Letters From Home

Chapter One

Dear Lena

Two months, three days, and six hours until you come home. (No, I’m not counting)

Yesterday, I walked past the school and was reminded of the first time I saw you. You might not remember because you were scolding some bully for picking on a little kid. I always wondered what set you off. You were bigger than life, dark hair flying, mouth running, in Spanish! I had no idea what you were saying, but it didn’t matter, I think that’s when

I first fell in love with you…

Elena Rodriguez dropped the well-worn letter into her lap and stared out the tinted window, her stomach twisted into knots. No matter how many times she read it, nerves crept up on her. She didn’t even know who wrote the letter—letters. Thirteen of them, one for every month of her deployment and another for her birthday. What kind of crazy person expected her to meet him, on Christmas morning no less. If he knew her at all, he’d know she was going to church with her family first thing.

“Ay,” she growled under her breath. The passenger next to her shifted, looking at her with a questioning frown. Lena cleared her throat and smiled. “Sorry. Just thinking.”

When she found out who had made her fall in love with him without even telling her his name, she was going to kick his butt…and maybe love him back. She could hope, and maybe she’d find something like her parents had. Strong and enduring.

Cold air washed over her as she stepped off the bus into Northern California’s December mist. The driver pulled her army-green duffle from the cargo bay and set it on the ground at her feet. Her name was stenciled on the side with the last four digits of her social. “Thank you for your service.”

She smiled and shook the hand he offered. “Merry Christmas, sir.”

“Welcome home,” he added, then waved before driving off.

“Lena!” An oh-so-familiar voice rang across Raley’s parking lot, strong and clear—or just plain loud. Heels clattered over the cold cement, and jangling sounds of bracelets filled the air like bells in a Christmas song.

Lena relaxed in her sister’s arms, the worry of the unknown falling away. “Maria, girl,” she scolded, giving her younger sister a little shake and holding her out to do an initial assessment, “You need a jacket.”

“Never mind that. How was your flight home? Did you have to stay long on base before they set you free?” Maria looked her over from head to toe. “You lost weight, too much weight. Oh, but, it’s so good to see you.”

“I’m just glad to be home. Where is everyone else? No balloons? No band? Not even a roll of ticker tape for my return?”

“Very funny. We know you too well. You would be tempted to use your M16. Come on. Mom says to stop at the church and light a candle. Then we’ll go home.” Maria hooked her arm through Lena’s with a pregnant pause before she continued, “Have you gotten any more letters?”

“He wants to meet.” Lena still didn’t know what to think of it. A secret admirer? It was weird…yet romantic, too—for a soul as deprived as hers. She hadn’t had a date in eighteen months, and that last one…eh, not so good. “Christmas morning.”

The answering sigh was expected and familiar—sentimental and romantic Maria. “Have you figured out who it is?”

She threw her bag in the back of the car with a shrug and climbed in on the passenger side. “No. I’ve thought about it, but in the end, something stops me from really trying. Is it wrong to just enjoy the conversation? He’s kind, smart, funny. He likes kids and wants a large family. Of course, I’ll have to convince him otherwise about that.”

“Ha ha, hermana. You love us.” Maria tapped a finger on the steering wheel. “Just one guess, though. You have to have at least one guess.”

“You want to gossip,” Lena accused with a laugh. Of course she’d thought about it. For twelve months, she’d played a guessing game in her head. “I don’t know. If I knew, I might not be so taken.”

“So you are attracted.”

Lena sat back against the seat and enjoyed the passing neighborhoods. The houses decked in lights and ribbons and wreaths. Christmas had taken over her little town as it did every year. “Remember Manuel from the class above me?

He sells insurance now. Perhaps it’s him.”

“Oh.” Maria scowled and gave a thumbs down. “I hope not. I see him at the diner every Thursday night. Too fat!”

Maybe all the good, nice guys who wanted to settle down were happy with themselves just as they were. Love handles wouldn’t matter as long as he had a brain and a heart.

“All I know is, you won’t go alone, Elena.”

Lena shook her head in response. “Good Lord, I don’t need an audience to watch me make a fool of myself.”

“You want to play some golf today?”

Zack finished the coding on his computer screen, typed in a directive, and hit enter. He swiveled around in his chair, grabbing the half-empty beer from the desktop. “You must have me confused with someone else.”

“Come on. You’ve been home for going on seven months now. I’m determined to make a convert of you.” Mike Rodriguez had been his friend since third grade when Zack’s dad had moved them to Red Bluff. He’d been eight, an only child, and motherless. Living a few houses down from this big, loud, Catholic family had been his saving grace.

Especially on those days when his dad seemed to forget he existed.

“Uh, uh. No way. When I feel the need to hit something, I’ll go to the gym.”

Mike sighed. “Have you talked to Lena?”

Zack stilled in his chair. He’d avoided the topic. She didn’t know he was home for good, that he’d ETSed at the start of June. Was he anxious to see her? Hell, yes.

Nerves. Anticipation. It was all sitting in his stomach.

“I haven’t. She okay?”

Mike shrugged.

“What?” Zack sat up straighter. Coming down off a deployment wasn’t easy on the toughest men. “What happened? Where is she?”

Mike waved off his alarm. “She’s fine. No, that’s not right—”

Zack blew out a quiet breath and turned back to his desk, trying to look disinterested and resisting the urge to demand an explanation.

“I don’t know what it is.” His friend hesitated again. “She’s got something going on. It’s the same but different. You know how girls are, but Lena, she’s always been a little smarter, more reserved?”

A glance to the right showed Mike leaning against the door, taking a sip of beer. “It’s probably nothing,” he continued.

“She’s been going on about some guy.”

Zack’s stomach tightened with nerves. He looked up from the paperwork, the pen in his hand poised above the list of supplies he’d need this week. “We could form a posse,” he joked, knowing what was expected of him.

“Good idea.” Mike swallowed the last of his drink and looked around.

“Garbage is in the kitchen.” With not much better to do over the last few months, except wait for Lena’s return, Zack had taken to cleaning the old place. He never thought he’d be back, living in the house he’d grown up in. There were a few boxes left to go through, but since his dad’s move to the retirement community, neither of them seemed interested in digging up old memories.

“I gotta head out. You coming tonight?”

Of course, Lena’s homecoming party. “I’ll be there.”

“Good.” Mike tipped his bottle in a gesture of farewell. “I’ll catch you later. Hey, maybe we figure out who this guy is, eh? Show him who’s boss?”

Adrenaline spiked in his veins, but when Mike laughed, so did Zack. He’d always been as over-protective as Mike.

“Yeah, we’ll take care of it.”

Mike gave him a fist pump and left.

Zack stood and paced the small space behind his chair. Had she met someone? After all this time, while on deployment? Had someone else beat him to the punch?

He rubbed a hand against the back of his neck.

His Christmas morning surprise might take more work than he’d originally thought, especially with another man involved.