. John grunted and strained to get his chin up over the bar. And… “Fifty.”

Shit.

John let his body drop and staggered against the doorway before righting himself on his prosthetic leg. A few shakes of his arms, some triceps and biceps stretches, then down for his push-ups and sit-ups. The best way to start the day, even if it burned. Oo-rah.

Workout done, John grabbed a Gatorade and downed it before scanning the rest of his bare apartment. The place itself was decent enough. It had two bedrooms with one full bathroom in between on one side, a large kitchen and living room on the other, with a good-sized deck off the kitchen. Everything a bachelor could want, right? He looked around at the blank white walls and tried to envision living here. His shoulders slumped. It felt so damn empty. And a few pieces of furniture wouldn’t change that.

He really should get to the boxes piled in the corner. Then maybe the place wouldn’t feel so generic. Especially since it looked like the rest of the weekend would be occupied with unpacking. Tonight, Sara and his mother were coming over to make sure he did, in fact, empty at least some of those crates. John groaned and covered his eyes with his palm. God save him from his mom’s good intentions. Before he knew it, he’d be living in a Victorian tea room if she had her way. John shuddered at the thought. Never happening. He’d get these boxes opened himself. But he had the whole weekend for that.

For now, he focused on work. He was only twenty credits away from his MBA. All he needed was an internship for the next six months and he’d be done, finished, graduated, and educated. And for that to happen, he needed to make some calls this afternoon and start the ball rolling.

John sat on the couch and picked up the list of internships provided by the dean of his business school. When he studied the paper, the last entry stood out. Growing Strong, a well-established landscaping supply store whose central office was located right here in the Pittsburgh area. That sounded good. He wanted to stay local, allowing him to see his family. No more travelling for this Marine. Plus, he checked the address, a short commute, only about fifteen minutes away. Even better. He circled the number under the listing and put a star next to it, his spidey senses tingling. Something about the name of the company seemed familiar as well. What was it? He’d heard it somewhere before.

He picked up his cell. Ten digits later, the phone rang. His palms sweat, and he rubbed them along the sofa.

A smooth feminine voice answered. “Hello, Growing Strong landscaping. This is Stephanie, how can I assist you today?”

John froze at the perky words, the voice reminding him of Vicki Masterson. Not that it took much to remind him of Vicki. Blonde hair, long legs, beautiful brown eyes…

Stephanie’s voice sounded again. “Hello?”

John jerked. He needed to keep his head in the game already. Now or never. He blew out a breath and adjusted the phone against his ear. “Hi. I’m looking for Mr. Reynolds. Is he in please?”

Stephanie’s voice dropped an octave. “May I ask who is inquiring?”

John looked up at the ceiling. “This is John Lawrence. I’m hoping to apply for the internship position with the president, Mrs. Betty June Steiner. Mr. Reynolds is listed as the contact. Is he in?”

“Mr. Reynolds is out right now. I can take a message and have him call you back if you would like,” Stephanie responded.

Damn it. He’d hoped to set up a few interviews before the end of the day. And this one was the most promising of the lot. He struggled to keep the disappointment out of his voice. “That would be great. Thank you.”

She cleared her throat and lowered her voice. “Um, I know he is doing some interviews later today for that exact position at one o’clock. If you would like, I can add you to the list myself.”

His heart thudded. Oh yeah. John craned his head to sneak a glance at the alarm. Ten a.m. Excellent. That gave him plenty of time to get his ducks in a row. “That sounds perfect, Stephanie. I would appreciate that. Thank you so much.”

Her smooth voice purred. “Oh, my pleasure, John. See you soon.”

A smile creased his face as he hung up the phone. Step one down. Now he had to get ready for an interview. He hopped to the bathroom, too impatient to pull on his plastic leg. Then he remembered he hadn’t unpacked his razor, or anything for that matter.

With a groan, he faced the rows of unopened crates. Well, fuck. This was going to take a while. Maybe he should have had Mr. Reynolds call him back.

