10 September 1615 hours
Captain John Raymond Braithwaite stared at the distinctive pale blue envelope. Real stationery, nonmilitary, standing out like a cool patch of shade in the barren desert he and the men of Delta Company were under orders to defend. He couldn’t suppress the tiny wave of pleasure initiated by the graceful handwriting. “P.O. Box 7679, Topeka, KS.”
He scanned each sweep of ink, trying to visualize a face and form to fit the sender—to fit Jenny. A series of composite images marched through his mind like a police lineup. A woman with brown hair and dark eyes followed by one with lighter hair and blue eyes. Nothing seemed right.
Too impatient to wait, he flipped the envelope over and carefully pried it open. His hands were dirty from unloading crates of ammunition, and smudges marred the edges of the flap, but he didn’t tear it.
Nobody laughed at the old “Dear John” joke anymore, but still, she didn’t write it.
If I try very hard, I can imagine you here. Long legs sprawled on that lumpy couch in the living room, or sneaking barefoot into the kitchen to eat Oreos and milk in the middle of the night.
This old house seems emptier than ever. The creaks in the floor have forgotten your step. It’s too quiet, and you’re too far away.
Too far away, a lifetime away. Something tightened in John’s chest, something caused by the thought of home and a woman waiting. Fantasy, she had said.
John’s life was about black-and-white, life and death. He didn’t know how to deal with fantasy. Her letters had created a past for him and had enticed him toward a future. It might be a fantasy to her, a silly diversion meant to entertain a soldier. To him, a career officer sitting in a tent on the edge of a war, it was a glimpse at a life he had never known. A gamble on a future he had never risked. Not until now, not until Jenny.
Are you well? Holed up in some dusty corner of a tent on a cot that smells of ancient boots? I’ve sent a package with batteries and magazines and a few other things you might like. Tell me what else you need, and I’ll find it.
What I need is you. Do you remember our trip to Seattle? When you borrowed your friend’s motorcycle to take me for a ride? I was nervous, and you went just fast enough to make me put my arms around you and hold on tight. You were warm and solid, and as long as I could touch you, I wasn’t afraid.
The image of her arms around him, her breasts pressed against his back, filled his mind. The desert, the surrounding jumble of equipment and men, faded out of existence. He could almost feel the wind on his face, the sense of freedom he always had on a bike. Freedom. Home. It had never seemed so far away, or so enticing. All because of Jenny.
I’m not afraid now. I know you’ll be fine. This whole thing could be called off any day, then you could come home to those who love you. I have a bet with Tina that you’ll be home for my birthday. You always manage to surprise me. Your face at my door would be the best ever.
Please take care of your men for their families, and take special care of yourself—for me.
John stared at her name for a long time, but couldn’t picture her. A tangle of worry and elation knotted his thoughts. He didn’t know anything about her except her first name and the images in her letters, yet she seemed to understand him. How did she know all the right things to say? Things he would never admit he needed to hear. Words loaded with wishes and hopes for a future. The kind of words that didn’t condemn a professional soldier for being what he was, or for doing what he’d signed up to do.
Take care of your men. How did she know?
“Hey, J.R.!” Captain Wayne Dixon pushed his way into the tent. “I see you got another letter.”
“Uh-huh.” John’s tone was noncommittal as he slid the letter into his shirt pocket. He wasn’t about to give Wayne any ammunition to use against him. Wayne might be his best friend, but sometimes he could be a tenacious pain in the butt.
“So, the pen-pal experiment is working out?”
John wanted to curse at Wayne’s self-satisfied expression. He got to his feet and moved around the stacked crates that served as a desk. “Yeah. It’s just a little weird getting letters from someone you’ve never met.” And what letters, he thought to himself. “Are you ever going to tell me who this woman is?”
“Hell, no! Linda would cut me off for good. I promised, and wives tend to keep track of that kind of stuff.” Wayne shook his head sorrowfully. “Besides, with your luck it’s probably Madonna or Miss Universe—” he smirked “—or General Arlin’s daughter. Remember? The blonde who wore that white miniskirt to the parade grounds and sat in the bleachers.”
John groaned like a man in pain. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing, old buddy,” he said, guiding Wayne toward the tent flap. “This female may be coyote ugly and weigh as much as a Bradley—” his serious expression transformed into a wicked smile “—but she gives good letter.”