“What the hell were you thinking, giving him your name?” Mary Ellen asked, her voice hot with frustration.
“It just came out! I can’t take it back now. Besides, he just has my first name. And he knows I’m twenty-four. Nothing else. And if he bugs me, I’ll block the number or just change it again.”
Mary Ellen shook her head in disgust. “You’re too trusting.”
“Did you give out any other information?” Mary Ellen asked.
The stinging almost-accusation hurt. Instead of showing it, Ariel made a mock face of horror. “You mean, I shouldn’t have given him my last name, social security number and current address?”
“Knock it off,” Mary Ellen said, bumping Ariel with her hip. “Can’t be too careful. Come on, you believe that too, it’s why we stick together when we go out. When we hook up.”
And she had a point. Mary Ellen’s heart was otherwise occupied and Ariel was too busy working on her masters in social work to give a real relationship a go. But sometimes the itch just needed to be scratched, and when they got the urge, the two friends headed out together and found men willing to take them both on. One man or two, it didn’t matter. The safety-in-numbers theory was their motto, and in the years they’d been going out together they had no reason to doubt it worked.
“You sound like an unconvincing alcoholic in the middle of an intervention.” Mary Ellen laughed.
Just then four beeps sounded from the work bench. Ariel’s heart sped up and her palms started to sweat in response. Pavlov’s dog, she thought with mild irritation. But she couldn’t deny the source. The hope that the text might be from Travis.
Only one more stall to do and she was more than happy to leave it to Mary Ellen, given it was her job to run the stables for the camp. Ariel dropped her gloves in a bucket and washed her hands in the utility sink. Then with a deep breath, she opened her phone to read the text.
Just wanted to see how your day was.
She’d never seen his face, never heard his voice. It was like some unspoken boundary between them that neither would overstep. But for some reason, his simple presence through the phone was a version of comfort. She would never meet him. But she enjoyed their interactions.
“What’d he say?”
“Ah!” Ariel placed a hand over her erratically beating heart, took a few deep breaths then turned around. “Do you have to keep doing that?”
Mary Ellen smiled. “You looked like you had something to hide. You guys sexting?”
“Sexting? You’ve got to be kidding me. What are you, seventeen?” Ariel punched her friend lightly on the shoulder. “No. It’s just conversation.”
“Uh huh,” Mary Ellen said, one eyebrow arched in the How dumb do you think I am? face. “Well, if you’re done, then shoo. You’re in my way and I’ve got horses to groom.”
“Love you too!” Ariel blew her friend a kiss and walked out of the stable and into the fresh air.
* * * * *
“Exactly how did I get roped into coming here again?” Pete Goodwin asked.
Travis Donovan frowned at his friend. “You agreed to come, you idiot. You didn’t have to. I told you I’d be taking up most of post-deployment leave looking for Sarah. And you said you’d be bored with just boning chicks by yourself while I was gone and invited your ugly ass along for the ride.”
Pete grunted at that.
“You could still be back at Camp Pendleton, lazing away leave with hot women.”
Pete shrugged his shoulders and stared out the window. Typical response.
Trav drove from the Philadelphia International airport toward the city, familiarizing himself with the sights and sounds of his hometown. He hadn’t been back in years. Ten, to be exact, since he graduated high school and joined the Marines. He wouldn’t have come back now, either, if he hadn’t been so worried about his sister.
His phone vibrated in the cup holder of the rental car. He grabbed the cell and tossed it into Pete’s lap. “Make yourself useful. Read that, will you?”
A few clicks of buttons being pressed followed, then Pete’s voice. “My day was messy. How about yours? A.” A short pause, then, “Is this A person the chick you’ve been texting with?”
“The one with Sarah’s number? Yeah. I thought at first she might know where Sarah was, but she had no clue. She gave a few suggestions of how to find her, but none of them worked out. And we just kind of…kept talking. Nothing big, just small stuff.”
“Uh huh,” Pete said and Travis could almost hear his friend roll his eyes. “How do you know it’s a she? Could be a dude.”
“Her name’s Ariel,” Travis said through clenched teeth. Then with concentrated effort, relaxed the chokehold he had on the steering wheel.
“Still,” Pete went on, his voice thoughtful. “She could be a dog. Completely disgusting.”
“Shut up, Pete. She’s not ugly,” Travis muttered as they rolled to a stop for a red light.
“So you’ve seen a picture?”
No, he hadn’t. But the instinct to defend Ariel was oddly strong. It was crazy. But he just knew somehow she wasn’t ugly. And even if she was, she’d been one of the most helpful people he’d ever encountered. He wondered vaguely if she was as nice in person as she appeared through text. He’d never find out. “She just isn’t ugly, all right? Lay off.”
“Good phone sex then, right? I’ve never seen the point, personally, but if you can get a girl moaning over the pho— Jesus, Trav!” Pete rubbed his shoulder where Trav had given him a none-too-gentle punch.
“Shut up about her,” he warned.
“All right, sorry. I’ll stop.”
Pete’s quick and easy reply went a long way in cooling Travis’ blood.
“Shit,” he said, driving on with the green light. “I’m sorry. Just lay off, all right? It’s not like that. It’s just… She’s just… It’s not like that.”
“Okay then.” With his usual easygoing nature, Pete gave up the fight. Pete was looking around the scene of Trav’s childhood. “Topic change time. Ah, how about signing our re-up papers? Any clue what base you want to request from the detailer this time?”
“Yeah, I dunno.” Trav knew it was time to renew his Marine Corps contract for another three years. But unlike years past, he wasn’t as gung-ho about it. The nervous excitement of seeing what base he was being sent to next was missing. He hadn’t had the time to figure out why yet, but he needed to soon.
“We need to talk about it. Papers are going to be waiting for us when we get back.”
“I know.” Just one more thing on his list.
© KJ Reed
Author: K J Reed
Publisher: Ellora’s Cave/Jasmine Jade
Staff Sergeant Travis Donovan is on the hunt for his little sister. Though he hasn’t spoken to her in years, his last deployment reminded him how short life is, and it’s time to reconnect. Only problem? The one piece of contact information he has, a cell phone number, belongs to someone else now. A woman named Ariel. A woman he can’t get his mind off.
Ariel Winston doesn’t have time for a man. Her plate is full with work and grad school and family obligations, and she’s fine with that. But the innocent friendship she’s sparked with Trav, the anonymous texter, can’t hurt. Right? It’s not like she’ll ever meet the guy face to face.
But when these two collide during a night of voyeuristic pleasure, they have decisions to make. Will they balk at what fate has dropped into their laps? Or be willing to look beyond the unique circumstances and enjoy their finite time together?