Two

Vicki walked toward Growing Strong in her best outfit, a chocolate brown Ralph Lauren suit with a burnt umber silk tank. She’d blown her hair out and combed it until it formed a gleaming blonde curtain down her back. She’d taken extra pains with her makeup, so her skin glowed. Why, she’d even brushed the kitten hair off her shirt. She added a swagger to her step. The first steps toward an independent life felt good. Until she saw the squat brown building, her destination, and stopped. Her hands shook, and she clenched them at her sides and took a deep breath.

I can do this.

Her interview with Mr. Reynolds, her grandmother’s human resources person, started in about fifteen minutes. She couldn’t screw this up. She didn’t want the job based on her relations; she wanted to work for it. And that meant she had to nail this interview.

“Vee!” her grandmother called out from behind her.

Vicki groaned and turned to see Betty June Steiner in all her natural glory, waving at her.

Grams wore a smart wool suit even though it was still warm for fall, with a flowery scarf tied round her neck and hair up in big blonde curls. She hurried up to Vicki. “There you are, dear.”

“Grams, what are you doing here?” Vicki raised an eyebrow.

Joonie flushed, her soft hands fluttering at Vicki’s collar, smoothing it. “I own the company, dear. They told me about your application, of course. I told you I would arrange this. An interview is unnecessary. You’re a sure thing.”

Vicki groaned. “Grams, I told you, I didn’t want that. I want to get this job on my own, not because my grandmother owns the place.”

“But sweetie, the job is yours. You always knew I wanted to leave the company to you. You are the only one who has shown any interest in it, other than for the money it generates. I want it to go to someone who will take care of it, who knows what it means to me.” Her grandmother’s voice faltered.

Vicki covered her grandmother’s hands with her own and held on tight. “I know, Grams.”

“No, I don’t think you do. This company,” Grams gestured at the door of the office building, surprisingly bare of any vegetation given it was a landscaping firm. “I founded it years ago, when your grandfather was working so hard to get his real estate business off the ground. We didn’t have much. But there was love, such love. And when I started gardening and cutting my own plants, he was the one who encouraged me to charge people for my time and effort in growing them. Not many would have done that, especially in our day and age. He helped me start my first greenhouse, and his own business acumen guaranteed my success. We worked hard.” Her voice trailed off. “I should have taken better care of him.”

Vicki pressed her forehead against her grandmother’s and stilled her shaking hands. “Grams, you couldn’t have prevented his heart attack.”

“Well no, but I could’ve made him take a break. We were both so driven and wanted to give our children all the opportunities in the world we never had. I miss him every day.” A lone tear streaked down Joonie’s cheek.

“I do too, Grams. I remember sitting on his lap and smelling his pipe. His beard tickled. He loved cuddling with his grandbaby.” Vicki’s gut twisted. He’d always been so down-to-earth compared to her go-get-’em grandma.

That earned her a sweet smile from her grandmother and a pat on the cheek. “Yes, that damn tobacco was part of what killed him. But what I meant with all this maudlin nonsense is that you can’t just drive yourself to succeed, you need to take time to enjoy life, butterbean. You lived with that weenie for so long, I want you to have some fun.”

“I get that, Grandma, but up until now, I spent my life trying to make other people happy. Right now, I want to make myself happy. I want a career I can look back on and say, I did this and I succeeded. Not because I am Betty June’s granddaughter or Christine Masterson’s daughter, or David Watter’s ex-wife. No, I want success because I am Vicki Masterson, and I can do it, just like you did. So please, don’t interfere.”

Her grandmother’s eyes watered. “You’re such a good girl.”

Vicki kissed her grandmother on the cheek. “Now, I’m going to be late if we don’t hurry. Come on now.” She tugged her grandmother forward, and they walked hand in hand toward the building. As they got closer to the entrance, an attractive dark-haired man in a sleek gray suit stepped out of a nearby car.

“Check out that hottie.” Grams nudged Vicki.

“Grams,” Vicki whispered and yanked her hands away from her grandmother’s to smooth her fitted jacket. “He might hear you.” Not that a cute guy catching her checking him out was a bad thing…

“Good.” Grams waved her fingers at the man across the parking lot, raising her voice. “Hello.”

The stranger turned toward the women, and Vicki’s world stopped. She stumbled into her grandmother. Grams cut her gaze to the side and narrowed her eyes at Vicki.

