“You’re going to end up with a tummy ache, little girl,” a deep voice drawled from the side of the midway.
Hope looked up to meet the gaze of an incredibly fit man lounging against one of the ticket booths. Unable to stop herself, she traced his form from his closely cropped hair to scuffed hiking boots. Military? Has to be!
To give herself a bit of time, she tore off another bite of the brilliant blue cotton candy and placed it on her tongue. She hoped the gesture was both rebellious and sexy.
“Then what would make me so sweet?” she asked daringly.
“I have a feeling you’re delicious on your own. Tell me your name,” he demanded.
He didn’t move from his relaxed position, so she didn’t feel intimidated. Daringly, she perused the complete package he presented. The man was scrumptious. His strawberry blond hair cut military short revealed incredibly masculine features. His chiseled cheekbones and jawline made her fingers itch to touch him.
“I’m Hope. Hope Anderson. I guess you must be from the base?”
“I am. Walking around the fair isn’t fun by yourself. I don’t suppose you’d take pity on me and show me around?” he suggested.
“Oh, I’m here with my friends. I can’t leave them.” Hope gestured to a group of three young women huddled together a short distance apart, watching their interaction closely.
“Ladies, would you mind if I steal Miss Hope Anderson away?” the attractive stranger requested gallantly.
“How do we know you’re not a mass murderer?” one challenged.
“I don’t even know your name,” Hope protested.
“Sam Memphis,” he drawled, pulling out the syllables with a southern accent that went straight to her low abdomen. Straightening, he reached into his back pocket and withdrew his wallet. Pulling his military ID from the leather, he requested, “Take a picture of this and message it to your friends.” He held the card in a steady hand as Hope fumbled to maneuver her phone for a picture.
“Here, let me hold that.” He took the cotton candy from her hand and held it while she used both hands to take the picture.
Quickly, she sent it on to her friends and blushed as they called advice like, “Don’t do anything we wouldn’t do” and “Don’t have too much fun, you two” as they disappeared, giggling, into the growing crowd.
Hope looked down at the picture on her phone, hoping that she wasn’t making a fool out of herself.
“I’m going to take good care of you, little girl.” His deep voice soothed her.
“Forever and ever.”
“That’s a long time, Sam Memphis,” Hope said skeptically.
“That’s not quite the right name I want to hear you call me, but we’ve got nothing but time. Come on, little girl. I feel we should go ride the Ferris wheel.” Sam pointed to the large contraption looming to the west. He held out his hand, inviting her touch.
“I love that ride. It’s almost as fun as a slide.” Making her decision, Hope meshed her fingers with Sam’s. “You’re on.”
No one would ever ride the large wheel with her. She tugged him forward and looked back over her shoulder to make sure everything was okay. Sam smiled from ear to ear. Holding her hand did not bother him in the least.
In a snap, they arrived to take a place in line. Most of the riders ahead of them were moms and dads with small children, obvious lovers looking for a remote place to kiss, and teenagers debating how many they could pile into one seat. Dropping his hand as she turned toward him, Hope looked awkwardly up at Sam. She didn’t know what to say to this virtual stranger.
“So, what do you do in the military?” That seemed like a safe conversational gambit.
“The higher-ups thought I could contribute to a team. I’m a navigator. You know, I give everyone directions.”
“You never get lost?” Hope asked, tilting her head slightly to avoid the glare of the late afternoon sun behind him.
“I never get lost. My team depends on me.”
Without saying anything or making a gallant move, Sam guided her into his place so she didn’t have to blink into the light. “Thanks, Sam. That sounds like an enormous responsibility. I hate maps.”
“Lots of people do. I have a built-in sense of direction. It doesn’t hurt that I memorize images quickly.”
She liked how Sam talked to her. He was upfront and seemed to be telling the truth. Wait! Could he be fooling me? Wouldn’t every soldier claim to be part of a special team? But he hadn’t bragged about anything, just answered her questions. Hope decided to test him.
“What direction am I facing?” she challenged.
“You’re facing east-southeast,” he supplied immediately as if he’d expected her to ask.
“Not just east? My back’s to the sun,” she pointed out.
“Your back is to the afternoon sun. It will move slightly as the Earth completes its orbit.” Sam smiled. “I can do two hundred sit-ups in ten minutes. Want me to demonstrate that or have I earned the benefit of the doubt?”
Automatically, Hope looked down at the dusty fairgrounds. She shuddered at the thought of lying down where everyone had walked. “No. I’ll take your word. Two hundred, huh?” She struggled to keep her gaze on his face. The temptation to eye his muscled abs almost won.
“The team leader keeps us in great shape.” Sam lifted his hand to brush a few wisps of Hope’s hair from the corner of her mouth.
“Sorry! My hair won’t ever stay in my ponytail.” Her nervous chatter ceased as his thumb stroked across her cheek and down her jaw. His gaze focused on her lips, and she knew he was thinking about kissing her.
