“Don’t you try to use my son against me!” the pretty blonde railed. She was tall and thin with perfectly manicured nails and the long, lithe body of hot yoga enthusiast. However, in her case, that figure was the result of riding horses. Vanessa Phillips stood there in her jodhpurs and boots raging at her husband for the fourth time this week.
She stood a foot in front of Kimberly, who sat at her desk, nervously typing up an invoice, wishing the pair of them would take the skirmish outside.
No such luck.
“That’s not what I’m doing, Vanessa. I just think it would be good for him if we tried to give him a more peaceful environment, especially before I leave.”
Charles Phillips, Kimberly’s boss, the founder of Phillips Construction Company, was leaving for Iraq in a matter of days. The Great Recession that had started a couple of years ago had taken a bite out of the company’s business. The company was in trouble and the only way to fend off creditors was for Charles to take a contract position in Iraq. The construction company would close while he was gone, and he intended to open it again once he returned, but that would be at least two years. Kimberly didn’t know the details of Charles’ and Vanessa’s personal finances, but from all the times Vanessa had stormed into the office railing at Charles about money, she’d inferred their situation was dire.
Kimberly had been working as an assistant for Charles since she’d lost her job at the Dallas Daily Times about a year and a half earlier. Journalism wasn’t the easiest of fields these days. With more and more people getting their news online, the need for staff reporters lessened all the time.
But she hadn’t stopped writing when she lost her job. No, she began writing freelance articles in her off-time—mostly for the web, and she’d built up a pretty decent income stream from it, which would be essential from now on.
Kimberly’s fingers flew deftly across the keyboard, tuning out the argument between her boss and his wife until it reached a fever pitch, and she could no longer avoid hearing them.
“You are worthless, do you hear me? Worthless! And don’t worry. I’ll find someone else while you’re gone. In fact I’ve already got somebody picked out, and he’ll make a way better father to Benji than you.” With that Vanessa stormed out, slamming the flimsy trailer door behind her, shaking the walls.
Embarrassed to be party to such an outburst, Kimberly wanted to crawl under the floor. It hadn’t been her fault, but she felt guilty, like she’d been eavesdropping, even though she knew it hadn’t been her fault. Not sure what to do, she cut her eyes at Charles, who stood with his muscular arms dangling at his sides, defeated.
“Sorry you had to hear that,” he said softly, then walked back into his office.
She wanted to go after him, tell him how horrible she thought Vanessa was for treating him so badly, but she didn’t dare.
Kimberly had been doing the books for Charles’ construction company for the last several months, having taken over the job that belonged to Vanessa, who neglected to do it. Vanessa’s idea of keeping books was jotting down some numbers on a napkin or scribbling them on the back of an envelope, and from what Kimberly could tell, the problem wasn’t as much an income one, but rather that of outgo.
She didn’t see the Phillips’ personal bills, but she knew Charles cleared more than enough cash each month to pay most people’s bills. Vanessa always seemed to have just come from a shopping spree, yet she complained incessantly about not having enough money. The only conclusion Kimberly could draw was that Vanessa was living beyond their means.
The idea that Charles had to go to war to pay off Vanessa’s bills made her seethe. The woman’s complete disregard for others galled her. Had it ever occurred to her that Charles’ going overseas affected lots of people? All of his employees for example. Next week they would all be out of a job.
God, the two of them were frustrating! It would be a blessing to say goodbye to this job and the stress that came with it.
She sighed as she sent the invoice to the printer. That wasn’t entirely true. She’d be happy to be rid of Vanessa, but if she were honest with herself, she hated for Charles to leave.
Somehow, she’d developed feelings for him. Feelings that were not appropriate to feel for a married man, or your boss. And they’d snuck right up on her and then one day she realized the way she thought about Charles was not the way you thought about a mere friend. But Charles was married, no matter how unhappily, so she made a point to squash those feelings.
Kimberly met Charles through their mutual friend James LeBlanc a couple of years ago, and when she’d been let go from the newspaper, Charles was at his wits’ end with his wife’s ‘help’ with the business. It seemed a perfect opportunity for them both.
When she came to work for him, she’d known Charles was an honest, hardworking guy, the type of man who sacrificed for others. A perfect military type who would lay down his life for someone else. In fact, he was one of the few people Kimberly would say she’d trust with her life. She’d seen how he treated his workers, with fairness and respect. In addition to that, he was a wonderful father to his son, Benji—always attentive and with the patience of an angelic preschool teacher. He made her smile. He might act like a preschool teacher, but he looked more like a professional boxer. The man was ripped, strong as an ox and just as imposing.
