UPDATE: The winner is…Armenia!
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What’s sexier than a cowboy? How about SEAL who’s also a cowboy? How about a SEAL/Cowboy who also doesn’t give up on love? I had fun writing this story about a woman wooed by her high school sweetheart relentlessly over the years of their separation—due to her stubbornness and his many tours of duty. In the end, what woman could resist such a heady combination?
Comment for a chance to win your choice of one of my Lone Star Lovers books!
Rules of Engagement
Callie Murphy had never been one to moon over a man. Fairytale romances were best left to novels. After all, she’d seen first-hand how transitory love could be after watching her mother drift in and out of three marriages, only to be left disappointed when “true love” faded. However, the video Callie watched for the thousandth time stirred a wistfulness inside that left her feeling restless and thinking about what might have been.
Just the sight of that warm, steady gaze enveloped her in warmth. The deep timbre of his voice as he sang raised the fine hairs on her arms and caused her nipples to prickle, because she remembered that same voice murmuring in her ear in the darkness.
Knowing she’d never get his approval for security’s sake, she’d snuck this recording of their Skype session using a plug-in installed on her computer because she’d wanted something of him to linger after they’d said their goodbyes. This recording been made before their final breakup. Now, watching and listening to him was a form of self-torture. Wearing desert camouflage pants and a brown tee stretching across a well-muscled chest, his dark hair a little shaggy and his beard scruffy, he was all man. All complication. Those piercing blue eyes stared into the camera at her, steady and determined, and Callie couldn’t help the tears welling in her eyes.
Prickles of dismay swept over her as she imagined some other woman, someone not her, on the receiving end of one of his calls, being serenaded with that husky, smooth-as-silk voice. The last time he’d proposed, she’d been firm, making it clear she had no interest in leaving behind the life she’d built in Two Mule, Texas while he was set on a career in the Navy. Rightfully, he should have moved on. No one here in Two Mule would ever fault him. No one really understood why she kept refusing him, but then they hadn’t walked in her shoes through her childhood.
Her mother had followed that “broken road,” uprooting Callie three times, from the friends she’d made, from the roots she’d tried so desperately to sink deep into every place she’d lived. She’d never make that same mistake. Love faded, turned bitter and dark. When love ended, good people drifted apart, or worse, struck out at each other. She’d lived it, first-hand.
So when Derek had stood on her doorstep that last day before heading back to Little Creek, where no doubt his team would be deployed on more dangerous secret missions in the Middle East, Africa, or whatever foreign hellhole the powers that be scrambled a SEAL team for, she’d shut the door on everything he’d offered, despite the fact he’d been sincere—and despite the fact her own heart had twisted inside her chest at the disappointment darkening his eyes.
Watching the video now, him seated on a narrow cot strumming a guitar while he sang about roads leading him straight to some other woman, Callie couldn’t help sniffling. He’d known even before that last proposal that she’d say no. And yet, here he’d been, reaching out to her, letting her see inside his heart as he strummed out his pain.
Watching him as he’d given her a smile, and then sat back to pull his guitar across his legs, she remembered everything she’d felt—nostalgia for their long-shared past, irritation he’d never give up, and joy, deep inside, that his love had never waned, because she was selfish like that. Although she’d been unwilling to hitch her star along with his, she’d depended on his love.
She’d met him in high school, and they’d dated steadily. They’d even been one of the shining couples of the royal court at homecoming. At that time, she’d been carried away, in love, forgetting the hard lessons she’d learned, because he’d been so attentive, so affectionate, bringing her flowers on every monthly anniversary, giving her a tiny diamond promise ring in their senior year.
They’d talked about the future, but only in vague terms, her in terms of the house she’d have and the kids she’d want, him of all the places he wanted to see. One day, close to graduation, he’d arrived at her mother’s house to tell her he’d signed enlistment papers and would be heading to Coronado, California for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training as soon as he graduated, and her world had come tumbling down.
She knew enough from listening to him talk to his friends about Navy SEALs to realize what he intended to become would put him in incredible danger. “How could you do that?” she cried, slapping his chest.
Derek reached out his hands, but she dodged backward. He’d stood, brows drawn down into a wrinkle and scratched his chin. “I thought you’d be happy. You know I don’t want to go to college, but this could mean everything to us. We’ll travel—”
“You’ll travel. I’d be stuck in the desert in California or on the East coast while you…” Her voice broke, causing her to pause and suck in a deep breath. When she had herself back under control, she leveled a narrow-eyed stare on him. “Have I ever once said I wanted to travel?”