Vicki’s palms began to sweat. She rubbed them down the sides of her suit.

Holy shit.

“John Lawrence.” The words slipped out unbidden. She’d thought about him last night, and well, look, there he was. And wow, did he look good. Grams was right, John was a hottie.

He’d always been sexy, but now something about him screamed badass. Maybe the swagger or the twist of his lips. His dark brown hair was longer now and almost reached his collar, not buzzed like it had been. His cheeks were dusted with a five o’clock shadow and a new scar marred his right eyebrow. And his eyes, God, she could get lost in his dark-chocolate eyes, warm with this evil little twinkle. She’d spent hours dreaming about those eyes staring into hers and those final moments before he’d walked away eight years ago.

Said eyes sparkled at her now as he made his way across the parking lot toward them. He had a new rhythm to his gait, but the same lean body from all those years of running. She used to get up early on the weekends to watch him jog past her house when she was a teenager. How sad was that? But oh so worth it.

Her pulse skipped a beat, then resumed at a gallop. Her fingers tightened on her grandmother’s arm. The last time she’d seen him, he’d left for the military. Now, he’d returned.

“Hello, ladies,” he said as he approached. His voice matched his eyes, deep and rich and decadent. She had to press her knees together, the sound was so potent.

“Hello, yourself, good-looking.” Grandmother batted her eyelashes at him.

His gaze held Vicki’s for one more moment before skipping to Joonie’s. He grabbed her grandmother’s hand, bent over her fingers, and kissed the tips with an exaggerated smack. “Hello, fair lady.”

Grams simpered and nudged Vicki again. “Did you see that? What a gentleman.”

Vicki grinned. “I saw, Grams.”

John straightened and looked right at her. Vicki’s heart fluttered. His lips were full and soft and oh so biteable, and his skin tanned and golden, betraying some Spanish ancestry. He looked older, seasoned. And God, that mouth. She felt a thrill shoot down her spine. She remembered the taste of those lips…

Another nudge from her granny brought her out of her daze. “Aren’t you going to take his hand, Vee?”

Vicki blinked and glanced down to see John’s hand stretched out. “Oh sorry, I was out of it a second.” In a fog, she grabbed his fingers. His hand curled around hers. Goosebumps raced up her arm, tightening her nipples.

“Hello, John.” Her words came out much huskier than she intended.

He grinned and held onto her hand. His thumb grazed the back of her knuckles. “Hello, Vicki. I didn’t know if you would remember me.”

“Of course, you saved me once upon a time.” From a drunken David and his groping, catapulting himself into the role of her childhood dream man, not that he hadn’t always been. The saving only cemented his status. All those girly bits she’d lamented last night sang to glorious life.

He smiled. Not a grin; a full-blown smile, uneven, a little more raised on the right than left. It took his serious demeanor and added a hint of playfulness she found irresistible. Vicki’s stomach flipped like a happy poodle doing tricks.

“Wait, what is this about saving?” Grams interrupted.

“Oh, never mind, Grams.” Vicki tucked a stray hair behind her ear and peered at John from beneath her lashes. “Um, John. What brings you out here? You were in the military, last I knew.”

John shifted from one foot to the other. “Yes, the Marines. But I’m out now, and I have an interview.”

Vicki’s gaze slid to take in her grandmother. “Oh? At Growing Strong?” He wasn’t going to compete for the same job, was he? That would be awful. She furrowed her brows.

“Yes. I need an internship to finish my MBA. From what I understand, they have some openings.”

“Your MBA! Nice. When did you have time to do that while flitting all around the world?” Wow, sexy and educated. She was toast.

John’s mouth flattened and he dropped her hand, making her realize he’d still held it. She missed the warmth immediately. “I wasn’t exactly flitting, Vicki. I was at war, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait. Wherever there was action, we went. Combat is hard and it didn’t leave much downtime to go out and explore. But I did have time to get my GED and finish my courses.”

Her hand curled. Stupid. She was so stupid. “Um, oh, sorry, I didn’t mean that. I mean I knew you dropped out…”

Vicki’s grandmother intervened. “Oh bah, my granddaughter is tongue-tied again. What she means is you are very accomplished. You’re Bethany’s boy right? From Aliquippa?”