Damn, it pissed Kimberly off to see him married to a woman who treated him so badly.
They’d been in counseling and they were headed for divorce. His going to Iraq was the first step in the two of them officially separating. It just sucked that Charles had to go to Iraq to make it happen, but that was the case and Kimberly couldn’t do a thing about it.
Besides, it was really none of her business.
Regardless, she’d taken to fantasizing about what things would be like when Charles returned. In two years, he’d be divorced and perhaps then he might notice her… in a romantic way. She made up scenarios in her head where she would stay in touch with him while he was gone. Nothing too crazy, maybe send him a birthday card and the occasional ‘hey, how’s it going in the war zone’ email. Perhaps she’d punctuate it with a funny cartoon. Charles loved The Far Side, it was his favorite. He had a bulletin board full of those cartoons in the office. She glanced at them and grinned.
The telephone rang, jolting Kimberly from her thoughts and she answered it. “Phillips Construction.”
Kimberly crossed her legs and tried not to stare at the muscles that bulged under Charles’ shirt. He wore one of those body-hugging compression shirts that showed off every plane and valley on his rippling chest and abdomen. He would be shipping out for Iraq the next day, and she was doing her best to behave as if this were a ‘normal’ meeting, employee and employer having a cup of joe at the new coffee shop on the corner. Trying not to feel weird that she’d asked him if she could do an interview with him before he left.
“So what do you think you’ll miss most about home?”
“My son,” Charles said without hesitation.
“Of course.” Kimberly covered her eyes with her hand. That was a stupid question. The man had an eight-year-old son. Of course he would miss Benji most.
“Will you be able to communicate with him when you’re in Iraq?”
“I hope so. It will depend where I’m stationed, how well their communication is set up, the range, all that. But I plan to Skype if possible.”
She nodded encouragingly. Charles had only agreed to do this interview because they were friends. It was for a freelance article, and he knew once he left and his business shut down she’d be struggling to make a full-time job out of her writing. She’d told him it would give her career a boost to have a heartfelt ‘local boy goes off to war’ piece to her credit, so he made time to sit down with her even though the next day he would board a flight to Kuwait. From there he would take a bus to the Al Salem Air Force Base where he would be flown somewhere in Iraq, a contract employee of the U.S. military for the next two years.
“What will you be doing on a daily basis? What sort of contribution will you make to the ‘war effort’?
His teeth gleamed when he spoke, and she couldn’t help but wonder what toothpaste he used. His blond surfer-boy looks distracted her, and she almost forgot to listen to his response.
“I’ll be overseeing whatever sort of construction projects they have for us. Carpentry, electrical, plumbing, we’ll do it all. Whatever Uncle Sam needs.”
“Will you have regular hours?”
“Twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week.”
“What about Sunday? You don’t have a day off?”
“Nope. Not when you’re in a war zone.” Then he chuckled. “Maybe we’ll get a few eight-hour days. And some leave time, a couple of weeks each year.”
She looked at him like he had two heads. How could anyone sign up to work for two years without having days off? That was nuts.
“You left the military a few years ago when your commission expired. How will your military training serve you once you’re overseas?”
Charles shrugged. “I guess they like hiring people who know how to handle themselves when the bombs start to drop. I’ll do my job, same as here, except in more dangerous conditions.” He chuckled, perhaps to lighten the mood, but it fell flat.
Discomfort crept into her cheeks. Those were all the formal questions she’d prepared. Kimberly pressed a button and stopped her phone, which had been recording their conversation. She wanted to keep talking to him, but she’d run out of questions that were appropriate for the interview. She wanted to throw her arms around him and tell him not to go, but of course she didn’t. Instead, Kimberly slowly began to gather up her things.
“Is that it?”
Not trusting her voice, she chewed her bottom lip and fought hard not to let him see the tears stinging at the back of her eyes. What would he think if he saw her react like that?
She glanced down as she tossed her notebook and phone into her purse. “Do you have a big going-away dinner or something planned tonight?”
Her head jerked up. “You’re not spending the evening with Benji?”
“Said goodbye to him yesterday. His mom has him tonight, wouldn’t let me have him.”
“Seriously? On the last night before his father leaves for two years?” Unbelievable.
Charles stood up and forced his hands into his pockets. “It’s okay.”
No, it’s not, she wanted to say, but kept silent.
“You wanna grab something to eat?” he asked.