His dark brows furrowed in a deep frown. “Well, yeah, you dream about goin’ to Paris.”
“For a week.” She glared, all her anger there for him to see. “How could you do this to me?”
His mouth firmed, and his expression closed. All the sparkle in his blue eyes dimmed. After that, the last days of high school had been a misery because he’d barely spoken to her.
Which only reinforced what she’d always known. Love never lasted. And his love of adventure was stronger than anything he felt for her.
Still, they hadn’t been able to completely break their bonds. Their mutual attraction was just too strong. They’d entered another phase of their relationship and seen each other off and on over the ten years he’d been away, even going on a dates when he was in town, which they’d both enjoyed. She’d written letters and sent him care packages filled with homemade cookies when he’d complained about mess hall food. “Met” his buddies through their correspondence, telling her how much they enjoyed her cookies and through the Skyped conversations they loved to interrupt with friendly shoves and wide grins. She felt she knew them. After all, this on-again, off-again connection had been going on for a few years.
The last time Derek had leave, he’d been a constant fixture on her doorstep. But once again on the last day before he caught a plane back to Virginia, he’d asked her to think about marrying him.
“Callie, I love you, have loved you for so long,” he’d said, holding both her hands. “But we’re not kids anymore. We both deserve more. Marry me. You don’t have to see the world—be my world. The rest will all work out.”
She’d swayed toward him, mesmerized by the heat in his eyes, her body still humming from his lovemaking. But she’d shaken her head and slowly pulled away her hands. Maybe out of habit. She wasn’t sure, because dear God, that time she’d been tempted to say yes.
The moment she’d withdrawn, she’d seen his jaw tighten. He’d given her a small smile. “Baby, I can’t do this anymore,” he’d said, his voice raw. “I won’t bother you again.”
Seeing him turn to walk away filled her with panic, and her breath lodged painfully in her chest. “Derek, I’ll write.”
“Don’t,” he’d said over his shoulder, a hand dropping as though he were tossing something away.
That had been five months ago, and she still heard that single, bitter word repeat in her dreams. Now, it was too late for anything but regrets.
The doorbell rang, and she closed the screen just as Derek ended the song and stared one last time into the camera. She’d frozen that moment dozens of times to read his expression. There was a hint of a promise, a firmness in his jaw. He’d made up his mind about something. He’d known even then he was going to move on if she didn’t give him the answer he longed for. The song he’d chosen, Broken Road, had said it all.
What had he expected? She’d told him on a dozen different occasions that they had no future, because he was the boy who wanted to see the world and she was girl who wanted to plant deep roots. But at last, he’d taken her at her word.
The doorbell rang again. She glanced down and grimaced. Today was her day off, and she was still dressed in her pajamas and a tatty old robe. It being the first week of December, the morning air would hold a little frosty bite. But what did it matter?
“Coming,” she called out, pasting on a polite smile. When she swung open the door, Margie the mail lady was waiting there, a friendly grin on her broad face, which exposed a gap from a missing tooth. Something that always caught Callie’s eye. Hadn’t the woman ever heard of partials?
“I have a package for you. It was too big to put inside your mailbox.” She handed the box to Callie. “You got big plans this weekend?”
Holding the package against her chest, Callie snorted and hoped the other woman wouldn’t linger long on her stoop. “This is Two Mule. Unless I hit the lottery, it’s gonna be the same ole, same ole.”
Margie gave her a wink. “Well, maybe you’ll have a better weekend than you expect,” she said, her smile turning sly. “How’s that handsome boyfriend of yours doin’?”
“Not a clue.” Callie shook her head. “Derek and I broke up a while ago.”
The older woman sighed. “A damn shame that. He’s a good-lookin’ man.”
Callie’s smile was getting stiff, but at last, Margie waved and backed off the porch.
“Thanks for delivering this…” she called after the postal lady, “…whatever it is.” She closed the door, eyeing the return address. There wasn’t one.
After heading to the kitchen counter, she dug for scissors in a drawer, then slit the packing tape to open it. Inside was a large book, an album, she realized. She pulled it from the box and flipped the cover back, only to draw a deep, sharp breath. The first photo was of her and Derek at the prom, both looking so young and in love. She flipped more pages and realized this album was Derek’s, because every page was filled with pictures that chronicled his life—his time with her in high school, his years of training, each graduation, pictures of his friends looking dusty and tired, sitting in some tent or barracks, interspersed with more pictures of her—ones she’d sent of her life, ones he’d taken when they were together. The album spoke of a disjointed life, but one that included the things that were most important to him, her, and his new military family.