John nodded and his shoulders unwound a fraction. “Yes. Do I know you, ma’am?”

Grams huffed and waved her finger at his nose. “And you lost all your lovely points from the finger kissing and flirting because of that ‘ma’am’.”

Vicki grinned. “This is my grandmother, Joonie. I have an interview today too for an assistant manager position at one of the regional branches.” Her watch beeped and her stomach fell. “Sorry, that was the alarm for the interview. I can’t be late. Um, talk to you later, John?”

John nodded, the side of his lip tipping up again. “That sounds good. See you later, Vicki, Joonie.”

That mouth was…it was… Wasn’t she too young for hot flashes? She fluttered her jacket and dragged her grandmother toward the building. John trailed them at a more sedate pace.

Joonie fought her grasp. “Why did you leave the cute boy behind? We’re going to the same place, you know.”

“I have an interview, or did you forget?” Vicki opened the door and pulled Grams over the threshold.

“Bah, you’re too serious about things all the time. I could practically feel the hormones radiating off the two of you until you made the flitting remark. Standing there holding hands, gazing into each other’s eyes. Magical. You need to go right out there and ask that boy on a date. He is just what you need.”

“Grandma.” Vicki groaned as the door opened, and John followed them in the door.

“Hi again,” he said, moving to stand next to them.

Her cheeks flushed and she had trouble drawing in a deep breath. This was beyond stupid. She was no longer a teenage and she needed to get hold of herself right now. Her fingers curled.

“Do it,” her grandmother insisted beside her.

“Fancy seeing you two here,” John remarked.

Grams giggled. “We were just talking about you. My granddaughter wanted to ask you something.”

“Grams!” Joonie shoved Vicki forward. John looked at her with a raised eyebrow. The one with the tiny scar at the corner that made him look so damn cute. She stuttered a bit with the first words. “Um.”

Her grandmother pinched her side, hard. Vicki smacked her fingers. “Ouch! Darn it, Grams. That hurt.”

John looked truly mystified now. “Everything okay?”

Deep breath. She could do this. She tugged at her tank. “Uh, did you want to go out for a drink sometime?”

“A drink?” He glanced at her grandmother, then back at her, a smile forming on his lips, then fading away. “For some reason, I get the impression this is not your idea, and while I appreciate the offer, I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do.”

Joonie pinched again harder, adding a mean little twist at the end. Gah.

Vicki kicked her foot back, hitting Joonie in the shin. “No, oh no, I want to do it. I do. Grams only encouraged me. Please?” God, how embarrassing. If he said no again, she didn’t know what she would do. Curl up in the corner and die maybe. At that second, she felt all eyes in the lobby on her. Wasn’t that lovely? She had an audience for her first bumbling attempt at asking a guy out.

John tilted his head. His eyes assessed her. “You sure?”

“Of course she is sure. She’s a little shy is all,” Grams replied for her.

Vicki stomped on her grandmother’s toe, then nodded, caught in John’s gaze.

John shifted and smiled that drop-dead smile of his. “Well, if you’re sure, then I would love to go get drinks sometime.”

Vicki’s stomach dropped like she’d gone over the edge of the diving board. She felt a sappy grin spread across her face. “Well, great.” Look at all her smooth words deserting her. She sounded like a three-year-old. “Um, let me give you my number?”

John pulled his phone from his pocket, pressed a few buttons, then held it out to Vicki. She typed digits into the keypad as he leaned forward to watch. John’s pinky brushed hers when he took the phone back sending sparks racing down her hand. She curled her fingers tight, holding onto the feeling. “So, ah, call me?”

His eyes gleamed. “Oh, I will.”

Just then, Mr. Reynolds cleared his throat behind them. “Ms. Masterson?”

“Oh, right here.” She turned and stumbled into a table. After righting herself and throwing John one last glance over her shoulder, she entered the office to the sound of her grandmother’s laughter.

Three

John drove back to his apartment in a daze. His heart raced. He felt lighter than he had for ages. The interview had gone great. Turned out Mr. Reynolds was an old Marine himself. Had that drill sergeant demeanor going on. John dealt with that a lot in his career. This job was in the freaking bag.

