Authors: June Gray
Titles by June Gray
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Copyright Â© 2014 by June Gray.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-14187-2
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Berkley trade paperback edition / November 2014
Cover photos: “Couple”: Rolfo / Getty Images; “Birds”: Melinda Fawver / Shutterstock.
Cover design by Lesley Worrell.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
To my fellow writers.
Keep writing, my friends. Keep trying.
To my husband, Mark, for your never-ending support and epic bookkeeping. I appreciate all that you do so that I may be able to focus on writing.
To my daughters, Amelia and Abigail. Thank you for your patience, hugs, and kisses. If there's one thing I want you to learn from me, it's this: Your dreams can come true through a lot of hard work and a bit of luck. So work hard and dream big.
To my beta readers: Lara, Gillian, Shannon, Kerry, Liza, Victoria, and Beth. It's been quite the journey, ladies! Thank you for all you've done.
To my momâaka “Boon”âwho once again came out to stay with us while I wrote this book.
To bro-in-law Matthew, for putting up with my incessant texts asking about your time in Bagram. Thank you for going above and beyond, you Crazy American!
To my agent, Kim Whalen, for your guidance and expertise, and to my editor, Cindy Hwang, for this great partnership. Thank you, ladies, for believing in me. To Tara, Kristine, and Nina: thank you for all the help!
And once again, a huge thanks to the readers. Thank you for sticking by me when I wrote about Elsie and Henry, and thank you for coming back for Julie and Will. I hope you've enjoyed reading this series as much as I have writing it! This book marks the end of the Disarm series, but it is by no means the last you'll hear from me.
For more information on future releases, visit my blog at authorjunegray.com.
Once you have tasted flight,
you will forever walk the earth
with your eyes turned skyward,
for there you have been,
and there you will always long to return.
âLeonardo da Vinci
Over Five Years AgoÂ .Â .Â .
“I don't think that kind of loveâthe kind you read in romance novelsâactually 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 insideâbecause 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 perfectâlike 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
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 Kyleâthe man who had stepped up after Jason died and offered me a life of securityâto 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 leaviâ”
“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 weddingÂ .Â .Â .”
I backed away. “Oh, no, you are
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 scrâ”
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.