Callie burst into tears. It was all too much—the melancholy that had lingered ever since she’d watched the video—now this? Her heart broke into little pieces as moisture tracked down her cheeks and her nose began to run. She wanted to pitch the album into the nearest trash can so she didn’t have to look at it again, but she kept it open, held at arms’ length so her tears wouldn’t spot a glossy page. Why had he sent this to her?
The phone rang and she hiccupped, wiped her face with the back of one hand, and closed the album, slipping it under the seat of the sofa as she headed to the phone. With a sniff, she lifted the receiver to her ear.
“How are you doing today?”
Macy Pettigrew’s whisky-flavored voice had Callie straightening her shoulders. Her boss and best friend was the least sentimental woman she knew. She didn’t call employees or her friends to simply ask them whether they were well, so the fact Callie had been wallowing in self-pity wasn’t something she was prepared to share. Macy would only tsk and tell her to she’d made her bed—without Derek—and now was the time to pull up her big girl panties.
“Do you need me for something?” Callie asked nonchalantly, an effort that was spoiled by her breathless delivery.
“Do you need me? You sound upset.”
A frown drew her brows together. “Really?” she muttered. “Who is this? Did aliens steal my boss’s body?”
“Ha-ha. Your voice sounds funny. You gotta cold, hon?”
“Allergies,” Callie said, wiping her eyes one last time. “That why you called me? You worried I won’t be in to work on Monday?”
Macy chuckled. “Margie’s already been by your house. Said you looked a little down, and wondered if you were moonin’ over some fine man you kicked to the curb.”
Slumping against the nearest wall, Callie rolled her eyes. The gift of a small town was also its curse. The grapevine was short as hell. Had someone had seen her watching Derek on her computer? “Am I really so predictable?”
After a long pause, Macy cleared her throat. “Saw his mama yesterday in the grocery store. She says he’s comin’ home. Be here any day. You gonna see him?”
Derek’s coming home? Callie gripped the handset hard. No wonder Margie had been grinning. She must have known. “I already told you; we broke up the last time he came home. He hasn’t contacted me so I don’t know his plans.”
Macy cleared her throat. “Still, the fact he’s back so soon has to mean something.”
“Maybe he just misses his mom. The last time he left he made it clear we were done.” Callie closed her eyes against a new welling of tears.
A sigh drifted over the line. “You need a pick-me-up? We could meet at Shooters for drinks.”
“I don’t feel much like company.”
“Well, if you need a shoulder to cry on…”
“Thanks, Macy.” Callie let her gaze stray to the computer monitor where Derek’s stare seemed to meet hers across the distance. “Macy, did I make a mistake?”
“I can’t tell you that, hon. You had your reasons. Sorry-assed ones, if you ask me. But Derek’s always known what’s important to you. And he knows you don’t trust easy. If he got tired of tryin’ to prove to you that you can trust him, can’t say as I blame him.”
Why did hearing her perfectly legitimate reasons for saying ‘no’ make her decision sound stupid? Callie sniffed. “Sure you don’t need me this weekend?”
“No properties to show. Stay home. Get stinkin’ drunk if you have to. He will show up in town, and you need to be ready.”
After Callie hung up, she glanced down at her ratty robe. She’d had her cry. And Macy knew she wasn’t much of a drinker, but Callie got her point. She’d spend the weekend memorizing Derek’s photo album and pouring through memories—one last time before she delivered it to his mother and moved on. Had he sent her the pictures as his way of purging her from his past? Derek was lost to her. She’d been the one to let him go, and she had no one but herself to blame for that choice.
The doorbell rang again, and she rolled her eyes. If her mother was standing on her step, ready to tell her to go after her man seein’ as he was coming home…
She opened the door. Sunlight blinded her but outlined the tall frame of the man waiting on her porch. Not that she needed to see his features to know who he was. Broad shoulders seemed to span the doorframe. A taut abdomen and narrow hips drew her hungry glance. He wore blue jeans, a tee that stretched over his muscled torso, and his old scuffed cowboy boots. His feet shifted.
He reached out a finger and tipped up her face. An achingly familiar gesture she’d missed. “Mornin’, Callie,” he said softly.