And even better, he had a date, well, drinks anyway, with one Miss Vicki Masterson, the star of his every waking wet dream. Life was looking up. He glanced down. Literally.

A smile bloomed across his face. He closed his eyes and pictured her from earlier. She hadn’t changed at all since high school. Her features remained fine, soft with high cheekbones and big brown eyes. The same long blonde hair, svelte figure with firm tight breasts, and long coltish legs. He’d envisioned those limbs wrapped around his waist. Fuck. He hardened at the thought. He was no teenager anymore, but Vicki… A hint of confused innocence surrounded her, which always brought out his protective yet carnal instincts, which were difficult to control. He wanted to keep her safe and all for himself. Hmm. Deep breath. Calm down, buddy.

That one kiss in high school right before he deployed had never been enough. And he remembered the taste of her, hot with the tiniest hint of strawberry. His breath hissed out. Must think about something else. Now that he most likely had a job, he could focus on unpacking. And maybe drinks this Saturday? And maybe after… Damn it. Down, boy. He didn’t mean that. At least not yet. Soon, hopefully. Maybe. What the hell was he thinking? She was way too sweet for a screwed-up vet like him.

He pulled into the parking lot and shifted to make his hard-on less obvious before he got out of the car.

His new apartment was in Moon Township, a hop, skip, and jump from downtown Pittsburgh. The complex wasn’t in a bad neighborhood, and the price was right. That had pretty much been the deciding factor.

The building was fairly new, cream siding alternated with red brick. Each unit housed four apartments, and three units formed a U-shaped complex with a central courtyard in the middle containing a small angel fountain and some foliage. Not much lighting. John frowned as he scanned the area, assessing the shadows. The dim lighting made it pretty easy for someone to lie in wait out here, and… He shook his head. He had to get out of the habit of scanning for threats now that he’d left the military.

He sighed as he gimped to his new apartment and saw his old friend Sara standing outside his door with her back against the wall. The change in her appearance threw him. No longer the gaunt Goth chick he’d grown up with, she’d let her hair grow out and return to its natural chestnut color and silky waves. It looked so much better that way. Plus, she’d put on a few pounds in all the right places, as highlighted by her skinny jeans and blazer. Very nice. His heart pinched at how much time had passed since he had last seen her—at least three years. He sighed.

At that moment, Sara grinned, her hazel eyes shining, skin glowing. Brae was a jackass for letting this one get away.

John yanked Sara into his arms. “Sara.”

She hugged him tight. “John, so good to see you!”

“You too! Thanks for coming by to help me unpack. Am I late?”

She shook her head and patted his chest. “No, I’m early. Figured I would stroll by, just in case. Where were you off to?”

John rooted around for his keys, hoping she didn’t see nor feel the tent winding down and get the wrong idea. “Got myself a job hopefully, getting my MBA.”

Sara bounced on her toes. “That’s great. So you’re definitely back for good.”

John nodded and sorted through the keys, looking for the right one. “Yep, back for good.”

“What about Brae?” Her gaze dropped. She tried to feign indifference. Her foot kicked a pebble nearby.

John wasn’t fooled. Those two idiots needed to realize they belonged together. “He is back, too. I believe, or soon will be. He had a lot less leave than me. When I was sick, he took all of his leave to help me recover.”

“Yeah, sounds like him. So both of you, eh.”

“Yep. What, you don’t want us home?” His voice rose on the last word, and he lifted an eyebrow. What was up with that? They were all still friends, best freaking friends forever. BFFFs as Sara used to say, making the guys cringe.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Colleen plays many roles. Not only is she a veteran, a mother, and a practicing physician, but she is a writer of science fiction and contemporary romances. Colleen’s dreams include surviving her son’s teenage years, exploring every continent on this planet, except Antartica, cause that’s way too cold, and winning the Nobel peace prize. Dream BIG!

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I personally was involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom, not deployed, but i cared for the people returning and their plight touched me. So many times people feel they can never be the same after an injury physical or otherwise. I wanted to show they could.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
Check out my website www.colleensmyers.com
Q. What books are you reading now?
A.
JD Robbs new book. Corruption in Death.

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