Impulsively, Hope rose onto her toes and pressed her mouth to his in a light peck. Sam swiftly wrapped his hand around the back of her neck and pulled her back to him to halt her automatic movement away. His lips captured hers in a much different kiss. He kissed her as if this were the last first kiss he planned to have. All thoughts fled from her mind as he pulled her close.
“Come on, lovebirds. You’re next!” The stranger’s voice made her dart backward.
“Thank you, sir,” Sam answered, steering her onto the bench seat and pulling the restraining bar down over their heads.
Hope stared at the ground as the man tested the lock of the safety device holding them securely inside. Her face flamed hot. Mind-blown by the power of his kiss that had captured her complete attention, she wondered what else she’d missed. Her hand reached between them to make sure her phone and money were still in her back pocket. Hope blew out a relieved sigh as the wheel rotated so that the next couple could climb onto the ride.
“Nothing bad will happen while I’m with you,” Sam reassured her.
“You can’t promise that,” she answered, looking at him in surprise.
“I can,” he confirmed confidently. “Now, tell me about you.”
“What do you want to know?”
Hope rolled over the next morning to look at the clock. It was almost nine o’clock. “He’ll be here in an hour!” she thought and felt herself smile in anticipation.
Time to get up and dress. The fair had been so much fun with him. Her fingers traced her lips as she remembered the goodnight kiss Sam had given her after walking her to her car.
“Hope! Get out of bed! You’re wasting time,” her father yelled down the hall.
“Yes, Dad!” Hope promised, closing her eyes to focus on that kiss one more time. She knew she wouldn’t have much time once he wanted her up. Lollygagging in bed didn’t happen in her military upbringing.
Her father was a career man who’d served in many leadership roles. He’d just retired from the service to spend time with her mother. They’d been apart too often over the years. Babies hadn’t seemed possible for the two until Hope was born when her mother was forty-five. She’d been a miracle baby for the older couple, and she’d gotten her name from her grandmother. It had just seemed fitting.
“Hope! Up! Mom’s pouring you a cup of coffee,” he tempted her. “Bingo, go help your sister get out of bed.”
“No, Dad. Don’t sic Bingo on me!” Hope jumped out of bed just as the mini dynamo playfully attacked her feet.
“No, Bingo. Don’t lick my toes,” she protested, giggling as the Jack Russell terrier lavished kisses on her. She snatched the blue dolphin Sam had won for her in the ring toss off the floor and set it on her pillows.
“No, Bingo. Mine.”
When she shook her finger at him warningly, Bingo yipped a protest back before scurrying under the bed to search for monsters, toys, or lost socks. You never knew with Bingo. He always had a purpose—usually one that involved the destruction of precious mementos or just random objects.
She dashed into the bathroom across the hall. After using the toilet, she splashed water over her face. Opening the door, Hope spied the playful dog with his latest victim trapped in his teeth. Without a second thought, she bolted after the beast dragging one special furry sea creature down the hall.
“No, Bingo, that’s mine. Sam won it for me.” She cornered the playful dog in the kitchen and wrestled the stuffie from Bingo.
“Good morning, Hope,” her father greeted her from the table. “Who’s Sam?”
“Just some guy I met at the fair,” she answered as she settled into her normal seat at the table. Seconds later, her mom placed an oversized cup in front of her.
“Thanks, Mom. Coffee! Just what I need,” she celebrated, taking a large sip.
“Someone from school?” her father targeted her with precision.
“No. A military guy.” She waved her hands to ward off her father’s warning. “I know, watch out for a ‘good time’ soldier!” Her fingers hooked the quotes in the air. This was not the first warning she had heard.
“Tell me his name and I’ll have him checked out.” This was not a request.
“He had me take a picture of his military ID. It’s on my phone. I’ll go get it.” Hope stood and started to leave the kitchen, only to turn after a few steps and pick up the coffee mug.
Her mother and father returned to their favorite activity—completing the crossword puzzle as they finished their coffee. Her mom had always held on to the puzzles they started when her father was deployed or sent to work temporarily on a different base. It had been her insurance that he’d come back to help her finish it.
Sighing, Hope wished for a love like her folks had. She’d dated guys in high school and college. She’d even dated a few military guys who been brave enough to come to her father’s front door. Nothing had ever come close to equaling the attraction her parents still felt for each other.
A blinking light on her phone signaled that she had a message. Opening the app, Hope stared at a picture of the two of them—her and Sam. They’d just come from the roller coaster and her hair flew in every direction. Hope hadn’t realized Sam was taking a picture until he said, “Smile.”
She looked happy. Really happy.
“See you soon, little girl,” rolled over her screen as the second message arrived.
Hope looked at the blue box on her bookshelf. By design, it looked so innocent but held so many secrets. “He can’t know, can he?” she whispered aloud.