“Sure,” she heard herself say as he ushered her to the door.
He wanted to spend his last night in the United States with her? A flush of pleasure warmed her neck. Of course it wasn’t a romantic thing, but still—it was nice. Maybe when he got back… Her mind shifted to the dream she’d been having.
It had been several months since the dream about Charles started. In her dream she was in Charles’ workshop with him. She asked him to show her his ‘tools.’ She blushed just thinking about it. As he showed her his array of woodworking tools, he came up behind her and held her close. She’d moaned with pleasure, hoping, praying he’d take her. The beating of her heart sounded in her ears.
His voice roused her from her reverie.
“What?” she asked. “I’m sorry.” She hadn’t heard what he’d said.
He grinned. “Hello, Kimberly… I just asked if it was okay if I drove?”
“Yes, that’s fine. Sorry about that. I, I got distracted.”
“It’s okay. I know you have a lot of projects you’re working on. If you need to go home, work… I’m fine to go grab something by myself.”
“No! It’s not that. No, let’s get something to eat. What food will you miss most?”
He groaned. “Mexican.”
“Great, I love Mexican food. You pick the place.”
He drove to Matt’s El Rancho—her favorite Mexican place, too. She sighed a lovesick sigh. Why was it she only realized she was in love with Charles once he’d applied for a job in Iraq? Why couldn’t she have seen it before then? If it wasn’t for that stupid dream. The dream was making it worse. Not only did she see him every day, but now she was seeing him in her dreams. A lot of him. She stared at his big, strong laborer’s hands and her stomach did a flip. What she wouldn’t give to have those hands all over her body.
She could say something tonight, right now. For all intents and purposes he and his wife were separated. It would be hot to give him a proper sendoff. He might be down for it…
But she knew she wouldn’t say a word, for the same reason she hadn’t told him before now.
The timing was crap. If they were ever going to give things between them a go, she needed to wait until he came back, and put him out of her mind as best she could while he was gone. If not, the distance and time apart would kill anything they could have together.
Always the gentleman, he opened the door for her, even pulled out her chair for her when they got to the table. To hell with it. She gave him a flirtatious raise of the eyebrows. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” he said, sitting down next to her, rather than across from her. His close proximity sent a shiver of longing down her spine, and she prayed he didn’t notice. But how could he not realize? Either he was blind or she was too opaque.
When they both opened their menus at the same time, his hand brushed against hers, sending an electric current up her arm. It didn’t seem possible that he didn’t feel it too.
Yet he showed no signs of experiencing the same magnetic pull. She focused on the menu. Forget about the dream, the sex, how much you want to squeeze his thigh under the table and nibble on that cute little earlobe of his.
Stop it and eat.
She popped a chip in her mouth.
As soon as they ordered their food, he said, “Hey, I want to get your email address.”
She giggled. “Email—why? You’re not big on email.” It was true. He hated phones and email, preferring to have her handle as much of the communication as possible. If ever there was a guy being dragged into the digital age it was him. Charles liked doing it old-school and talking to people face to face.
“I am now,” he said, producing a bulky-cased phone from his pocket.
“What is that?”
“It’s a military grade case for my new phone. Waterproof, bomb-proof, the works.”
“You’re kidding. Bomb-proof?”
“Yeah. If it’s more than twenty-five feet away the phone won’t be damaged by the percussion that would normally damage the electronics.”
She just stared at him, her stomach churning, more with anxiety than hunger.
“You think that’s something, you should see my computer.”
“Your computer?” She knew Charles had a computer. He had to have one for work, but he was much too outdoorsy, too active to sit down inside and fool around on a computer for longer than absolutely necessary.
“Yeah. It’s a ‘Toughbook,’ looks like it’s outfitted in armor, but the guy promised me it would hold up.”
“That’s cool.” She didn’t know what else to say. He was about to enter a world that was completely foreign to her. And all so he could free himself from his wife. She scribbled her email address onto a piece of paper and handed it to him. He took it and was about to write his down for her before she stopped him. “I have yours.”
He grinned. “Duh.”
In a serious tone, she asked, “Are you sure you have to do this?”
He nodded. “Yep. I needed to do it last year, but I couldn’t imagine being away from Benji for so long.”
“So what made you change your mind?”
“Vanessa’s rages. I knew it had to be bad for him to live in the midst of that. We even went to see a counselor who told us that.”
“Yeah. The counselor said that in most cases kids do better with two parents, but in our case, she said we were so toxic together that it was causing him anxiety. She said he’d be better off if we divorced. Trouble is, Vanessa’s run up so much debt we’re about to lose our house. We’re drowning in credit card debt, so there’s no way for me to move out. It’s impossible to set up a second household when we can’t even afford the first.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was that bad.”
He nodded. “Yep. But this way, we can get out of debt and get divorced.”
“What about her? Did she get a job?”
“She says that she’s going to, always telling me about this interview or some opportunity on the horizon, but I’ll believe it when I see it. That woman just wants to lie around and do nothing. Except spend more money.”
His words were harsh, but Kimberly had known Vanessa for almost as long as she’s known Charles. At first she’d liked her, but as time went by, Vanessa displayed the ugly side to their marriage for all to see, and it was difficult not to take his side. Vanessa spent a lot of time screaming at him, she drank too much, and got belligerent with him in public. She remembered one party in particular where she’d made a big scene and tried to punch him in the face. Charles had dodged the blow and restrained her, but it hadn’t been pleasant to watch. Since that incident he’d started leaving Vanessa at home when he hung out with her and their friends James and Sloane.
“So by going to Iraq, you two will be considered separated?” she asked.
“I’m not sure how much more separated I can be than an ocean. And as much as I’m going to miss Benji, it’s going to be a thrill not having to listen to her.” He smiled.
“Even if it’s in a war zone?”
He chuckled. “That’s pretty bad, isn’t it, but yeah. At this point, a war zone is preferable to living with her, and I’m afraid it’s the only way out.”
She shook her head. “You’re very brave,” she said, looking deep into his aquamarine eyes.
“Nah.” He brushed her words aside. “Just got to suck it up and do what’s necessary. What about you? What do you have planned for the next two years?” He took a bite out of the largest burrito Kimberly had ever seen.
“Well, you know I’m trying to make it as a freelance writer. I’ve got an interview with a local magazine tomorrow.”
“If they like me, I’m going to be doing a lifestyle column for them. All sorts of things out and about in Dallas.”
He wrinkled his brow. “But aren’t you kind of a homebody?”
She slapped at his arm playfully. “I go out. Just maybe not every night…”
“James and Sloane will be able to help. You probably have some other friends who are movers and shakers.”
She swallowed a bite of her taco. “But you’re right. I’d rather stay home and write. If I could get my foot in the door with the magazine it could be invaluable.”
“I hope you get it.” The corners of his eyes crinkled with what she interpreted as affection.
They finished their meal. “Dessert?” she asked hopefully, not that she wanted any, but she didn’t want the night to end.
“Nah, I’m stuffed. Aren’t you?”
“Yes,” she said and her heart felt like it would burst. What would he do if suddenly she confessed her feelings to him? If she told him he deserved a good woman, a woman who would love him with all her heart, a woman who recognized what a good man he was and appreciated him for it… No, she couldn’t do that to him. The man was heading to a war zone and the last thing he needed was one of his best friends dropping an emotional case like that on him. It would be a selfish move on her part. Plus, what if he didn’t return her feelings? Then she’d ruin their friendship forever.
They drove most of the way back to her car in a companionable silence. The words to every song on the radio seemed tailor-made for the occasion. Songs of heartache, loss, and people leaving seeped through the stereo speakers. He pulled up next to her car in the parking lot where they’d originally met. She thanked him and got out of the car.
With a thrill she noticed he got out of the car and was coming around to where she stood. She wished she could kiss him goodbye, but instead she let him wrap her up in a big bear hug, the kind reserved for kid sisters and great-aunts. “You take care of yourself,” he whispered.
Fat tears began to spill down her cheeks, and this time she didn’t try to stop them. In an attempt to commit it to memory, she inhaled his scent, a combination of sawdust, leather, and body spray. She’d give anything for an old t-shirt that smelled like him that she could sleep with, even if that made her feel like a total stalker.
“You be safe,” she muttered, trying to keep him from hearing her sobs.
He pulled back and wiped a tear from her face with the tip of his finger. “Hey.”
She met his gaze and saw a look of concern on his face. Then he pulled her head to his chest, holding her close. “Don’t you worry about me.” He stroked her hair.
She nodded, wishing she could stay in his arms like that forever. Realizing her folly, she forced herself to pull away. “Take care.” She smiled at him through tears before turning and climbing into her car as quickly as she could. The floodgates were about to open, and she didn’t want him to see her fall apart completely. She needed to protect her pride and save him the embarrassment.
He gave her a final wink, and as she drove out of the parking lot she looked back one last time to see he was still waving.